HOUSTON, TEXAS – SEPTEMBER 11: Dameon Pierce #31 of the Houston Texans carries the ball during the first half against the Indianapolis Colts at NRG Stadium on September 11, 2022 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
3 things to watch for in 2022
With the start of the regular season approaching, there is more hope and optimism for the team this year than a season ago. Deshaun Watson has been traded, Nick Caserio has taken over as the face of the front office, and the Texans have drawn rave reviews for their current draft class.
The focus is back on football for the Texans, and while they are still very much a team in transition, they also have a lot of promising young players that could potentially have major roles on the team.
Davis Mills and the offensive line
Mills, a third round pick last season, wound up starting 11 games as a rookie last, essentially broken up into two halves. An unprepared Mills was pressed into duty in Week 2 following an injury to Tyrod Taylor, and his inexperience showed. He went on to start the next six games for Houston, all of which were losses, half of which the team was not competitive, before Taylor returned to the lineup. Taylor went on to start the next four games, but was benched at halftime in his final start of the year, against the Colts on Dec. 5, and Mills would be the starter the rest of the way.
His second stint as the starter last season went quite differently, as Mills showed strong improvement in awareness and confidence. Mills started the final five games of the season, going 2-3 and leading the offense to its most consistent showings of the year. He was stellar in a 41-29 victory over the Chargers, and led a huge second half effort in a 28-25 loss to Tennessee.
After throwing 7 TD and 7 INT in his first six and a half games, Mills threw 9 TD and only 2 INT in his final 5 starts down the stretch, earning him the starting QB job entering the season.
Mills did this despite having a weak offensive line and one of the worst run games in the NFL. This offseason the team tried to get its young QB the help he needs to continue to develop.
It all starts up front, where the Texans used the 15th overall pick on OG Kenyon Green, re-signed center Kenny Britt, and brought in OG AJ Cann.
Green is expected to start immediately at left guard next to Laremy Tunsil, a place that the team has used their second best tackle Tytus Howard. Green should be an upgrade at LG, and allow Howard to move back to RT, where he is better suited, improving two positions at once. A healthy Tunsil will be a significant difference maker for Houston as well. With a returning Kenny Britt at center, right guard seems to be the only position on the line of significant concern. AJ Cann, Max Scharping, and Justin McCray will battle for playing time.
The Texans line needs to show major improvement from the squad that allowed the 9th most sacks in the NFL last season (44) and couldn’t open holes for a running game that was dead last in YPG (83.6).
More time in the pocket will certainly help Mills, who has shown the ability to make big time throws with accuracy, and to be mobile enough to buy some time from oncoming rushers. The line’s ability to help create a run game will be of paramount importance, which leads us to…
The Running Backs
Did I mention the Texans were dead last in rushing YPG last season? Mark Ingram II was second on the team in rushing despite playing in only seven games before being traded to New Orleans. He only had 294 yards.
Rex Burkhead led the team with 427 yards. Since departed David Johnson was third with 228 yards, followed by Tyrod Taylor with 151 yards in his 6 games.
In the offseason, the Texans addressed the RB position by signing former Colts RB Marlon Mack and spending a fourth rd draft pick on Florida RB Dameon Pierce.
Mack is a former starting back, with a 1000+ yd season to his name. From 2018-19, he started 22 games for the Colts, rushing for 1999 yards and 17 TDs. He ruptured his Achilles during Week 1 of the 2020 season, and spent most of 2021 watching teammate Jonathan Taylor run roughshod over defenses. Now fully recovered from the Achilles injury, Mack says he feels the best he has in years, and is ready to contribute and carry the load.
Pierce is a dynamic back known for sheer brute power, as evidenced by his highlights at Florida trucking defenders and scoring a TD helmetless. Pierce has shown a new level of speed and shiftiness during training camp as well, and has impressed with his play. Pierce could wind up the starter very soon, or at the least getting the majority of the carries.
Along with Burkhead serving as a change of pace/3rd down back, this unit stands to show major improvement if they can get just league average play out of the offensive line to create running room.
The Texans were absolutely desperate for help in the defensive secondary, as evidenced by their draft. With the 3rd overall pick, Houston selected CB Derek Stingley Jr and with the 37th pick, chose S Jalen Pitre.
Head coach Lovie Smith is on record stating the Texans couldn’t play defense the way he wanted to play if they didn’t improve in the secondary, specifically at corner. Last season, the Texans were bottom 4 in yards per pass attempt (YPA) allowed (per ESPN Stats & Info) and their corners were bottom 4 in YPA when they were the closest defender to a receiver (NFL Next Gen Stats).
Stingley and Pitre have already drawn big praise from coaches and teammates, as well as each other. They like playing together, and envision being big time playmakers for the defense. Stingley has shutdown corner ability, and Pitre has tremendous versatility as a safety who can also play slot corner, and a nose for the football.
Clearly it’s a lot of leaning on rookies to play well immediately and pay instant dividends, but the team has a core of young talent that is worth watching, and that is fueling the excitement around the team. A season ago, the team seemed like a rudderless ship lost at sea, this season they look like an organization with a plan that is being executed, a clear vision, and the start of the foundation of a new era of Texans football.
GAME OF THE YEAR: In the end, there can only be one ultimate revenge game. Week 13, the Texans host the Cleveland Browns in what is expected to be the return game for disgraced former Houston QB Watson. Watson was suspended for 11 games by the NFL for violations of the Personal Conduct Policy stemming from allegations of sexual misconduct and assault by more than 20 different women who performed massage services for him.
Watson first stunned the Texans fanbase by demanding a trade in January 2021, despite having signed a mammoth contract extension just a few months earlier that had not even begun yet. In March, Houston attorney Tony Buzbee announced he was representing a woman accusing Watson of sexual assault. Buzbee would later go on to represent over 24 women with the same claims.
Watson has further infuriated fans of the Texans and fans around the league with his continued insistence of his complete innocence and sheer lack of remorse, including his defiant press conference comments following the announcement by the league he would be suspended for 11 games for 2022. Texans fans will bring all the venom for Watson at NRG Stadium December 4th.
VEGAS SEASON WIN TOTAL: 4.5
PREDICTED WIN TOTAL: 6
The Texans greatly upgraded by replacing head coach David Culley with Lovie Smith, and offensive coordinator Tim Kelly with Pep Hamilton. They should also see further improvement from QB Davis Mills, and at least some improvement from the offensive line and running game. Defensively they should be at least somewhat improved in pass defense.
Barring key injuries, as Houston does not have very good depth, this team should see a two win improvement from a season ago while many of its very young players continue to gain valuable experience and improve.
Patrick Creighton is the host of “Late Hits,” airing weekdays from 7-9 p.m. CT on ESPN 97.5 Houston.