I have to admit: I had to check twice. The Texans really went 6-10 last year? Really?
Considering the multiple injuries they suffered on their already shaky offensive line, the running back wheel-of-fortune that landed on (of all people) Ron Dayne, the game planning that begged David Carr not to do much of anything, and the defense that produced just 24 turnovers, third-fewest in the league, a 6-10 record is actually rather shocking. Of course, it helped that the Texans got to play the Colts when the Colts didn't care, the Browns when the Browns were busy packing their suitcases, and the Jaguars (twice), who apparently have taken up residence in the bizarro Seinfeld world, where Kramer's really quiet.
Last year's non-Reggie-Bush-related headlines revolved around Carr, and the bad decision Charlie Casserly made in continuing to invest in a guy with a career 59-65 TD-INT ratio. I'll admit it: Up until a couple of years ago, Carr's physical gifts had me fooled, too, but I woke up early in the '05 season, while Casserly never did. Sure, Houston skimped from beginning to end on offense, investing nothing in the running back position, never getting a decent tight end or a running mate for Andre Johnson, and that offensive line has been bad forever. But Carr plays like his hair's on fire, Kyle Boller style. He needed to go.
Then there's Bush. I wrote this last year: "The decision to take Mario Williams instead of Reggie Bush will, mark my words, go down as a Sam-Bowie-over-Michael-Jordan-style disaster." I stand by that. Williams was sluggish in '06, but I'm not condemning him to a failed career. I'm just saying: Reggie Bush. Reggie Freaking Bush. Think how different this team would look, Texans fans. Now stop thinking and dry your eyes. Casserly seems like a nice guy. But he sure screwed things up before he left town.
Key Backups/Position Battles
Sage Rosenfels threw 39 passes as Carr's backup last year, and was apparently never given serious consideration in the search for a new starter. He thrilled Miami fans for about half an hour in 2005, and gives Chris Berman a spice-laden cornucopia of nickname possibilities, but he's not a threat to Schaub, for whom the Texans gave up two second-round picks and an exchange of first-rounders with Atlanta. Bradlee Van Pelt, a caddie from coach Gary Kubiak's days in Denver, is third.
If you believe Green is ready to be a fantasy stud again, you can skip this paragraph. Now that the sillier readers among you have gone, let's talk turkey: Despite the fact that Houston nominally spent $23 million on Green, they're still going pretty cheap in the backfield. Green is guaranteed "only" $6.5 million from his four-year contract (and I think he's still overpaid), proof positive that the league no longer sees him as a top back. Dayne was shockingly effective during the fantasy playoffs last year, was hardly ever thrown for a loss, and will probably be the short-yardage guy. There's also second-year man Wali Lundy, who started half of Houston's games last season and caught 33 passes; Chris Taylor, who was effective in limited 2006 action and could play some fullback; and good old Samkon Gado, whose presence indicates that offensive coordinator Mike Sherman is really intent on putting the band back together.
Andre Johnson reversed the curse and turned his horrid 2005 (63 catches for 688 yards) into a very good '06: 103 receptions for 1,147 yards. Outside of him, though, there isn't much else. Moulds is gone, so right now Kevin Walter, he of the 47 career catches in four professional seasons, is the other starter. Behind him are rookie Jacoby Jones, a kick return specialist, Jerome Mathis, an oft-injured kick return specialist, and a bunch of guys named David Anderson, Charlie Adams, Bethel Johnson and Andre Davis, none of whom have the credentials to be in a regular receiving rotation. To me, Jones shows the most promise of the bunch; he reportedly dazzled the Texans during spring activities. (Just asking, though: Does it take a lot to dazzle the Texans? Is it like getting a kitten to play with your keys?) Still, Jones is a rookie, so don't draft him. Don't draft any of these guys, save Johnson.
As a rookie, Owen Daniels was a nice story, catching five scores in the first half of the season, and though he tailed off at season's end, he's still the man. That means the expensive Jeb Putzier rusts away, waiting for his turn; he caught only 13 passes last year after grabbing 36 and 37 his final two years in Denver. There's a chance Schaub spreads it to both of these talented receivers, but Daniels looks most fantasy-worthy right now.
Week 3 Indianapolis Colts
Week 6 @ Jacksonville Jaguars
Week 7 Tennessee Titans
Week 9 @ Oakland Raiders
Week 10 Bye
Week 12 @ Cleveland Browns
Week 13 @ Tennessee Titans
Week 14 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Week 15 Denver Broncos
Week 16 @ Indianapolis Colts
Week 17 Jacksonville Jaguars
What to Look for in 2007
Kubiak is doing his darnedest to make like the Denver Broncos, while Mike Sherman keeps importing his weathered Green Bay Packers offensive personnel. Reading between the lines, this shapes up as a conservative, run-first attack that will ask Schaub to do only slightly more than Carr was asked to do in '06. It's well nigh impossible to know exactly what Schaub will give you fantasy-wise, because he's got no track record: three years in the league, 161 total attempts for 1,033 yards and two career starts. He can be a decent bye week fill-in if you pick the right week, but there are enough mitigating circumstances to slap a warning label across his backside.
Chief among those factors is the offensive line, where tackle Jordan Black is instantly supposed to promote respectability, but I'm not so sure. Black is a good story -- not a bonus baby, wound up starting all 16 games in lieu of Willie Roaf for Kansas City last year -- but he's an average player who isn't absolutely guaranteed a starting spot. Eric Winston is huge but may be suited more for guard than tackle, and the guy taken just after him in the draft last year, Charles Spencer, may not be back because of his horrifically broken leg. Mike Flanagan missed the end of '06 with broken ribs and will improve the middle, as will Chester Pitts, a former tackle who'll play guard in '07. Still, pass-rushers are going to be too comfortable playing the Texans, though Houston might be big enough up front to generate a bit of running room.
And who'll take advantage of that room? I find it hard to believe Green will be a fantasy force this year, despite the fact that he's coming off 1,059 yards in 14 games last season for the Packers. He's on the wrong side of 30, he was far worse in the second half of '06 than in the first (only one game over 79 yards in Green Bay's final 10 contests), and he scored only six times, a far cry from the guy who posted 20 scores in 2003. Green has the name recognition that'll get him selected far too early in your draft; I'd put him right around 25th or so among running backs, and there's little question he'll be taken earlier than that in most leagues. I think Dayne winds up vulturing touchdowns, Lundy steals some third-down plays, and none of Houston's running backs provide much consistent fantasy value. Again.
The best guy to own here, obviously, is Andre Johnson, but is he worth his draft-day price? I tend to think not. Yes, he caught an NFL-high 103 passes in '06, but did you know he finished just 11th in total yards receiving, which gave him a too-low 11.1 yards per catch. Guys with Johnson's physical abilities (i.e., ridiculous size and speed) typically average between 15 and 20, which means that (a) Carr was a bad deep-ball quarterback, (b) the Texans' offensive line didn't give AJ time to get downfield, and (c) defenses pretty much keyed on tackling Johnson, to the exclusion of everyone else. The result? Of those 103 catches, just five were for scores. Will things get better for AJ this year? Maybe Schaub seems to throw a nice deep ball. But there are no wide receiver names worth knowing on the other side, and Daniels can only attract so much defensive attention. I definitely have Johnson well inside the top 20 at receiver, but there's no way I'd put him inside the top 10, unless it's a point-per-reception league.
Oh, and don't draft this defense. Please.
For a team that appears set to try and pound the ball, there's precious little value to be found among the running backs. Green will cost you too much, and the other guys won't be fantasy starters unless Green gets hurt. With a season of professional training under his belt, Lundy shapes up to me as an interesting deep-league deep sleeper, but a whole heck of a lot would have to go right. Johnson will be the only Houston player owned in all leagues, and rightly so, though again, I'm skeptical that the offensive line, the quarterback, the other receivers and the runners will distract opposing defenses enough to give Johnson his full fantasy value. I wish I could report that this is a team on the rise, bursting with potential fantasy starts. I really do.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com.
You can e-mail him here.