Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, complete with our initial 2019 power rankings.
If you play fantasy sports, you may have heard the term “stars and scrubs.”
For those unfamiliar, that refers to loading up an auction team with as many expensive superstars as you can, and filling in the rest of the roster with cheap options. You hope the stars do their job and the scrubs perform at an acceptable level.
The Houston Texans aren’t exactly “stars and scrubs,” but close. They’re as top heavy as any team in the NFL.
Go find a better top four on any NFL team than quarterback Deshaun Watson, receiver DeAndre Hopkins, defensive end J.J. Watt and outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney. Maybe an argument can be made for the Rams, Saints or someone else having a comparable top four, but Houston is in a rare class.
Watson is an electrifying quarterback. He picked up right where he left off from his college career at Clemson. His return from a torn ACL as a rookie was seamless. He looks like he can win an MVP someday. There’s a good debate about the best receiver in the NFL, but if Hopkins isn’t part of that conversation then it’s meaningless. Watt looked like his old self last season, and he’s one of two men to win NFL Defensive Player of the Year three times. Lawrence Taylor is the other.
Clowney, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2014 draft, was given the franchise tag and while there was a standoff over a long-term deal (Clowney didn’t get an extension before Monday’s deadline), it has been speculated he can command a $100 million contract. There are only seven defensive players players in the $100 million club, and one is Watt.
What’s the best way to win in the NFL? Maybe it’s possible to do so with four truly elite players — I don’t think anyone would be too surprised to see Watson, Hopkins or Watt in the Hall of Fame someday, and Clowney has become a true impact player with a chance to get in the Canton conversation — and not a ton beyond that, rather than a balanced roster. The Texans did pretty well with that approach last season, going 11-5 with an AFC South title.
It’s not like the Texans have those four stars and a bunch of guys making the minimum. There are some good players, just nobody who yet approaches blue-chip status. Inside linebacker Benardrick McKinney has had some good seasons, and fellow inside linebacker Zach Cunningham has flashed. Whitney Mercilus has had some fine seasons rushing the passer, though he has just five sacks the last two seasons. Safety Justin Reid had a very promising rookie season. Will Fuller is a great deep threat at receiver when healthy, and Keke Coutee looks like he can be very effective from the slot though he also has durability concerns.
Still, there are some serious deficiencies. The offensive line is among the worst in the NFL. The running back tandem of Lamar Miller and D’Onta Foreman is unexciting. Try naming a Texans tight end. The defense is good but certainly not full of big names.
Yet, it works because Watson is amazing, Hopkins can catch anything, Watt is unblockable and Clowney has come along quickly after a slow start to his NFL career. The Texans at one point won nine in a row last season. They lost two regular-season games after Sept. 23 — by a combined five points. Maybe that run was due in part to a soft schedule, but Houston undoubtedly had a good team.
Assuming health and Clowney not holding out or being traded, the Texans’ big four should dominate again. The Texans just need the other 49 players on the roster to do their part.
It’s safe to say safety Tyrann Mathieu was the Texans’ fifth star last season, but he left to join Kansas City via free agency. Fellow defensive back Kareem Jackson took an $11 million per year deal in Denver. They were replaced by safety Tashaun Gipson and cornerback Bradley Roby. Gipson and Roby have talent, but those are downgrades. The Texans signed left tackle Matt Kalil, but he has been a disappointment for years, with the Vikings and then the Panthers. And Kalil is coming off a knee injury. Yahoo’s Eric Edholm gave the Texans’ draft class his lowest grade this year, tied with two other teams for last place. Alabama State offensive tackle Tytus Howard and Northern Illinois offensive tackle Max Scharping, the team’s first- and second-round picks, were viewed as reaches. It’s hard to get excited about the offseason moves.
DeAndre Hopkins put up career highs with 115 catches and 1,572 yards. He also posted 11 touchdowns. And he wasn’t even healthy. Hopkins had a foot injury through the season and then suffered a serious shoulder injury in Houston’s playoff loss to the Colts.
"Last year was tough, not just physically but mentally," Hopkins told John McClain of the Houston Chronicle. "It's the most banged up I've ever been playing football. I was dealing with serious injuries a lot of people would have sat down for. But we had a good team that depended on me, and I never gave a thought to not playing unless the doctors told me I couldn't."
It’s hard to believe Hopkins could improve on his 2018 numbers but it’s scary to think what the ceiling could be for a healthy Hopkins, especially with quarterback Deshaun Watson another year removed from ACL surgery. He gets my vote as the best receiver in football.
Remember when we talked about how the Texans have four superstars and not a ton else? What if I told you one of their four stars was unhappy with his contract? Jadeveon Clowney has the franchise tag and while reports from Houston have indicated that Clowney could miss most or all of training camp but not the regular season holding out, we all remember the constant speculation on whether Le’Veon Bell would report last season, and he never did. That’s not to say Clowney will hold out all season, but it can also be a fool’s errand to predict when he’ll report. There’s also acrimony over whether he should be classified as a defensive end or linebacker for franchise tag purposes, and that can’t help matters. Clowney has grown into a tremendous defender against the run and he also has 18.5 sacks over the last two seasons. Even if Clowney reports and plays on the one-year franchise tag, will he be happy and motivated? When you have four players who are clearly ahead of all the rest and one of the four isn’t happy, that’s a potential problem.
We all know by now how good Deshaun Watson is. Can we spend a moment to give him full credit for his toughness? Watson was coming off a torn ACL, the Texans allowed an NFL-high 126 quarterback hits with their Swiss cheese offensive line, and Watson never missed a game while posting a 103.1 passer rating. Despite being sacked 62 times, he played 99.9 percent of Houston’s offensive snaps. The only other quarterback to get sacked at least 62 times and lead his team to the playoffs since sacks became an official stat was Ken O’Brien with the 1985 New York Jets. Some of those hits on Watson came because he held the ball too long, but regardless, Watson displayed the same kind of toughness that Brett Favre or Ben Roethlisberger would have been lauded for, just without any theatrics. What he did in 2018 was impressive.
At this time last year, we didn’t know if J.J. Watt could regain his all-time great level. He dealt with back surgeries, then a nasty broken leg. Watt bounced back strong and had a marvelous season. He had 16 sacks and was named first-team All-Pro. He played 963 defensive snaps, more than 90 percent of the Texans’ plays. Although Aaron Donald has taken Watt’s title as the defensive player everyone wants to gush about, Watt was as dominant as ever last season. Watt turned 30 in March but he’s still well within his prime. Assuming his body continues to hold up, he can make a run at a record fourth NFL Defensive Player of the Year award.
From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “In most fantasy formats, I’m not going to prioritize the quarterback position. It’s too deep at the spot, and too critical to get difference-makers elsewhere. But if you want to consider an early pick for Deshaun Watson, I can at least see the rationale. And it’s a pick I’ll get behind in hybrid formats, such as superflex and two-quarterback leagues.
“Somehow Watson lasted a full season last year, despite a league-leading 62 sacks. That number — which is partly a comment against the Houston offensive line and partly a comment against Watson — has to come down. Watson is not the stoutest quarterback in the league, and he’s already had two ACL blowouts. But when Watson is on the field, special things happen. He has a tremendous rapport with perhaps the league’s best receiver in DeAndre Hopkins, and Watson has proven useful as a scrambler (551 rushing yards and five touchdowns last year).
“The Texans’ offense has to be about Watson and Hopkins — the ground game doesn’t have much working. Watson also enjoys a second downfield threat in Will Fuller, and Keke Coutee could be a decent slot receiver. Houston’s defense is fine, but perhaps not up to the name brand it’s carried around; this is a plus for Watson, not a negative. I’m going to rank Watson in the Top 3 at the position this year, and it’s possible he’ll be at the top of my quarterback board — so much uncertainty in Kansas City right now — before the true teeth of draft season kicks in.”
Teams often see a dramatic shift in strength of schedule from one year to the next. But it’s rare to see a team go from one of the easiest schedules in football to the toughest. Houston had the fourth-easiest schedule in the NFL last season, based on Football Outsiders’ metrics. This season the Texans are projected to have the hardest schedule in the NFL, according to Warren Sharp, who uses Las Vegas over/under win total projections to judge strength of schedule. Needless to say, the extreme change in schedule strength affects the Texans’ outlook.
WHAT IS GOING ON IN THE TEXANS’ FRONT OFFICE?
Things got weird for the Texans this offseason. It seems like the plot of a soap opera. It starts with the Texans hiring former Patriots team development director/character coach Jack Easterby. Easterby left the Patriots, where he had reportedly gotten into Bill Belichick’s inner power circle. A Boston Globe report said Robert Kraft’s prostitution charge “did not sit well” with Easterby, and that was cited as a reason he left. The Patriots were angry when Easterby joined the Texans, and even more angry when the Texans tried to hire Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio as their new general manager (read Greg Bedard’s story at Boston Sports Journal about the Patriots’ anger if you want a glimpse into some good NFL behind-the-scenes drama).
The Texans were trying to hire Caserio because they suddenly fired general manager Brian Gaine in June after Gaine was on the job only a year-and-a-half. It seemed like coach Bill O’Brien won a power struggle. The timing of Gaine’s firing was odd, to say the least. And it raised a lot of eyebrows that the firing happened a day after Caserio and Easterby both attended the Patriots’ Super Bowl ring ceremony. The Texans were blocked from hiring Caserio when the Patriots filed a tampering charge — told you this was like a soap opera — so they decided to not hire a general manager at all. The GM duties will be divided among remaining front-office members, including Easterby, which is unusual. Practically everyone assumes the Texans will make another run at Caserio in 2020.
It all sounds like a bit of a mess, doesn’t it?
If you were to tell someone they get four superstars and they get to pick the positions, they’d probably pick quarterback, No. 1 receiver and two edge defenders. Maybe some would pick cornerback or left tackle (or Dave Gettleman would pick a running back), but you get the point. Not only do the Texans have four phenomenal players, they have them at the right positions. I believe Deshaun Watson will win an MVP in his career. What if it’s this year? If the core four all play like they should and a few others have breakout seasons — safety Justin Reid, slot receiver Keke Coutee and perhaps D’Onta Foreman would be my three best bets — then an 11-win team might get ... better?
When so much of your potential success is tied up in just a few players, it’s scary. What if one of the four goes down to injury, or Jadeveon Clowney holds out? This is a delicate act. I don’t know that the Texans’ front-office drama really affects things this season, but it’s a sign that not everything is on solid ground. The Texans have a practically unprecedented leap in schedule strength as well, another reason this feels like a team that looks good going into the season but could really struggle if just a few things go awry. And the AFC South has improved to the point where it’s not outrageous to think the Texans could go from first to worst.
I don’t want to get into the business of betting against Deshaun Watson. He’s simply a phenomenal football player. I wish the Texans’ offense was better around him aside from DeAndre Hopkins, but Hopkins is a heck of a start. Houston won’t win 11 games this season, just because the schedule is much, much tougher. But I can’t predict them to fall too far. I think Watson could be good enough to squeeze this team into the playoffs, and he’s going to get MVP votes. Maybe even enough to win the award.
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