Texans 2014 preview: Running game key to success in O'Brien's scheme
JUL 15, 2014 2:01a ET
With football season around the corner, FOXSports.com is providing a thorough analysis of all 32 teams heading into training camp. The offseason may have lacked some hard-hitting action, but franchise-altering moves have been made. Parity is excessive as ever. Every team looks great on paper in July. But it's the development and seasoning of a team that will matter in January and, yes ... even February. Goodbye, offseason!
The series continues with the Houston Texans.
2013 Record: 2-14, Fourth in AFC South
Head coach: Bill O'Brien, First Year
1. Will Andre Johnson play for the Texans this season?
Johnson has grown disgruntled with losing in Houston, to the point now where he is asking for a trade from the only team he has known in his 12-year career. While the Texans have him under contract and control whether or not they will trade him, Johnson could go to the extreme and sit out the entire season if he feels that is necessary.
Johnson's issues stemmed from him hoping the Texans would acquire an elite-level quarterback in the draft, via trade, or free agency; however Houston opted to sign Ryan Fitzpatrick, who has been average at best during his 10-year career.
Taken with the third overall pick in 2003 by the Texans, Johnson has seen only three winning seasons (2009, 2011, and 2012) in Houston. The receiver thought the team would continue to rise in 2013 after back-to-back playoff appearances under former head coach Gary Kubiak, however they ended the season with a 14-game losing streak in route to the first overall pick.
Johnson reportedly talked to new head coach Bill O'Brien about the team's direction, and was ready to return to the Texans, but a dispute over $1 million in bonuses for attending offseason activities caused a new rift between the two sides.
Despite what Johnson believes, the Texans insist they are not in a rebuilding mode after taking Jadeveon Clowney in the draft. Team officials state they are expecting to contend for the playoffs this season and are hoping Johnson will be with them when training camp opens on July 25.
2. Will rookie Jadeveon Clowney's transition to linebacker be successful?
Instead of taking a much-needed quarterback in the draft, the Texans chose to take the best overall player in Clowney to line up opposite of J.J. Watt on the defense.
Clowney, who played defensive end at South Carolina, will be making the move to outside linebacker in his rookie season. His training at the new position was halted after the No. 1 overall pick had surgery to repair a sports hernia, an injury that could have been the reason for the defense star's lack of production (by his lofty standards) last season in college.
Clowney is expected to recover in time to be a full participant in training camp at the end of July, but will the shortened timetable slow down the learning process? Luckily for the Texans, Clowney is an incredible athlete, and according to O' Brien, he has been doing everything he can in meetings until he is healed. The setback shouldn't put a damper on his ability to adapt to the new position, but it will be interesting to see how he handles standing up on defense with his nagging injury issues behind him as well.
3. How efficient will the offense be under new head coach Bill O'Brien?
Some thought there would be an open competition for the quarterback position entering training camp between Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum, T.J. Yates and Tom Savage. However, O'Brien has already named Fitzpatrick the starter and Yates was traded last month, leaving Savage and Keenum to compete for the backup role.
Fitzpatrick is a 10-year veteran, and has played in 84 games during his career, including a four-year stint as the on-and-off starter for the Buffalo Bills. He also took over the starting role with the Tennessee Titans last season after Jake Locker suffered a season-ending injury. He is considered a below average quarterback meaning the Texans will likely rely heavily on the running game with running Arian Foster set to return after missing a majority of last season due to a back injury.
O'Brien has historically leaned on run-heavy offenses and power formations, meaning Foster has to be in top form, especially with the departure of Ben Tate in the offseason. If Foster should sustain another injury during the upcoming season, the Texans would then turn towards Andre Brown, who has yet to make much of an impact in his career.
Even though Johnson has been reportedly working out to stay in football shape, he has missed valuable time in the new coaching regime. If the Texans are unwilling to move him to one of the four reported suitors, the receiver could start slow, not to mention will see a drop in production anyways due to a run-favored offense being put into place.
Entering his second season in the NFL, Hopkins has reportedly developed a strong connection with new starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. With Johnson still holding out in hopes of a trade, the 2013 first-round draft pick has been getting extra looks in practice to further develop for the Texans.
While learning his second offense in his second year in the league certainly isn't easy, Hopkins could easily become Fitzpatrick's favorite target on the field in '14. With O'Brien's new offense, the running game should be heavily favored, and with Foster returning, some pressure should be relieved from the passing game.
Hopkins had the second-lowest drop rate last season, dropping just one of 53 catchable balls, while collecting 802 yards and two touchdowns. Barring a sophomore slump, the numbers should continue to rise for the young receiver, possibly reaching 1,000 yards for the first time. Hopkins could be thrusted into the No. 1 role on the depth chart quicker than expected if Johnson's quest to leave the team proves to be successful.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
The Texans had high hopes of reaching the playoffs for the third-straight season last year, and some experts even had Houston reaching its first Super Bowl in the preseason. Instead they went 2-14, losing the final 14 games of the season in route to the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.
While the team didn't take a much-needed quarterback in the early rounds of the draft, they did get the best player in the draft in Clowney, making the defense instantly one of the best in the NFL with Watt already entrenched on the defensive line. Nix III was also a steal with the 83rd overall pick in the third round out of Notre Dame.
Under new head coach O'Brien; the high-powered defense should be enough to win more games. If the run-heavy offense, led by a healthy Foster, can carry the load to score enough points, the team could make a quick jump back to contention.
The Texans have a favorable schedule for the season, including a matchup against their former starting quarterback Matt Schaub in Week 2. Houston could easily get off to a 2-0 or 3-0 start, and have a real shot at finishing '14 with a winning record once again.
REASON FOR PANIC
The Texans answer for the glaring need at the quarterback position is Fitzpatrick. He isn't known as the best answer for the position, and Houston could be in trouble if Foster's injury issues make a comeback with the emphasis expected to on the running game in O'Brien's new scheme.
Backing up Fitzpatrick will be either rookie Savage or Keenum, who started a majority of the games last season. If Fitzpatrick doesn't pan out, the backup likely won't be much help.
The defense will be a dominant force, however they will not be able to carry the entire team if the offense is lacking on the field. Not to mention it could become overtaxed if the offense is unable to put together long drives against opponents. Even a good defense has to have time to recover.
Basically, the Texans need a big year out of Foster if they are wanting to make any noise this season.
ALEX MARVEZ'S 2014 PREDICTION
New head coach Bill O'Brien worked miracles at Penn State. He'll need just as much magic to orchestrate a quick fix in Houston. The biggest problem: Ryan Fitzpatrick – who posted a 27-49-1 record during stints with five previous teams – enters the season as the starting quarterback. Fitzpatrick is a stopgap until O'Brien is ready to take a look at 2014 fourth-round pick Tom Savage, who was drafted more for his pro potential than college production. The issues under center will likely cause what should be a solid defense to carry even more of the load. Prediction: 4-12.