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2021 Stats (Rank)
Total Offense: 4,727 yards (32nd)
Offensive Touchdowns: 29 (30th)
Offensive Plays: 1,010 (30th)
Pass Attempts + Sacks: 546 (23rd)
Rush Attempts: 420 (23rd)
Unaccounted for Targets: 139 (22nd)
Unaccounted for Carries: 229 (3rd)
Lovie Smith is back, baby! After a disastrous run at Illinois and a Darrelle Revis-wasting three-year stop in Tampa, Smith was able to parlay his Nice Little Season with a bunch of forced turnovers at defensive coordinator into another NFL head-coaching gig. The Texans abruptly pulled the rug on their Josh McCown/Brian Flores/Jonathan Gannon finalist pool, held hands in a seance, and came to the decision that the guy who’d been consulting in their search deserved the opportunity. By Cal McNair Era Texans standards, this was only a moderately weird decision.
Offensive coordinator Tim Kelly was fired and replaced by last year’s passing game coordinator and your favorite NFL nerd’s favorite quarterback coach, Pep Hamilton. Hamilton hasn’t exactly laid out a much different narrative than Kelly had last year in interviews: run the ball a lot, don’t force things, get your best guys the ball. Based on Hamilton’s previous stops with Stanford and Indianapolis, there will likely be more two-tight end sets in Houston. Smith has also all but promised to keep a fullback on the roster, if that is a louder demonstration of what is being set up here. Hamilton is a good bet to be a better offensive coordinator than Kelly – a Bill O’Brien nepotism hire who’d never called plays before – was. But the lack of star-level NFL talent on this roster really tampers down on the upside of the unit.
And so it goes for the defense as well, as the Texans will have Lovie calling plays as they didn’t hire a real defensive coordinator. Derek Stingley hasn’t really done much with the team yet as he recovers from offseason Lisfranc surgery but figures to be healthy for training camp. Jon Greenard is coming off a nice-but-injury-shortened eight-sack season, and Jalen Pitre and Christian Harris have chances to blossom into something big. Barring something unexpected, it’s hard to understand everything freezing together to make Houston’s D/ST more than a contrarian matchup play. At least not this year.
QB: Davis Mills, Kyle Allen
WR: Brandin Cooks, Chris Moore
WR: Nico Collins, Chris Conley
SWR: John Metchie III, Davion Davis
TE: Brevin Jordan, Pharaoh Brown
Davis Mills Weeks 3-8: six starts, 1,357 yards, seven touchdowns, six interceptions, 20 sacks
Davis Mills Weeks 13-18: five starts, 1,307 yards, nine touchdowns, two interceptions. 11 bags
Mills was not ready to play in Week 3, and it was extremely obvious that he was a limited player at that point. He’d had a rough training camp as well. To his credit, Mills came back in the second half of the season after the team deposed Tyrod Taylor and took major steps forward. He was better with his pocket movement, showed off more of an ability to beat the blitz, and – generally speaking – the tape matched the statistics. My personal feeling is his deep ball stats from him are a little overblown – there are few true lasers in there, and I think that caps his upside into the Matt Ryan-Andy Dalton stratosphere. That said, any time someone takes that big of a step forward in-season I take them seriously. I think there’s a non-zero chance that Mills can be Houston’s quarterback of the future. Houston’s opening vision doesn’t look to be very compatible with Mills racking up fantasy value and being more than a matchup play this year, but I think there are outs (potential for a bad run game, bad defense) that could boost him into being a legitimate QB2 rather than a Superflex bye week starter.
Brandin Cooks’ underratedness is now overrated. Underrated is just what we call someone when they are banished somewhere where we’ll never watch them play beyond highlights on Red Zone. Cooks defied expectations last year by maintaining a large target share in what on paper appeared to be a ghastly offense. The Texans have ostensibly beefed up their target pool this year with John Metchie III and some Nico Collins development. I’ll get into why I wouldn’t be concerned about that in a couple hundred words, but Cooks again figures to be the one guy on this offense that should be started in fantasy without reservations. Cooks saw his targeted air yards drop from 12 in 2020 to 10.6 in 2021, something that neatly summed up that he’d become a separation target underneath rather than a bomb threat, which explains the consistency of his production last year. He’ll be in the WR2/WR3 crowd again. As long as you find some upside in your receiving corps next to him, he’ll probably still be an ADP value against some of the third- and fourth-round wideouts.
My pick for No. 2 by target volume on the Texans? Brevin Jordan. Jordan fought injuries last year and it took time to get on the field, but when he got there, he was by far Houston’s most efficient receiver. He had a 71.4% catch rate, 13 first downs or touchdowns on 20 completions, and at times was the first read on third-down plays down the stretch. Keep in mind that as Houston carries out its two-TE sets, they are doing this with Jordan and mostly-blocker Pharaoh Brown. It’s possible they carrot-and-stick Jordan with Antony Auclair on early downs but I kind of doubt it. If I had to pick one player other than Cooks to play 90% of the snaps, it’s Jordan. He probably won’t approach every-week TE1 status, but TE2 is in play.
Collins’ rookie season was that of a contested-catch guy who rarely made contested catches. Targeted in the red zone eight times despite limited snaps, he caught just one pass for a 13-yard touchdown – and that was a wide-open slant on what the Chargers assumed would be a running play. Several of the incompletions had “Receiver at Fault” listed under the reason in Sports Info Solutions’ charting. I can see Collins taking a major step in year two, but I’d at least want preseason data supporting the idea that he’d do that before believing it. Chris Conley often split snaps with him when the two were healthy last season and figures to be the primary outside backup. Neither of them start off as fantasy-relevant outside of enormous leagues in my book.
Houston’s trade up for John Metchie III felt awkward at the time and it’s hard to understand the plan for him getting a major snap share this year. He’s coming off a torn ACL in the SEC Championship game, didn’t do any real work in OTAs or minicamp, and is a real candidate to be PUP-listed. Then you look at how this offense wants to play and how Metchie fits with that – are they going to use someone that small as a flanker on screens? This isn’t to say Metchie can’t be a good or worthwhile NFL player, but between the scheme and the injury, it’s hard to understand what to expect of him in 2022. Chris Moore had a very silly fantasy game off Moss’ing JC Jackson as a practice squad elevation and should be the main depth piece. Davion Davis also made it onto the field before getting hurt last year and has a classic slot build and skill set. Phillip Dorsett caught some big passes from Mills down the stretch and should also be mentioned as a possible sleeper.
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RB: Rex Burkhead, Marlon Mack, Dameon Pierce
OL (LR): Laremy Tunsil, Kenyon Green, Justin Britt, AJ Cann, Tytus Howard
You might not think it makes sense to spend the 15th overall pick on a guard that nobody particularly believed was special. I’m kind of with you on that. But the lack of top-level talent in the draft and backdrop of what has happened in Houston the last two years set that up: The Texans finished last year with an almost-impossibly bad -33.2% rushing DVOA, and it was the second straight year they’d finished dead last in rushing DVOA. The Texans averaged 3.06 rushing yards per attempt on first down. In 210 first-down rushing attempts, they rushed for zero or negative yards 42 times. And despite that, they return most of last season’s line!
Green, who was regarded as powerful but raw in several technical areas, missed most of the early offseason while recovering from a knee injury. Like Stingley, he’s expected to be ready for training camp. Unlike Stingley, Green’s production in college wasn’t top-level. It may very well be true that he’s a long-term upgrade. We wouldn’t expect miracles in the short term. AJ Cann turns 31 in October and hasn’t cracked a 70 PFF grade since 2016. He also missed almost all of last season with a knee injury. The depth on hand is mostly the same guys who couldn’t block last year. The major belief in this run game improving has to come from better play calling. I like Pep Hamilton to do some of that, but unless he’s revolutionizing the sport with new option plays, I can’t see the Texans doing better than 25th in rushing DVOA.
What does that mean? Remember that one time you found the Rex Burkhead masterpiece game all season in 2021? Right, I can’t see any Texans running back really pushing for more than one-to-three fantasy-relevant football games all season. Burkhead – the Rexaissance, if you will – is the only back in the top three that does just about everything in the passing game you’d want, so I suspect he’ll open as the snap leader. Marlon Mack will probably be getting a 50-50 or better split of run down work. Are we excited yet? Mark Ingram-esque lines of 14-carry, 41-yard games are in play for Mack.
The Texans brought along their rookies fairly slowly last season unless they were forced to do otherwise, and I think Pierce probably won’t be a major factor until we hit November or so. He’s obviously the running back with the most physical upside on the roster. I know you’re all hoping to see him. The Texans are quite paternalistic and have certain in-house checks on effort and practice level that Pierce will have to pass before he can be trusted.
The other backs on this roster at the moment: Dare Ogunbowale is a passing-down back who you may remember from a brief offseason foray as Tom Brady’s only third-down back he can trust, Royce Freeman exists, and Darius Anderson was on the practice squad last season and has yet to play an NFL snap. From a sexy fantasy asset situation, it’s Pierce or nothing, and Pierce is probably a better dynasty sleeper than someone you want to be out in front of this offseason.
PointsBet over/under: 4.5 wins
It’s a fair number. I think the most important player for the purposes of this number isn’t a Texan at all but Trevor Lawrence. Two of Houston’s four wins last season came as Lawrence lingered in Urban Meyer’s other pint house and the Jaguars managed to out-disaster the Texans. If the Jaguars become a real NFL team under Doug Pederson, the Texans aren’t ready to follow them just yet. I’m going to take four wins for now, which puts me slightly under.