HOUSTON -- For the Houston Texans to contend for the playoffs this season, here are the five players who can help make that happen.
Deshaun Watson, quarterback: A glance at the Texans' record in the second half of last season (1-8) after Watson tore his ACL is an indication of what this team could look like if he cannot stay healthy or play near his level as a rookie. Head coach Bill O'Brien spent the offseason working on the playbook to accentuate Watson's strengths, and if the quarterback can take a step forward in 2018, Houston's offense could be one of the best in the NFL.
Will Fuller, receiver: Houston has one of the NFL's best receivers (DeAndre Hopkins), but for most of his career he has faced double-teams because he hasn't had a consistent receiver playing across from him. When Fuller was healthy last season -- especially in the four games he played with Watson -- he was that deep threat. In four games with Watson, Fuller had seven touchdowns on 13 receptions. If the third-year receiver can stay healthy in 2018, he will be a big part of the offense.
Julien Davenport, left tackle: It remains to be seen who will protect Watson's blind side next season, but whoever wins the competition -- possibly 2017 fourth-round pick Davenport, 2018 third-round pick Martinas Rankin or free-agent addition Seantrel Henderson -- will have a very important role in keeping Watson upright. Last season, the Texans' offensive line allowed 54 sacks, second-worst in the NFL. The poor play at tackle affected the running game, as Houston ranked 29th in average yards before first contact on rushes outside the tackles (2.31), according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Tyrann Mathieu, safety: Last season, the Texans lacked a playmaker in the secondary, and free-agent addition Mathieu has the talent to fill that role in 2018. In 2016, the Texans finished with the NFL's best defense and allowed just 202 passing yards per game. That unit fell to 24th in passing defense last season, allowing 237 yard per game. O'Brien likes to preach that there is a direct correlation between a team's turnover differential and its record. Houston finished minus-12 in that category last season, and O'Brien is hoping Mathieu's ability to take the ball away will make a big difference there.
Whitney Mercilus, outside linebacker: Though Houston's most important pass-rushers are J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney -- and the Texans obviously hope those two can stay healthy -- Mercilus is a key piece of the defense. The seventh-year player led the No. 1 defense in sacks in 2016, but tore his pectoral muscle in Week 5 and missed the rest of the 2017 season. This offseason Watt said he thinks Mercilus is "one of the most underrated players in the league" and that having him back on the field will have a big impact on the defense.