Juggernaut Index, No. 12: The Houston Texans

Houston is the rare division champ that felt the need to make massive changes. Fantasy-wise, things are looking up. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Houston is the rare division champ that needed to make massive changes. Fantasy-wise, things are looking up. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

The Juggernaut Index is our annual ranking and review of NFL teams for fantasy purposes — repeat: FANTASY PURPOSES. Here we concern ourselves with a franchise’s likely contributions to the fantasy player pool. We are not concerned with projected wins and losses. Instead, we’re focused on yards and points. As always, we’re beginning with the league’s least useful teams, working our way toward the elite fantasy juggernauts.

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As a general rule, year-to-year continuity is a big deal in the NFL. It’s not reasonable to expect a team to execute flawlessly in September if it underwent a massive overhaul in March. Without overstating pro football’s complexity, hopefully we can all agree that repetition, rapport and scheme familiarity are not small things. Building a great real-life team is somewhat more complicated than assembling a great fantasy roster.

Which brings us to the 2016 Houston Texans. This team’s first-string offense in opening week will feature a new quarterback, new running back, two new offensive linemen and at least one new receiver. That’s a whole lotta new. It’s possible that Bill O’Brien’s squad will be an unstoppable machine from the season’s first snap, but we shouldn’t panic if it isn’t.

If there’s one thing we can say with certainty about the Texans offense, it’s that change was needed. Last year, Houston led the NFL in pace while ranking at the bottom of the league in yards per play (4.9). It was a hurry-up-and-punt system, basically. (Shane Lechler would have been a monster in PPP leagues, if such a format existed. He punted 95 times, the second-highest total in the league.) The Texans completed only 57.8 percent of their pass attempts in 2015, and the team’s running game averaged just 3.7 yards per carry. Horrendous rates, obviously.

This year, Brock Osweiler takes over at quarterback after signing a mega-deal with Houston in free agency (four years, $72 million). He appeared in eight games for the Broncos last season, his play was uneven, and he posted a passer-rating of 86.4. It’s not at all clear that Osweiler is the sort of QB who can guide a team deep into the postseason. But hey, he’s also not Brian Hoyer, so that’s exciting. Osweiler has uncommon size (6-foot-7) and plenty of arm strength, but his accuracy isn’t special and his processing speed may not be the greatest. Still, he directed a few big wins for Denver last year — notably against New England and Cincinnati — and he’ll have plenty of firepower at his disposal in Houston. It wouldn’t be a shock if he emerged as a stream-worthy QB for fantasy purposes, but he doesn’t belong in the draft discussion for leagues of typical size. I’ve snagged Osweiler as a late flier in super-flex formats simply because he gets to throw to this guy…

DeAndre Hopkins cannot be covered. Nope. (Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images)
DeAndre Hopkins cannot be covered. Nope. (Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images)

DeAndre Hopkins has seen a parade of poor quarterbacks since entering the league — Schaub, Keenum, Yates, Mallet, Weeden, Hoyer — so I refuse to believe he can’t thrive with Osweiler. He’s coming off a season in which he caught 111 balls for 1521 yards and 11 scores, drawing a ridiculous 192 targets. Nuk gave us 11 games with at least 80 receiving yards last year, and only once was he held to fewer than five catches. He has freakish hands and perhaps the best body control in the league. He’s fantastic, is what I’m saying — a no-doubt No. 1 receiver. Draft him in the first round with confidence.

Beyond Hopkins, however, Houston’s receiving corps is loaded with question marks. First-round rookie Will Fuller is a burner with 4.32 speed, and it appears he’ll start opposite Hopkins. There’s no questioning his vertical ability, but his hands are a legit concern. Fuller’s collegiate career was filled with big plays and ugly drops, and it’s worth noting that he was owned (and later trashed) by Clemson corner Mackensie Alexander. It’s not as if Fuller is going to run every route in the playbook, but he’ll serve as an immediate home-run threat. I’d prefer to own him in a best-ball format than in a league with standard settings, but it’s clear he deserves attention in deeper player pools.

Braxton Miller, another rookie, appears to be ticketed for slot duties. He’s caught seven balls for 68 yards in exhibition play thus far, running with the starters. Miller only spent one season at receiver at Ohio State, but he’s apparently a quick study. Like Fuller, he should have a place on your cheat sheet in deep-ish leagues. Miller’s preseason highlights are high quality, and you might recall that he specialized in the spin-move-of-death at OSU.

At the moment, Jaelen Strong and Cecil Shorts are simply names on the depth chart, players with little chance to be featured. No need to draft either receiver. The Texans haven’t given us a useful fantasy tight end since the prime years of Owen Daniels, but the team may have found something in UDFA Stephen Anderson. At 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, he’s either an undersized TE or a slightly over-sized WR. Either way, they seem to like him in Houston. There’s no pressing need to draft him, of course, but file away the name.

The Texans ranked fifth in the NFL in total rush attempts last season (472) and No. 29 in yards per carry (3.7), which is … well, that’s misery. As a fan, there’s almost nothing worse than a bad running team with a deep commitment to the run. But new acquisition Lamar Miller is taking over the featured role in Houston’s backfield, chasing Alfred Blue to the sideline. Miller is simply an enormous upgrade for this team. He managed to finish as a top-10 fantasy back in each of the past two seasons, despite receiving a curiously modest workload (only 241 touches in 2015). All signs point to Miller feasting in the year ahead; his touches should increase by 70 or more, assuming good health. It’s easy to see a path to a top-three positional finish for Miller, and he shouldn’t fall outside the top 15 picks in a typical draft.

I haven’t yet reached a Brad Evans level of enthusiasm with Miller — check the ranks for details — but I do understand the infatuation. Brad’s stance on Miller does not crack the list of his 100 most insane fantasy opinions.

Houston’s defense is led by one of the NFL’s most relentless corporate pitchmen pass-rushers, J.J. Watt, a hurricane of a human being. Watt is recovering from surgery to repair a herniated disk, placing his September availability in doubt. He played through hand, groin, disk and abdominal injuries last season and still managed to produce 17.5 sacks and 76 tackles, so I’m not going to give a pessimistic spin on his outlook for 2016. He’s not a normal dude. The Texans D has talent at all levels and the team’s division schedule is loaded with turnovers, so this is a group to target in our game. They open against Jay Cutler & Co., so we’ll rank ’em as a recommended play in Week 1, regardless of Watt’s status.

2015 Offensive Stats & Ranks
Points per game – 21.2 (22)
Pass YPG – 239.6 (18)
Rush YPG – 108.2 (15)
Yards per play – 4.9 (32)
Plays per game – 69.9 (1)

Previous Juggernaut Index entries: 32) Cleveland, 31) San Francisco, 30) Philadelphia, 29) Baltimore, 28) Tennessee, 27) Los Angeles, 26) Miami, 25) Detroit, 24) Chicago, 23) San Diego, 22) Minnesota, 21) Tampa Bay, 20) Atlanta, 19) Washington, 18) Buffalo, 17) Kansas City, 16) Oakland, 15) NY Giants, 14) Indianapolis, 13) Jacksonville, 12) Houston