2017 NFL Preview: Texans try, try again to solve quarterback problem

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2017 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

If you ever look at a desperate move a team makes at quarterback and wonder how an otherwise smart organization loses its mind over one position, just remember the Houston Texans.

The Texans have almost everything in place. They have a defense that led the NFL in yards allowed, and that was without the great J.J. Watt for most of the season. DeAndre Hopkins is a fantastic No. 1 receiver. Receiver Will Fuller, a 2016 first-round pick, had some promising moments. Running back Lamar Miller was a solid free-agent addition who posted a 1,000-yard season. I thought the Texans were in for a nice breakthrough last season. And they did have a good season in many areas, with one glaring exception.

You can have a lot of key pieces in place, and if you’re incompetent at quarterback your ceiling will be limited. The Texans can look at a 9-7 record, division title and (incredibly fortunate) playoff win and dream about what might have been had Brock Osweiler been decent. He wasn’t.

The Texans paid $72 million over four years for Osweiler last season. On his first drive, he forced a pass that was intercepted by a Chicago Bears team that would finish with just eight interceptions all season. That set the tone. Osweiler was rattled by pressure, never looked comfortable in the offense, played poorly and got benched. Tom Savage then got hurt so Osweiler had the chance to lead a playoff win (kids, this is why “quarterback wins” isn’t a real stat) but the Texans knew he had to go.

This is how desperate the Texans are at quarterback: They traded the Browns a second-round pick just to take Osweiler off their hands. They still haven’t done anything with the money they saved – presumably, it was earmarked for Tony Romo, who retired – which makes it look like they just wasted a second-round pick. Then they sent the No. 25 pick and next year’s first-round pick to move up to No. 12 and take Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, the third quarterback in this year’s draft class.

Maybe general manager Rick Smith and coach Bill O’Brien are desperately trying to take the next step with a talented roster that just needs a quarterback. Maybe they realize they can’t survive a terrible season and needed to do something dramatic to protect their jobs. Maybe it’s a little bit of both. But the Texans have spent $37 million on Osweiler, turned the No. 25 pick and a 2018 first-rounder into the No. 12 pick and all they have to show for that is Watson, who smart NFL draft analysts have serious questions about. That doesn’t seem efficient. And this entire mess could have been avoided if Derek Carr had a different last name.

Maybe the carousel stops with Watson. Goodness knows Smith and O’Brien need him to be the answer. Watson was an awesome college player, and you have to admire how he carved up Alabama in two straight CFP title games, considering Alabama is as close to an NFL junior-varsity defense as you’ll find. There are worse gambles than putting all your chips on someone like Watson, who has succeeded on a big stage and draws rave reviews for his character.

Even if Watson does a Dak Prescott imitation, the Texans weren’t nearly as good as last season’s record. It’s not often you’ll see a playoff team that was outscored by 49 points, as Houston was. Eight of their nine wins came by seven points or less. They finished 29th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA per-play metric, and it’s impossible to believe a playoff team will ever finish lower. They had a putrid offense and even worse special teams. The offensive line comes in as a question, with right tackle Derek Newton already out for the season after tearing both patella tendons and left tackle Duane Brown’s minicamp holdout due to his contract. There are issues to fix other than just the quarterback position.

But a competent quarterback is the most important piece. If the Texans had a quarterback who was middle of the NFL pack, the rest of the problems wouldn’t seem so bad. And if Watson isn’t the answer, one assumes the Texans will keep investing assets to finally find someone who can be.

The Texans traded up to draft quarterback Deshaun Watson. (AP)

You can certainly argue whether it’s worth it to eat a $16 million salary for a second-round pick, which is what the Browns did in the Brock Osweiler trade. But the Texans didn’t reinvest the money they saved, so there’s no real benefit for them this season. The Texans also lost cornerback A.J. Bouye, and since money talks louder than anything else in the NFL, it’s worth pointing out that Bouye got the largest contract for any unrestricted free agent switching teams this offseason. And the Texans signed … nobody. Literally. The Texans didn’t add one veteran free agent until former Indianapolis Colts linebacker Sio Moore signed in June, and Moore won’t excite anyone. Deshaun Watson better be really, really good. Grade: F

The defense is legit. The oft-repeated stat that the Texans finished No. 1 in total defense is a little misleading – they tied for fifth in yards allowed per play – but it was a strong defense. The Texans smartly added linebacker Zach Cunningham in the second round of the draft. Cunningham can cover better than otherwise stout middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney and he can eventually replace mainstay Brian Cushing. And if we assume J.J. Watt returns at full health from back surgery, and he looks like the Watt who won three NFL defensive player of the year awards, the Texans could be the best defense in the NFL. That has to be their ceiling after playing so well without Watt.

Imagine if Brock Osweiler plays really well with the Cleveland Browns this season. He seemed like just part of a cash-for-pick transaction, but then he got good reviews in OTAs. It’s not out of the question he could start. He had good moments for the Denver Broncos in 2015, and two organizations offered him a fortune (the Broncos offered Osweiler $16 million per season, something all John Elway fans conveniently forget). If Osweiler plays well this season, doesn’t that look terrible on Bill O’Brien? It’s hard to tell if O’Brien is a very good coach who keeps grinding out 9-7 records with a terrible quarterback situation, or he’s part of the reason the Texans keep having a terrible quarterback situation. If Osweiler succeeds in Cleveland to any degree, you’d have to wonder if it’s the latter.

The Texans are the latest team to insist they want someone other than their first-round pick at quarterback to start. Sure. The Texans keep supporting Tom Savage as the No. 1 quarterback, and he’ll enter training camp as the starter. Savage also has no career touchdowns, can’t stay healthy and in the one game he started and finished last season he struggled mightily against the Cincinnati Bengals. As stated in the Chicago Bears preview, from 2006 through last year, 25 of 27 quarterbacks picked in the first round started at least one game as a rookie. Watson will play. It’s just a matter of whether he starts Week 1 or shortly after.

The answer is clearly J.J. Watt, but he’s never starved for media attention so we’ll talk about another key piece: receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins has 4,487 yards through four seasons, which is a heck of an accomplishment given how bad Houston’s quarterback play has been. He dipped from 1,521 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2015 to 954 yards and four touchdowns last season as the Texans’ quarterback play really cratered, but he’s still supremely talented. Getting Hopkins back near that 1,500-yard mark has to be a top priority for Houston. Hopkins is also in the final year of his contract. The Texans need to get that extension done, and you’d assume some of the money saved in the Brock Osweiler trade will go to that.

From Yahoo’s Liz Loza: “PPR enthusiasts would be well advised to keep an eye on Braxton Miller. A developmental talent in his rookie year, the converted QB is slated to be the Texans’ slot receiver this season. Excelling in the short-to-intermediate passing game, the 6-foot-1 and 200-pound WR could work as a safety valve for first-year QB Deshaun Watson, who has struggled with deep accuracy.

“Taking notes from new assistant wide receivers coach Wes Welker, who played under Bill O’Brien in New England, Miller is in ultra-capable hands. He’s not worth a roster spot at the moment, but given Will Fuller’s inability to stay healthy or hold on to the ball, it’s nearly guaranteed the former Buckeye will make his way into an add/drop conversation before midseason.”

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Jadeveon Clowney has become an impact player, but not exactly in the way everyone expected when he was the first overall pick of the 2014 draft. Clowney has become one of the league’s best run defenders. According to Pro Football Focus he was the third-best run defender among all NFL edge defenders, trailing only Seattle Seahawks end Michael Bennett and Denver Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller. Clowney had a huge game in a wild-card playoff win over the Oakland Raiders. Clowney rushed the quarterback well in that game though he didn’t record a sack, and maybe that’s a sign that he can become a double-digit sack player in the future. If he could reach 10 sacks or more, he’d be one of the best defensive players in football.

IS WHITNEY MERCILUS THE NFL’S MOST UNDERRATED PLAYER?

Mercilus rarely gets talked about when the Houston defense is brought up. J.J. Watt gets a majority of the attention, and Jadeveon Clowney gets most of what’s left. Even Brian Cushing and Vince Wilfork during his brief Texans career seemed to get more pub. All Mercilus does is consistently rush the quarterback. He had 12 sacks in 2015 and 7.5 last season. Mercilus, who will be just 27 years old this season, is consistent at an important role. Even his $4.5 million salary is modest for what he produces. He’s a big reason the Texans’ defense is as good as it is.

The Texans keep going 9-7 and the great unanswered question is: How much better could they be with a quarterback? Maybe Deshaun Watson will be an instant star, or Tom Savage will surprise everyone. It seems like once the quarterback is in place, everything might come together. If J.J. Watt is healthy, the defense should be dominant. If the Texans have finally figured out the quarterback position, the offense might be good too. If that happens, they should win the AFC South again and maybe have some hope going into the playoffs.

Hopefully J.J. Watt returns to form. Because if Watt has lost a step after back surgery, the Texans would be devastated. Watt is an all-time great. The Texans also have to be nervous about what happens at quarterback, because they’ve invested too much in Watson to start over anytime soon. And if Watson isn’t good, this regime wouldn’t be around to pick up the pieces anyway. A lot can go wrong for the Texans. They weren’t as good as their record last season, but they’ve set a playoff expectation. If the AFC South finally improves, the postseason might not be as easy to reach.

When you start by viewing the Texans as a flawed team that was pretty fortunate to make the playoffs, it’s hard to see how a rookie quarterback sparks that much improvement. Maybe Deshaun Watson will be good enough to hold off some of the regression that should be coming. But it’s never smart to bet on a rookie quarterback, and who knows how much time the Texans will waste on the Tom Savage charade. The Texans have lived at 9-7 three straight seasons, but it’s hard to see them reaching that mark again.

32. New York Jets
31. Cleveland Browns
30. San Francisco 49ers
29. Chicago Bears
28. Los Angeles Rams
27. Jacksonville Jaguars
26. Detroit Lions

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!