HOUSTON -- When Houston Texans owner Cal McNair announced he was adding the general manager title to head coach Bill O’Brien's job description, he painted an optimistic picture -- perhaps too optimistic -- in his review of the 2019 season.
"I was encouraged by the progress that our team made on the field this year, which was due in part to our new structure, operating approach and the leaders within our football operations group,” McNair said in a statement. “I am proud that we provided our fans with many thrilling victories at home, including a playoff win, and we delivered another double-digit-win season. Our fans deserve that, but now it is time for the organization to get back to work toward our pursuit of a world championship for the city of Houston."
Yes, the Texans won a playoff game for the first time since the 2016 season, but the team also blew a 24-0 lead in the divisional round of the playoffs to the Chiefs, allowing Kansas City to outscore them 51-7 after taking the big lead in the second quarter.
“We feel like over the last couple of years here, we've done some good things. We've won four division titles. We've won 20-plus games in the last two years. We won a playoff game this year. We've got a great young quarterback," O'Brien said at his end-of-the-season news conference on Jan. 13, a day after the loss. "We got a lot of good, young core players, but yesterday was not good, and we understand that, and we want to really work hard to try to improve that and get beyond that.”
The Texans fired former general manager Brian Gaine last June but did not hire a replacement. Instead, Houston operated with a general manager by committee approach last season.
It will be a very challenging offseason for O’Brien in his new role, with a defense that failed dramatically in the playoffs and without much draft capital and cap space to plug the holes on the roster. With a surging Titans team that will challenge in the AFC South, Houston could have trouble getting back to the playoffs in 2020.
Along with the change to name O’Brien the team’s general manager, the Texans also made a change at defensive coordinator, promoting defensive line coach Anthony Weaver to replace Romeo Crennel. The 72-year-old Crennel is expected to come back in an advisory role next season, but this is now Weaver’s defense.
The Texans expect to have defensive end J.J. Watt back at full strength after he returned from a torn pectoral muscle on an accelerated timetable to be back for the playoffs. But beyond Watt, Houston’s pass rush struggled last season. Outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus had a strong start to the season, with 5.5 sacks in the first eight games of the season, but after Watt was injured in Week 8, he only had two.
The Texans' pass rush win rate (how often pass-rushers are able to beat their blocks within 2.5 seconds) in the first half of the season was 44.3%, which ranked 16th in the league. Without Watt after Week 8, it was 25.4%, which ranked 31st, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Weaver’s challenge will be to figure out how to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks with less premier talent in the front seven than the Texans have had in the past, and likely less help in the secondary, as well.
Houston could lose nose tackle D.J. Reader, who is entering free agency and had the best year of his career in 2019. And the Texans still have questions at cornerback, despite making some in-season moves last year that O’Brien hopes will help Houston’s long-term plans at the position. Veteran cornerback Johnathan Joseph is a free agent, and although he said after the season that he does not want to retire, it’s unlikely he’ll return to Houston unless he takes a significant pay cut.
Instead, the Texans will likely rely on former first-round picks Gareon Conley, who was acquired in October for a third-round draft pick from Oakland, and Vernon Hargreaves, whom they claimed off waivers from the Buccaneers in November. Houston’s best cornerback in 2019 was Bradley Roby, but he was on a one-year, prove-it contract that he outplayed, and the Texans don’t expect to get him back.
Surging AFC South
Despite the fact the Texans have won the AFC South in four out of the past five years, all under O’Brien, the division title could be difficult to retain next season. The Tennessee Titans, who lost to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game after beating the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens as the No. 6 seed on the road, are expected to be a major contender in 2020, especially if they can re-sign star running back Derrick Henry and quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
The Texans again play a first-place schedule that includes games against six playoff teams, including the Super Bowl champion Chiefs on the road.
At midseason last year, all four AFC South teams were still in the hunt for the division, and the Indianapolis Colts showed they can be a threat as well, especially if they find a consistent quarterback, whether it’s Jacoby Brissett or a top free-agent quarterback.
Lack of resources
Houston went all-in last season, and as a result, it does not have as many resources available to fill holes on the roster.
The Texans currently have $58 million in salary-cap space, most of which could go to extensions for quarterback Deshaun Watson and left tackle Laremy Tunsil this offseason. Houston already has a couple huge contracts on the books to Watt (a deal that carries no more guaranteed money and could be restructured this offseason) and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Houston does have room to create cap space. Wide receiver Will Fuller ($10.1 million), Hargreaves ($9.6 million) and guard Zach Fulton ($7 million) each have salaries that are not guaranteed for the 2020 season, although it's unlikely Houston would cut Fuller unless they had an agreement in place to bring him back at a lower cap hit.
O’Brien will have to figure out how to add outside talent on a budget, without a first-round draft pick. Last season, with Brian Gaine as general manager, Houston gave out several one-year deals. It’s unlikely that trend continues with O’Brien in charge. The head coach and general manager likes to reward his own players, as shown with the in-season extensions given to center Nick Martin (three years, $33 million) and Mercilus (four-years, $54 million).
Regardless of how aggressive O’Brien is this offseason -- and he showed he was aggressive last year, with four major trades less than two weeks before the 2019 season began -- the 2020 plan won’t simply be a matter of just building on another playoff appearance, but instead will require some bigger changes.
"We feel like we have a really good culture here, we’ve got a good group of core players here," O'Brien said. "We're working hard to make the next step to get to where everybody wants us to get to, and where we want to get to."