WELCOME BACK: DESHAUN WATSON. It's hard to imagine a rookie QB and a coach synching as quickly as Watson and BILL O'BRIEN did last year. O'Brien shrewdly replaced many of the complex option routes from his playbook with misdirection concepts that highlighted Watson's mobility. Watson, in turn, committed more each week to playing from the pocket—which is essential for long-term NFL success. Watson does not have a cannon, but he compensates with decisiveness; he's also comfortable making throws on the move and outside the pocket. The only concern is Watson's appetite for risk. In seven games he threw eight interceptions, and he could have easily had 14.
Having speedy receivers such as WILL FULLER (who missed six games last season with a broken collarbone and cracked ribs) and fourth-round rookie KEKE COUTEE can change Watson's world. Not only are more downfield throws available, but also safeties won't be able to focus as much on DEANDRE HOPKINS, football's most befuddling star receiver. He's not especially fast, quick, big or refined, and yet his production is almost unmatched. No one is better at making contested catches.
After losing WHITNEY MERCILUS and J.J. WATT to injury in Week 5 last year, Houston allowed a league-worst 29.0 points per game from that point on. Without them, the Texans couldn't maximize the versatility of their trademark diamond front, in which five players set up across the line, dictating one-on-one matchups. Mercilus should be ready to go after coming off a torn left pec. Watt, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year, is more of a question, having missed most of 2017 with a tibial plateau fracture in his left leg, and 13 games in '16 with a back injury.
Creative pass rush designs are key to getting the most out of JADEVEON CLOWNEY. Though perhaps the game's most destructive run defender, he does not have the flexibility to consistently bend around the edge when going after the quarterback. His deceptive, herky-jerky movement can still generate outside pressure, but he's most dangerous inside, where he relies on upfield burst.
2017 RECORD 4W 12L
SI'S 2018 PREDICTION 9W 7L
25th DOLPHINS [Thursday]
26th TITANS [Monday]
15th @JETS [Saturday]
UNLESS HE made huge strides over the summer, JULIE'N DAVENPORT, a 2017 fourth-round pick, is not ready to start at left tackle. The other four spots aren't in great shape either, meaning backs and tight ends will have to stay in to block.