The final whistle of the Super Bowl marks the end of the 2021 season. That solidifies all draft positions and gets us looking to free agency as the next chance for teams to make significant changes to their rosters. In this series, I’ll break down the needs and goals of every team as it relates to the 2022 offseason. Included will be cap space, cut candidates, positions of need, and plenty of other useful stats and notes as we prepare for free agency and the 2022 NFL Draft. Special thanks to Over the Cap, Pro Football Reference, Pro Football Focus, and Ben Baldwin’s RBSDM.com for all of the useful stats they track and house.
Texans 2021 Recap
The 2021 season will always be remembered as “the one that Deshaun Watson had to be healthy scratched every week” as far as Houston fans are concerned. The ongoing legal situation plus Watson’s trade request underscored a dysfunctional product on the field. Houston opened the year with Tyrod Taylor under center but he quickly gave way to rookie Davis Mills, who was predictably terrible early in the year. The Texans were also only able to find consistent production from one of their skill players, Brandin Cooks. For the offense, a ray of hope did shine through near the end of the year as Mills began to acclimate to the NFL’s speed. Playing more comfortably, Mills closed out the season with nine touchdowns and two interceptions in his final five appearances. Watson’s situation will ultimately determine the fate of the team but having Mills on a rookie deal as a backstop eases the pain slightly. Without Watson to bail out Houston’s atrocious defense, first-year head coach David Culley only managed to find two wins over teams not based in Jacksonville. He was fired at the end of the year.
Key Offensive Stats
- Points per game: 16.5 (30th)
- Dropback EPA: -.09 (30th)
- Passing yards per game: 194 (28th)
- Rush EPA: -.21 (32nd)
- Rushing yards per game: 84 (32nd)
The Texans have so few players who project as long-term starters on their roster that the conversation begins and ends with Mills. The Stanford product was brought in as an incomplete player with a limited body of work during his collegiate days. Though he looked as bad as that sounds early in the year, Mills deserves plenty of credit for getting his feet under him in the closing month of his debut campaign. From Week 14 onward, Pro Football Focus graded Mills as the QB21 by passing grade. He also posted the 12th-highest yards per attempt and Big Time Throw rate over that span. The rookie’s quick turnaround may have been enough to earn him a year as the team’s full-time starter. Houston’s running game was so weak that Rex Burkhead was able to rumble for 3.5 yards per carry and still lead the team with 427 rushing yards. He took over as the starter once Mark Ingram was traded and Phillip Lindsay was waived. With nearly all of his production coming down the stretch, Houston rewarded Burkhead with a one-year contract extension.
Key Defensive Stats
- Points per game: 26.6 (27th)
- Dropback EPA: .16 (25th)
- Passing yards per game: 245 (24th)
- Rush EPA: -.03 (24th)
- Rushing yards per game: 142 (31st)
Not to be outdone by the offense, the defense in Houston was similarly dreadful. Houston didn’t field a single Pro Bowler on defense (or offense), though defensive end Jonathan Greenard did notch eight sacks in 12 games. Had a foot injury not cost him a handful of weeks, he could have been Houston’s lone representative at the Pro Bowl in Las Vegas. Slot corner Tavierre Thomas was also a bright spot, notching two interceptions while allowing just 5.2 yards per target. Beyond those two players, PFF didn’t grade any Houston defender as a top-40 player at their position.
Texans 2022 Offseason
Total Draft Value
Notable Free Agents
QB Tyrod Taylor, RB David Johnson, S Justin Reid, CB Desmond King, LB Christian Kirksey, DT Maliek Collins, C Justin Britt, WR Danny Amendola, OT Geron Christian, DT Vincent Taylor, LB Kamu Grugier-Hill
S Eric Murray ($5.5 million), RT Marcus Cannon ($5.2 million in savings), OLB Kevin Pierre-Louis ($3.1 million), K Ka'imi Fairbairn ($2.8 million)
Notes: Houston's total draft value is the sum of the value of every pick they own using the Fitzgerald-Spielberger NFL Draft Trade Value Chart. The values are only estimates until the NFL announces compensatory picks. Cap savings are listed assuming the player is cut before June 1st.
The Texans only rank 16th in cap space heading into the 2022 season but they have plenty of ways to free up more money. Many of the players who are holdovers from the Bill O'Brien regime are now able to be cut with little or no dead money left on their deals. Parting ways with the four players listed above would jump Houston into the top-10 in available cap space this year. Unlike some of the other teams embarking on a rebuild, Houston doesn't have a stockpile of extra draft picks to their name, earning them a lower total draft value.
The Texans run a base 4-3 defense and are losing all three of their starting linebackers to free agency. Of course, they can bring any number of the three back on new contracts. However, the trio combined for 20 TFLs, three sacks, and 11 passes defended. The only reason to bring any of them back will be for depth and experience on the team. None of the three are in-line for starting gigs beyond one more year so some young blood amongst the group is still necessary.
PFF ranked both of the Texans’ starting outside corners outside of the top 100 and King, who played the most coverage snaps among Houston’s cornerbacks, is about to be a free agent. A pipeline of developing talent is also missing from Houston’s roster as they have spent one Day 1 or Day 2 draft pick on a cornerback in the past five years. Even if the Texans use their top picks on other positions, they could do a lot for their secondary by taking a quantity approach to address the unit.
The entire interior of Houston’s offensive line could use a boost. Neither guard inspires much confidence while their center is a free agent. Britt is a candidate to be brought back in free agency but he has never swung to guard so he doesn’t bring much versatility to the table. Mills might not be the answer at quarterback but the only way to find out is by giving him a clean pocket to work from.
The Texans ousted Culley after one year and hired Lovie Smith, their defensive coordinator and assistant head coach, to replace him. Smith joined the team a year ago after Illinois fired him. He went 17-39 as the head coach of the Illini. It’s difficult to parse out how much of an impact Culley had on the defense. They went from a 3-4 base to a 4-3 in the offseason, leaning on the Tampa 2 scheme that has become commonplace in the league. This switch ultimately resulted in the release of Zach Cunningham, who didn’t fit Lovie’s system a year after he led the league in tackles. On the other hand, the Texans went from allowing 29 points per game in 2020 to 26.6 points per game last year. This improvement came without any large investments on the defensive side of the ball through free agency or the draft. If Houston boosts the floor of their linebacker and cornerback talent, Culley’s defense can creep toward being league-average.
The offense shouldn’t change drastically despite switching out Tim Kelly for Pep Hamilton at offensive coordinator. His biggest project will be the continued development of Mills. Hamilton has a history of working with prolific quarterbacks. He followed Andrew Luck from Stanford to Indianapolis and would also go on to be the quarterbacks coach for Justin Herbert as a rookie. Mills was scouted as a pocket passer who sometimes experienced lapses in judgment and missed easy throws despite having the arm to complete passes at all levels. All of those flaws were on display as a rookie but they are also things a sound coach can work with him on. That will be Hamilton’s priority this year.
The Texans need more pieces than they can afford to be a playoff contender in 2022. The first step toward getting back to the postseason is to get the Watson dilemma over with. However, much of that is out of their hands. All they can do is find a trade partner once/if Watson’s legal situation is resolved. After that, they can stand to ignore quarterback for a year. Mills has some potential and the team isn’t an effective rookie quarterback away from competing. If Mills can overcome his lackluster situation, he’ll have earned another year as a starter and his team will have the resources to improve his weaponry. If he fails to progress in 2022, the Texans will be able to move on with him from ease, knowing it didn’t cost them much to try him out in the first place
Avoiding adding a quarterback also gives them the optionality to trade back in the draft. With Houston needing new starters at most positions, the more ammunition they acquire the better. If that comes at the expense of a flashy name at the top of the draft, so be it. Houston needs to play the long game this offseason if they want to become a true threat in the AFC within the next few years.