Juggernaut Index, No. 12: Texans have a new QB, roster full of rebound candidates

Houston Texans fans, no doubt giddy about the addition of a first-round rookie QB. (Photo by Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images)
Houston Texans fans, no doubt giddy about the addition of a first-round rookie QB. (Photo by Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images)

Houston’s offensive philosophy last season seemed to be “hurry up and punt.” Perhaps this is defensible when Brock Osweiler is your quarterback and six-time All Pro Shane Lechler is your punter, but it is definitely not a recipe that leads to significant point totals.

The Texans ranked sixth in the league last year in plays per game (67.0), but just 27th in third-down conversions (35.6 percent) and 28th in scoring (17.4 PPG). Houston had the NFL’s eighth most productive run game in terms of yardage (116.2 YPG), but the team somehow finished next-to-last in rushing touchdowns (8). Osweiler, of course, was a plague. He threw more interceptions (16) than TD passes (15), he completed less than 60.0 percent of his throws and he averaged an abysmal 5.8 yards per attempt. This team was unwatchable when it possessed the football. Looking back, maybe it wasn’t the best idea to install new players at QB, running back, receiver and two spots on the offensive line.

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Houston’s defense, however, was quite good, even with J.J. Watt sidelined for most of the season. This D allowed the fewest total yards per game (301.3) and just 6.6 yards per pass attempt. So despite finishing the year with a negative point differential (-49), the Texans still managed to win a weak division with a 9-7 record.

Osweiler is now Cleveland’s burden, Watt is back to full health and Deshaun Watson is being developed as the team’s QB of the future. Things are looking up for Bill O’Brien’s squad, a group that offers plenty of useful fantasy pieces. If the quality of play at quarterback is even league-average, Houston has a chance to be seriously fun.

When will Deshaun Watson take the controls?

Watson’s first two preseason games haven’t been a total clinic, as he’s completed just 18 of 35 attempts for 281 yards. He hasn’t yet thrown a touchdown pass, but he also hasn’t thrown a pick. He’s rushed seven times for 34 yards, crossing the goal-line in each game. Watson doesn’t have a weapons-grade Mahomes-style arm, as you probably know, and he’s sailed a few throws during exhibition play. You can watch all of his attempts from the preseason opener right here.

We shouldn’t need to tell you that Watson was a transcendent collegiate player, however, gifted with tangibles and intangibles. He’s a mobile quarterback with a quick processor, excellent on bootlegs, clearly capable of making every bread-and-butter NFL throw. Watson completed 67.4 percent of his passes at Clemson and averaged 8.4 Y/A. Over the past two years, he threw for 76 touchdowns and ran for another 21. On the biggest stage and in the biggest moments, facing opposing defenses loaded with five-star players, Watson was consistently brilliant. His numbers against Alabama in the past two championship games were just silly: 825 passing yards, 7 pass TDs, INT, 116 rushing yards, TD. Doubt him at your own peril.

Houston traded up to snag Watson with the draft’s twelfth overall pick, and O’Brien hasn’t been guarded in his praise. Watson is gonna play in 2017 — if not in the opener, then soon. Tom Savage is ahead of him on the depth chart and having a fair preseason, but he’s also not a guy who should quarterback a team expecting to play deep into January. Savage doesn’t possess a defining high-level skill, and his next regular season TD pass will be his first. Houston’s September schedule is a minefield (Jac, at Cin, at NE), so it’s not difficult to imagine an October takeover for Watson. He isn’t likely to make a serious fantasy splash as a rookie, although his rushing ability should provide a weekly safety net. And this guy will help, too…

DeAndre Hopkins, still a fantasy asset. Let’s try to forget the Osweiler era. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
DeAndre Hopkins, still a fantasy asset. Let’s try to forget the Osweiler era. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)

DeAndre Hopkins is an obvious bounce-back candidate.

Hopkins is only a year removed from a season in which he caught 111 passes for 1521 yards and 11 spikes on a whopping 192 targets. His quarterbacks back then were Hoyer, Yates, Mallett and Weeden, so we know he can produce at an elite level without a Pro Bowl-quality passer. Osweiler was a special brand of bad last year, however, and it sunk Hopkins. He finished with 78 catches for 954 yards, delivering only two 100-yard efforts and just four touchdowns. Nuk was the worst sort of fantasy bust, because he never missed a game, and thus you never sat him. Instead, you simply watched the 4-58-0 performances pile up until you were eliminated from playoff contention.

Again, change at quarterback will unquestionably help Hopkins. The Texans were one of just four teams last season to average less than 200 passing yards per game, and they were the only squad to average less than 6.0 yards per attempt. It was an environment in which no receiver could shine — not with Osweiler making throws like this…

Brutal. That was one of Brock’s three interceptions in a postseason loss at New England. He’s out of the team picture in 2017, and there’s no way the Savage-Watson combo can be as dreadful. Hopkins remains the unchallenged No. 1 receiver in Houston, in line for something like 160-175 targets. His hands are still among the best in the NFL. He’s the thirteenth receiver off the board in an average Yahoo draft (ADP 29.2), selected after Cooks and Cooper, just ahead of Demaryius and Pryor. It’s the right range, but, for me, Nuk is the clear choice from that group. His price offers clear profit potential.

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Second-year receiver Will Fuller was expected to be the clear second option this season, but a broken collarbone will delay his regular season debut. Here’s hoping he sees the field in October. Fuller has devastating deep speed and shaky hands, profiling as a guy who should see modest volume yet average over 15 yards per catch. When healthy, he has a shot at WR3 status in fantasy. We’ll be promoting Fuller as a priority waiver add in, say, 4-6 weeks.

Early in the year, during Fuller’s absence, Jaelen Strong, Braxton Miller and recently signed slot guy Bruce Ellington should see a decent number of opportunities. None of these guys are draft-worthy in leagues of standard size, but give Strong and Miller a look in deep-bench 14-team formats.

C.J. Fiedorowicz emerged as a reliable-if-not-spectacular short range option for the Texans last year, snagging 54 balls for 559 yards on 89 targets. He’ll remain the team’s primary receiving tight end, but Ryan Griffin will see the field as well. Fantasy owners in 10 and 12-team leagues should really be looking for options with greater upside.

Reminder: Lamar Miller is actually good.

Miller’s first season in Houston wasn’t quite everything the fantasy community had hoped for, but it’s not as if he was terrible. If your expectations were irrational, then your disappointment was no doubt profound. Still, Miller rushed for 1073 yards and five scores on 268 carries, plus he added 31 receptions for 188. He handled 20 or more touches in nine of his 14 games, then did it twice more in the postseason. It’s nice to know that Miller can survive a massive workload, but we should also note that his per-touch performance really suffered at the end of the season (3.4 YPC in December).

With that fact in mind, O’Brien is looking to scale back the early-season demands on his featured back…

This approach makes good sense. Miller has averaged 4.4 YPC for his career and his single-season high in receptions is 47, so he’s a proven all-situation back. If he averages something like 17-18 touches per week instead of last year’s 21.3, it’s probably a good thing. It’s helps that he’s entering his second season in the offense, clearly. Alfred Blue is still running as the No. 2 back in Houston, but third-round Texas rookie D’Onta Foreman is pushing him. Foreman turned 323 carries into 2028 rushing yards at the college level last season, and, despite minimal usage as a receiver, he’s delivered big plays on short passes in preseason action. Foreman’s tape wasn’t as splashy as the upper-tier backs in his draft class — Fournette, McCaffrey, Mixon, Cook — but reaching the 2K plateau is no small feat at any level. He’ll get interesting if Miller goes down at any point.

Houston’s D is among the league’s best.

You don’t need an expert to tell you that this defense is excellent. Watt is a terror, Jadeveon Clowney is a disruptive force, and linebacker Benardrick McKinney has star potential. I’m in. This is one of the few defenses that you can basically set and forget. Houston’s schedule isn’t all that intimidating, with matchups against the Browns, Rams, Niners, Jaguars (x2) and Ravens.

2016 Offensive Stats & Ranks
Points per game – 17.4 (28)
Pass YPG – 198.5 (29)
Rush YPG – 116.2 (8)
Yards per play – 4.7 (31)
Plays per game – 67.0 (6)

Previous Juggernaut Index entries: 32) NY Jets, 31) San Francisco, 30) Cleveland, 29) LA Rams, 28) Baltimore, 27) Chicago, 26) Minnesota, 25) Detroit, 24) Denver, 23) Jacksonville, 22) Buffalo, 21) Philadelphia, 20) Miami, 19) Indianapolis, 18) Kansas City, 17) Washington, 16) NY Giants, 15) Tennessee, 14) LA Chargers, 13) Carolina, 12) Houston