Just as a reminder or for those who may be new to the Eyes of the Guru series. For reference, when mentioning where players finished in the rankings last season, the model will be the standard Footballguys scoring system:
- Tackles = 1.5
- Assists = .75
- Sacks = 4
- Forced fumbles = 3
- Fumble recoveries = 3
- Interceptions = 4
- Passes defended = 1.5
- Touchdowns = 6
Keep in mind that based on scoring systems, rankings will vary (sometimes greatly) from league to league.
At a point not long ago the Texans defense was one of the most formidable in the game. This was not so much the case in 2017 when they were mediocre against the run, tied for last versus the pass at eight yards per attempt, ranked 23rd with 32 sacks and forced fewer than 20 turnovers. While there are other contributing factors, their change of fortune was largely due to the absence of one man wrecking crew J.J. Watt.
In four seasons from 2012 to 2015 Watt lit up opponents and the box scores like pinball machines. Over that span, he averaged an incredible 62-31-17, 6.5 turnovers and 10 batted passes per season. Those are eye popping numbers for a lineman in any scheme, making them even more impressive the Texans run a 3-4 scheme. Watt is a once in a generation player and when healthy can make an average defense look great. Unfortunately, he has not been healthy since 2015. Back problems in 2016 followed by a finger injury early in 2017 then a knee in week five caused Watt to miss all but nine games over the past two years and be marginally effective when he did get on the field.
Things are looking up for Watt and the Texans entering training camp. The back issue has been a non-factor despite such injuries often becoming chronic problems, the finger healed long ago and his recovery from the tibial plateau fracture is going well. Watt crushed the training camp conditioning test and is not expected to be placed on the PUP. He missed most of the team’s offseason practices and will be limited this summer but should be back in action by week one at the latest. Watt is 29 years old so if he can get past the injuries there are plenty of years left for him to dominate. He is a team leader, an outstanding player and the kind of person off the field that makes everyone pull for him. Due to the injury concerns, there are a select few defensive linemen that may go off the board ahead of Watt but if he stays healthy, he will be in the mix for the top slot once all the numbers are in.
The issue of positional designation conflicts will never go away until IDP managers and commissioners push league hosting sites to get with the program and evolve as the NFL has. We finally have CBS, NFL.com, Yahoo, and MyFantasyLeague all agreeing on Khalil Mack as a defensive end but there is not an agreement on Jadeveon Clowney. Even the team roster on their own home page lists him as DE/OLB. With Watt out, Clowney stepped up to lead the team with 9.5 sacks in 2017. In leagues where he was a defensive end, the totals of 41-18-9.5 and 4 turnovers made Clowney a solid DL1. With a linebacker designation, his value was greatly limited in all but big play based formats.
In reality, the DE/OLB listing is accurate for Clowney who will line up at both positions regularly throughout the course of a game; at least when everyone is healthy. When he was drafted first overall in 2014 the Organization envisioned Clowney as a bookend to Watt at end, with the versatility to move around, confusing blocking assignments and taking advantage of matchups. He was recovering from a serious injury of his own and played little as a rookie. Clowney was back in action in 2015 but still not at full strength. By the time he was fully healthy, Watt was not. Thus the Texans are still looking for an opportunity to get their two stars healthy and on the field at the same time for a full season. It looks like that might finally happen in 2018. Clowney should become a perennial 40 plus tackle guy, with (or near) double digit sacks and a few forced turnovers over the next several years. Make sure you know where he falls position-wise in your league and rank him accordingly.
Christian Covington, Joel Heath, and Brandon Dunn did a fine job holding down the fort last season but none of these guys are exceptional talents. As a result, no defensive end (other than Clowney) accounted for more than 17 solo stops last season, and if you remove Clowney, the entire defensive line accounted for five sacks.
D.J. Reader handles the nose tackle position in the base defense but comes off the field on passing downs. Carlos Watkins is his primary backup but the Texans have several players with the ability to take snaps over center if needed.
- DE J.J. Watt – Elite DL1 with injury risk
- DE/OLB Jadeveon Clowney – Solid DL1 or quality LB2 in big play based leagues
- DE Christian Covington – No fantasy impact
- DE Brandon Dunn - No fantasy impact
- DE Joel Heath - No fantasy impact
- NT D.J. Reader - No fantasy impact
- NT Carlos Watkins - No fantasy impact
- NT/DE Angelo Blackson – No fantasy impact
Inside linebacker play contributed to the team’s mediocrity on defense last season and provided a major disappointment for IDP owners along the way as well. After going 77-51-5 in 2016, Bernardrick McKinney was expected to take the next step in his third season; surprisingly his next step was backward. It was not all his fault as the front three without Watt, and Clowning seeing time at OLB, did not do a great job of keeping blockers off the second level. As a result, McKinney’s tackle totals slumped to 61 solo and 31 assists. With the front line in tact at last, we should see a rebound in tackle production from him in 2018. Most concerning from an IDP perspective, however, is McKinney’s glaring lack of big play production. His five sacks in 2016 dropped to three last year, and three campaigns into his career (two as a starter) has McKinney with three pass breakups and still looking for an interception, forced fumble or recovery. The law of averages suggests the streak of futility has to end eventually but there is no reason to expect a sudden breakout in the big play columns. With a career best of 77 solo stops and no big play production to speak of, it is hard to look at McKinney as more than depth with a little upside.
You would not expect it by glancing at the end of season totals but Zach Cunningham is probably the better fantasy option in Houston going forward. He has more range and athleticism with better cover skills than McKinney. As a rookie second round pick, Cunningham got on the field early but worked in a two down base package role most of the season. When his opportunity increased late in the year so did Cunningham’s production. As a three down player over the final four games, he had 22 solo stops, 15 assists, and half a sack. Cunningham forced a fumble in week five so he is already ahead of McKinney in that category, and he added another sack in week thirteen as well. The sample size is small but projecting Cunningham’s December numbers over a full season puts him in the area of 88 solo and 60 assists. At that pace with just a sprinkling in the big play columns, he could be a high-end LB3. At 23 years old entering his second year as a pro, he could prove to be even better.
Dylan Cole was an undrafted rookie last season but should one of the starters go down he could be an interesting in-season addition. On 205 snaps in a backup role, Cole was 16-16-1 with a pair of interceptions. The team needs a playmaker on the inside so put Cole on the watch list this preseason.
If the Texans play Clowney on the edge and have Whitney Mercilus back at full strength, they have an excellent pair of starters at outside linebacker. Mercilus landed on IR last October with a torn pectoral but is fully recovered and good to go entering camp. With at least five sacks in each of his first five seasons and a career best of 11 in 2015, Mercilus is a proven commodity. He is not, however, someone that can challenge for a sack title. With tackle totals consistently in the low to mid-30s and an average of seven sacks per season, he will be a solid contributor to the Texans cause but no more than depth in big play based leagues in IDP terms.
The team’s lack of depth on the outside was an issue last season and their lack of attention to it could continue to create problems. The injury to Mercilus in week five put second-year undrafted free agent Brennan Scarlett on the field in a near full-time role. Scarlett was adequate, playing well versus the run but not making much contribution as a pass rusher other than a two sack outing in week 10. When he was in turn injured in week 12, the Texans were left scrambling. Surprisingly the only roster additions at the position this offseason were a pair of sixth-round picks, Duke Ejiofor and Peter Kalambayi. Some scouts had Ejiofor going as early as round three. He had a great career at Wake Forest producing 24 career sacks (17.5 in two seasons as a starter) and accounting for half a dozen turnovers. Dynasty owners in big play leagues will want to pay particular attention to this young man’s progress since there is anot a lot on the roster in front of him.
- ILB Benardrick McKinney – LB5 with limited upside
- ILB Zach Cunningham – Sleeper with strong LB3 potential
- ILB Dylan Cole – Injury sleeper
- ILB Ben Heeney – No impact expected
- OLB Whitney Mercilus – Depth in big play leagues
- OLB Brennan Scarlett – No impact
- OLB Duke Ejiofor – Dynasty sleeper in big play leagues
- OLB Peter Kalambyi – Developmental rookie
- OLB Ufomba Kamalu – No impact expected.
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