Monday, December 14, 2015

Houston Texans: Still unable to solve the Patriots riddle.

In the end, the result of Sunday Night's NFL tie between the Houston Texans and the New England Patriots was deja vu all over again.

New England 27 Houston 6

In reality, the final score was closer than the actual game.  Appearances to the contrary the Texans defense did put up some fight, especially in the 3rd quarter, but the anemic offense was unable to score against a banged-up Patriots defense who was doing it with coaching, and street free-agent pickups.

The link above directs you to John McClain's "grades" for the Texans in last night's game. I do so because his analysis of the Texans is either too negative, or too positive depending on the outcome, and is one of the funnier post-game reads in Houston.

All of the above said, for people who are clamoring for the Texans to draft a "franchise quarterback" (as true as that need is) there are other positional needs on this team which, left unaddressed, are going to limit the team's ability to ever seriously contend for a playoff spot.

That said, let's take a look at the positions of need for the Texans in order of importance:

Quarterback: This is, and has been for a while, a critical area of need. While it's very easy to say that the team "needs a top-line quarterback" actually finding one is difficult. The chalk money has the Texans trying to get Penn State signal-caller Christian Hackenberg with the first pick in the 2016 NFL Draft.

Hackenberg was an O'Brien signal caller during his time at Penn State is considered to be "NFL ready" because he played in a pro-style offense in College.  He has a strong arm and Scouts say he "can make all of the throws" which are viewed as positives.  There are questions regarding his pocket presence and decision making abilities, which I believe are more critical factors in a QB's ability to make the leap from College to the NFL.  Other candidates include Cal signal caller Goff (who comes from an Air Raid offense [huge negative]) and Memphis QB Paxton Lynch (questions about his durability and just how good he really is) One dark horse candidate could be Michigan State's Connor Cook, he appears to be a game-manager type but he does have a strong arm and a history of winning. The problem is he's about as mobile as a glacier and will struggle behind the Texans O-line.

The fact is that the 2016 Draft Class at Quarterback might not have the top-tier franchise QB that the Texans need so desperately.

Offensive Line: Not only is this a huge need, but it's a critical one for the development of a quarterback as well. Ben Jones seems to be OK at Center, and Duane Brown is a capable, Pro Bowl caliber, Left tackle. At the two guard positions and at Right Tackle however the Texans are incredibly weak.  Xavier Sua-Filo and Derrick Newton are going to get a quarterback killed. Last night Newton was especially weak, and his week ahead is unlikely to be pleasant.

Fortunately, this is projected to be a strong hear for both Offensive Tackles and, to a lesser extent, guards. If the Texans do as expected and draft QB in round 1 then both rounds 2 & 3 need to be spent finding quality starters who can provide the new "face of the franchise" with a clean pocket.

Tight Ends: The O'Brien offense, which is really a carbon-copy of the Belicheck offense, needs three things to run successfully, a quarterback with a quick release, accuracy and superior decision making, an O-line that keeps him clean, and tight ends who can block, and who provide match-up nightmares for opposing defenses.  The Patriots have Gronkowski, who I believe is the best TE in the game today, while the Texans have, nothing. Looking forward to the draft the pickings are slim. But I think that either Jarell Adams or David Morgan II could be viable 4th round options if available. 

It might not hurt the team to look at the FA market as well, to find some depth at a position that requires it.

Linebacker: Aside from Jadeveon Clowney this is a position of need. While Whitney Mercilus is playing well, he will be a FA at the end of the year and will probably take the money and run.  Brian Cushing is a shell of his former self and Benardrick McKinney was exposed as lacking strength last night as he was repeatedly ran-over by "just guys" running backs.

Sadly, the linebacker class of 2016 is incredibly weak. And the Texans have a host of needs on the offensive side that they have to address before looking to defense. James Burgess of Louisville or Joe Schmidt of Notre Dame might be late-round fliers who could pay off in the short-term.

Other: There are more needs, depth at CB, new starters at S, depth on the DL, a replacement for suddenly old-looking Vince Wilfork at NT but the team only has so many draft picks to use. I've said before that, although it seems unthinkable, a JJ Watt trade for a bushel-basket of draft picks could be the only way to fix this mess quickly. There is also the possibility that the Texans could take advantage of the free agent market, but that assumes that the teams biggest need of all gets addressed:

General Manager: It's pretty clear that something within the Texans' player evaluation model is off-kilter. The team has too many busts in the 2nd-5th rounds to truly be competitive. While they can claim first round successes, it's the next four rounds where teams are built, where depth is established, and where starters can be had for cheap.

In order to proceed the Texans need to reassign current GM Rick Smith to a ceremonial role and turn over player evaluation to someone new. It needs to happen sooner, rather than later, to allow the new man a chance to evaluate the team in advance of the upcoming draft.

Conclusion: The worst possible thing for this Texans team might be sneaking into the playoffs at either 9-7 or 8-8, or even (unlikely) 7-9. That would delay the beginning of an inevitable review of what's needed and convince part of the fan base that the current plan is working.

Unfortunately, the Texans are a member of the worst division in the NFL, the lowly AFC South. Currently they are in 2nd place behind an Indianapolis team who just surrendered 51 points to Jacksonville.  The Colts lead the division at 6-7, the same record as the Texans but with a win in Houston breaking the tie. The Jaguars are one game back at 5-8 (Houston would have the tie-breaker over Jacksonville right now). Going forward, Indianapolis is a disaster, Houston struggles to score points, and the once-lowly Jaguars appear to be the team with the inside path to the playoffs.  Jacksonville gets the free-falling Atlanta Falcons next, followed by the not-very good New Orleans Saints, and then finishes the season in Houston.  The Texans have to travel to Indianapolis (where they've never won) then to Tennessee (where they struggle) before finishing the season at home against the same Jaguars. The Colts have the most favorable schedule (Texans at home, at Miami, Titans at home) but are such a dumpster fire right now it's not hard to envision them going 1-2 over the closing stretch.

At this point, my favorite in the division to make the playoffs is Jacksonville. As crazy as it sounds I think the season-ending game in Houston will be a de-facto playoff game for the division title at 8-8.

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