2015 AFC preview: Houston Texans
From now until the Patriots begin training camp, Phil Perry looks at the 15 other AFC teams: The biggest question they face heading into the season, their storyline on offense, their storyline on defense, and their "threat level" to the Patriots.
Today's opponent: The Houston Texans.
THE BIG STORY
Will the Texans offense give JJ Watt a hand?
The Texans had the most dominant defensive player in football last season in JJ Watt. He was arguably the league's most valuable player -- Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers won the award for 2014 -- by putting up video-game numbers: 20.5 sacks, four forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries, 10 passes defended, one fumble return for a touchdown, one 80-yard interception return for a touchdown and three touchdown receptions as a tight end. With his help, Houston's defense was in the top ten in points allowed last season and third in the league in turnover differential (plus-12).
But despite Watt's play, the Texans still went 8-8 and missed the playoffs for the second consecutive year. Whether or not Watt and his teammates are able to return to the postseason will depend largely on the improvements the team has made on offense.
It's unclear which of the team's top two quarterbacks -- former Patriots backups Brian Hoyer or Ryan Mallett -- will win the starting job, but whoever takes over will have a strong grip on coach Bill O'Brien's offense and a few new weapons with which to work.
The Texans lost wideout Andre Johnson to the Colts via free agency, but they got a little bit younger on the outside by drafting Jalen Strong out of Arizona State and signing former Jaguars receiver Cecil Shorts. DeAndre Hopkins, who amassed more than 1,000 yards last season, will take over the No. 1 role and will give the team a vertical threat to stress opposing secondaries.
The Texans ground attack was one of the Top 10 in the league in 2014, and if it could repeat that performance it would take pressure off the arms of Hoyer and Mallett while simultaneously keeping Watt and Co. fresh.
The question is whether or not it's realistic to expect that kind of running-game repeat.
OFFENSIVE STORY LINE TO WATCH
What will Arian Foster provide the Houston offense?
It's OK to start wondering when Foster will get to the point where he's beyond repair. One of the most frequently-used backs in the league since he entered as a rookie in 2009, Foster has missed chunks of the last two seasons due to injury, and he's played just two full seasons since 2010.
The 28-year-old missed three full games and parts of three others due to nagging ailments last season. In 2013, he played in eight games before suffering a back injury that required surgery.
Despite being banged-up last year, O'Brien still ran Foster 260 times, and Foster still averaged 95.8 yards per game. The Texans are set on running the ball early and often once again this season -- especially with all five starters on the offensive line returning -- but they'll have to change philosophies if Foster misses significant time.
Second-year running back Alfred Blue has shown flashes in limited work, but it's hard to replicate what Foster provides when healthy.
DEFENSIVE STORY LINE TO WATCH
How will Vince Wilfork impact the Texans defense?
The former Patriots defensive lineman will be 34 in November. He's headed into his 12th season of professional football. And, according to him, he weighs 325 pounds.
On a defense that was already among the league's best in 2014, how can Wilfork help the Texans reach another level?
It will start with his on-the-field contributions. Coming off of a torn Achilles last season, he was still one of New England's most dependable defensive linemen. Though he's not the versatile threat along the line that he once was, Wilfork is still a very capable space-eater on the interior, and he proved it last year by starting in 16 games and all three Patriots playoff games en route to his second Super Bowl title.
It's presumed that Wilfork will also serve as a locker-room mentor to young Texans defensive players, especially those in the front seven with whom he'll work most closely. Players like Jadeveon Clowney, Louis Nix and rookie linebacker Bernardrick McKinney could all benefit both from listening to what Wilfork has to say and also watching him go about his business.
During his time in New England, Wilfork was the ultimate professional. O'Brien and his staff must have known that by bringing that kind of presence to Houston, it would only benefit players still figuring out what it means to be a pro.
THREAT LEVEL: ELEVATED
The Texans won't be considered among the favorites in the AFC until they find consistent quarterback play, but if Hoyer and Mallett can limit mistakes, and if Watt can be a turnover machine once again, it's not out of the realm of possibility that the team encroaches on double-digit wins and a wild-card playoff berth.
In Week 14, Houston will host New England, where it will be a Patriots reunion of sorts. We'll have a better sense of how those matchups will look once Thanksgiving has come and gone, but before that, one of the best looks at the team will be provided HBO, which will feature O'Brien's club on the behind-the-scenes training camp show Hard Knocks.