The AFC South is shaping up to be one of the more intriguing divisions in the NFL. Matt Danely begins a four-part series breaking down each team to explain how that team has been developing and their expected impact on the division. First up is the 2016 Houston Texans.
The current state of the AFC South is an extremely interesting talking point nowadays, and for good reason. All four teams within the division have their quarterback, the gap – in terms of roster-wide talent – is shrinking from the bottom to the top of the division, and none of the coaching staffs should reasonably feel as if their jobs are safe. Each team has built their rosters differently over the past five years, which has paved a different path to reaching their present-day status in the division.
The AFC South is considered to be on its way to becoming one of the more competitive divisions in the league by some, while others are taking a more measured approach to the recent influx of talent – with the assumption that the teams are a year or two away as they head into the 2016 season. Though both arguments have their merits, there’s little ground to discount that a massive improvement across the board is a very real possibility from where the division was just a handful of years ago.
With that in mind, let’s dig into how these teams have built their rosters, and how it has affected each coaching staff. Together – through this series where I will break down each team in the division – we’ll see if we can find which of them used the best approach, which of them have set themselves up for failure, and who is still missing some key pieces in their quest to build a perennial division champion. First, we jump into the Houston Texans.
How Did the Texans Get Here?
In 2002, the Houston Texans were the NFL’s newest franchise when the league expanded to 32 teams. The Texans drafted four Pro Bowl selections away from their original teams (Tony Boselli, Aaron Glenn, Gary Walker, and Jermaine Lewis) and took on more than $36 million in contracts from three cap-strapped organizations with their expansion haul – the New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Baltimore Ravens. Considering the salary cap was roughly $71 million at the time, the next several seasons proved to be a significant struggle for the team to acquire adequate talent to make an impact in the division.
The Texans failed to field a squad which could break the top 15 in DVOA on either side of the ball until 2008 (offense), and didn’t put a defense together that could break into the top half of the league until 2011. The offense began to come into its own in that 2008 season, which was quarterback Matt Schaub’s second season with the team after being acquired from the Atlanta Falcons. It was also the second time the team had reached .500 since their inception.
The team continued to struggle to compete in the AFC South until 2011, which was a tide-turning season for the club. The Texans re-signed cornerback Johnathan Joseph and reached an agreement with safety Danieal Manning, who spent his first five seasons in Chicago. The defense had been under construction for the previous few seasons with the team drafting linebacker Brian Cushing and defensive end Connor Barwin in 2009, and CB Kareem Jackson in 2010 while finding additional help for the offense with 2009 undrafted free agent running back Arian Foster breaking out in 2010.
The true watershed moment for the Texans, however, came with the 11th overall selection in the 2011 draft of J.J. Watt. The Texans had a quality quarterback and the makings of a top 10 NFL defense with the addition of Watt, though the latter was not immediately understood at the time. The ensuing season showed the fruits of the organization’s labor breaking into the top 10 (DVOA) on both sides of the ball, its first of back-to-back double-digit win seasons and divisional titles, and also gave Gary Kubiak’s tenure new life as the head coach after five disappointing seasons.
Since 2011, Schaub sharply declined following the 2012 season, leaving the quarterback position a massive hole through the 2015 season. The defense, on the other hand, has been about as consistent as one could reasonably hope by maintaining very good – to great – production by holding strong inside the top 10 units in the league four of the last five seasons.
The organization moved on from Kubiak after a 2-14 finish in 2013, bringing in Bill O’Brien who comes from the Bill Belichick coaching tree and is known as a quarterback developer which is, once again, exactly what they needed since the lack of a qualified signal caller had once again plagued the organization at the time of O’Brien’s arrival. More talent has been added to maintain the defense in Whitney Mercilus, Jadeveon Clowney, and Kevin Johnson, as well as DeAndre Hopkins, and Jaelen Strong in order to level out the roster on the offensive side of the ball.
Now with the defense taking on the ideal mold moving forward, Brock Osweiler was given a handsome free-agent contract to come in and solve the quarterback problems that have realistically only been duct taped for a small window in the team’s 14-year history. The Texans have only been to the playoffs three times heading into the 2016 season, and it’s more than reasonable to assume that the organization sees their arrow pointing upward in a major way.
Where Are They Struggling?
Now that the vast majority of the on-field issues are squared away – in theory – the biggest issue the organization faces is getting into the black on its salary cap. As it stands – according to Spotrac – the Texans are roughly $6.1 million ($1,654,430 + $5,444,580 dead money) over their adjusted salary cap for 2016 (Note: Edited from earlier due to Cecil Shorts restructuring). They are currently handing out 32.5% ($53,485,000) of their total spending to their top-five contracts and 51.2% ($84,109,454) to their top 10 contracts.
Granted, players without guaranteed money embedded will be released and there could be additional restructures around the corner, but injuries will force the team to add even more resources to the bottom line. In the end, this could very likely be the largest issue the organization faces moving forward, however, it is unlikely that it will affect the product on the field immediately. Keeping this talent together depends upon the front office being creative with future allocations.
Why Bill O’Brien?
What makes O’Brien so special? Why is he the guy to lead this thirsty organization to the pinnacle of the league – or is he? Personally, I am a big fan of O’Brien. Throughout his career he has coached virtually every position on offense (he’s even coached linebackers), he has coached under an impressive list of football minds including George O’Leary, Chan Gailey, and Bill Belichick.
He consistently climbed the ladder on one of the best NFL coaching staffs (New England Patriots) and eventually became Tom Brady’s offensive play caller. Following the 2011 season O’Brien garnered interest from other organizations, and schools, for their head coaching gigs. And just two months after the story broke of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal, O’Brien took on a four-year postseason ban, and the loss of 40 scholarships, when he inked his four-year contract to take the reins of the Penn State Nittany Lions.
In his first season, O’Brien took a depleted Penn St. squad to an eight-win season and pulled the strings with a true freshman quarterback in the process. His star shone bright and subsequently interviewed with the Philadelphia Eagles and Cleveland Browns before deciding to stand pat at Penn State. But after the following season, O’Brien signed on to inherit the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft with the Texans. Again, taking on a tall task.
Despite being handcuffed at quarterback and his top running back missing 15 games in his first two seasons, O’Brien has managed two winning seasons and a playoff berth. Now, some explosive rookies, Will Fuller and Braxton Miller, will be joining Hopkins in a revamped receiving corps after the exodus of Andre Johnson following the 2014 season. The Texans also added Nick Martin in the second-round as well as Jeff Allen this year to bolster protection for Osweiler, and so it seems as if O’Brien could be set up with a genuine opportunity for an organizational breakout in the very near future.
O’Brien has everything necessary to provide structure to the entire roster from a leadership standpoint, and now possesses the talent to legitimately challenge for the division annually. Not only is he someone who has faced serious adversity and career roadblocks only to succeed, but he willingly threw himself into those situations. All things considered, the Texans have built their organization from the ground up over the past handful of seasons. A proven defense, hitting on very influential draft picks and adding a head coach with the acumen and background to help the roster flourish make the Texans the most dangerous team in the AFC South at the moment.