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Exit Interview: Houston Texans

Houston overcame an 0-3 start to win the AFC South and host a playoff game. But after another one-and-done postseason, questions loom about head coach Bill O’Brien and his team’s ability to protect Deshaun Watson.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s that time of the season when some NFL teams have started looking toward next year. As each is officially eliminated, The Ringer will examine what went right, what went wrong, and where the franchise could go from here. Today it’s the Texans, who couldn’t overcome a 21-point hole and fell to the Colts, 21-7.

What Went Right

A season with a healthy Deshaun Watson and J.J. Watt was worth the wait. Though the Texans started out 0-3, they stormed through the rest of the year, going 11-2 down the stretch to put together the team’s best record since 2012.

Watson wasn’t quite the sensation he was in his rookie year, especially with Patrick Mahomes II casting a colossal shadow over the entire league, but he quietly built on his promising rookie season. Watson managed 4,165 passing yards (11th), 26 passing touchdowns (12th), and nine interceptions. His passer rating was nearly identical to the one he put up his rookie year (103.1, sixth), and he ranked 13th in ANY/A (6.87), 15th in QBR (63.0), and 12th in Pro Football Focus Grade (82.6). There is a lot of room for growth there, but considering that Watson was working behind what is by far the worst offensive line of any playoff team, his sophomore year has to be considered a success.

And on the other side of the ball, it was fair to wonder whether Watt, who had dealt with injuries in 2016 and 2017, could return to being the same dominant player he was from 2012 to 2015. Well, he’s back. The 29-year-old defensive end had 16.0 sacks, 25 QB hits, and a league-high seven forced fumbles, leading what was the seventh-best defense by DVOA.

Meanwhile, DeAndre Hopkins had the most receiving yards in his career, and defensive backs Kareem Jackson, Johnathan Joseph, Tyrann Mathieu, and Justin Reid anchored a solid secondary. Plus, Jadeveon Clowney put together maybe his best season as a pro. Houston has a nice collection of talent that came through in 2018.

What Went Wrong

That playoff game really got out of hand fast. Let’s kick it over to our resident Texans fan to get his thoughts:

The Colts led 21-0 at halftime, and while Indy slowed considerably in the second half, the Texans couldn’t take advantage. Watson missed throw after throw in the fourth frame, and the Texans’ potential comeback fell well short. It’s another home playoff loss for head coach Bill O’Brien, who is now 1-3 in the postseason with the Texans—and that one win came against the Connor Cook–led Raiders. O’Brien landed a contract extension last January, but another disappointing playoff appearance makes his seat warm heading into 2019.

Beyond the team’s one-and-done playoff appearance, the Texans were also a disappointment for their complete inability to protect Watson. The Houston quarterback was sacked 62 times this season, the highest mark in the league. He went down on more than 10 percent of his dropbacks, more than the 8.5 percent of dropbacks that ended in a sack for him last year. To be fair, some of this is on Watson, as he tends to hold onto the ball. His average of 3.01 seconds before throwing is tied for the third-longest time in the league, behind only Josh Allen and Ryan Tannehill. Whether it’s getting better blockers or more quick-developing plays—or, ideally, both of those things—the Texans have to find a way to make sure Watson doesn’t take 62 more sacks in 2019.

Free Agency

The Texans defense will need to be retooled this offseason. Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, safety Tyrann Mathieu, corner Kareem Jackson, and defensive end Brandon Dunn are all set to become unrestricted free agents. So while the Texans have the sixth-most effective cap space ($69.6 million) per Over the Cap, they also have plenty of work to do on the roster.

Of that group, Clowney is the crown jewel—and also the most likely player to leave this offseason. While he hasn’t quite lived up to his billing as the no. 1 pick in the 2014 NFL draft, Clowney is an athletic marvel who has made the Pro Bowl in each of his past three seasons, recording 24.5 sacks in that span. The Texans could franchise tag him for an estimated $17.9 million, and they’ve said that they want to keep Clowney on the squad. But a franchise tag would be a hefty sum to pay, and Houston would be in the same spot next year. Clowney will get paid eventually—just look at the deals that Khalil Mack and Aaron Donald got to see how teams value pass rushers. It’s just a matter of who will shell out for him.

Mathieu was brought over in the offseason from Arizona, and he’s more than lived up to his one-year, $7 million deal. The 26-year-old defensive back defended eight passes and recorded two picks, earning the 17th-best grade for a safety from Pro Football Focus. Like Clowney, the Texans want to keep Mathieu, but considering he left the Cardinals over a contract dispute, he won’t come cheap.

Jackson and Dunn won’t be nearly as expensive, but they’re still reliable starters. The Texans will either have to pay them or replace them.

The Draft

The Texans will draft between 21st and 24th, depending on how the rest of the wild-card round plays out. They also have the Seahawks’ second-round pick, which gives the team a decent amount of draft capital. Houston’s biggest need is along the offensive line, and a tackle like Kansas State’s Dalton Risner, Florida’s Jawaan Taylor, or West Virginia’s Yodny Cajuste could be the ideal fit.