NFP: Five questions facing the Texans

In the past two years, the Houston Texans have been a popular pick as a “breakout team” for the upcoming NFL season. Yet, in both instances, they only managed to finish 8-8.

So, will this year be different? Is this finally the season Houston wins more than a couple of big games and makes its debut in the NFL playoffs? Here are five questions facing the ’09 Texans.

1. Can this team count on Schaub for an entire season?

Photo The Texans were 6-5 with Schaub on the field last season.
(John Russell/AP)

This sounds like a simple question to ask of the Texans quarterback, but all we have to do is look at his past to see that Matt Schaub(notes) is prone to injury. When he isn’t under center, this offense isn’t dangerous enough to compete for a division title.

Since becoming the full-time starter in 2007, Schaub has missed 10 starts. When you’re trying to build an offense around a quarterback, this number is too high and has to make the Texans’ front office worry going into another season of high expectations and hopes. The club signed Dan Orlovsky(notes) from Detroit after backup Sage Rosenfels(notes) departed for Minnesota. The club also signed former Bears QB Rex Grossman(notes) this offseason, leaving us to wonder whether the club is secure enough to hand over the backup job to Orlovsky.

Bottom line: Schaub needs to stay on the field for this team to finally have a shot at the postseason.

2. Can anyone besides Williams rush the passer in Houston?

We know that defensive end Mario Williams(notes) is a force coming off the edge and we expect that to continue in 2009 because he’s just that good when it comes to getting to the quarterback. But who else is going to join the party on this defense?

Williams accounted for 12 of the Texans’ 25 sacks in ’08. Not only does that overall number need to increase, but there also needs to be more production up front. Twenty-five 25 sacks as a unit aren’t enough. It showed in the team’s defensive rankings last season, where they gave up more than 24 points a game and over 336 total yards a game. Can defensive tackle Amobi Okoye(notes) or rookie end Connor Barwin(notes) step up their games and allow Williams to face more one-on-one matchups or do the Texans have to use players such as linebackers DeMeco Ryans(notes) and rookie Matt Cushing in blitz packages to apply added pressure? The Texans would hope to get that production from their front four, but until they do, expect to see more blitzing. Unfortunately, and that means more opportunities to get beat on the back end in coverage.

This club has to get to the quarterback to compete in the division because the more pressure it applies, the more plays the secondary – particularly cornerback Dunta Robinson(notes) – will make.

3. What do we expect out of Slaton in year two?

I believe that running back Steve Slaton’s(notes) ceiling is higher than we might think. He was a steal last season in the third round, and now that he’ll start the season as the full-time feature running back in Houston, his numbers should increase as part of this high-powered offense.

Slaton is the type of back who has an ability to turn the corner in the NFL (which few players can do), catch the ball out of the backfield and run downhill, off-tackle when given the ball deep in the backfield. However, what I like most about his game is his ability to make one cut and go. He doesn’t waste movement with the ball in his hands and he can get upfield quickly and take what the defense gives him. However, we all know that Slaton also possesses the ability to break a tackle and rip off a monster gain and that’s why he’s dangerous. He’s a more physical version of New Orleans’ Reggie Bush(notes).

This offense is loaded at every skill position, but the key to its success, in my mind, is Slaton’s ability to make that developmental jump in his second season and continue to fine-tune his game as a professional running back, which I have no doubt he will.

4. Is Kubiak on the hot seat?

Photo Kubiak is 22-26 during his three seasons with the Texans.
(Kirby Lee/US Presswire)

Without a doubt. This team has too much talent on the offensive side of the football, and some young, fast, explosive talent on defense, for Gary Kubiak’s squad not to be a better team than it was in 2008.

However, the Texans have to avoid another slow start because history has shown that they have a hard time recovering when they come out of the gates with a limp. I wouldn’t be surprised if this franchise starts thinking about a change at the head coaching spot by midseason if the team is struggling. Another year of mediocrity won’t sit well with the front office, and another year wasting this talent on offense will most likely lead to Kubiak’s dismissal.

5. Can we finally expect this team to make a run at the postseason?

Every year, this is someone’s “surprise team” when it comes to preseason predictions, and according to NFP’s Michael Lombardi, I’m not only on the Texans’ bandwagon – I’m driving it as well.

This team is prefect for fantasy football, but is suspect when it comes to real football on Sundays. The Texans put up enormous stats on offense and have maybe the best overall receiver in the game in Andre Johnson(notes). However, their defense is – and always will be – a question mark. Until they prove otherwise.

The AFC South is by no means a lock for the Titans to repeat. And yes, the Texans are definite contenders, but so are Indianapolis and Jacksonville. So, can the Texans do it? Can this club really be a complete football team? Because that’s what it’s going to take for them to move from an offensive showcase on paper to a playoff team.

But do I still like this team going into 2009? Enough to pick them as AFC South champs? Not just yet, but enough to expect to see them playing football in January.

The NFL draft

NFP’s resident draft expert, Wes Bunting, breaks down some notable picks from last April.

Brian Cushing(notes), OLB, USC
The Texans needed to add some talent to their linebacking corps, but I don’t see Cushing as a legitimate three-down player in their 4-3 defense. He’s at his best playing the run inside and using his instincts to consistently drive on the football. However, he isn’t much of a pass rusher, struggles in coverage and simply won’t give the Texans much on third down.

Connor Barwin, DE, Cincinnati
Barwin is a gifted athlete and gives the Texans the type of potential pass-rushing threat they need opposite Williams. He’s still raw and has only played one year on the defensive line, but he possesses the tools and work ethic to develop into a versatile pass rusher at the next level.

James Casey(notes), TE, Rice
The Texans are loaded with weapons on the offensive side of the ball, but don’t be surprised to see Casey get his share of opportunities in 2009. He has the ability to line up all over the field and could end up being a real mismatch nightmare for opposing defenses.

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