Texans' defensive line will prove daunting with return of J.J. Watt

HOUSTON -- As free agency gets closer, here’s a look at who the Houston Texans have returning and what they might need to add this offseason at each position.

Defensive line

Under contract for 2017: J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, Christian Covington, D.J. Reader, Brennan Scarlett, Gerald Rivers, Joel Heath, Ufomba Kamalu, Brandon Dunn, Eric Lee.

Free agents: Vince Wilfork, Antonio Smith, Devon Still.

How they fared in 2016: When Watt was ruled out for the season after his second back surgery in late September, the Texans recited the NFL's signature mantra of “next man up," but also acknowledged how difficult it would be to replace the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year. But the rest of the defensive line -- especially Clowney, who had recently made the move from outside linebacker to defensive end -- stepped up and led the unit, which had one of the best front sevens in football this season.

Houston did finish toward the bottom of the league in sacks, tied for 24th with 31, and a lot of that was missed production from Watt. In 2015, Watt had 17.5 sacks; he has also has two seasons with 20.5 sacks under his belt. Watt said there were times last season when he was on the sideline, unable to play, when he wanted to be on the field as the Texans’ playmaker.

“A certain situation comes up -- let’s say it’s third down and you need a sack, like there’s a situation where I’m like OK, this is where it’s my job to make a play,” Watt said in February. “I think that’s what I really look forward to is those moments again where we need a play, we need something, we need a spark, we need that energy, we need that juice. That’s what I live for.”

Position outlook: The Texans finished the regular season with the No. 1 unit in total defense, and that was without Watt, who played in just three games before re-aggravating his back and needing his second back surgery in less than three months.

If Houston keeps Clowney at defensive end, the Texans will have a very athletic and talented defensive line. Although Houston will likely lose Wilfork to retirement, the Texans found their nose tackle of the future in Reader, their fifth-round pick last year. With Clowney and outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus on the outside next season, expect Watt to see plenty of action on the inside of the defensive line as well.

“We’re really excited about [how good the defense can be],” Watt said. “Obviously, we have a lot of great pieces in place. We have a phenomenal defensive staff. We have phenomenal guys on the team, so it’s all about just going out there and doing what we’re able to do.

“I think a lot of it comes down to belief, and I think we see what we’re capable of doing, and then it comes down to believing that you can take another step and another step and I think we have that level of belief now, and I think it’s only going to grow.”

Level of need (low, medium or high): Low

By the numbers

16: Tackles for a loss by Clowney, which led the team and was tied for sixth in the league.

83: Regular-season games Watt played in a row before missing Houston’s Week 4 victory over the Tennessee Titans.