To all that new talent: assimilate ASAP
Training camp in Houston in early August is brutal—the humidity, the unrelenting sun, the screaming of coach Bill O'Brien. It isn't for the faint of heart. Neither is the task of rapidly developing cohesion while learning a complicated scheme, which is what O'Brien's offensive unit must do if the Texans hope to win back-to-back division titles for the second time in franchise history.
O'Brien and coordinator George Godsey acknowledge that this is a daunting challenge, especially because Houston's system requires players to make adjustments after the snap. But they decided that a major overhaul was needed after a 2015 season in which the offense plodded to 339 points (tied for 21st in the NFL), 5,564 total yards (19th) and 4.9 yards per play (tied for 31st).
Change began at quarterback, where, after cycling through four starters last year, the Texans signed Brock Osweiler to a $72 million contract despite his having only seven career starts with the Broncos. At receiver the Texans drafted Will Fuller (first round, Notre Dame) and Braxton Miller (third round, Ohio State). Another rookie, running back Tyler Ervin (fourth round, San Jose State), will be asked to create a threat out of the backfield.
While the Texans have receiver Jaelen Strong, a 2015 third-round pick, and veteran Cecil Shorts making plays in practice, they are hoping that Fuller and Miller develop quickly. In training camp the speedy Fuller was catching the ball consistently (his hands were questioned before the draft), and Miller, the two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year at quarterback, was looking like a natural receiver, despite having switched to the position only in his final year in Columbus.
But Houston's system, which is basically the same as the Patriots', is tough for first-year players. Receivers not only have to know where to line up but how to adjust their routes on the go. There's a reason that New England's rookie receivers rarely make meaningful contributions. Godsey, though, says of his new class, "It's not easy, but so far they're ahead of where we thought they'd be."
The Texans' running scheme, while simpler, will be working in new personnel also. Gone is Arian Foster, who missed 23 games in his final three seasons, and taking his place is free-agent signee Lamar Miller, who can run between the tackles but has quickness to beat defenders to the edge. Miller went over 1,000 yards two years ago while averaging 5.1 per carry with the Dolphins. If Houston can complement Miller with a speedy back in passing situations, whether that's Ervin or returning second-year player Akeem Hunt, that will spread opposing defenses even more.
To help the ground game, the Texans also fortified their offensive line. Second-round pick Nick Martin looks ready enough to replace departed center Ben Jones for Week 1. "He's as impressive an offensive line rookie as I've ever been around," says O'Brien. Former Chiefs right guard Jeff Allen is expected to bring consistent toughness, and center/guard Tony Bergstrom, signed from the Raiders, will upgrade the depth.
Nearly everyone is back from a defense that after a slow start allowed 10 points or fewer in six of its final nine games and finished third in yards allowed (310.2). "That unit should be even better with the new wrinkles [defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel] has put in," says Godsey. "We know that the offense is going to have to do better, and all these [off-season] changes were made with that in mind. Now we have to get it done."
TAKE THIS GUY AWAY AND THE OFFENSE CRUMBLES
When the Saints visited Houston last November, they did something unusual: They often double-teamed receiver DeAndre Hopkins with their free safety. That left the middle of the field open and every other defender in one-on-one coverage. The strategy was not only a testament to Hopkins's productivity—his 1,521 receiving yards in 2015 were third best in the NFL—but also a reflection of the Texans' scarcity of other pass-catching threats.
This is why Houston spent high draft picks this spring on two speedy receivers, Will Fuller and Braxton Miller. Their presence should benefit Hopkins. While he is great at tracking balls and making contested catches, he lacks great speed and is not always a reliable route runner. Receivers who can stretch and spread the field will create more operating room and more margin for error for the fourth-year pro as he learns the game's nuances.
SI's 2016 Prediction: 8--8
2015 Record: 9--7
SEPT. 11 vs.CHI [PREDICTED WINNER]
SEPT. 18 vsKC
SEPT. 22 atNE
OCT. 2 vs.TEN [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 9 atMIN
OCT. 16 vs.IND
OCT. 24 atDEN
OCT. 30 vs.DET [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 13 atJAX [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 21 atOAK [PREDICTED WINNER]
MON., MEXICO CITY
NOV. 27 vs.SD [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 4 atGB
DEC. 11 atIND
DEC. 18 vs.JAX
DEC. 24 vs.CIN [PREDICTED WINNER]
JAN 1 atTEN [PREDICTED WINNER]
= PREDICTED WINNER