The Houston Texans punted on the 2021 season.
They wouldn’t admit it publicly, but that’s exactly what happened. After all, they paid Deshaun Watson his full salary to land on the inactive list every week. As a result, they rolled with a rookie quarterback who entered the NFL after playing a mere 14 games at Stanford.
Ultimately, Davis Mills gained valuable experience playing for a team that entered the season with a bad roster and plenty of drama due to Watson’s legal situation involving allegations of sexual misconduct. Still, it remains to be seen if the 2021 third-rounder will get a chance to lead the Texans moving forward.
Simply put: No one has any idea about what the future of football in Houston looks like. What we do know is that they finished the 2021 campaign with a 4-13 record, good for third in the AFC South, but not good enough for David Culley to keep his job.
For a franchise desperate for direction, strong leadership, and a new star to build around, the 2022 NFL offseason offers a chance to take a step forward. Here’s a plan of attack Texans general manager Nick Caserio should follow if he wants to avoid becoming the latest member of Bill Belichick’s coaching/personnel tree to flop outside of New England.
Biggest offseason questions
The biggest question of the entire 2022 NFL offseason: What are the Texans going to do with Deshaun Watson?
He didn’t play a single game in 2021, and despite being attached to trade rumors, he didn’t secure his freedom from Houston. Instead, the Miami Dolphins spent weeks putting Tua Tagovailoa in an uncomfortable position just to back out of trading for Watson at the final hour.
After holding on to the talented quarterback, will Caserio finally deal him for a package of first-round picks and players? That seems like the most logical outcome, but it remains to be seen which teams will be willing to pay what should be an enormous asking price for an elite player. Obviously, Watson’s legal situation cannot be ignored in all of this. From a pure football standpoint, though, it’s undeniable that he would represent a massive upgrade for nearly every NFL team.
In addition, the Texans obviously have to figure out who will replace Culley, who often seemed overmatched and underqualified to run his own team.
Top free-agency decisions
Key free agents: Kamu Grugier-Hill (OLB), Justin Reid (S), Maliek Collins (DT), David Johnson (RB), Phillip Lindsay (RB)
Let’s not beat around the bush: The Texans don’t have a good roster. In fact, you could argue they have the worst one in the league. For a team that’s clearly in rebuilding mode, it doesn’t make sense to tie up major financial resources on players who don’t move the needle much. And that’s why they should feel comfortable letting most of their impending free agents walk.
Still, it might make sense for the Texans to retain one member: Kamu Grugier-Hill. A 2016 sixth-round pick by the New England Patriots, he earned respect as a special teams ace early in his NFL career. The athletic linebacker has taken advantage of an opportunity to play a starting role in Houston and proven capable of making an impact on a weekly basis.
Veteran safety Justin Reid doesn’t look likely to be retained. Certainly not short on talent, the 2018 third-round pick should have several suitors interested in his services. Reid would be better served to find a new home with a contender.
2022 NFL Draft needs and potential targets
Top picks: First round (own), second round (own), third round (own)
Draft needs: WR, DE, CB, QB, LB
Although they don’t possess extra picks, the Texans will benefit from selecting early in each round. That gives them a chance to add a blue-chip talent on Day 1, a potential first-round talent on Day 2, and a potential rookie starter to start Day 3.
Of course, Houston desperately needs to hit on each of those selections. At the top of the draft, Caserio could go with Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett, who has drawn some comparisons to a more athletic Mac Jones. At the same time, though, perhaps Davis Mills’ encouraging rookie season will convince the Texans to pass on using their first pick on a signal-caller.
No matter who lines up under center in 2022, the Texans can’t afford to leave the draft without an early-round wideout. Ohio State’s Chris Olave, South Alabama’s Jalen Tolbert, and USC’s Drake London could be options in round two.
In all likelihood, Houston will use its top choice to secure a pass rusher. Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson and Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux are both in the mix to go No. 1 overall. Either one would add much-needed speed, athleticism, and length to a talent-deficient front seven.
Plus, the secondary could use an infusion of talent. Cornerback remains a key area of need, so Florida’s Kaiir Elam, Alabama’s Josh Jobe, and Tennessee’s Alontae Taylor could be in play at the top of the second round.
1 player on each side of the ball who must step up in 2022
When a team trades multiple first-round picks and signs you to a record-setting extension, you need to be the guy at your position. To this point, Laremy Tunsil has yet to establish himself as the No. 1 tackle in the NFL. Sure, he has the talent to dominate defensive linemen on every snap. But injuries have prevented the former Miami Dolphin from justifying his acquisition price and extension.
Tunsil remains under contract through 2023, and the Texans need him to get healthy, lead a young team, and take care of business on the field. He makes quarterback money, so he needs to provide that type of value both on and off the field.
On defense, Lonnie Johnson faces a true make-or-break year. After earning a 65.5 grade from Pro Football Focus in 2020, he’s earned an awful 29.1 mark through 13 games. The long-limbed defensive back is one of the few holdovers remaining from the previous regime.
If he doesn’t step up quickly, he won’t be around much longer.
All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference.