Sometimes in sports, teams like to go through a stealth rebuild. It’s just like a normal rebuild, except they aren’t trying to be too obvious about it. The Houston Texans are certainly not doing that as their rebuild is extremely obvious.
The roster is very clearly not set up to succeed in 2022. It is incredibly young and unproven at virtually every position. There are just five players on the Texans over the age of 30 and one of them is the long snapper. Having young players is great for the future but it is not a good strategy to win games now, which must not be Houston’s goal this season.
The Texans do have some veterans player that people will recognize. Wide receiver Branin Cooks, linebacker Christian Kirksey, running back Rex Burkhead, and defensive ends Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison account for most of the experience on the team. And none of those players are even still in their prime (although you could argue that Cooks is still playing pretty well).
That means it is all about the young guys this year. Almost every player will be fighting not only for a starting spot this year but for a place on the roster in the future. No one is more emblematic of that situation than quarterback Davis Mills.
As a largely unforgotten member of a highly-touted class of quarterbacks in the 2021 draft, Mills impressed last year in 11 games as Houston’s starter. He outplayed many of the quarterbacks taken in the first round, making his third-round selection look like a steal. The Texans even chose not to draft a quarterback in the 2022 draft, even though they had the third overall pick (granted, the quarterback class was very weak this year).
Mills won’t have the element of surprise on his side this year. He is not going to be a shockingly good day-two draft pick anymore. He is a starter. And he needs to play like one in order to keep his job for the next season.
Houston is going to have a huge decision to make in the upcoming offseason. They have to either commit to Mills as the quarterback of the future (for now) or move on from him and draft a quarterback with what will presumably be a high pick in the 2023 draft. Mills’ job is to make that decision as hard as possible for the franchise and prove that he has what it takes to be the guy going forward.
Unfortunately, it is going to be hard to do that with the current state of Houston’s roster but he will have to work with what he’s got. Cooks is a reliable veteran receiver with big-play ability, so it would be wise for Mills to target him as much as possible. There are other receivers that have been around for a while, Chris Conley and Phillip Dorsett, but it is more likely that one of the young guys will step up as the number two receiver.
The options for that spot are second-year wide receiver Nico Collins and rookie wide receiver John Metchie. Collins has a leg up in terms of familiarity, both with the team and Mills, but it is not a huge advantage. He caught just 33 passes for 446 yards and one touchdown last year. Metchie has the advantage in terms of draft status, second round versus third round.
It is more than likely that both players are heavily involved in the offense, with different roles to get the most out of their skillsets. Collins’ bigger frame lends itself more to an outside role while Metchie’s speed and quickness work best out of the slot. But only one of those guys can emerge as the number two option, and possibly the number one once Cooks is no longer on the team.
Mills also won’t have a lot to rely on at the tight end position, although there is some potential there as well. Tight end Pharaoh Brown is the most productive returning player at the position but that isn’t saying too much (24 catches for 248 yards and three touchdowns).
Second-year tight end Brevin Jordan is the clear future of the position, though. He was slightly behind Brown in production (20 catches for 178 yards and three touchdowns) but he played significantly less, nine games compared to Brown’s 15.
The flashes that Jordan showed in those nine games were enough for him to be considered the best option for the future. Obviously, there is no way of knowing how the Texans view the tight end situation, but to the people on the outside, it looks like Houston got an absolute steal when they selected Jordan in the fifth round of last year’s draft.
Running back is another position where Houston potentially has a young player ready to take over. That player in this case is rookie running back Dameon Pierce, a fourth-round selection. Although he was drafted in the fourth round, that actually isn’t that late for running backs. Just in the past five years Aaron Jones, Chris Carson, Chase Edmonds, Tony Pollard, and Michael Carter were all taken in the fourth round or later.
Pierce should have a clear shot at the starting job this year, although there are some veterans that may stand in his way. Burkhead, Marlon Mack, and Royce Freeman are also on the roster and could earn roles in some capacity. That could make it easier on Pierce if he lets him slowly get up to speed in the NFL but it could also make it harder if the veterans block him from getting valuable reps on the field.
Pierce should be the starter this year because he is the only back with the potential to develop into something more than average at the position. It’s entirely possible the Texans mess this thing up and lean on Freeman or Burkhead too much this year but that would be a bad call as it would significantly hinder Pierce’s development.
Having experienced players in starting roles isn’t always a bad thing. Houston has left tackle Laremy Tunsil, who will be heading into his seventh season, to provide some stability up front. Although the situation with Tunsil is far from stable, as trade rumors have been hovering around him for the entire offseason. If the Texans are inclined to trade him they would get a pretty nice return, but it would severely hurt their offensive line play.
They started ten different linemen other than Tunsil last year and are returning most of them. That is good because of experience but bad because it signifies that no one has played well enough to lock down a starting spot.
One of those spots will surely go to first-round rookie Kenyon Green. He played all over the line in college at Texas A&M so his versatility will be a huge plus for the Texans. He will most likely slot in at guard which makes spending a first-round pick on him look a bit foolish because of positional value but Houston just needs reliable offensive linemen, no matter what position they play.
The Texans’ defense is also very heavy on the young talent but it doesn’t have as many players with potential as there are on the offensive side of the ball. It hurts that they will be without safety Justin Reid this year after he left in free agency. He was arguably the best player on the defense in 2021 and is still young enough at 25 years old to be a part of the future.
The Texans did get a player that figures to be a part of the long-term plan in the secondary when they drafted cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. with the third overall pick this year. Stingley has an interesting college career, at times showing the potential to be one of the best defensive players in the sport and at other times demonstrating an apparent carelessness. Houston is banking on the upside of Stingley (the kind that made him a first-team All-American as a freshman) to win out as he transitions to the next level.
He may not have as much talent around him in the secondary as he did at LSU but there are some intriguing players for him to line up with. fellow rookie safety Jalen Pitre was one of the best defensive backs in college last year so he and Stingley could form the foundation of an excellent secondary.
There are also some interesting players that could produce in starting roles such as Desmond King, Fabian Moreau, Kendall Sheffield, Steven Nelson, Tremon Smith, M.J. Stewart, and Isaac Yiadom. If just a couple of them prove to be decent starters then the secondary may not be so bad after all.
The linebacking group does not have the same positive outlook. The group is heavily reliant on experienced but underwhelming players. Kirksey, Kamu Grugier-Hill, Kevin Pierre-Louis, Neville Hewitt, and Jalen Reeves-Maybin are all solid players but not much more than that.
The only player with true upside in the group is rookie linebacker Christian Harris. The third-round pick out of Alabama could develop into an above-average starter one day but it may be hard for him to see the field with such a logjam of veterans in front of him.
The defensive line may be the one position on the roster with a perfect blend of veteran and young players. With experienced players such as Hughes, Addison, Maliek Collins, and Jordan Jenkins, it gives them reliable bodies that they can rotate along the line.
But there is also a nice mix of younger players with Ross Blacklock, Jonathan Greenard, and rookie Thomas Booker. Greenard has already experienced success as a pass-rusher, recording a team-high eight sacks last season. He is the player on the defensive with the most potential and playing alongside and learning from the veterans may be what he needs to make the leap.
Young players always make fans eager for the future but with a roster this reliant on unproven talent, Texans fans are going to want to fast forward to the future immediately. This is not going to be a good season for them, with even the best version of this year’s team winning only a handful of games.
If Mills plays out of his mind this year and looks like a franchise quarterback then this team could steal a few games and have a record that isn’t terrible. But with that unlikely to happen, although I do think Mills will look solid, I think this is a 2-15 team.
That may seem harsh but if you actually look at the roster, like I did, and the schedule, which I also did, it makes sense. Without any truly elite players and very many winnable games, this season already looks like one that won’t be a success for Houston (unless you count ending up with the first overall pick in the 2023 draft a success).