This article is part of our Team Previews series.
The Texans tasted the postseason twice in three seasons with a string of lesser lights directing the offense. An elite defense has overcome offensive shortcomings, but that unit lost some key personnel. The offense will rely heavily on the running game until a better playmaker at QB develops.
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
QB SITUATION REMAINS UNSETTLED
The shiny new signal-caller with upside versus the unexciting but safe returning option is an age-old football storyline that will play itself out one more time in Houston. Deshaun Watson or Tom Savage? The Texans find themselves in a weird spot for a second straight season – a playoff-contending team lacking an established quarterback. Having been stung last year by an investment in free agent Brock Osweiler, the team is heading in another direction in 2017. Savage was named the starting quarterback on draft weekend and it's an entirely defensible football decision. The modestly-compensated 27-year-old with the equally modest expectations has been in town as long as coach Bill O'Brien. Savage knows the offense and brings continuity. But as we look back on 2016, his greatest asset was not being Osweiler. Savage made fewer mistakes, but the Texans didn't move the ball any better under his direction. In Watson, the Texans get an athletic QB with off-the-charts leadership skills. Like Osweiler, there'll be a learning curve with a new team. And unlike Osweiler, Watson has to adjust from a college shotgun offense to a pro-style scheme. If Houston experiences the same scoring troubles it did last season, the urge will be strong to put the rookie in. With a good running game and elite defense in place, Watson could survive in the NFL.
MILLER IN NEED OF BACKUP
When the Texans signed Lamar Miller to be their lead back, questions about his durability were a popular reaction. At the time, the four-year veteran had logged just two games with at least 20 carries during his tenure with the Dolphins, who never viewed him as a workhorse back. Early on last season, Miller appeared to put those concerns to rest. He had 106 touches through the first four games, a pace of 26.5 per contest. As a runner and receiver, he helped hide the team's quarterbacking problems, but the Texans eventually realized the heavy workload, particularly early in the season, was too much for the 5-10, 220-pound Miller, leading to him wearing down. At the NFL Combine back in March, coach Bill O'Brien relayed his goal to cut down on Miller's usage early in the year to keep his top ballcarrier at optimum levels for January. With an unproven quarterback at the helm, the Texans are expected to rely heavily on their ground attack, and after three seasons they've learned that Alfred Blue, while competent, is not much of a playmaker. With that buildup, it makes perfect sense that Houston selected D'Onta Foreman in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft. At 6-1, 249 pounds, Foreman gives the Texans' backfield added size and a true power back who can break tackles and balances the backfield.
CHANGE AT OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR
More on Houston's offense? It's appropriate given it ranked tied for 28th in scoring in 2016. The Texans tied for last in offensive touchdowns and scored more than two TDs on offense only twice in 18 games. The offense was frequently bogged down in the red zone, which led to 41 field-goal attempts. Much of the blame was directed at QB Brock Osweiler, but play calling became an issue. Coach Bill O'Brien took over the duties from offensive coordinator George Godsey after an embarrassing Week 3 loss to New England, though Godsey still had some input. The offensive performance never improved, and it cost Godsey his job. The organization didn't hire a new offensive coordinator, so O'Brien will call plays in 2017. Last season notwithstanding, he had some success in that role in 2014, when Houston ranked 14th in scoring offense. Since then under Godsey, the offense dropped to 21st in 2015 before last season's fall to the bottom five. O'Brien feels if he's going to fail, it will be by his own doing. Improvement is necessary, but he'll have an inexperienced signal-caller and wants to curb Lamar Miller's usage. In O'Brien's perfect world, Tom Savage is a game manager who doesn't make mistakes, third-round draft pick D'Onta Foreman becomes a productive complement to Miller and the defense wins the field-position battle.
PIVOTAL PLAYER: Tom Savage
Draft night cleared up Savage's status. The Texans' selection of Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson in the first round (12th overall) means Savage is not Houston's long-term answer at the position. Coach Bill O'Brien made it clear that Savage is the team's starter entering offseason workouts, but the signal-caller will be looking over his shoulder.
RISING: C.J. Fiedorowicz
Tom Savage is slated to open the season as the team's starting quarterback, so expect an emphasis on passes in the short-to-medium range. That's an area where tight ends like Fiedorowicz typically thrive.
FALLING: Will Fuller
While Fuller may develop into a top receiver over time, we don't expect big things in 2017. There won't be much field-stretching to the passing attack, and he needs to get stronger to be more effective against NFL cornerbacks.
SLEEPER: D'Onta Foreman
The Texans finished next to last in the NFL in touchdown percentage in the red zone. Some of that was due to quarterback play, but a big back like Foreman could be a weapon in situations where yards are hard to come by.
KEY JOB BATTLE – QB COMPETITION
Coach Bill O'Brien has been emphatic that Tom Savage is Houston's No.1 quarterback. That was the state of the quarterback job on draft night when the Texans selected Deshaun Watson in the first round (12th overall), that was the state coming out of May's organized team activities, and that's the state heading into training camp. We believe O'Brien means that, but we're also aware that Savage's track record is minimal, and his results as a starter late last season weren't much better than the beleaguered Brock Osweiler. The coach was quite vocal during the offseason, marveling Watson's poise and at how quickly he's picked up the offense. As the rookie gains experience in training camp and preseason game action, Watson will be more ready to fill in for Savage.
Deshaun Watson – QB (Rd. 1, No. 12 – Clemson)
Houston's QB of the future, but expected to ease into the role gradually.
ZACH CUNNINGHAM – LB (Rd. 2, No. 57 – Vanderbilt)
The organization does well drafting linebackers.
Brock Osweiler – QB (to Browns)
Addition by subtraction, as the signal-caller was a high-profile bust.
A.J. BOUYE – CB (to Jaguars)
Parlayed his breakout campaign into a lucrative deal with Jacksonville.
JOHN SIMON – LB (to Colts)
Improved play allowed Jadeveon Clowney to become a disruptive end.
QUINTIN DEMPS – S (to Bears)
Texans lose their 2016 interception leader.
VINCE WILFORK – DT (FA)
The five-time Pro Bowl nose tackle may end up retiring.
THE INJURY FRONT
Jadeveon Clowney, DE – Clowney finished last season with wrist and elbow injuries then skipped the Pro Bowl to undergo arthroscopic knee surgery. He then dinged his ankle and missed some offseason activity. The fourth-year defensive end/linebacker is healthy heading into training camp.
J.J. Watt, DE – Watt rushed back from back surgery in July 2016 and played the first two games of the regular season before being placed on season-ending injured reserve to have a second back surgery. Taking 10 months of recovery, instead of two, Watt's ready to play football again.
Brian Cushing, ILB – Cushing added January 2017 shoulder surgery to his already extensive injury résumé. He missed some offseason activity while recovering from the most recent surgery, and it's likely the team will be patient with him early in camp.