Optimism Prospectus: Texans Offense

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I am pretty much incapable of optimism as an operating system when it comes to these Houston Texans. I don’t trust the leadership of the team. I don’t believe the David Culley CEO head coach plan is a good one, much as I am pulling for him to make it work. I don’t believe that any organization that would dig in around a failed culture because the owner is a big fan of the culture leader has a bright future.

But I want to express what I believe is a rational optimistic viewpoint for this team as a thought exercise. Not because I believe any of it will happen, but because the fanbase gets a little whiny if I don’t throw in a little sunshine every now and then. Well, these are my beliefs of how much things can change.

The offense
2020 DVOA: 13th (8th pass, 32nd run, second-easiest schedule in the NFL, 15.5 adjusted games lost — third-lowest)

If Deshaun Watson, for whatever reason, comes back, the ceiling of this offense is high enough to make the team a playoff contender and a tough out in the playoffs. He is simply that good. I don’t know that this is in anyway feasible at this point, and I am not trying to get anyone’s hopes up or handwave the allegations he’s dealing with away. He made an ascension into a top-five quarterback last season that nobody saw, despite playing in an offense that absolutely could not run the ball and, at times, playing with almost no receiver help. Because I don’t see him coming back, I’m going to leave this paragraph hanging here and move on. But because it would change literally everything about this team, the caveat has to come first.

Tyrod Taylor’s best years were spent with the Buffalo Bills, leading a run-first offense with a Hall of Very Good back to three consecutive above-average seasons. The 2015-2017 Bills finished fourth, first, and then 20th in run offense DVOA in a year that got Greg Roman fired mid-season. The pass offense DVOA declined precipitously after a ninth-place finish in 2015. Since moving on from Buffalo, he’s been a place-holder for young quarterbacks, keeping the Browns warm for Baker Mayfield and the Chargers job to mentor Justin Herbert for a few games.

The two major knocks against Taylor as a passer are his lack of deep strikes and his sack rate. Taylor threw 25% of his passes as “deep” or “bombs” per FO charting with the Bills in his first season, but fell to 22% in 2016 and a ghastly 16% in 2017. To be fair, that 2017 Bills team had no receivers of note — Kelvin Benjamin was just about done with his time in the league and their leading receiver by targets was rookie Zay Jones. (Note that this is not slandering Taylor’s deep ball so much as noting he doesn’t uncork it often.) The Bills had a decent-to-good offensive line over those three years led by Eric Wood, Cordy Glenn (and then Dion Dawkins), and Richie Incognito. Taylor never threw more than 436 attempts in a season and was sacked at least 36 times in all three years. He took two sacks in his one start last year and 13 in three starts with the Browns. He’s going to take sacks.

What you want to get from Taylor is value in the running game — the read-option doesn’t quite have the same veneer of newness today as it did in 2012 or 2015 when Roman began using it extensively, but teams still generate a lot of value from it. Taylor had only three designed rushes with the Chargers last year and they generated a total of one yard, and he had only 22 yards on six designed runs with the Browns in 2018. Taylor is still a good athlete for a quarterback and it wouldn’t surprise me if the Texans took a page out of the Ravens notebook, however we’ve heard little from the players or the staff that would confirm that they’re doing this. At his best, Taylor was providing roughly 90 carries of 5.4 YPC to the offense every year in Buffalo. That is his major upside, provided he hasn’t lost a step.

Ryan Finley realistically needed to hit the ground running in his chances without Andy Dalton in Cincinnati and didn’t. He’s been a disaster in his 119 NFL pass attempts so far. No reason to wishcast a bunch of improvement on him or pretend he’s the quarterback of the future. He could be an adequate backup, but the list of quarterbacks drafted outside the top two rounds who go to a new place and suddenly thrive is short.

The Texans don’t have a Shady McCoy in their backfield rotation. I think the majority of David Johnson’s “breakout” at the end of last season was a fluke. His two biggest catches came on busted plays with Watson creating late in the down, his biggest runs were big holes caused by the re-insertion of Roderick Johnson.

If there’s a spot to be optimistic with Johnson it’s that the offense last year didn’t really provide him much space as a pass-catcher and there’s nobody in the backfield currently who should threaten his role there. But it’s not like Tim Kelly got him involved suddenly after O’Brien was deposed, and that’s a little bit of a concern to me. Dumpoffs are a more reasonable request for him, and I think that’s something that quarterbacks both control and that Taylor has a lot of history with. McCoy got 50 targets a year and led the team in targets in 2017. I could see a rise for Johnson along those same lines if he keeps the job.

If we’re being optimistic, I think the best-case scenario for the Texans is that Phillip Lindsay takes control of the job at some point in the first four weeks of the season. He’s the back with the most recent success — back-to-back 1000 yard seasons to start his career before a down 2020 as Melvin Gordon’s backup. I think the ideal distribution of roles is probably something like Johnson third-down back, Ingram goal-line back, Lindsay lead back. Well, I am actually not sure if Ingram has the juice to do goal-line stuff anymore, but I assume he’s going to get carries somewhere.

Brandin Cooks rebounded from his down 2019 in 2020 and then demanded to stay, so the Texans re-worked his deal. It still wasn’t quite the dominant aerial show of 2016-2018, but I think a lot of that was locked away by the offense being terrible at play-action. Only 26% of Cooks’ targets in 2020 qualified as “deep” or “bomb.” In 2018, it was 32%, and in 2017, it was 43%(!). However, going from Watson to Taylor probably hurts his chances of getting deep looks in a vacuum. One of the sneaky secrets of last year’s Texans offense is that there wasn’t much to “but they weren’t healthy!” about and Cooks playing 15 games certainly qualifies. Cooks was targeted 120 times last year and the most common route was a curl — but he was only targeted eleven times in the red zone, and four of those were against the Titans in the Week 17 finale. Cooks lacks the physicality to be a plus-plus player there or to handle the RPOs that went to Will Fuller last season. To me, he’s a good No. 2 receiver who will be stretched as a No. 1.

Unfortunately, without Hopkins, that tough interior player may not be on the Texans roster right now. Chris Conley was signed in free agency to give a bigger body and may wind up starting outside, but he had just six red zone targets all of last season and only one of them was completed for positive yards. He also had just eight red zone targets in 2019 — and six of them happened after Week 15 with the Jaguars basically eliminated. He did at least show a little more physicality inside on slants, catching six of the eight of them for four first downs in 2020 — that just wasn’t part of the package in the red zone for the Jaguars.

Randall Cobb and Keke Coutee sort of replicate each other as inside receivers. Five of Cobb’s 48 targets came as an outside receiver. Four of Coutee’s 40 targets came as an outside receiver. Coutee has the juice that I think Cobb has lost at this point, but Cobb has the surer hands and is less disaster-prone. It’s hard to tell the guy you signed to a big money contract last year that he’s not good enough to start, but I think a Coutee breakout is probably one of the only real chances this team has to improve on last year. Cobb is going to give you 50-70 catch-and-fall-downs.

At tight end, the Texans enter the last season of Jordan Akins’ rookie deal with no real idea of what he can be. Akins is 29 already, and Jack Easterby was lauded by John McClain for not trading him at the deadline for … some reason?

Akins has demonstrated the ability to be a No. 1 move tight end for a few years now, but seems to always get hurt or otherwise left behind whenever that chance should be occurring. After Will Fuller got suspended prior to Week 13, it was my supposition that Akins would grow into an enhanced target role. Instead he got just three total targets in Week 13, and wound up with just 21 total targets over the last six weeks of the season. To put that in perspective, Chad Hansen had 14 combined targets in Weeks 13 and 14 alone. I’m a big fan of the ability that Akins has, but it seems like the offense has a hard time getting to him as a read. Regardless, along with Coutee, this is one player who has a chance to breakout.

Pharaoh Brown was the best Texans tight end last year and, frankly, the only one who had any prayer at blocking anybody. I can see a lot of 12-personnel in this offense’s future given their likely reliance on running the ball. I don’t think there’s like, untapped potential here. What they saw last year was a jolt and they should be hoping they get to see it again this year. Kahale Warring is on the roster but the list of guys who come from doing almost nothing their first two seasons to being a major contributor in year three is so small that I can barely take his presence seriously. I also wouldn’t be surprised if he was cut, because he’s going up against Not My Guys! syndrome from Nick Caserio.

The offensive line is one area where the Texans should definitely improve next year after their firing of the disastrous Mike Devlin, who often seemed to be speaking a different language when interviewed. The media hasn’t gotten a real chance to speak to James Campen yet, but this is an addition-by-subtraction move to me.

The interior line did not play well last year. Zach Fulton and Nick Martin are gone, while Max Scharping will no longer be carrot-and-sticked by idiots.

The biggest thing this offense can do is to create a line that is worthy of the investment that has been spent here — Laremy Tunsil’s huge amount of picks, the first on Tytus Howard, the second on Scharping, and additionally now a trade for Marcus Cannon and his big cap hit. I don’t know exactly how the Texans will suss it out, but my best guess is that they will put Cannon at right guard. Outside of Tunsil, nobody on this line has played a lights-out 16 games yet — and even Tunsil has had a rough game or two. We’ve seen plenty of flashes from Howard. But this unit needs consistency in a big way in 2021, and Howard’s pass protection is going to be even more amplified in terms of importance with Taylor in the pocket.

Summing it up

Obviously without Watson (or some sort of trade that looks more unlikely by the day) there’s no way this pass offense is going to crack the top 10 in DVOA again. I think it would be overly optimistic to believe it will crack the top 20. I’d be more down at about 22-23 myself as an optimist’s point of view. Taylor is limited, the receiving corps has red zone limitations, and Will Fuller is a bigger loss than people are giving him credit for. I think the best-case scenario is, kind of like Bill O’Brien’s rookie season as head coach, the team is able to grind enough yards on the ground to make that irrelevant. Maybe not a top five season because of the lack of tackle-breaking talent and elusiveness involved, but I could see a read-option and offensive line-influenced, I dunno, 3% DVOA? Something along those lines. Something near the bottom of the top 10 that runs a lot of clock.

I know the roster isn’t full yet, I know the rookies haven’t been drafted yet. I think there’s some hope inherent to that that I’m pricing in (better receiver, more dynamic back, highly-drafted center). But it’s hard to see an optimistic upside for this offense, as currently constructed, as more than a top-20 unit without Watson. I think that relies heavily on Taylor being up to the task of 16 games started with his 20s athleticism, as well, which I’m not at all about to bank on. It’s a really old unit on paper and if their defensive schedule gets harder that’s also not great news.

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