The Texans open camp this week, and expectations are high.
And they should be.
After back to back division titles and playoff wins, it’s time to take the next step. In fact, you can make a pretty good case that it’s 2013 or bust. Andre Johnson won’t play at this level much longer, and last year was one of the few he has managed to stay healthy at the tail end of his career. Overuse will likely make Arian Foster less effective moving forward. Matt Schaub doesn’t figure to improve from here.
Still, this team should compete with the Broncos, Patriots and Ravens for the AFC berth in the Super Bowl. They should easily win a third consecutive division title.
But fans have a right to be nervous. Is this the 11-1 juggernaut that wrecked shop for 12 weeks? Or the team that finished 2-4, twice crushed by the Patriots as their defense and quarterback played terrible football?
A look at five key points that point to both the former or the latter:
1) The defense should be outstanding, closer to what it was for the first 12 weeks. Brian Cushing’s return is huge. It’s unlikely J.J. Watt can approach last year’s production, but he should still be one of the best in the league. The outside pass rush should be much better with the subtraction of Connor Barwin, who was awful last year. Whitney Mercilus should take a big jump in Year 2, while Brooks Reed, one of the rookies or Bryan Braman should be solid on the other side. While free-agent acquisition Ed Reed may or may not be a factor, the secondary should be much improved. Kareem Jackson has become a solid player, but the biggest addition is a healthy Jonathan Joseph. When he is 100 percent, he is one of the best in the league. When he is less than that — as he was most of last year — he is a liability. Obviously, this group has to stay healthy. If it does, it has a chance to be the best unit in the AFC.
2) Greg Jones. The veteran fullback should make a huge difference in the running game. Jones is a terrific blocker who should open holes for Foster. Too often last year, James Casey got blown up in the hole. Jones should improve the running game, which will improve the overall offense.
3) Finally, a real threat at No. 2 receiver. DeAndre Hopkins will be asked to do a lot for a rookie, but it would be hard for him to be less effective than Kevin Walter. He should be able to provide something the Texans have not had since Johnson has been here — a legitimate threat on the other side.
4) Improved offensive line play. While right tackle remains a huge question, (see below) you can expect better play from Brandon Brooks at right guard. If Wade Smith is as bad as he was last year (he didn’t deserve the Pro Bowl nod — that was for what he had done in the past) Ben Jones could step in. Duane Brown and Chris Myers are among the best in the league at their positions. This group as a whole should be better.
5) Better play from Matt Schaub than what he showed down the stretch. Schaub was awful during the 2-4 finish, and that’s the image fans still have. But Nos. 1-4 on this list had a lot to do with his ineffectiveness. And it was entirely possible he wasn’t 100 percent healthy at the end of last season. He should be this year. He will never be confused with Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Drew Brees, but when healthy he can do enough, considering the talent around him. Expect a solid, effective season.
1) Right tackle. Derek Newton started 14 games last season, but he wasn’t very effective. He replaced Eric Winston, who was solid against the run but struggled badly in the passing game. Newton struggled in both, but the Texans believe he will be better in his second year as a starter. The problem is he is coming off surgery. He should be ready for the start of the season, but the reps in camp and preseason are critical for a young player. Behind him is veteran Ryan Harris, who is just a guy. Rookie Brannon Williams was expected to compete for this job, but he is already hurt and should not be a factor. Besides, do you want a rookie learning on the job in a make or break year? This is the biggest hole on the roster.
2) Depth across the board. Besides tackle, there are serious issues at defensive tackle, wide receiver, corner, inside linebacker, and even tight end, which is a surprise since the Texans love to collect them like bobbleheads. Every team is lessened by injuries, but any longterm loss (or simple ineffectiveness due to injury like Joseph last year) will change the makeup of this team in a very bad way. If healthy, this is a Super Bowl contender. Lose some key players at these positions and it will be a struggle to make the playoffs.
3) Matt Schaub. Yes, he makes both lists. If the 2-4 Schaub returns, this team is in real trouble.
4) Special teams. This gets ignored way too often. Jacoby Jones and Trindon Holiday got better when they left the Texans. That’s coaching. Shane Lechler should help the punting game, but the Texans will likely have a first-year kicker in Randy Bullock, and unless Keyshawn Martin or someone else steps up and becomes an effective returner, this will continue to be a weakness. Coverage was awful last year, too. The Texans added an assistant special teams coach, but otherwise, there’s not much hope for improvement.
5) Coaching in the red zone and in third and long situations. Gary Kubiak is often branded conservative. In the past he has struggled in game management and critical play calling situations. But he has also improved in many areas throughout his tenure. This has to continue, especially in the red zone. With less room, play calling and execution is at a premium in that area. Kubiak has to do a better job. He designs a terrific offense, and needs to take the final step. While he will never be Sean Payton or Bill Belichick, but like Schaub, he can be good enough.
It’s become fashionable to pick the Colts to win the division. And in 2014 and beyond, that’s probably the team that will be the favorite. But last year’s Colts team won a lot of games with smoke and mirrors. There were a lot of close wins, a fourth-place schedule and the emotional charge of playing for Chuck Pagano as he recovered from Leukemia. Andrew Luck will be a star, but he’s not there yet. The Titans and Jaguars are no real threats.
So the Texans should win the division. The goals, of course, are much higher. For the Texans to reach those goals, a lot has to go right. If it all does, this could be a special season. And it better go right, because the window won’t be open much longer.