As per last year, I’ll be sharing projections for every team in the NFL. I use past production in specific roles for each team’s scheme to work out realistic production profiles. You can see how accurate I was in 2017 in my IDP Projection Marking series.
It seems a lifetime ago but in 2016 the Texans were the best defense in football. Even without J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus were causing havoc whilst Kevin Johnson and Benardrick McKinney looked like prototype players for a modern NFL.
Oh, how times change.
In 2017, they were a pale shadow of that glorious season and struggled to get off the field. There was a nominal change in defensive coordinator as Romeo Crennel made way for Mike Vrabel to be the top dog, but in reality, they were both still there and not much changed. It’s just a reminder that team defense is often not consistent across seasons and can lurch dramatically.
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There are many things to admire about the Texans defensive scheme under Crennel but the productivity at nose tackle is not one of them. He runs a scheme that’s much more similar to the old Patriots’ 3-4 scheme built around Vince Wilfork than the one you see these days in New England. D.J. Reader should start the season as the top man here but he’s not a player you should be targeting – or in fact, rostering. This projection assumes a rotation but even if Reader (or someone else) secures the job full time and remains fit, it’s not likely to be very valuable in IDP terms.
J.J. Watt is obviously the headline here and his numbers will hopefully cheer those people who’ve held on to him all this time. He’s older and more banged up than he’s ever been before but for several years Watt was the best defensive player in the NFL and by far the most valuable IDP in the game. If he can get anywhere near those old peaks he’ll still be a top end. 11 sacks don’t seem exciting compared to his old floor of 15 but it would still represent an elite year rushing the passer.
Benardrick McKinney has two things going for him in the IDP world: a cool, memorable name, and dreads. Both of these things combine to mean he’s overvalued against how he actually delivers. He had one good season back in 2016 but that was the year Watt missed. It was very much an outlier and in 2017, McKinney recorded 17 fewer solos and 17 fewer assists as he disappointed most of his owners (whilst playing more snaps year-on-year).
Zach Cunningham is probably a more orthodox player and certainly better in coverage (increasingly the key part of a linebacker’s game). He came on excellently as a rookie and goes into this year with a settled role. The problem he has is that Crennel has not produced a valuable second linebacker in recent memory. Only once in the last four seasons has the number two LB even managed 40 solo tackles. Solos in the high 50s tend to be the minimum requirement to even be a top 48 LB. Cunningham will need to buck the trend to provide a return on investment.
First, let’s get this out of the way: although Jadeveon Clowney does play both linebacker and defensive end, he’s consistently been an LB more when Watt has been fit and in the line-up. Assuming that happens again is logical.
He’s been a slightly odd player in the NFL. On the whole, he’s impressed more in the run game than as a speed rusher but clearly, he has the capacity to be excellent in both areas. If he can stay fit and pull it all together, a double-digit sack year is definitely within reach. Of course, we have to remember that although he was drafted in 2014, Clowney has only managed 20 career sacks.
On the other side, Whitney Mercilus should return to full strength. He managed 19.5 sacks off just 1,600 snaps across 2016 and 2017 and should be treated like an impact player. In leagues which reward OLBs, he has a legitimate chance to be very valuable and may well have been forgotten or dismissed by your league-mates.
Kevin Johnson was a first-round pick back in 2015 but has played only around 1,600 defensive snaps since then. And aside from a brief period as a rookie, he’s struggled when he has been on the field. Just 14 career passes defended is a lot lower than you’d hope for. As a comparison, Marshon Lattimore managed 18 as a rookie last year.
Across from Johnson, Jonathan Joseph is well past his best when he was a top corner. Both players should have the opportunity to pile up statistics this year by being clearly the weak point of this defense. If you happen to be a believer in Deshaun Watson it just makes it easier to see how the corners could be targeted.
Aaron Colvin might be the exception. After being given a big contract following his breakout season as a Jaguar, he suddenly looks like the best player in an extremely thin corner group.
The news that Andre Hal has been diagnosed with a lymphoma is obviously awful for him and we wish him a full recovery.
In his absence, new signing Tyrann Mathieu is suddenly the top player here. But that’s not as valuable as his name implies. Mathieu has talked publicly about being able to concentrate on one position as a safety and we should see him fit into the Texans’ left/right two-deep safety scheme as opposed to his old slot role in Arizona. This means he’ll be further away from the ball most of the time and his efficiency will likely drop. He’ll be taken early in drafts based on his name value but is one to avoid.
On the other side, rookie Justin Reid will likely share playing time with Kareem Jackson. The Texans under this management have used a committee approach to safety and there will likely be some (but not enough) playing time for everyone. There’s unlikely to be a top 24 safety come out of this group.
J.J. Watt. It’s not easy to come back after missing most of two full seasons but if anyone can it’s Watt. His superman heroics are well worth a tape session so put his old highlights on to remind yourself just how incredible he was. And hopefully still can be. There are few Hall of Fame pass rushers in the league right now. Let’s hope Watt can get back to his peak.
Tyrann Mathieu. Mathieu is a great example of a player who will be in a different spot in a different scheme but is inexplicably still being valued the same. Aaron Colvin is the slot corner ion this team and they do not produce good IDP safeties. The odds are stacked against him providing any sort of return on investment
Zach Cunningham. I talked about the lack of production this role generates above but Cunningham at least has a chance to break that streak. He’s a fine NFL player with range, athleticism, and instincts. He could easily end up being the top LB on this team.
So we go into 2018 hoping that we see a defense closer to the 2016 Texans than 2017. There is certainly reason to believe it could all come together for them again with multiple impact players on the team but there are no sure things when a defense is only as strong as its weakest link.
Thanks for reading.