Houston Texans: AFC South prominence on the decline

The Houston Texans have won three of the last four AFC South titles. However, the franchise's future is foggy and their reign of supremacy could be fading.

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When the Houston Texans fired Brian Gaine, they set off a snowball that hasn’t quite started its descent down the mountain. The first ripple effect was the multi-headed monster being named general manager. As their pursuit of Nick Caserio came to a halt, the Texans decided against naming a GM for the 2019 season. While this has been the only main repercussion from dismissing Gaine, there is a whole chain of events waiting to be unraveled.

The Texans have a lot on the to-do list in the coming years. For starters, they have to do their due diligence and lock in on their most coveted general manager candidate, whether that’s Caserio or someone else. There’s no reason to delay the hiring process and hinder offseason activities. There’s no time to waste and bringing them in and getting them a part of the operation as soon as possible is imperative.

They have to resume construction on the offensive line despite Gaine’s efforts to improve the unit. Looking at their 2020 free agent crop, there’s a handful of players they’ll have to make tough decisions on. While the Colts, Jaguars, and Titans spent the offseason getting better, Houston created more questions than answers. With so much uncertainty regarding the future, it doesn’t help that the rest of the division is getting better.

Houston Texans’ offensive line remains a glaring issue

Following an 0-3 start to the 2018 season, the Texans faced insurmountable odds of reaching the postseason. Not only did they reach the playoffs, but Houston also secured their fifth division title in franchise history. With that, the high expectations are going to seep into 2019.

Looking at Houston’s roster, they could be in for a disappointing season. It’s a wonder how they were so successful last year, mainly because their offensive line was among the worst in the league. While the Texans invested heavily there in the 2019 NFL Draft, the players selected were widely considered reaches and raw talents. Therefore, that unit is likely to be the Achilles’ heel yet again this season. It’s extremely tough to win when you’re weak up front, which is why the 2018 team is such an anomaly.

Entering the preseason, there’s no clarity whatsoever. You figure Tytus Howard should start, but he’s still going to have to prove himself. At this point, Nick Martin is the only player guaranteed a spot as he’s started 30 games over the past two seasons. Otherwise, there are a bunch of borderline guys vying for starting slots. Hopefully, the competition brings out the best in these players. However, it’s tough to imagine significant improvement this season, even if they rely on the younger guys in Howard and Max Scharping.

Mike Devlin enters his fifth season as offensive line coach and it’s a mystery why he remains with the team. However, in his defense, he hasn’t had the premier talent to work with, especially since the traded away Duane Brown. Then again, Devlin’s units have never excelled. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Texans look elsewhere for an offensive line coach following the 2019 season.

AFC South getting stronger

During Bill O’Brien‘s tenure, he’s suffered only one losing season. I think there’s a strong chance the second gets added this year. Aside from the abysmal offensive line, the Texans, led by Gaine, didn’t do anything to improve throughout the offseason. Whereas all three division rivals upgraded their roster substantially, whether via the draft or free agency.

The Indianapolis Colts are living large following their romping of Houston in this past season’s playoff matchup. Indy was active in free agency, bringing in impact players like Justin Houston and Devin Funchess. They also rodger retained key role players in Pierre Desir and Clayton Geathers. Not to mention, they brought in an imposing draft class which features ten picks.

Looking at the Jacksonville Jaguars, they’ve always been heavy participants in free agency while the Texans have sat on plenty of cap room. The Nick Foles signing garnered mixed reviews, but at least they’re attempting to address what’s been holding them back for the past few years. Then you look at their draft and they swooped up two great value picks to start in Josh Allen and Jawaan Taylor. After an underwhelming season, the Jags aren’t on many radars. However, they’re good on paper and let’s remember they’re just two years removed from a couple of playoff wins.

Moving over to the Tennessee Titans, they’ve been held back by inconsistent quarterback play. However, they’re certainly better on paper than they were at this point last season. They made a couple of splashes in free agency. Adding Rodger Saffold is sure to bolster the offensive line as he comes over from the NFC champion Los Angeles Rams. Tennessee also added Adam Humphries to provide the offense with more weaponry and followed that up by drafting A.J. Brown in the second round. While Cameron Wake is 37 years old, he’s still playing at an astonishingly high level. Tennessee then killed the 2019 NFL Draft, headlined by a great value at 19 overall in Jeffery Simmons. The top four picks of Tennessee’s class have immediate starter potential.

In an ever-competitive AFC South, the Texans seem to be trending down. After winning three of four division titles, their grasp on the crown is slipping. The Colts are on the ascent and enter 2019 as the favorites. Chris Ballard has done a tremendous job of building a complete team and the Colts aren’t going anywhere for at least the next few years. Plus, the Jags and Titans will be in the mix as well. If the AFC Wildcard matchup was any indication, the Texans could be in for a rough stretch.

Decisions to make this spring

Looking ahead to the 2020 offseason, Houston has a lot of decisions to make. Of course, they have to deal with Jadeveon Clowney. Assuming he’s not traded or re-signed, the Texans will finally be forced to make a long-term decision. Allowing a player of Clowney’s caliber to walk could set your franchise back. Not to mention, Whitney Mercilus will be a free agent at season’s end and is already 30 years old.

We could see the Texans lose their top two edge defenders this offseason. In addition, Lamar Miller faces a contract extension and it’s unlikely they bring him back as he ages. Lacking depth in the backfield, they’ll need D’Onta Foreman to prove himself this season. Otherwise, they could be starting from scratch on the edge and at running back.

Furthermore, Bradley Roby, Nick Martin, and D.J. Reader are all playing on expiring deals. Roby, a Gaine acquisition, was signed to a one-year deal. Expected to be the starting corner, Houston doesn’t have much security there. Especially because Johnathan Joseph is a huge retirement candidate following the season. Nick Martin has been a bit inconsistent over his short career, but he’s the best linemen they have until further notice. As for Reader, he’s far outplayed his fifth-round draft position and plays an integral part in Houston’s defensive front.

As most teams do, the Texans have a lot of decisions to make this offseason, from a free agency standpoint alone. Clowney’s situation isn’t encouraging. Do they then re-sign a 31-year-old Mercilus whose best days are likely behind him? Those losses would leave gaping holes at their edge spots. At running back I don’t think they’ll look to bring Miller back after all the wear and tear he’s endured over the years. Then there’s Roby, who is a talented corner, but him returning could hinge on the team’s 2019 success. Houston could enter the 2020 free agency period with more holes than they’ve seen in a while. They’ll have to be willing to spend and bring in new faces this go around.

A complete overhaul could be inbound

It feels unjust to bash a team whose been extremely successful over the past half-decade or so. However, the fact of the matter is this franchise isn’t in ideal shape. They just don’t have a common foundation of a defending division champion. Especially being without a general manager, the Texans have forced themselves into an unorthodox position.

As much success as O’Brien has enjoyed in Houston, it never seems to come comfortably. Despite winning season after winning season, he always seems to be sitting on a seat at least mildly warm. Mustering up just one playoff victory in three trips, at some point ownership will demand more results. With a disappointing 2019 season, which is anticipated, O’Brien’s seat could be hotter than ever.

With a new general manager incoming following the season, it’s a strong possibility the Texans elect for a complete overhaul. As Houston fills that major position, a change at head coach is on the horizon as well. Now, this is assuming the Texans underachieve this season. However, it makes total sense to bring in a new general manager and head coach in the same year in an attempt to start a new era of Texans football.

At the end of the day, no matter what happens with this franchise, at least they have Deshaun Watson. A franchise quarterback is the hardest thing to find in all of sports. Luckily for the Texans, Watson is only 24 years old with at least another decade of football ahead of him. As long as he’s under center, the Texans have a good shot at being competitive every year. However, he can only do so much if there’s a poor foundation around him.

Jonathan Valencia is a writer for PFN covering the Houston Texans and Pac 12 NFL Draft. You can find him on Twitter @JonValenciaPFN.

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