Even if the Texans can emerge with a victory on Thursday night, then justifiably questions may linger: Can they deliver in the post-season? Can they improve their regular season record? Can they put up more points every week? A tumultuous off-season has lead to many having reservations about this Deshaun Watson lead offence, that is striving for consistency to better their 15th passing and 9th rushing ranking from 2019.
Ultimately, Houston’s fortunes start and end with number 4. Watson was the recipient of a deal worthy of his potential, character and highlight performances. Thought it’s reasonable to question, when considering Watson’s 41 career appearances, have the lows have been too frequent? However, considering at 24, the former Clemson Tiger has everything ahead of him, entering year-four as a pro.
The Texans have not capitalised on Deshaun’s rookie deal to build up quality around him. That window seems to be fading as his new contract will consume a great proportion of the salary cap with each year. The bi-product is a thiner roster composition in term of overall talent, with less dollars to share around and an over reliance on the draft.
It’s without doubt time to rejoice that he is now secured until 2025 and his main task is to find answers to why the Texans offence in 2019 was so inconsistent. The highs of Atlanta, Kansas City and New England were duly eradicated by the forgettable performances of Carolina, Denver and Jacksonville. Hence the train of thought to have a more varied passing game which is less predictable.
Reviewing the foundational questions in understanding if these changes can turn the Houston offence into the powerhouse it will be required to be:
Can they run the ball?
In the O’Brien era the Texans have perennially mismanaged running backs, look no further than Lamar Miller. A lead back, that fits their responsibilities has been absent since Arian Foster. The undoubted pinnacle was last years one-thousand yard season from Carlos Hyde, who rejected a contract from Houston, then subsequently ended up taking less money and years with Seattle.
The acquisition of David Johnson( proportionate trade value aside) has potential to be a sizeable part of the offence, if healthy. The shape Johnson has reported in camp has drawn universal awe and poses an aura of man, who’s out to prove a point. If David can show that lethal one cut ability in zone concepts effectively, it could be the perfect compliment to the passing game. Furthermore his route running ability should provide a greater level of versatility than Carlos Hyde who was not a threat when flexed out of the backfield.
After trading a compensatory third-round-pick for Duke Johnson last year, he was lethal when given the ball averaging 6.5 yards per possession. Duke was under-utilised in terms of targets, despite contributing 820yards and 5TD’s on the year. Simply, the more Duke has the ball in his hands, things will happen for this offence. Providing a punishing matchup for linebackers when receiving the ball out of the backfield, the all time Miami U. leading rusher can equally contribute in the rush attack.
Lining up in 20-personnel looks could give the offence a significant advantage against linebackers challenged for lateral quickness and create a range of possibilities for Tim Kelly. Having two pass-catching backs on the roster could prove a valuable wrinkle and adjustment in games where the run is being stifled.
Can the Line Take the Step Required?
The eventual starting five offensive-linemen of 2019 are set to return, so by inference, their play should benefit from greater level of cohesion. The more consecutive games that Tunsil, Sharping, Martin, Fulton and Howard are healthy, then that is be positive for the pass protection.
The necessary growth must come from the run game. Thought this off-season hasn’t provided conditions to further that ambition, it’s something that no team will truly gauge until the midst of week-one. Tytus Howard showed year-one flashes and his loss to injury at Right-Tackle was seismic. Howard’s proficiency in the run game was in contrast to that of Max Sharping, who needs to translate his 327lb mass into power, to move bodies in the run game. Year 2 is still too early to make an appropriate judgment on a lineman’s NFL credentials, but the franchise did a notable job in selecting both in the 2019 draft class.
The player best placed to improve, is already the most talented, in Laremy Tunsil, who agreed a $66million three-year extension early in the off-season. By having more than a week to acclimatise, will aid in reducing the false start penalties that plagued the former Ole Miss Rebel. The contract showed the Texans value him as the best lineman in the game, so Tunsil has to now to repay that faith but few would doubt that feat is beyond his grasp.
This unit is tasked with providing the the foundation for Watson, who will take his share of sacks due to his hell-bent focus on keeping plays alive. But by giving 2-4 seconds, in a clean pocket, will allow plays to develop and help in utilising the deep threats now on this roster.
What does Speed leave behind?
Will Fuller’s variable health record has created unmanageable fluctuations in offensive output in previous seasons. Fuller’s elite ability to stretch the field coupled with Watsons deep ball accuracy was a component, that this scheme floundered without. Yet with he introduction of Brandin Cooks to pair with Fuller, the Texans now pose two elite deep threats. This will force the respect of the coverage and engender a choice to be made on how defence will attempt to cover the duo.
The Texans receiver group is the deepest in franchise history. This passing attack will have to be the strength of the team, unequivocally to the point that it’s the reason they win games. Not forgetting Kenny Stills who had a knack for big plays, extending drives and contributing scores when needed. The former ‘Sooner finished in the top-five receivers yards-per-reception, in his first year in Houston.
Albeit, he was given a questionable contract for a player at the latter end of their career, Randall Cobb should bring veteran nous and the understand the required to navigate over the middle of the field. Something that has been previously missing for Watson in the short and intermediate game. The ability to understand when additional pressures are coming from other levels of the defence and cutting routes short to provide simple completions should come from Cobb’s wealth of knowledge.
Along with Cobb operating in the slot, Keke Coutee remains being a complete unknown, if he’s able to show mental maturation in year three and be consistent in assignments, it would add significant depth. But looking at the collective wide-receiver room, there isn’t a clear towering presence that can be targeted to win possession catches. Hence the Tight End’s value in the passing game will be greater than in years prior. Particularly if the speed of the receivers can regularly stretch the coverage and provide winnable match up’s, closer to the line of scrimmage.
Fells even at 34 years-young was a valuable red-zone outlet for Watson, chipping in with 7 TD’s last year. The former basketball-pro was heavily relied up as the primary Y but faded in terms of blocking down the stretch. So an improved rotation of the three players will be key. The unknown is Kahle Warring, in year-two, who poses a figure to fill the role as primary blocker. The 86th overall pick in the 2019 draft is yet to make his competitive debut but is thought as the perfect hybrid between Fells and Joran Atkins.
Going into his third year, Atkins has the ability of the most accomplish route runner and pass catcher off the trio. Watson often overlooked Atkins who’s athleticism allows him to regularly get open against safeties and backers. The Texans have the ability to line up in 12 & 13 personnel groupings, adding a number wrinkles to their passing game on what are traditionally viewed as running formations.
What Are The Logical expectations for This offence?
Tim Kelly, must feel a sense of gratitude, considering the skill players and quarterback at his disposal. The additional time and planning he’s been able to add, was pin-pointed by Watson as an important step in game planning. His creativity and nous will be tested early considering they defences faced in the early weeks. But Kelly has a real chance to show that the off-season decisions made were in the best interest of the offence that finished 14th last year in points.
Deshaun’s potential has heights that he is yet to reach and this offence seems placed to assist in that growth. His improvement points were covered in the Saxtrax Project, this offseason.
The questions of supporting cast will be duly answered but as in the case of every team, they are only as great as their quarterback can make them. Just how great Watson will become is a journey, which continues Thursday night, on his quest to become “legendary”.