Season grade: C+
Season summary: The Texans spent their offseason working to improve their offense and to take advantage of elite receiver DeAndre Hopkins by signing quarterback Brock Osweiler to a four-year, $72 million contract, adding running back Lamar Miller and using their first-round draft pick to take receiver Will Fuller.
But that offense was not the reason the Texans won the AFC South for the second season in a row. In fact, it was almost the reason they didn't make the playoffs. Osweiler struggled, completing 59 percent of his passes for 2,957 yards with 15 touchdowns and 16 interceptions, and was benched in Week 15 after throwing two interceptions in the first half. He got another chance to play after Tom Savage left with a concussion in Week 17, and he started the wild-card game against the Oakland Raiders and in the divisional round against the Patriots.
Hopkins, the Pro Bowl receiver the Texans were trying to build around, had a down year. A season after he had 111 catches for 1,521 yards and 11 touchdowns, he had only two games in which he had at least 100 yards receiving. He finished the regular season with 78 catches for 954 yards and four touchdowns and never was able to consistently get into a rhythm with Osweiler or Savage.
Instead, it was the Texans' defense that led them to a 9-7 regular-season record and a playoff win over the Raiders. Houston was the No. 1-ranked unit in total defense, and that was without three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, who was put on injured reserve in late September after he had his second back surgery in a little more than two months.
The Texans did not live up to the high expectations they had entering the season, and although they made the playoffs for the second consecutive season, they came up short again.
Biggest draft need: Offensive line help, particularly at right tackle. After right tackle Derek Newton tore the patellar tendon in both knees on Oct. 24 in Denver, the Texans started Chris Clark at right tackle, and he struggled. Newton likely will not be healthy in time for next season, and the Texans could use some depth on the line. Veteran left tackle Duane Brown played extremely well for Houston in the 12 games after he returned from injury, but he needs some help.
Key offseason questions
How do the Texans address the quarterback situation? Unless the Texans eat a large portion of Osweiler's 2017 contract, he will return and compete for the starting job next season. Though Osweiler's $72 million contract is not fully guaranteed, if the Texans were to cut him during the offseason, they would still owe him the rest of his $16 million for next season. The four-year contract is front-loaded, so all the guaranteed money is due in the first two years and his cap hit will be $19 million next season. He does not have a roster bonus until the final year of his deal, so they would not save any money by releasing him this offseason. Savage had a small sample size at quarterback this season -- fewer than nine quarters in three games -- but he did not blow the Texans away during his opportunity. Third-string quarterback Brandon Weeden was active only for three games and will enter the second and final year of a deal he signed before this season.
Houston likely will draft a quarterback in April and have a competition during training camp to see who will start. The Texans have $24,685,408 in cap space, and they have quite a few contracts to address, including those of Hopkins and Brown, who will be free agents after the 2017 season. Unless they are able to restructure a few deals and get off the hook for paying a portion of Osweiler’s salary, the Texans likely won’t be able to make any kind of a quarterback splash during the offseason.
Will Hopkins return to his 2015 form? It seems likely that Hopkins will rebound and break 1,000 yards in 2017. With 954 yards, that's still a pretty impressive "down year." Part of the reason for the decrease was because of inconsistency by Osweiler and Savage. Because Osweiler could not consistently throw downfield -- he completed just 27 percent of passes that were thrown 15-plus yards down the field -- the quarterback had to rely on the Texans' tight ends and running backs more this season. As the season went on, Houston was able to figure out ways to get Hopkins the ball more, and his numbers improved. During the last three regular-season games, Hopkins caught 18 passes for 253 yards, which is the most he had in any three games this season. Hopkins caught only 52 percent of passes thrown to him, down from 57.8 percent in 2015.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, when throwing to Hopkins 15-plus yards downfield, Osweiler was 7-of-35 with three touchdowns and five interceptions. Teams were able to have their best cornerback shadow him or double-team him, which cut into his production as well. Fuller should take a step forward next season, and if he stays healthy, he will take some of the spotlight off Hopkins. That, along with some late-season success to potentially build on, should give the Texans' 2017 quarterbacks more chances to get the ball to his top receiver.
Will Watt return to his dominating self in 2017? Unlike after Watt's return from his first back surgery, he will have had a lot of time to recover and rehab from his second. Watt had back surgery in late September, and though he started his rehabilitation in Wisconsin, he returned to Houston in late November to continue rehabbing at the team facility. Without seeing him play, it's hard to tell if he will be back to where he was when he won his third NFL Defensive Player of the Year. But if he is even 80 percent of the player he has been for the past couple of years -- a disruptive force with 17.5 sacks last season and 20.5 the year before -- he will be a huge addition to an already good defense. Watt will be rejoining a defense that should remain intact for next season, featuring defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and outside linebackers Whitney Mercilus and John Simon. If he can stay healthy, Watt makes that defense even better.