News & Analysis

Houston Texans 2021 free agency and NFL Draft preview

Oct 4, 2020; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) and wide receiver Will Fuller (15) walk off the field after a loss to the Minnesota Vikings at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

In the lead-up to the start of free agency on March 17 and the opening day of the 2021 NFL Draft on April 29, we'll be taking a position-by-position look at all 32 NFL teams with a focus on the starting spots that have question marks heading into next season.

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The next team on our list is not an easy one to evaluate. So much of what the Houston Texans will do this offseason comes down to what happens with Deshaun Watson. The two sides currently seem to be in a stalemate — Houston is showing no interest in trading the star quarterback while Watson remains adamant that he will not play another down for the franchise. 

As things stand, Houston has neither the cap space nor the draft capital to dramatically improve a roster that is in desperate need of reinforcement. A Watson trade would help in the draft capital department, but it doesn’t improve the 2021 cap situation. In fact, a pre-June 1 trade would add additional salary to next year’s books. It’s hard to see the team in anything but a rebuild next season.

Projected cap space (Over the Cap): $16,149,133 (14th in NFL)

Picks in 2021 NFL Draft: 67, 100, 113, 131, 164, 178, 188, 195

Projected 2021 offense
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
QB ?
RB ?
WR Brandin Cooks 19 / 127 $12.0 million
WR ?
WR Randall Cobb 54 / 127 $10.5 million
TE Jordin Akins 14 / 71 $2.4 million
LT Laremy Tunsil 15 / 38 $19.4 million
LG Max Scharping 33 / 39 $1.4 million
C ?
RG Zach Fulton 23 / 40 $3.8 million
RT Tytus Howard 27 / 38 $3.3 million

The quarterback position will continue to be the biggest storyline in Houston until they resolve the Watson situation. Given recent reports, it’s difficult to see Watson playing for the Texans in any capacity next season. That leaves the position open to several possibilities — whether that be a draft prospect selected with a pick in a Watson trade, a young quarterback like Sam Darnold or Tua Tagovailoa who comes back in a Watson deal or a free agent signing on the cheap. 

At running back, David Johnson could easily join Duke Johnson Jr. as a source of salary cap relief, with the Texans potentially looking to go for cheaper, younger options at the position. They will also likely need to replace Will Fuller V, who will likely test the open market in free agency. Cooks and Cobb, along with Keke Coutee, should have roles at receiver, but Houston could still use a reliable option outside to pair with Cooks. 

Lastly, the offensive line recently parted ways with one of its more reliable veterans in center Nick Martin. That leaves the interior as the clear spot in need of reinforcement up front. Along with the center position, the Texans could look for upgrades at both guard spots. Fulton’s release could save the team $3 million, and Scharping was benched last season for poor play at left guard.

How do the Texans move on from Deshaun Watson at quarterback?

I think Houston refusing to trade Watson is the worst way the franchise could handle the situation in the coming months. 

I get their stance. You don’t want to give up on a 25-year-old who is already one of the best quarterbacks in the entire league. By all accounts, the ship has already sailed — Watson does not want to be there, and keeping him on your roster against his will isn’t likely to change that. 

Could you “call his bluff” and force him to sit out this year and beyond? Sure. But what does that accomplish? At that point, you’re still paying him despite not getting any value in return. The Texans are best suited to trade him before the 2021 NFL Draft, get a massive haul of picks and young players in return and begin to build toward a future under the new front office and coaching staff. 

While the team could look to find their quarterback of the future following a potential trade this offseason, they may be better suited to play a bridge quarterback instead while they fill out a depleted roster in 2021. Watson just had one of the best quarterback seasons in the league, and the team still went 4-12. Any young quarterback thrown into a similar situation is going to struggle. It may be the Texans' best bet to take next season to reset and potentially look for their next franchise quarterback in 2022. 

Why is David Johnson the next cut that needs to come at the running back position?

This is a cost vs. production proposition. David Johnson finished 55th out of 70 qualifying running backs in PFF grade last season, while the recently released Duke Johnson Jr. finished 57th in the same group. Despite that lacking production, they still would have been top-10 cap hits at the running back position in 2021. Releasing David in addition to Duke could save the team over $11 million this offseason, per Over the Cap

For a team that has the number of holes that Houston does, they simply can’t afford to hold onto Johnson’s contract. Get younger at the position and use that money to address needs on defense in free agency where the Texans are in dire need of additional talent. 

How do the Texans replace Will Fuller V in this offense?

Fuller is coming off a career year cut short by a six-game suspension. He is one of the premier deep threats in the league, stressing defenses with elite speed. All signs point to him playing elsewhere next season, though. 

You can never have too much speed on your offense, but the Texans already have a 4.3 wide receiver capable of making defenses pay downfield in Brandin Cooks. In targeting Fuller’s replacement, it may make sense to target more of a possession receiver capable of making plays after the catch. The Texans were one of eight NFL teams that saw fewer than 40% of their passing yards come after the catch last season.

Additionally, the Texans should be looking for a player who can win outside rather than a slot-only type. Randall Cobb (77% of routes in the slot last season) and Keke Coutee (75%) will make it difficult for any slot receiver Houston brings in to see the field next season.  

Potential targets at open spots

Quarterback: Your guess is as good as mine

I’m not even going to wager a guess here, given the number of different scenarios that could end up playing out this offseason. Do they trade Watson before the draft? Is the first-round pick they get back in return high enough to target Zach Wilson, Justin Fields or Trey Lance? Do the Texans even want a rookie quarterback in this year’s class, or do they go after a short-term solution in free agency instead?

All of the “what-ifs” make it difficult to pin down a handful of targets at the position. It makes for an intriguing next few months as the Watson drama stretches on. 

Running back: Marlon Mack, Rhamondre Stevenson 

The Texans hopefully learned their lesson and will opt for cheaper options at the position this offseason. Mack could fit that bill in free agency as he returns from a 2020 season cut short by a torn Achilles.

PFF projects a one-year, $2.5 million contract for Mack this offseason, which could be good value for a 25-year-old coming off two rushing grades of 74.0 or higher in his past two seasons. The biggest hurdle for Mack to overcome would be a big dip in run-blocking performance along the offensive line from Indianapolis to Houston. 

With their first selections in the 2021 NFL Draft coming at pick numbers 67 and 100 as things stand right now, the Texans would need to go bargain shopping at the running back position in the draft. Stevenson could fit the bill as a big back with the movement skills of a smaller guy. He didn’t see a huge workload at Oklahoma but was effective when given an opportunity, earning PFF grades of 86.6 and 90.4 in his two seasons with the Sooners. 

Wide receiver: Kendrick Bourne, Seth Williams

Bourne is an intriguing free agent target for several teams this offseason. He’s coming from an offense in San Francisco that prioritizes a different kind of skill set than many offenses around the NFL. Bourne has had success these past few years as a complementary piece in that passing game but could take another step in a different environment. He is coming off back-to-back seasons with receiving grades of at least 70.0 and could be a reliable, chain-moving WR2 in Houston’s offense across from Cooks.

Williams is a different mold of potential WR2. He won at Auburn with his ability to come down with passes that many wide receivers couldn’t, using an impressive catch radius to his advantage. Williams also uses his physicality well to break through tackles after bringing in the ball. While there are valid concerns about his ability to separate as a route-runner, it wouldn’t be a bad move on the Texans' part to take him somewhere around the fourth round.   

Interior offensive lineman: Ethan Pocic, Quinn Meinerz

Pocic has dealt with several injuries to begin his NFL career and has been underwhelming when he has seen the field, but the arrow could be pointing up for the 2017 second-round selection. Pocic earned a career-high 59.8 PFF grade last season in his first year starting at the center position he played at LSU, and he earned an above-average pass-blocking grade on true pass sets. Houston will likely be looking to fill the position for cheap given the release of a quality starter in Martin for cap savings, and Pocic could bring value if he stays healthy and continues to improve. 

Meinerz was the talk of the Senior Bowl, thanks to his strong week of practice. He played center for the first time in Mobile and held up well at his new position, showing he’s capable of playing at any position along the interior. If he ends up going in a similar range of the draft to Ben Bartch last season, it could allow the Texans to add some competition to their interior offensive line.    

Projected 2021 Defense
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
DI ?
DI Ross Blacklock 126 / 126 $1.8 million
DI/EDGE Charles Omenihu 102 / 126 $0.9 million
EDGE ?
EDGE/LB Whitney Mercilus 109 / 109 $12.0 million
LB Zach Cunningham 28 / 83 $11.4 million
LB ?
CB Bradley Roby 19 / 121 $10.3 million
CB ?
CB ?
S Lonnie Johnson Jr. 42 / 94 $1.4 million
S Justin Reid 60 / 94 $2.7 million

It’s tough to pin down exactly what Houston’s front will look like next year following the loss of J.J. Watt and the switch to Lovie Smith as defensive coordinator. 

Omenihu has played both inside and outside early in his NFL career, so he is the most likely candidate to take on some of Watt's old responsibilities. Blacklock is the other player who should have a definite role on the defensive line despite a poor showing as a rookie last season. 

Mercilus also struggled from his edge role in 2020. He has been an outside linebacker throughout his career, so it will be interesting to see how he transitions if Houston asks him to rush the passer with his hand in the ground out of 4-3 base fronts. Regardless, the Texans will need to beef up the group this offseason, targeting players who can tighten up what was one of the worst run defenses in the NFL in 2020.

At linebacker, Benardrick McKinney could join Watt as a long-time defensive starter moving on this offseason. His name has been floated around as a potential cut candidate. McKinney’s release would save the team nearly $6.5 million next season. Tyrell Adams filled in following his injury in 2020, but he came away from the season with a PFF grade of just 43.5 and is an unrestricted free agent this offseason.

The secondary is thin, as well. Roby is the only cornerback on the roster that Houston can feel comfortable starting heading into 2021. And while 2020 fourth-round selection John Reid could potentially play a role in the slot, he earned just a 53.9 PFF grade across 145 defensive snaps as a rookie. 

Johnson moved from cornerback as a rookie to safety last season and saw more success in his new role alongside Justin Reid. The Texans could move forward with that safety pairing again next season.  

What can the Texans expect from Lovie Smith as defensive coordinator?

The last time Lovie Smith held the position of defensive coordinator was in 2003 when he did so for the St. Louis Rams. Smith has only held head coaching titles since, including stops with the Chicago Bears, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Illinois Fighting Illini. You can expect Houston to take on principles from his 4-3, Tampa 2 defense that he helped develop while he was the Buccaneers linebackers coach in the late 90s. 

Looking back to his defenses of late in the collegiate ranks, Illinois was in base personnel (four defensive backs) on 58% of their defensive snaps in 2020. For reference, no defense used base packages on over 40% of their snaps this past season in the NFL.

The other significant defining characteristic of Smith’s defense is how often it turns to Cover 2. In 2019, Illinois ran Cover 2 at a rate over 10 percentage points higher than any other Power 5 defense. They actually mixed things up a little bit more this past season, but the Illini still ranked fourth out of 65 Power 5 defenses in the percentage of plays running Cover 2. It would be a surprise if Houston wasn’t one of the league leaders in Cover 2 usage next season. 

Where does the pass rush come from on this roster?

Over the past two seasons, J.J. Watt has over 30 more quarterback pressures than any other player on the Texans roster despite missing roughly half of the 2019 season with injury. There simply aren’t many guys who can consistently get after the quarterback on this defense.

Among all interior and edge defenders who rushed the passer at least 100 times over that same stretch, Watt and D.J. Reader led the way with 87.2 and 75.4 pass-rushing grades, respectively. The next highest mark belongs to Charles Omenihu at just 64.2.  

There is a chance that younger players such as Omenihu, Ross Blacklock and Jonathan Greenard continue to develop into better pass-rushers. Still, as things stand right now, the cupboards are looking bare for Houston. Mercilus should be the guy Houston can turn to after the contract he signed towards the end of the 2019 season, but his 55.6 pass-rushing grade over the last two years is one of the team's worst marks. 

The Texans are in the tough spot of needing pass-rushing help without the resources to add someone who can easily project to help out in that department.  

Is Lonnie Johnson Jr. a solution at safety next to Justin Reid?

Things went just about as poorly for Johnson in his rookie year as they could have. Playing the lion's share of his snaps at outside cornerback, Johnson came out of that season in 2019 with a 30.0 PFF grade, a 133.5 passer rating allowed and 12 penalties. It was rough sledding. 

However, a switch to safety began to turn things around this past season. Johnson played just 45 of his 702 defensive snaps at wide cornerback last year, and his overall grade jumped from 30.0 to 65.5. His coverage grade alone jumped over 40 points from his rookie season to Year 2. There’s no reason Houston shouldn’t keep him in that role and let him compete for the starting job next to Reid this offseason. 

Potential targets at open spots

Interior defender: Kawann Short, Ndamukong Suh  

The Texans need a veteran presence along the defensive line — someone they can rely on to hold their own against the run. Even at 34 years old, Suh meets that criteria. He has played at least 800 defensive snaps every season since being drafted in 2010, a remarkable feat of longevity at the defensive tackle position. Suh has also recorded a run-defense grade of 68.0 or higher every year since 2013.

It’s more difficult to feel confident that Short will remain healthy following two seasons derailed by injury, but the veteran has been a dominant force throughout his career when he has been healthy. He graded above 75.0 every season from 2013 to 2018, with run-defense grades above 85.0 in his final four full seasons with the Panthers. His injury history could open the door for a discount for a team needing interior help like Houston.    

Edge defender: Aldon Smith, Cameron Sample

Considering the last time Smith had played in an NFL game before this past season was in 2015, it’s hard not to be impressed with his performance in 2020. He played over 800 snaps for the Dallas Cowboys as one of the team’s starting defensive ends, ending the year with a 70.0 pass-rushing grade and 50 quarterback pressures. Smith showed he can still contribute in an every-down role.

Listed at 6-foot-3 and 280 pounds, Sample projects as a defensive end with the Texans likely moving to a 4-3 scheme. He worked on the interior and outside for Tulane over his college career and improved his PFF grade each season. Sample finished the 2020 season with an 89.9 overall grade and 48 quarterback pressures while rushing primarily as an outside linebacker. He could be a target with one of Houston’s fourth-round picks. 

Linebacker: Justin Hilliard, Kevin Pierre-Louis 

The Texans must improve in coverage at the linebacker position if they decide to part ways with Benardrick McKinney. Zach Cunningham is coming off a 2020 season where he earned just a 43.0 coverage grade, and his career-high in that area came at just 62.1 in his rookie season.

Already 29 years old, Pierre-Louis has been a key special teamer for years, but 2020 was the first season he played more than 300 defensive snaps in his career. He delivered with an 83.9 coverage grade after success in that department in limited action in 2019, as well. He’s worth a dart throw in free agency for a team like Houston.

Hilliard never played even 250 snaps in a season at the collegiate level, so there exists the possibility of him sliding down draft boards. When he was healthy and on the field, the former five-star recruit flashed the kind of explosiveness that plays at the position at the NFL level. The Texans will need to find value where they can without any picks in the first two rounds of this year’s draft, and Hilliard could be one of those values.  

Cornerback: Desmond King II, Benjamin St. Juste, Rasul Douglas 

Under Lovie Smith, the Texans should be targeting long zone cornerbacks to add to the roster. Douglas fits that bill, coming off a solid showing with the Carolina Panthers and their zone-heavy defense last season. Douglas is a decent No. 2 cornerback option outside who should fit well in Houston's defense. He is just 25 years old and has generated coverage grades of at least 60.0 in three of his four NFL seasons. 

Similarly, St. Juste has the ideal length for the position with a wingspan of 80-plus inches. His tackling ability also projects as a plus when coming up to make plays in the zones he would be asked to play in. He earned coverage grades of 72.0 or better in each of the past two seasons at Minnesota. 

King doesn’t project to play outside like those first two, but he does have a track record of success in the slot across his time with the Los Angeles Chargers. Few slot cornerbacks graded better than King did across the 2017, 2018 and 2019 seasons. The three-year, $17.5 million deal PFF currently projects King to sign would be good value for Houston after they allowed a league-high 137.1 passer rating on throws targeting slot receivers in 2020. 

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