Houston fans must feel that the Texans are cursed. Over the past few years, the story has been simple; supremely talented defense with no real offense to speak of. But, with Deshaun Watson impressing week on week at the reins of this Texans offense, it’s the turn for the defense to struggle.
Losing their third game of the season was bad enough, but losing arguably the best defensive talent of the last decade in J.J. Watt, AND as Tom Brady put it “One of the most underrated players, I think, in the league in terms of rushing the passer” in the shape of OLB Whitney Mercilus for the season – Houston’s ferociously talented front seven has taken yet another beating.
So what’s next? with an offense on a streak like this, they can’t and (surely) won’t simply write off 2017 at this still relatively early stage in the season, so the question remains how do they replace these giants?
Free Agents - Replacing Watt
When Watt went down last year after aggravating his existing back injury, they called upon former Texan Antonio Smith to plug the gap until the end of the season. However, the 'Ninja Assassin', as he was once known, hardly turned any heads. In 13 total appearances in 2016, he lodged 0.5 sacks and 3 tackles, before once again becoming a free agent this offseason. With stats like these, and given he's now almost 36, you'd have to say the likelihood of him returning once again is slim.
Looking elsewhere, some of the notable defensive ends that are still available are Jared Odrick, Devin Taylor, and Dwight Freeney. If he were just a few years younger I'd say to go straight for Freeney, but at 37 he's not a risk worth taking despite the leadership he would bring to replace that of Watt and Mercilus, and Odrick and Taylor are simply not up to standard.
However, there is one option that I am yet to bring up, and as with Smith last year, he's a former Texan. Four-time Pro Bowler and one-time All-Pro DE Mario Williams was Houston's first-round draft pick in 2006, following which he spent six seasons racking up 53 sacks and 193 tackles in 82 starts for H-Town.
Naturally, given that he's now 32, the same performance cannot be expected of Williams should the Texans give him a go, especially given that he managed just 6.5 sacks in the last two years. But that doesn't mean he can't pick his career back up.
Speaking on why they opted to let him go in 2017, Dolphins Head Coach Adam Gase said that:
Mario went through a lot of things that we kind of kept in-house early in the season.
It really was some personal things. It seemed like one thing after another that was going on with him, and he probably didn’t have as great a spring as he wanted to.
When he came back for training camp, at his age, I think it caught up to him a little bit. He was fighting to get in great shape and make sure (he did) the injury prevention type thing. It was one of those years that just didn’t work out for him.
So perhaps returning to the place where it all started and where he had the bulk of his success is exactly what he needs to get going again.
Free agents - Replacing Mercilus
Losing Mercilus, the Texans leader in sacks last year is a huge blow. Since his arrival in 2012, he has been criminally underrated. A persistently strong performer, his pass rushing abilities are undeniable and nearly irreplaceable, but it is this very task that Houston must now look to undertake.
There are few options currently out there in free agency who present anything like the same threat, however, a few names jump out as potentially effective pass rushing linebackers; Jarvis Jones, Paul Kruger, Akeem Ayers and Lamarr Houston.
Jones and Ayers are unlikely if you look at their pass rushing records over the past few years, however, perhaps the Texans' defensive staff could get something out of these younger players. On the other hand, (Lamarr) Houston and Kruger are both over 30 and therefore represent a more temporary solution which would suit Houston's needs better at this point.
LH as I shall now call him, has plenty of experience at DE to make him a viable option to move around on this Texans defense, and he has shown pass rushing abilities - particularly in Oakland. The issue with him remains that he has missed a lot of games these past few years through injuries and therefore represents a significant risk. Also, having worked out with the Buccaneers today, if the Texans want to make a move, they'd better be fast.
Kruger also has experience moving around the defense having also played at both DE and OLB, however, his lack of any significant injury concerns may well swing the favor in his direction.
Look to the next generation
As it stands, Brennan Scarlett will take the place of Mercilus and Christian Covington that of Watt. If nothing else, these injuries do hand these two young players opportunities to shine and develop that they otherwise may not have gotten. Look at CB A. J. Bouye last season; with the Texans corners all suffering from various injuries throughout the season, this undrafted free agent stepped up and shone in what was a spectacular breakout year for the now Jacksonville Jaguar.
Covington is now in his third year and has already shown glimpses this year of why he started five games last year. In Week 3 of this season, he not only sacked Tom Brady but also forced a fumble in what was a surprisingly tight game. Giving Covington more starts could be exactly what this young DE needs to shine.
Scarlett is still only in his second year but has already recorded 10 tackles in five appearances this season. While he still has a long way to go if he is to have the same pass-rushing affect as Mercilus, if Jadeveon Clowney can increase his production and Covington can continue to develop then that could take the pressure off of Scarlett for the time being.
It's about balance
In my opinion, their best bet is to go with Williams alongside Covington and split the snaps between them as done last season with Covington and Smith, while bringing in either LH or Kruger to help ease the pressure on Scarlett.
With a defensive coordinator like Mike Vrabel and an assistant head coach as prolific with defenses as Romeo Crennel, you'd imagine that they would be able to bring both players back to something reminiscent of their better years, and potentially help deliver yet another AFC South title to the city of Houston as they prepare for the return of two of their stars next season.
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