By J.D. Redemann
This article is part of our 2013 Fantasy Team Preview series in which we are profiling every NFL team leading up to the season, click here for the complete list of published previews. Also, check out our staff rankings for see how we value each player.
While I was doing a cursory Youtube search the other day for “NFL Defense Highlights”, I came upon this absolute gem of a video, entitled “Houston Texans — Bulls on Parade“. The best moment in that video and most telling about the churning, chugging motor of the team comes at the 3:21 mark, where former DE Connor Barwin completely surprises Jags QB Blaine Gabbert and quite literally hunts him down all the way across the field. For you Rage Against the Machine fans, you’ll obviously recognize the backing music here, but for anyone (regardless of music preferences) it is easy to see how this is the most fitting moniker possible for the Texans’ smash-mouth, hard-nosed style of play. With the versatile and destructive production of DE J.J. Watt on the defensive side of the ball and the grinding offense spearheaded by RB Arian Foster, they seem like they’d be more at home squaring off against the 1950′s Packers in the ice and mud at Lambeau Field (thank goodness they weren’t) than in today’s pass-happy, ball-hawking league.
This is not a detriment to their production, however, as this team finished in the top-10 in the league in total yards and total points both on offense and defense. It certainly helps that they are not a one-dimensional franchise, and can still pass the ball with above-average QB Matt Schaub and elite (though oft-injured) WR Andre Johnson. This is the youngest team in the league, but one that is leaps and bounds beyond the laughable franchise they were with QB David Carr at the helm at their inception, and now they are one of the front-runners annually to contest for their first appearance in the Super Bowl. So, can this two-way juggernaut of a team be a good place to turn for fantasy value again in 2013, or will injury and age finally grind them down? Let’s find out…
Added: RB Ray Graham, RB Dennis Johnson, RB Cierre Wood, FB Greg Jones, OT Andrew Gardner, OT Ryan Harris, CB Travis Howard, S Ed Reed
Drafted: WR DeAndre Hopkins, S D.J. Swearinger, OT Brennan Williams, DE Sam Montgomery, OLB Trevardo Williams
Lost: RB Justin Forsett, FB/TE James Casey, WR Kevin Walter, OLB Connor Barwin, S Glover Quin, S Quintin Demps, K Shayne Graham
One never likes to see such a massive exodus of leaders and playmakers from any team, much less so from such an elite unit as the Texans D/ST. Having parted ways with DE Mario Williams last year, the Texans again let an elite pass-rusher leave the team for free agency when Connor Barwin walked to join the Eagles. One of the top young safeties in the league, Glover Quin, was not franchise-tagged as many had expected he would be and now plays for the Detroit Lions. That, perhaps, is where the biggest question mark exists, though Pro Bowler and future Hall of Famer S Ed Reed enters in Quin’s wake and figures to factor in immediately as the team’s free safety and coverage field general. His veteran expertise and uncanny play-reading ability will be highly valued in this high-pressure defensive unit, but at the age of 34, can Reed really keep playing centerfield at such a high level, or will he take an athletic step backwards (see BQ #3 below for more)?…. The Texans seem to be fairly satisfied with last year’s team production, as they didn’t really upgrade any positions in either free agency or the draft, merely addressing needs and plugging holes. They didn’t draft any depth at RB, so I doubt they have many concerns about Arian Foster’s much-ballyhooed “declining abilities” or Ben Tate walking in free agency. They did sign quite a few longshot options as rookie free agents, and Cierre Wood has an outside chance to be the #3 in the backfield. A strong frame that could develop power with shifty moves and good acceleration, he looks like he could be a future Foster complement if Tate does leave. RB Ray Graham is the exact opposite: under-sized but explosively powerful, he has good vision and hits holes hard. Graham will likely make the team as the third back on the depth chart, and he could factor in at special teams too. Neither Wood or Graham will help you in redraft leagues, but they’re worth a look in dynasty formats…. A lot of noise is being made about the Texans’ first-round pick this year, and rightfully so. WR DeAndre Hopkins is about as polished as they come out of college, and during his time at Clemson he earned a reputation as a top-notch route runner with extremely good hands, and that is exactly what a team looks for in its #2 wide receiver. The Texans have no qualms about playing rookies if they like what they see, and word out of early OTA’s is that they like what they see. Hopkins could be solid as a low-end FLEX option this year, especially if Andre Johnson gets hurt again (see my Highlight Players below for more).
One Up: DeAndre Hopkins, WR – Not just a product of the exceptional Clemson offense (which, incidentally, hit a bit of a bump-in-the-road last season), Hopkins strung together a solid track record of progress through three seasons with the Tigers, improving to a career-best 82 catches and a school-record 18 touchdown grabs last year. He has gotten comparisons to Falcons’ Pro Bowl wideout Roddy White in regards to his skillset and instincts, and it doesn’t get much better than that: he will never be a flat-out burner, but he is a crisp route runner and has the quickness and burst to get off the line and make cuts to separate from coverage. He’s not afraid of contact, he has strong, reliable hands and good body control in the air for a receiver who isn’t huge. And, on top of all that, he is going to a high-powered offense in Houston guided by a not-stellar but accurate and efficient QB in Matt Schaub, and will play opposite Andre Johnson, who regularly sees double- and triple-coverage. With Hopkins in the fold adding another dimension of play to this offense, opposing defenses will no longer be able to stack coverage on Johnson and put eight men in the box against Foster, and the aphorism “a rising tide lifts all ships” certainly applies here. The immediate opportunity to seize the #2 wideout job is extremely valuable for him, and Hopkins has the ability and maturity to keep it. Despite the Texans’ heavy focus on rushing, he will be productive simply because he will be in on most snaps. Draft him as a WR4 or 5, and he may provide WR3 value by the end of the season.
One Down: Ben Tate, RB – I know this is sort of cheating, but I’m taking this opportunity to essentially recommend another “One Up” player. Tate is here not because I think he’s necessarily going to have a bad year. He’s here because I simply do not believe the narrative of the reliable bellcow back being on a downward spiral and the talented backup RB (who, actually, has only performed well in minuscule sample sizes) vaulting into a premier role. In Baltimore, that supposed usurper is RB Bernard Pierce, here it’s Ben Tate. Look, guys, I get that 4.3 yards per carry (Tate’s 2012 mark) is good. I also get that Tate did even better than that in the game against Jacksonville last year (6.2 yards per carry, 2 TD’s). But, by Football Outsiders’ metrics, Tate’s overall value as a rusher and per-play value were behind, for example (in order of total value): KC backup Shaun Draughn, WAS backup Evan Royster, SD third-stringer Ronnie Brown, BUF third-stringer Tashard Choice, and all three Jaguars runners (including the injured Maurice Jones-Drew and the atrocious Rashad Jennings and Montell Owens). So, let’s not go ringing the death knell for the “Age of AquArian” in Houston just yet. So slow your roll on the handcuff talk, haters. I’ll talk more about this in BQ #2, but know that Tate, while a good player and young, will not be dethroning Arian Foster in this offense. Not now, not ever.
1) 1,598 yards is a great receiving year, but can an aging Andre Johnson also bring in respectable TD total?
As odd as it is to say about a player perceived to be all-around elite, Johnson has always sort of been a boom-or-bust fantasy player. The first year he scored 8 TD’s (2007), he only brought in 851 yards (granted, due to injury-shortened playing time). Last year, his career yardage receiving year, he only scored 4 TD’s. In fact, since his #1 fantasy WR season in 2009, Johnson’s final fantasy points totals have ended up as such: 2010, 8th; 2011, outside top 50; 2012, 8th. He is clearly one of the best in the game when healthy, but perhaps it’s time we stop expecting him to do so much for our fantasy teams. Especially at age 31, Johnson’s best years are less likely to be in ahead of than behind him, with only three seasons of a full 16 games finished out of the past six (and he missed 19 games in those three seasons, so it wasn’t minor either), Johnson is not a player to be considered reliable or ‘elite’ anymore. He still has top-tier potential, and for that I ranked him inside the top-10 for preseason, but upon re-evaluation for training camp, that will be just outside top-10.
2) What chance does A. Foster have to equal last year’s numbers? Can he get his rushing average back up?
It’s a well-documented fact that Arian Foster’s rushing average (yards per carry) has progressively dropped each of the last three seasons, from 4.9 in 2010, to 4.4 in 2011, and finally to 4.1 in 2012. The popular narrative to explain that is that he has been overworked as the feature player in the Houston offense for years, and now the effects of all those touches are finally catching up to him. However, the Houston Chronicle’s Lance Zierlein, commented that Foster’s issues were largely a result of the offensive line.
The continuity of the Texans’ O-line completely fell apart. Rather than the Texans’ O-line moving as a fluid unit, we began to see their front spring leaks in various spots from run play to run play.
Football Outsiders establishes their run-blocking metrics in four areas: stuffed, power, second-level, and open field. The way they assign responsibility for success or failure on stuffed plays is 120% to the offensive line, and for power runs that number is about 80%. Interestingly enough, we can see that the Texans offensive line, while ranking 9th in overall production, was atrociously bad at allowing their running backs to get out from behind the line (stuffed 20% of the time, 23rd in NFL) and in short-yardage, high-leverage situations (only 61% success in power situations, 18th in NFL). That #9 ranking for them was buoyed by their second-level and open-field blocking on runs, where most of the responsibility for success is assigned to the runner anyway. That NFL scout’s hunch is supported by proof that Foster’s downward-trending yards per carry is not entirely his fault, and in fact seems to be due much more to ineffective blocking than anything else.
I firmly believe that Arian Foster is still the elite player he has been for years now, and that recent additions to the offense will help draw attention away from him, rather than sap his value. In pure fantasy statistical terms, Foster accumulated 1,424 yards last year in a supposedly down year that (as we’ve discussed) was likely due more to his offensive line than himself. How much better do you want than that? If there’s even a slight dead-cat-bounce and his O-line is making better moves in short situations, Arian will break 1,500 yards again this season. There are very few running backs more reliable than one who is his own goal-line back (16, 10, and 15 rushing TD’s) and gets 300-390 touches a season. Even more so, 4.0 yards per carry is the mark of excellence in rushing production, and we’re complaining that Arian hasn’t matched his ridiculous 4.9 mark from three years ago? I think we’ve been spoiled by him; he’s likely closer to a 4.4 yards per carry guy than a 5.0, but he should still be elite this season. You might be surprised to know that I have him at #1 overall this year, even ahead of a certain Vikings RB. Draft him with confidence in 2013.
3. Will the elite Texans D/ST regress this season, or will veteran S Ed Reed buoy this unit?
This is still an elite-caliber defense, by my reckoning, as they still have arguably the best defensive player in the league in DE J.J. Watt, LILB Brian Cushing will return from the Injured Reserve this season, ROLB Whitney Mercilus will remain exactly as his name suggests, and their secondary is still star-studded despite Glover Quin’s departure. Still, the questions must be asked, as this offseason marked the second consecutive one where a part of Houston’s elite pass rush departed in free agency. Last year, DE Mario Williams left the team in order to sign a six-year, $96mil contract with the Buffalo Bills. This year, OLB Connor Barwin sought greener pastures (in more ways than one) and signed a six-year, $36mil contract with the Philadelphia Eagles. It’s fairly clear that the Texans believe these players are replaceable (especially with those high costs), and it seems they might be. Williams put up a typically good season last year with Buffalo, but it was certainly not worth that contract. In Barwin’s stead this year, OLB Trevardo Williams and Mercilus, as well as DE Antonio Smith are young, strong, and motivated to pick up the slack. There should be little-to-no effect on the pass rush this year, except that it becomes much cheaper and allows them to extend Brian Cushing and Smith.
The secondary also has question marks, with Quin and S Quintin Demps gone, but S Ed Reed (formerly of the Baltimore Ravens) is the definition of a wily veteran. Reed may have lost a step or two due to age, but he is the most intelligent and instinctual safety the league has ever seen. He has made 15 interceptions from his age 32-34 seasons not merely because of physicality, but because of an innate ability to read the quarterback’s eyes and be there before the receiver even sees the ball. I think Reed will greatly improve this team’s turnover potential, and that is the biggest key to year-to-year success: the teams that consistently generate turnovers are consistently tops in the league. I have no concerns about the Texans defense, and in fact, I ranked them #1 for D/ST because of this increased turnover potential.
Bulls on Parade. That’s all you need to remember this year when the league’s youngest team is hoisting the league’s oldest trophy.