My goal with the Offseason Preview series is to get caught up with each team’s 53-man roster, offensive and defensive schemes, team needs, and offseason capital within a 10-minute read. The basics will be at the top -- cap space, draft picks, cut candidates, notable departures -- and the film and analytics takes will be at the bottom. I hope to write these in a way that they’re referenceable throughout not just free agency and the NFL Draft, but also the 2021 season as we look into weekly matchups. The offseason is the time for me to get outside of our fantasy football bubble and learn more about what’s going on at the other positions. You can read the rest of my 2021 Offseason Previews here and can follow me on Twitter (@HaydenWinks).
Texans 2020 Recap
The Texans have what 80% of other teams are looking for: a Super Bowl-caliber franchise quarterback. Deshaun Watson finished first in yards per attempt (8.9), seventh in expected points added per dropback (+0.23), and fourth in completion percentage over expected (+6.5%) last year. He did so despite playing behind the No. 32 adjusted sack rate offensive line and despite losing his All-Pro receiver before the season. Watson’s top-five quarterback season was wasted by the Texans’ defense (30th in passing EPA and 31st in rushing EPA) and, more importantly, the Texans’ ownership. The McNair family has lost the trust of their players after racist remarks from Bob McNair surfaced in 2017, award-winning V.P. of communications Amy Palcic was fired for not being a “culture fit”, and a preacher took over the front office only to hire his friend who wasn’t recommended by an independent search firm. When behind-the-scenes drama is reported in this much detail, it’s impossible to have faith in the short-term future of the team, especially when racism is in the mix. Adding to the fire is the Texans’ lack of cap space and draft capital. Buckle up.
Texans 2021 Offseason
Texans Cap Space
$3.3 million (19th)
Texans Draft Picks
3.66, 4th, 4th, 5th, 6th, 6th, 6th, 7th, plus compensatory picks
WR Will Fuller, EDGE J.J. Watt, CB Vernon Hargreaves, LB Tyrell Adams, DT Carlos Watkins, DT P.J. Hall, CB Phillip Gaines
Texans Cut Candidates
RB David Johnson ($6.4M cap savings), LB Benardrick McKinney ($6.4M), C Nick Martin ($6.3M), RB Duke Johnson ($5.2M), DT Brandon Dunn ($3.2M), RG Zach Fulton ($3.0M), TE Darren Fells ($2.3M)
Texans Depth Chart
% of Passes
RB (Early Down)
RB (Third Down)
Offensive Coordinator: Some are saying I’m the first person ever to write about Texans OC Tim Kelly, a long-time assistant who has been in the building since 2014. What I learned from watching Kelly is that he’s willing to give Deshaun Watson multiple chances per pass play to complete a deep pass. The Texans were fourth in percentage of passes traveling at least 15 air yards (24%), and Watson completed them at the second-best rate. Kelly could’ve utilized play action more often (29th), but the offense ranking dead last in rushing EPA possibly played into that. Overall, Kelly did a quality job maximizing Watson’s two primary strengths -- throwing the ball downfield and creating with his legs. That’s probably why Watson has publicly advocated for Kelly.
Passing Offense: Watson was a top-three quarterback last year despite a lot of things working against him. Any team should be happy to send three first-round picks for him if he becomes available, especially after just watching him lead the NFL in passing yards behind a below-average offensive line. Watson’s precision downfield (2nd in CPOE on 15+ air yard passes) married well with both Brandin Cooks and impending free agent Will Fuller. The latter was the WR8 per game (18.9 PPR points) and the WR2 in PPR points over expected per game, an efficiency stat. Fuller deserves to be paid like a No. 1 receiver and should be a priority for Houston. Cooks may have to re-work his $12.0 million non-guaranteed contract, but he should return after an 81-1,150-6 season. Slot receiver Randall Cobb, who hasn’t played a full season since 2015, will be a three-receiver set starter in 2021 thanks to his $8.25 million in guarantees. He was the WR55 per game last year. The Texans don’t get too much from their tight ends, but Jordan Akins (TE26 per game) could be a low-end TE2 option if Watson returns and Darren Fells is cut. Releasing the 35-year-old Fells would save $2.3 million.
Rushing Offense: The new coaching staff -- aside from OC Tim Kelly -- and the new front office have no allegiance to either running back. Duke Johnson ($5.2 million in cap savings) is somewhat unlikely to return on that salary, and David Johnson ($6.4 million) could be in a similar spot, although ownership would be admitting to a major mistake by cutting D.J. one year later. Last season, D.J. was the RB14 per game (15.9 PPR points) on RB15 fantasy usage. Those numbers would crash if Watson departs. The entire offensive line is set to return as long as fifth-year C Nick Martin ($6.3M cap savings) and iffy run-blocking RG Zach Fulton ($3.0M) survive cuts. Continuity is nice, but this is an offensive line that lacks talent on the interior. A lack of interior push led to the No. 32 rushing EPA offense. At least LT Laremy Tunsil and 2019 first-round project RT Tytus Howard are bookends at tackle.
4-3 Base Defense
% of Plays
Defensive Coordinator: Lovie Smith has been a Cover 2 coach forever, and that hasn’t changed. Per PFF, Illinois ran more Cover 2 than any college team in 2019, his last full season as a head coach. The Texans played Cover 3 zone at the fifth-highest rate last year (31.1%) and only ran Cover 2 man on 1.7% of their plays (31st), so the Texans are likely switching from single-high to two-high this offseason. Any change should be welcomed after the Texans Defense ranked 30th in passing EPA and 32nd in rushing EPA. There could be a lot of turnover in personnel, starting with J.J. Watt up front. He deserves to play for someone else.
Passing Defense: The Texans had one of the worst cornerback groups of 2020. CB1 Bradley Roby was decent but missed the last two months of the season due to a PED suspension. The 29-year-old will likely remain the top perimeter corner in 2021, but Houston will be looking to find upgrades at CB2 and slot corner with Vernon Hargreaves and Phillip Gaines limping into free agency. 2018 seventh-rounder Keion Crossen shouldn’t be starting, and fill-in slot CB Eric Murray was drafted to be a safety. At safety, the Texans have converted second-round CB Lonnie Johnson playing strong and 2018 third-rounder Justin Reed playing free. Johnson is a questionable fit at safety under Lovie Smith’s scheme if he's going to play 15-plus yards off the ball. Up front, the Texans are a disaster, particularly if J.J. Watt is traded as assumed. 30-year-old OLB Whitney Mercilus is coming off a career-worst 8.0-hurry season per PFF and 2020 third-rounder Jonathan Greenard had just three hurries on 112 pass rushes. Houston likely ranks near the bottom in sacks next year. They were 18th in sacks a season ago.
Rushing Defense: Houston sucked stopping the run in 2020. Last in rushing EPA. Last in rushing yards allowed. Last in yards per carry allowed. All this despite being in single-high looks more times than not. The primary reason they were so bad was their defensive tackles. Cut candidate NT Brandon Dunn, free agent DT Carlos Watkins, and 2019 fifth-rounder DT Charles Omenihu were near full-time players but played like backups. The fact that 2020 second-rounder DT Ross Blacklock was playing behind them is a very concerning sign. Texans LB Zach Cunningham cleaned up the mistakes of the defensive tackles, clearing 115 tackles for the second-straight season. His running mate, 2015 second-rounder Benardrick McKinney, only played four games due to shoulder surgery and is a cut candidate ($6.4 million in cap savings). Upgrades are needed all over the front seven. New DC Lovie Smith’s two-high looks won’t help the Texans’ chances of improving in run defense either.
Texans Team Needs
1. Edge Rusher(s) - The Texans should be open to trading J.J. Watt this offseason as they rebuild with a new front office. He will be 32 next season and is in the final year of his contract. Even if he sticks around, the Texans need to find more pass rush. Their second best edge rusher, Whitney Mercilus, will be 31. Houston was 32nd in adjusted sack rate in 2020.
2. Defensive Tackle(s) - The Texans interior defensive line was a total mess last season. 2020 second-round DT Ross Blacklock was brutal as a rookie, veteran NT Brandon Dunn couldn’t hold ground against the run, and 2019 fifth-rounder Charles Omenihu projects as a backup. The Texans’ No. 31 rushing EPA defense is multiple pieces away from average play. It’s a major project.
3. Offensive Guard - 30-year-old veteran RG Zach Fulton won’t be a part of the Texans’ rebuild with only one year left on his contract, and 2019 second-rounder Max Scharping hasn’t played well enough in his two seasons to know if he’ll be a long-term starter either. Protecting Deshaun Watson and fixing the Texans’ No. 32 rushing EPA offense should be priorities. The easiest way to find an upgrade is at guard.
4. Corner(s) - The Texans have one answer at corner (Bradley Roby) with needs at both CB2 and slot corner. Current CB2 Keion Crossen best projects as a backup and is only under contract for one more year. Houston was 30th in passing EPA defense last season, largely because they couldn’t hold up on the perimeter. The Texans will likely be switching from Cover 3 to Cover 2 under new DC Lovie Smith.
5. Outside Receiver - Brandin Cooks is under contract for three more seasons as long as his play holds up, but the Texans could lose Will Fuller to free agency. With Fuller sidelined late in 2020, Chad Hansen played over 2020 fifth-round project Isaiah Coulter. Neither are NFL starters. If Deshaun Watson wasn’t turning anything to gold, this position would be a higher priority. The most likely outcome is Fuller re-signing.
2021 Fantasy Football Rankings
Consider these my way-too-early 2021 fantasy football ranking ranges ahead of free agency and the 2021 NFL Draft, and here’s where each player ranked in PPR points, expected PPR points, and PPR points over expected last year.
Deshaun Watson (QB1) - Everything was working against Watson in 2020, yet he finished as the fantasy QB6 per game. He’ll be in the top-eight mix in just about any environment and could flirt with top-three numbers if he’s traded to the right team. The only risk with Watson is if he sat out games after the Texans refuse to trade him. If things are still up in the air after the 2021 NFL Draft, I'd begin worrying that he'd sit games.
FA Will Fuller (WR2/3) - The Houston Chronicle expects Fuller to re-sign after a true breakout season for the former first-round pick. Fuller was the WR8 per game (18.9 PPR points) on WR27 fantasy usage. Few are as efficient as Fuller, particularly in this vertical-based offense attached to Watson. Fuller will miss Week 1 due to suspension, but that shouldn’t affect his fantasy draft stock. If Watson and Fuller are back, Fuller is a fantasy WR2. I left him a tier below for now with things very much in the air.
David Johnson (RB2) - D.J. is another impossible projection this early into the offseason. Both D.J. ($6.4M cap savings) and Duke Johnson ($5.2M) are cut candidates, although Duke is far more likely to be let go. Assuming D.J. survives cuts, his fantasy stock will be dependent on Watson returning. He was the RB14 per game with Watson balling out last year, but he’d obviously struggle to retain even low-end RB2 value if a rookie or Sam Darnold-level quarterback is under center.
Brandin Cooks (WR3/4) - The Texans’ uncertainty with Watson and Fuller make projecting Cooks a challenge, especially because Cooks’ 2020 contract comes with $0 guaranteed. Last season, Cooks was the WR32 per game (13.7 PPR points) on WR36 fantasy usage. For as extensive as his injury history seems to be, Cooks has only missed 3-of-96 possible regular season games since 2015.
Jordan Akins (TE2/3) - The Texans are most likely to have Fuller, Cooks, and Randall Cobb back in three-receiver sets in 2021. That leaves Akins in the low-volume, touchdown-dependent role that led to a TE26 per game finish. He could slightly improve that ranking if 35-year-old Darren Fells is released ($2.3M cap savings), but he maxes out as a low-end TE2.
Keke Coutee (WR7) - The Texans are committed to Randall Cobb for one more year because he somehow has $8.25 million guaranteed as a 31-year-old. Classic Bill O’Brien. The veteran slot receiver will compete with 24-year-old Keke Coutee for the starting slot job this offseason. Hopefully Coutee comes out victorious after averaging 5.4-72-0.4 in five Cobb-less games to close out the 2020 season. Like everyone else, Cobb and Coutee’s fantasy stocks are completely tied to Watson staying in town.
Duke Johnson (RB6) - Johnson has no guaranteed money in 2021 and can be released to save $5.2 million against the cap. The new coaching staff and front office don’t have ties to Duke, making him a likely cut candidate. Often hyped, Johnson hasn’t eclipsed 850 total yards in three seasons and is coming off a career-low 4.6 yards per touch. He’ll be a 28-year-old pass-catching backup in 2021. No thanks.