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Eyeing the AFC South: Houston Texans 2018 Training Camp Preview

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NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Houston Texans Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Each SB Nation NFL writing team examined their respective franchise and put together a brief season preview. These stories are intended to help explain to fans of other teams some of the most important topics and issues facing each NFL team as the 2018 NFL Season approaches. Next is the Colts AFC South rival Houston Texans, as reported by Battle Red Blog.

Notable free agent additions:

S Tyrann Mathieu, CB Aaron Colvin, OG Zach Fulton, OG Senio Kelemete

Over / under: 8.5 wins OVER: The Texans were the most fearsome offense in the league when Deshaun Watson, Will Fuller, and D’Onta Foreman were all healthy, and as all three of those young pieces went down so too did the versatility and dynamism of the whole unit. DeAndre Hopkins can’t do it all by himself, and now that the rest of the offense is back and ready to rock, the Texans should be among the highest scoring teams in the NFL.

Throw in a pass rush that is also returning to training camp healthy with J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus back in action, as well as a secondary with a big infusion of free agent talent, and you have a recipe for a roster that is incredibly dangerous on both sides of the ball. It is not out of the question to pick Houston as a dark horse Super Bowl contender, let alone a contender for the AFC South crown.

Rookie I’m most excited about: Martinas Rankin: Though Rankin has spent much of his rookie offseason recovering from injury, the Texans are very high on their rookie third round pick as their potential left tackle of the future. Rankin acquitted himself very well in the SEC against some of the best pass rushers college football had to offer, and despite not being the most gifted athlete in the world, he has the toughness and technique to be a very solid starter in the NFL. As long as he stays healthy, he should be a very key contributor for this team going forward.

Best position battle heading into camp: Running Back: The only reason why D’Onta Foreman did not run away with the starting job late in the season last year was because of an unfortunate Achilles injury that cut his rookie campaign short. This year he is ready to come back strong and prove that his injury won’t slow him down, which should get the competitive juices flowing in Lamar Miller to once again fight for his job. Both backs are very tough runners that don’t mind doing the dirty work between the tackles, and both have the speed to do damage on the edges as well, so I’m really excited to see who ends up taking the lead back role by the end of August.

Biggest storyline heading into camp: Is everyone healthy? It’s no secret that Houston’s Super Bowl chances rest in the hands of their injured stars. Deshaun Watson, J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus, and Jadeveon Clowney are all some of the best (or in Watson’s case some of the most exciting) players in the NFL, but all of them spent time this summer on the trainer’s table coming back from various injuries. If those four - along with Will Fuller and D’Onta Foreman - can come back and stay on the field for the full season, Houston has a shot at making a very deep playoff run. If they suffer setbacks - or worse, get injured again - then you can expect the Texans to once again be picking in the top ten in the draft.

Houston has terrible, terrible depth at most positions on the roster, but man...when all of the starters are together on the field, this is one scary team. Hopefully they can all avoid injury for once so we can see what this fully armed and operational battlestation can do.

Under-the-radar storyline heading into camp: Jadeveon Clowney’s Contract: Everyone in the NFL is waiting to see who breaks first - Aaron Donald, Khalil Mack, or Jadeveon Clowney. The three defensive crown jewels of the 2014 draft class are all due to get big pay days either this offseason or next, but none of them want to be the first one to set the market. If Donald or Mack sign first, then Clowney’s price tag will see a huge jump alongside both of those other values, which could be a sticky point of contention if the Texans front office is still concerned about his long term durability. This plot point is still in its “wait and see” phase, but don’t be shocked if it takes a few more twists and turns before the regular season starts.

Notable injuries heading into training camp: All of them? Most of Houston’s biggest stars (or up and coming stars) were hurt last season, and unfortunately due to the Texans’ lack of overall depth, every single one of those injuries is massively important. Obviously Deshaun Watson and J.J. Watt are the biggest names to keep track of, but honestly this roster cannot afford any more major season-derailing injuries if they want any hope of finishing above .500. There just isn’t enough depth here to weather that kind of storm again. Either Houston stays healthy and challenges for a Lombardi trophy, or they don’t and they contend for a top five draft pick. There really isn’t any in between with this organization right now.

A Colts Perspective

What is potentially the most interesting part of the Houston Texans position this year and in the near-term future is what could be described as a closing window of opportunity at many positions. The injuries that are impacting the team are significant and it is quite possible that some of the issues will have long-lasting impacts for the individual player and for the franchise.

Any team who is lucky enough to have J.J. Watt turn into the kind of super star he has been on the defensive line in his career will one day have to feel the pain of what happens when that star starts to trail off and eventually leaves professional football. There is certainly every possibility that Watt could return to the field this season and put up a few more solid years of football. There is also a very real possibility that his nagging back issues will never allow him to return to the level of dominance he once showed. At 29 years old, the next year or two are as much of a “show you still have it” phase as it is a likely return to dominance phase.

While the Houston Texans offense took the league by storm behind rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson to start 2017, out-performing any early season predictions, there are reasons to have some concerns that a repeat of that production is unlikely. Consider that Watson had the benefit of being a new commodity to the NFL and defensive coordinators didn’t have an opportunity to game plan for him as they will in 2018. Young superstar candidates often have difficulty repeating their hot start in their sophomore season after the cat has been let out of the bag and weaknesses and tendencies have been exposed.

To make matters worse for Watson, he is a mobile quarterback who excels throwing on the run and he is recovering from a mid-season ACL tear a year ago. It typically takes players 9-12 months to fully recover from these injuries which could relegate him to a pocket passer for much of the year. Is he ready to make that transition?

While Battle Red Blog appears particularly proud of its running back rotation, Lamar Miller has taken on a heavy workload early in his NFL career, has only topped 1000 yards in a season twice and has failed to top 900 yards rushing in two of the last 3 seasons. More importantly, he has not been as dynamic in Houston as he was with the Dolphins in 2014. Second-year back D’Onta Foreman is certainly an imposing runner with impressive speed for his size but its fair to consider him an unproven commodity, particularly if the plan is for him to take over starting reps permanently.

Finally, there are still questions in the secondary with Johnathon Joseph continuing to fight back father time at 34 years old and projected as a starter at corner. Signing safety Tyrann Mathieu will certainly help shore up the back end but it will be interesting to see the development of their linebackers given that other than Bernardrick McKinney, everyone else is either returning from injury (Mercilus) or young and unproven.

Taking any team in the AFC South lightly at this point would certainly be a mistake. There is truth to the idea that if the Texans are fully healthy and their starting group is able to produce like it did in 2017, they will challenge in the AFC South and could make noise in the playoffs. However, the downside projections are also prevalent and reflect chinks in the team’s armor.