Changes have arrived in Houston as the Texans enter their first season under coach Bill O’Brien.
While O’Brien’s arrival has most fans fired up about the future, some players are less excited. Veteran receiver Andre Johnson expressed frustration over several decisions the team’s front office made over the offseason and didn’t attend spring workouts.
The Texans traded longtime quarterback Matt Schaub, replacing him with veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick in the near term. Promising prospect Tom Savage came in the fourth round of the draft.
The defensive line, though, is firmly expected to provide one of the best pass rushes in the game. The Texans selected Jadeveon Clowney with the No. 1 overall pick, and he joins the 2012 NFL defensive player of the year, J.J. Watt, to form what should be a nasty one-two punch.
The Texans had to revamp their secondary, however, and will have plenty of holes to fill in Romeo Crennel’s first season as defensive coordinator.
Houston went from being the back-to-back AFC South titlist to the 2-14 league cellar dweller in 2013. How much the Texans improve in 2014 will be decided by countless variables and intangibles.
The Texans watched other teams draft nine quarterbacks before they selected Savage with the 135th overall pick. With limited mobility but sizable pocket presence, Savage has drawn comparisons to Ben Roethlisberger and Schaub. The Texans front office was high on Savage’s toughness and his arm strength. If pass protection struggles the way it did in 2013, toughness will come in handy if he receives playing time. But O’Brien will roll with Fitzpatrick to start the season with Case Keenum in reserve. T.J. Yates was traded to the Atlanta Falcons.
Arian Foster missed half of last season with injuries. But after having back surgery, he enters training camp with no major health concerns. Whether he can return to his old self remains to be seen. After losing Ben Tate in free agency, the Texans signed veteran running back Andre Brown and drafted Alfred Blue in the sixth round; both also have missed significant time in the last two seasons.
After drafting DeAndre Hopkins in the first round in 2013 to give Johnson relief from double and triple coverage, the Texans practically ignored the position in the offseason, only signing veteran slot receiver Mike Thomas, who didn’t play in 2013 after four productive seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars. The situation could become more dire if they trade Johnson, who has quietly suffered through more than a decade of losing and mediocrity in Houston and has had enough.
After seven seasons, the Owen Daniels era in Houston came to an abrupt end when the Texans released him. The Texans placed their faith in Garrett Graham, signing the fifth-year veteran to a three-year, $11.25 million deal. C.J. Fiedorowicz, whom the Texans selected out of Iowa in the third round, was regarded by many as the best blocking tight end in the draft.
There could be plenty of competition at right guard and right tackle, as that side of the line was particularly porous last season. O’Brien has praised right guard Brandon Brooks and right tackle Derek Newton, but spending the 33rd overall pick on guard Xavier Su’a-Filo spoke volumes. Su’a-Filo provides the strength and nastiness on the line Houston wants to move toward. Left tackle Duane Brown is among the league’s best.
Watt is obviously a special player but is also the only starter returning up front. The Texans drafted massive nose tackle Louis Nix out of Notre Dame in the third round. Jared Crick and Tim Jamison are candidates to receive snaps after starting end Antonio Smith signed with the Oakland Raiders.
Many have suggested the Texans took a page out of the Seattle Seahawks’ book in seeking to build the best defensive unit in the game. Clowney is a game changer, and Crennel is expected to use him in a variety of ways to complement Watt. However Clowney could be slowed in training camp after undergoing hernia surgery. Brian Cushing returns from a nasty knee injury, and his presence should bolster the Texans’ tackling. Cushing will be joined inside by veteran Brooks Reed, who formerly played on the edge as the strongside backer. Whitney Mercilus is expected to line up opposite Clowney outside. How Crennel will use his linebackers in the pass rush is mostly uncertain, but all possess reliable speed around the edge. Depth could be an issue.
The Texans enter 2014 with a relatively unproven secondary, but that might not be such a bad thing after last season’s debacle. They released safety Danieal Manning and cornerback Brice McCain but return cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph, Kareem Jackson and Brandon Harris, as well as safeties D.J. Swearinger and Shiloh Keo. While physicality was a strong point for the Texans’ secondary in 2013, keeping opponents from getting big plays was not. Considering the Texans waited until the last pick of the draft to select their first defensive back in Lonnie Ballentine, the relevant competition will likely involve the team’s returning starters.
The Texans enter their first season in the 13-year history of the franchise with a special teams coordinator not named Joe Marciano, who was fired along with head coach Gary Kubiak in December. Bob Ligashesky was one of the few on Kubiak’s staff O’Brien retained, and he’ll be tasked with improving the Texans’ horrendous play in 2013. Veteran punter Shane Lechler was lights-out after moving from the Raiders, but everyone else struggled mightily.
Eight of the new assistants worked with O’Brien at Penn State. O’Brien did not hire an offensive coordinator, and he is expected to call his own plays. After years of grumbling over Kubiak’s conservative style of coaching, Texans fans will have to adjust to a fast-paced philosophy and style.
Jordan Godwin is the AFC South correspondent for USA TODAY Sports Weekly