For years, this team was a fantasy smorgasbord, but a real-life disappointment. Houston would score a zillion points, allow just as many, and finish at 8-8. But the Texans flipped a switch last season. They enter 2012 as legit Super Bowl contenders, the clear favorites to repeat as AFC South champs.
Fantasy owners will no doubt miss the days when this team's defense couldn't hold the Toronto Triumph to less than 30 points, but Houston fans aren't about to complain. Just two seasons ago, the Texans D was a sieve — no, it was a holographic representation of a sieve. They ranked 30th in the NFL in yards-allowed (376.9) and they yielded at least 24 points in 14 of 16 games. But in 2011, under defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, Houston gave up just 285.7 yards and 17.4 points per week. They ranked fourth against the run (96.0 YPG) and third against the pass (189.7). These guys were murder. When you saw "@Hou" next to one of your players, you dragged his name to the bench.
So now we're forced to deal with a new and improved version of the Texans. We may not see many shootouts from this bunch, but wins should be plentiful. Houston has the league's best rushing attack, led by consensus No. 1 overall fantasy pick Arian Foster, plus the offense gets veteran quarterback Matt Schaub back at the controls, recovered from last year's Lisfranc injury. Andre Johnson is relatively healthy at the moment, too. (We think).
This team, in a nutshell, is kinda scary.
The Texans tied for the NFL lead in total rushing attempts last season (546), gaining 4.5 yards per carry and 153.0 per game. This offense's zone-blocking attack, originally implemented by Alex Gibbs, is already well known to the fantasy community, and it's been feeding us useful backs for many years. (For a really nice zone-blocking overview, click here). Foster has been an absolute monster in this system, leading his position in per-game fantasy scoring in both 2010 and 2011. He's a PPR beast as well, with 119 receptions on 156 targets over the past two seasons. Assuming good health, you can probably pencil in Foster for another 2,000 scrimmage yards. He's totaled 4,061 since 2010. If you land the top selection in your draft, my advice is to not over-think the pick: Go Foster. Enjoy the stats.
Understudy Ben Tate would be an early first-round fantasy asset if he had the lead role in Houston's backfield, which makes him something more than a handcuff in our game. He's a player worth targeting in the Round 5-7 neighborhood (depending on league size), whether you own Foster or not. If Arian were to miss time, Tate's name would appear near the top of the weekly RB ranks. You might recall that he delivered back-to-back 100-yard performances to open the season in 2011 when Foster was sidelined with a hamstring issue. Tate finished the season with 942 rushing yards on just 175 carries. So yeah, this running back tandem is almost unfair.
Fantasy analysts often dismiss Schaub as nothing more than a low-end QB2 for fantasy purposes, citing his team's run-pass ratio from last season (546-to-467), declaring the Houston offense to be steadfastly run-first. We need to remember, however, that the Texans were playing without one of the game's most dangerous receivers for much of 2011 — injuries limited Johnson to seven games — and Schaub himself checked out after Week 10. Houston was never going to have a Tecmo-style air attack with TJ Yates at quarterback. When all aspects of the offense are fully operational, Gary Kubiak won't want his team to be brutally predictable. The Texans will throw often enough to assist fantasy owners, even if their gunslinging era is over.
Schaub has been blisteringly hot during the preseason, by the way, completing 29 of 38 passes for 374 yards and two scores. He's no scrub. He was on pace for just under 4,000 passing yards last year prior to the foot injury, and he posted his fourth straight 90.0-plus passer rating (96.8). Health is the worry with Schaub, not skill -- and it's the same story with this team's top receiver.
If you can't quite trust Andre this season due to the injury red flags, I get it. Pianowski gets it, too. We all get it. AJ is on the wrong side of 30, and he's beginning to appear a bit more fragile than your average wideout. The Texans never tip their hand on injuries, either, so it's always a guessing game when Johnson is dinged. Just understand that this player has topped 100 catches in three different seasons and he's twice finished with more than 1,500 receiving yards. When he's right, he's one of the very best receivers in the game. Before the hamstring problems hit last year, he'd delivered three excellent weeks (21 catches, 316 yards, 2 TDs). I don't have Johnson at the top of my ranks, but he's certainly not on the can't-draft list.
Perhaps the safest play for AJ investors is to wait for a big game or two, then cash out. Although realistically, if you owned him in his prime years, when you get that first big fantasy line you'll blurt "HE'S BACK!" and then you'll never, ever deal him. He could be shuffling along the sidelines with a walker in Week 16 and you'd still own him, because Houston will still list him as "questionable." That's what they do.
The rest of this receiving corps is full of maybes and ifs and familiar faces who don't quite project as ownable fantasy commodities. Kevin Walter is still in town, and his run-blocking ability keeps him relevant to the Texans, if not to fantasy owners. You won't own him in standard-sized leagues. Jacoby Jones signed with Baltimore during the offseason, leaving a trio of young receivers to vie for the No. 3 role in Houston. Undrafted second-year wideout Lestar Jean has become a buzzy player following a strong offseason. He logged a few hours with Schaub over the summer in Houston, and he's caught seven balls for 111 yards and a score during the preseason. If you're in a deep league, Jean is in the late-round discussion. Rookie fourth-rounder Keshawn Martin has had his moments in exhibition play, too, but third-rounder DeVier Posey has not (zero catches).
Owen Daniels returns at tight end for the Texans, coming off a 677-yard campaign. You might be thinking that Joel Dreessen's departure should boost Daniels' value quite a bit — after all, Dreessen poached six TDs last year — but 26-year-old Garrett Graham has made noise throughout camp. There's deep-sleeper appeal to Graham. Still, Daniels deserves a look in standard fantasy leagues. He was targeted 84 times last year, and there's no reason to expect that total to drop.
The defense, as we've already mentioned, is quite good. Yes, they lost Mario Williams, but he only played five games last season. Demeco Ryans is gone as well, after a disappointing year. But Brian Cushing is still around, as is Pro Bowl corner Jonathan Joseph and linebacker Connor Barwin (11.5 sacks). This should be a respectable defense in fantasy and a terrific D in reality — good enough to support a deep playoff run.
2011 team stats: 23.8 PPG (NFL rank 10), 153.0 rush YPG (2), 231.0 pass YPG (18), 30.98 (15) yards/drive (29), 0.107 turnovers/drive (6)
Previous Juggernaut posts: 32. Miami, 31. St. Louis, 30. Indianapolis, 29. Jacksonville, 28. Cleveland, 27. Arizona, 26. Seattle, 25. Minnesota, 24. Tampa Bay, 23. Buffalo, 22. New York Jets, 21. Washington, 20. Oakland, 19. San Francisco, 18. Kansas City, 17. Cincinnati, 16. Denver, 15. Tennessee, 14. San Diego, 13. Pittsburgh, 12. Baltimore, 11. Dallas, 10. Carolina, 9. Chicago