By Callum Squires

As one season ends and another one begins, 32 NFL franchises put 2020 firmly in the rear view mirror and gear up for another tilt at the Vince Lombardi Trophy. The hard work starts here, and for many has already begun; general managers and head coaches are finalising their staff and looking ahead to turning their rosters into potential challengers.

In this series we identify the key components that go into building a winning team, and what each franchise needs to do to be in the mix come the playoffs next January. We continue our team by team offseason review with a look at the Houston Texans:

2020 Recap

Houston Texans
Carmen Mandato (Getty Images)

When I was asked to write season reviews for the AFC South, I jumped at the opportunity. This was in no small part down to the chance to write THIS particular article. I’ve selfishly saved the best story until last because I wanted to savour every single word I type about the absolutely disgusting monumental OMNISHAMBLES that is the Houston Texans. Man… Houston… we have literally more problems than Jay-Z. Is that a dated reference? Probably. But so what? The Texans are a franchise living in the past. I’ve lived in Texas, my fiancee’s family is from the Houston area, I have a lot of close friends who cheer for the Texans, so I have a vested interest in the success of this franchise. I want to make sure this is abundantly clear – I WANT the Texans to succeed. I really do. But the travesty that has been the last 2 years (and maybe more…) of Houston Texans history is insane. 

The 2020 season itself was a vintage Houston Texans story of dysfunction. JJ Watt remarked to Watson after the week 17 defeat to the Titans that “I’m sorry we wasted one of your years.” Watson definitely deserves better. Somehow, he ended up leading the NFL in regular season passing yards, though of course this was largely down to the Texans being behind and Watson having to continually force the ball downfield as quickly as humanly possible. There were individual bright spots at isolated moments – Brandin Cooks, for one, shone in the latter parts of the year – but there was a distinct feeling of unrest and a cloud of frustration circling the Texans. 

An 0-4 run to start the year was enough to finally end the Bill O’Brien era in Houston, but not before a training ground bust up between O’Brien and JJ Watt had apparently caused him to “lose the team.” I don’t know how dumb you have to be to pick a fight with a mountain of a man like Justin James Watt, but clearly Billy O’B had a death wish both in both his career and in real life. Anyway, following O’Brien’s expulsion, Romeo Crenell was introduced on an interim basis, but the fortunes of the franchise didn’t improve much. The Texans won just 2 of their first 9 games (both against the (hapless) Jaguars, but actually had a little run of 3 wins in four games in the middle of the season, culminating in a blowout of the (also hapless) Lions on Thanksgiving. Their only other victory came against the Brady-less (so therefore also hapless) Patriots, culminating in a 4-12 record for a team that had a chance to beat the Chiefs just a year before. Shocking. 

So the Texans didn’t have a true quality win, but they did lose 8 of their 12 games by 8pts or less… so maybe they were closer to good than awful? Perhaps, but a fair few of those one-possession losses were larger deficits that Deshaun cut into in garbage time. The Texans just weren’t good. And for a generationally talented quarterback who wants to win… that’s a big problem.

And I haven’t even mentioned the front office yet…

Staff Changes

Houston Texans
Credit: Mark J. Rebilas (USA Today Sports)

Where do we start? They say chaos is a ladder, huh? Well not in Houston. The Jack Easterby phenomenon is well underway in Houston as owner Cal McNair appears to be attempting to rebuild the ‘Patriots South’, but with a lot more preaching and no input from Watson. Say what you will about McNair, but I do believe he has the right to build the organisation he OWNS however he sees fit. That said, if you tell Deshaun Watson that you’ll seek his input and listen to his thoughts regarding hiring a new head coach and general manager and then do the exact opposite of that, you’ve kind of made your own bed and deserve what’s coming to you. Don’t make a simple promise like that and then renegue on your word.

Watson suggested the Texans interview both Chiefs’ offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy, and 49ers’ defensive coordinator Robert Saleh (now head coach of the New York Jets). The Texans neglected to even INTERVIEW either. Can you really be surprised that Watson is miffed? If you have no intention of paying any attention to his thoughts, don’t even bother asking for them. 

So having ignored their star player’s suggestions, the Texans ownership appear to be trying to move and rebuild a very successful dynasty. Nick Caserio is the new GM and he, along with the aforementioned Mr. Easterby, who fills the role of Vice President of Football Operations, are disciples of the “Patriot Way” in Foxboro, Massachusetts. I’ve seen Easterby compared to Littlefinger from Game of Thrones, which is an idea I love, as the puppet master attempts to scheme his way to the Iron Throne… and Easterby succeeded! The former Patriots’ Chaplain has apparently caused a culture of mistrust in the organisation that has been discussed in many high profile publications over the last few months, and I think the truth of it is that nobody is really sure exactly how far Easterby’s power really reaches. That said, many people profess to have loved Easterby in New England and he shares two SuperBowl rings with Caserio from their time there together.

Sadly for the Texans’ attempted rebuild of the Patriots, Bill Belichick wasn’t available to fill the vacant head coaching role, so instead they plumped for something of a journeyman. New Head Coach David Culley is the former wide receivers coach and pass game coordinator for the… Baltimore Ravens, one of the league’s most run heavy teams. Not exactly the ideal candidate for a gunslinger of a QB like Watson. Culley – by all accounts – is respected and liked throughout the league, but was he perhaps the only candidate willing to work under the dictatorship of Caserio x Easterby? Only time will tell. 

Culley has brought in a plethora of new names to his Houston staff, including a former colleague in Baltimore, TEs coach Andy Bischoff. Tim Kelly remains in his role of offensive coordinator, but Pep Hamilton has come over from the Chargers to work as their QB coach, alongside O-Line coach James Campen who also leaves LA. Lovie Smith is the big name hire on the defensive side of the ball, and brings his son Miles Smith along with him, who will work as linebackers coach following two seasons in that role with the University of Illinois. Lastly, new assistant wide receivers coach Ben McDaniels – yes, Josh’s brother – is another former Patriot brought to Houston by Caserio and Easterby. McDaniels joins following a couple of years as the quarterbacks coach for Michigan under Jim Harbaugh.

State Of The Roster

Houston Texans
Justin Casterline (Getty Images)

JJ Watt and DeAndre Hopkins are now Cardinals, and all the Texans got in return was… David Johnson?! Yiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiikes. We could rehash the decisions that have led to this point again and again, but let’s look at what they do have. They – for now – have one of the best talents at the Quarterback position of the past decade. Dabo Swinney’s Michael Jordan comparison might be a little exaggerated, but Deshaun Watson has proven himself to be in the truly elite tier of quarterbacks. The Texans lack consistent production from the tight end position, but Brandin Cooks – as alluded to earlier – struck up a nice rapport with Watson as the season progressed. Laremy Tunsil remains the main man on the offensive line since he came over from Miami, and he’s tied to a deal until 2024.

Defensively… It’s felt for a while that the Texans’ defensive scheme has been “hope JJ sacks the guy with the ball in his hands,” and not much else. Defensive reinforcements are likely to be the key elements of the draft. Justin Reid, Eric Murray and Lonnie Johnson Jr. are some of the key members of the defensive squad now, though Bernardrick McKinney can’t be forgotten about despite suffering a season ending injury last year. That allowed Zach Cunningham to step into his role, and lead the team in total tackles in 2020.

Salary Cap & Cut Candidates

USA Today Sports

I’ve been so focused on Easterby, McNair and the mess they’ve made that I haven’t really spoken about new GM Nick Caserio yet. Caserio has maintained that he will have final say over personnel decisions, but will of course seek counsel and discuss situations with his inner circle, naturally including McNair and Easterby.

In terms of raw figures, the Texans are currently projected to have $16million in cap space, largely thanks to saving a significant amount due to the JJ Watt release. Houston have already released Duke Johnson Jr. (less than two years after acquiring him), and center Nick Martin, both of which will help the cap, though Martin does incur a $2.5million dead cap hit. David Johnson’s contract has also been re-worked, to reduce the overall hit, whilst increasing his guaranteed cash up to $4.25million. Johnson will now remain with the Texans for 2021.

Free Agents

Godofredo A Vásquez/Houston Chronicle

Will Fuller V was the talk of trade discussion last season with the Packers among his rumoured suitors. Could the Texans re-sign him? Sure, they could. He’s got a great knack of finding the endzone, and his link up with Watson is something to build on… if Watson stays. That said, someone may choose to pay Fuller a lot of money – he is VERY talented – and Houston may decide to stick with Cooks, Keke Coutee and Chad Hansen, or maybe look into the very deep WR class in this year’s draft.

Tyrell Adams and Vernon Hargreaves are the most influential defensive free agents, both having played comfortably over 70% of the snaps last season. Both should be candidates for being re-signed, but with the uncertainty over what the Salary cap is going to end up being, it’s hard to say for sure. Either could move on, but you would think Caserio is attempting to negotiate contracts with two of his team’s top tacklers as we speak.

Team Needs

Houston Texans
Credit: Getty Images

Honestly? The Texans NEED to speak to NASA (who are based in Houston remember) and get them to seriously work on unlocking the space-time continuum. Then, build a time machine, and go back to IMMEDIATELY after the 2019 playoffs. Once you get there, take a deep breath, look at DeAndre Hopkins, look at Deshaun Watson, look at JJ Watt, and then lastly look at Bill O’Brien. When you see Bill O’Brien, speak the following words: “Bill, you’re fired.” Then turn to Mr Hopkins and say “we are not trading you.” Then turn to messrs Watt and Watson and say “Okay you two, what do you think we need to take this team forward.” Then, LISTEN TO THEM, AND FOR THE LOVE OF JACK EASTERBY STOP TRADING YOUR BEST PLAYERS AWAY. 

Okay… rant over… But, seriously, it feels like what the Texans REALLY need is a reset button back to last summer, and to fire Bill O’Brien instead of trading away DeAndre Hopkins. Let’s not forget, this team was 24-0 up on the road against the (eventual Super Bowl champion) Chiefs in the divisional round. Did they eventually get overwhelmed? Sure, but this was a GOOD team who were not far off being serious contenders. And yet here we are now, just over a year later, and the Texans are clearly the 3rd best team in the AFC South and the 4th is about to draft one of the best quarterback prospects we’ve ever seen. So, Houston, errrrrr, maybe stop trading away your best players? Maybe don’t alienate your iconic, once-in-a-generation talent, face of the franchise quarterback!? It’s LITERALLY not rocket science. 

But, we are where we are. So, in reality, the Texans do need to find a way to build a bridge with Deshaun Watson and attempt to salvage that relationship. Watson has allegedly met with Coach Culley, and told him in no uncertain terms he has no intention of playing for the Texans again. However Nick Caserio has been bullish in saying the team has “zero interest” in trading Watson. He has to say that to an extent; I have no idea how you can be “the GM who traded away Deshaun Watson” and still be a success in this league… It would be an immediately impossible task, even more so than rebuilding this Texans franchise already looks. Would Nick Caserio firing Jack Easterby salvage the Deshaun Watson era in Houston? Maybe, but that’s about as likely as Houston finding a way to win the SuperBowl next year. It ain’t happening.

In terms of real needs in the draft, the Texans surely have to focus on the defense. Carolina went for that tactic last year and it worked pretty seamlessly for them. Depending on the Will Fuller situation, Houston may still need to look for a wide receiver, but I’d expect them to focus on the defensive side of the ball. To be honest, when JJ Watt leaves, you kind of have to try and draft a replacement, not that that’s easy to do. But – from top to bottom – literally everything for the Texans revolves around keeping Watson. If they DO trade him… it’s going to be one hell of a rebuild. I’m not sure even Jack Easterby is powerful enough to see them through that.