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NFL Sleeper: Houston Texans

As most of those who cover football both nationally and locally have been primarily talking about the NFL Lockout, which should probably end this week, there has been a noticeable dearth of actual football talk. While most training camp stories this time of year are vacuous accounts of players in the “best shape of their lives,” free agency speculation, and generally devoid of substance, I do miss the macro prognostications that we usually have started to see by this time of year.

With that said, I am going start writing about broad and specific predictions I have for the NFL season. The Lockout should be over soon and while there will be a crazy frenzy of free agency in the ensuing weeks, I do not think that it is entirely too early to make educated guesses about what will happen this season. It is my firm belief that the cores of most successful NFL franchises are built in-house and I think that right now the Houston Texans have a solid foundation to build around and will be one of those teams that we see in every NFL season make the jump from cellar dweller to contender.

To be successful in today’s NFL, the three most important things to consider are having a great quarterback, protecting the quarterback, and the ability to get to other teams’ quarterbacks. Other pieces of a team are of varying importance but the best teams have a core in the aforementioned three areas that can subsequently be built around.

In this regard, I think the Houston Texans are well-positioned to make a jump. ESPN Insider’s scouting department (subscription required) ranks Matt Schaub as tied with Matt Ryan and Carson Palmer as having been the 11th-best quarterback in football, behind (starting at #1) Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, Brett Favre, Eli Manning, Joe Flacco, and Tony Romo. In 2011, I would rather have Schaub as my quarterback than Favre, Eli Manning, and Flacco and would rank him equally with Romo and Ryan. This would place Schaub in a three-way tie for #7, in the first quartile of the league.

Last season, Schaub completed 63.6% of his passes, throwing for 4370 yards, 24 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. These are pretty good numbers that I predict he will at least match and probably improve upon. I get that there have been issues with Schaub in the past with “clutchness” and that he has not won any big games in his career. However, it is a logical fallacy to assume that just because a quarterback has not done so before that he will not do so in the future. Before last year, we were constantly reminded that Aaron Rodgers had never won a playoff game. He and the Packers proceeded to win four in a row.

As far as protecting the quarterback, the Texans’ tackles rank fairly well. For offensive tackles (not differentiated between left and right), ESPN Insider ranked right tackle Eric Winston tied for #9 and left tackle Duane Brown tied for #27 in 2010. I do not claim to know anything about how to evaluate offensive linemen but Houston appears to be OK in this department, having been ranked 4th in run protection and 12th in pass protection in 2010 by Football Outsiders. Elsewhere on offense, the Texans have pretty good skill players. Andre Johnson is one of, if not the best, NFL’s best wide receivers while running back Arian Foster led the NFL with 1,616 rushing yards last season.

Houston’s defensive line was ranked 17th last season against the pass by Football Outsiders. However, I would expect this ranking to go up after the Texans selected Wisconsin defensive end JJ Watt 11th overall. In evaluating Watt before the draft, some of my friends and I concluded that his sheer will and determination would make him a very good pro but that he would be great if he were picked by a team that has another elite pass rusher. Playing opposite Mario Williams on the defensive line, Watt will be a force to be reckoned with.

On top of the very tangible on-field benefits that Watt will give the Texans, he is a truly inspiring presence off the field. Consistently talking the talk and walking the walk, Watt’s credo is DBWH–Dream Big Work Hard. Considering how much I look to Watt as a role model just from rooting for him, reading about him, and following him on Twitter, I can only imagine what his tangential effects will be on his teammates in the Houston locker room. A vocal leader, Watt will lead by example to instill a selfless, winning attitude in the organization.

Watt, Williams, and the rest of the Texans defense will likely see a rise in production with new defensive coordinator Wade Philips. Although he has languished as a head coach, Philips is a brilliant defensive mind who has a track record for improving defenses in his first year. Using stats from pro-football-reference.com, I made a table showing what team defenses did the year before Philips became defensive coordinator and what they did in his first season. Please note that his first season in Dallas was as head coach.

Points Allowed Yards Allowed Turnovers forced
1985 Eagles 310 5135 32
1986 Eagles 312 5224 36
1988 Broncos 352 5471 29
1989 Broncos 226 4407 43
1994 Bills 356 5175 28
1995 Bills 335 5128 28
2001 Falcons 377 5845 30
2002 Falcons 314 5334 39
2003 Chargers 441 5593 20
2004 Chargers 313 5360 33
2006 Cowboys 350 5165 31
2007 Cowboys 325 4922 29

In his last five stops, Philips-led defenses have improved in the first year in both points and yards allowed. Turnovers forced stayed the same in Buffalo and dropped slightly in Dallas but rose significantly in Denver, Atlanta, and San Diego. Even though Houston will have less time in training camp than normal to shift from last season’s 4-3 defense to Philips’s 3-4, I predict that it experiences a similar jump.

Many NFL fans are probably tired of picking Houston as a team to make the jump. They have had lofty expectations before many seasons in the recent past which they have failed to adequately fulfill. This season will be different. I think that Houston’s ascent into the league’s upper echelon will begin this year as the team wins at least 10 games and earns a spot in the AFC Playoffs.

 

 

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