This fantasy preview is part of a preseason series by FantasyLabs Editor-in-Chief Matthew Freedman. Other pieces in the series are available on our Fantasy Football Preview Dashboard.
For the first nine years (2002-10) of their existence, the Texans were the personal plaything of Peyton Manning in the AFC South. Dom Capers was an ignominious 18-46 as the first head coach of the franchise, and Gary Kubiak, though better at 37-43, wasn’t good as Capers’ successor. And then the unthinkable happened: An injury kept Manning from playing in 2011, and in 2012 the Colts released him. In their six Manning-less seasons, the Texans have five winning campaigns and four division titles. Entering his fourth year, HC Bill O’Brien has three straight 9-7 finishes. For O’Brien and the Texans, 2017 is about winning the AFC South, making the playoffs, and maybe — just maybe — finding out if they (finally) have a franchise quarterback.
O’Brien is a coach’s coach. A defensive end and linebacker at Brown University (1990-92), he became a coach there (tight ends, 1993; inside linebackers, 1994) right after leaving college. After that he spent eight years at Georgia Tech, working his way up from graduate assistant (1995-97) and running backs coach (1998-2000) to offensive coordinate/quarterbacks coach (2001) and then assistant HC (2002) under offensive pseudo-mastermind Chan Gailey. After two years each at Maryland (running backs coach, 2003-04) and Duke (OC/quarterbacks coach, 2005-06), O’Brien made the jump to the NFL by joining the Patriots.
With New England, O’Brien quickly advanced in the organization, starting as an offensive assistant (20007) and then moving to wide receivers coach (2008) and eventually quarterbacks coach (2009-10) and OC (2011). Most importantly, with the departure of Josh McDaniels for Denver after the 2008 season, O’Brien became the offensive play-caller, serving in that role for three years. Under his guidance, the team transitioned from the Randy Moss-Wes Welker era to the innovative Rob Gronkowski-Aaron Hernandez two-tight end spread that many teams attempted (unsuccessfully) to copy for a few years. O’Brien was the quarterbacks coach and play-caller for Tom Brady when he won his second MVP award in 2010.
Following the Sandusky scandal at Penn State, O’Brien was hired to be Joe Paterno’s successor, and he did well there under difficult circumstances, given that the NCAA had sanctioned Penn State with a four-year postseason ban and the loss of 40 scholarships. In his first year (2012), the Nittany Lions went 8-4 (far better than people expected), and he won the Paul “Bear” Bryant College Coach of the Year award. He also coached quarterback Matt McGloin into a one-year wonder who to this day still fools front offices into thinking he’s an NFL talent. In 2013, the Lions again had a winning record (7-5) and O’Brien — like a young Voldemort — performed a rare piece of magic with drastic consequences: He made an 18-year-old true freshman quarterback look like a no-doubt future No. 1 overall draft pick. If Jets fans ever wake up in the middle of the night wondering why Christian Hackenberg is in the NFL, O’Brien and his 2013 sorcery are the reason.
During this time O’Brien also turned Allen Robinson into a superstar with a 174/2,450/17 receiving stat line across 24 games. In the season before O’Brien arrived, A-Rob had a 3/29/0 line in 11 games. It’s worth remembering that in his second NFL season Robinson had a top-five all-time campaign for a 22-year-old wideout. O’Brien helped develop that guy.
After Kubiak’s 2012-to-2013, 12-4-to-2-11 Matt Schaub/Case Keenum-fueled fall from grace, general manager Rick Smith fired Kubiak with three games left in the season. (The Cowboys fan in me wants to point out that defensive coordinator Wade Phillips finished the campaign as interim HC in typical @sonofbum fashion, going 0-3.) The Texans hired O’Brien as HC in the hopes that he could bring some of his quarterbacking witches’ brew to Houston. While he is yet to transform a Texans passer into Brady, O’Brien’s offense has survived the following coven of starting hags:
- Brock Osweiler (2016): 14 starts
- Ryan Fitzpatrick (2014): 12
- Bryan Hoyer (2015): 9
- Ryan Mallett (2014-15): 6
- Tom Savage (2016): 2
- T.J. Yates (2015): 2
- Case Keenum (2014): 2
- Brandon Weeden (2015): 1
That O’Brien has three straight winning seasons with these quarterbacks is outstanding. That he’s chosen them in the first place is problematic.
When O’Brien came to Houston, he (in the manner of Bill Belichick) refused to hire an OC, but he did hire George Godsey to serve as quarterbacks coach. Godsey had been an assistant under O’Brien in New England in 2011, and together they called the plays in 2014. Godsey was promoted to OC in 2015 and he served as the primary play-caller till Week 4 of 2016, when following an embarrassing 0-27 loss to the Patriots he was stripped of play-calling duties, which O’Brien reassumed (although he still consulted with Godsey). After the season Godsey was fired, the OC position was intentionally left vacant, and O’Brien has personally taken it upon himself to oversee the offense. Chips in the middle of the table, he’s all in.
A review of O’Brien’s offenses yields two key observations:
- He builds his offenses to highlight his studs.
- He plays at a fast pace.
It might seem obvious for a coach to emphasize his best players, but not all of them do it. In New England, the Patriots were top-five in pass attempts and top-three in passing yards in two of his three years as play-caller. He emphasized the passing game and sought to create as many opportunities as possible for Brady, Moss, Welker, Gronk, and Hernandez. At Penn State, he turned Paterno’s ball-control run-heavy offense into an uptempo pass-heavy scheme that funneled the ball to Robinson. And in Houston he’s highlighted running backs Arian Foster and Lamar Miller and stud wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins: The Texans on average have been 6.7 of 32 teams in run/pass ratio over the last three years, so they skew heavily toward the run — but when they pass they target Hopkins at an elite rate. When O’Brien has talented players, he feeds them pigskin.
Regardless, though, of whether he’s been pass-heavy with New England or run-heavy with the Texans, O’Brien’s offense has moved. In two of his three years as the Pats play-caller they were top-three in neutral pace. In two of his three seasons with the Texans they’ve been top-eight in pace. Never has an offense of his been outside the top half of the league in rate of play. As a result, O’Brien’s teams pile up the plays. The Pats were top-two in plays in two of his play-calling seasons. The Texans have been top-eight in plays each year. On average, they’ve been fourth in rushing attempts under O’Brien and have never fallen outside the top six. Additionally, because they play so quickly, they’ve even been 11.5 of 32 in passing attempts over the past two years.
Even with a studly defense that over the last two years has been a top-three unit in yards allowed, the Texans in 2017 are likely to play quickly while emphasizing the running game — especially since their quarterback situation is still precarious.
This offense hasn’t had many changes in the last year, but the few changes it’s undergone have been major:
- QB: Brock Osweiler/Tom Savage –> Savage/Deshaun Watson
- RB: Lamar Miller/Alfred Blue –> Miller/Blue/D’Onta Foreman
- WR: DeAndre Hopkins
- WR: Will Fuller/Jaelen Strong
- WR: Braxton Miller/Keith Mumphery –> Miller
- TE: C.J. Fiedorowicz/Ryan Griffin
- LT: Duane Brown/Chris Clark –> Brown/Kendall Lamm
- LG: Xavier Su’a-Filo
- C: Greg Mancz
- RG: Jeff Allen
- RT: Derek Newton/Chris Clark –> Clark/Breno Giacomini
Gone is Osweiler, his onerous contract, and the team’s 2018 second-round pick, all of which were shipped to Cleveland in March to give the team cap space to acquire Tony Romo from Dallas, which obviously ended up not happening — because Hall-of-Fame owner Jerry Jones and the Cowboys weren’t in the mood to give Romo the respectful 2012 Peyton Manning treatment. With no proven passer on the roster, the Texans traded with the Browns during the draft, giving up their 2017 and 2018 first-rounders for the right to select the Clemson superstar Watson with the 12th overall pick. All told, Houston traded away Osweiler (and his contract), its 2017 first- and sixth-rounders, and its 2018 first- and second-rounders, and it got back a 2017 fourth-rounder and a quarterback who might not start in Week 1: #TrustTheProcess.
Drafted in the third round, Foreman is a 21-year-old 2,000-yard runner out of Texas. He’s likely to be an eventual upgrade on Blue at running back. At receiver, however, the Texans have a problem: Fuller broke his collarbone in early August and is expected to miss 2-3 months. Strong and Miller will collectively hope to replace him, but they represent downgrades. The Texans also have problems on the offensive line. The left tackle Brown is currently holding out for a new contract, the guards Su’a-Filo and Allen last year had poor overall Pro Football Focus grades of 44.9 and 41.0, the right tackle Newton is out for the season with double patellar tendon ruptures, and Clark and Giacomini are ‘competing’ for the right tackle spot but last year had 41.6 and 47.6 PFF grades.
The offensive line wasn’t horrible last year, ranking 15th with 4.16 adjusted line yards per carry and 12th with a 5.6 percent adjusted sack rate (Football Outsiders), but PFF ranks it as the league’s fourth-worst unit entering the season.
On defense there have also been major changes, the most important of which is that 2014-16 DC Romeo Crennel was moved to assistant HC in the offseason so that the team could keep the coveted up-and-comer Mike Vrabel, who was promoted from linebackers coach (2014-16) to DC. On the field the biggest change is the return of defensive end J.J. Watt, who played only three games last year:
- DE: J.J. Watt/Christian Covington/Joel Heath –> Watt
- NT: Vince Wilfork/D.J. Reader –> Reader
- DE: Jadeveon Clowney –> Covington/Heath
- OLB: Whitney Mercilus
- MLB: Benardrick McKinney
- MLB: Brian Cushing/Max Bullough –> Cushing/Zach Cunningham
- OLB: John Simon –> Clowney/Brennan Scarlett
- CB: A.J. Bouye –> Kevin Johnson
- CB: Johnathan Joseph/Kevin Johnson –> Joseph
- SCB: Kareem Jackson
- SS: Quintin Demps/Corey Moore –> Moore
- FS: Andre Hal/Moore –> Hal
Thanks to Smith’s sharp drafting and the leadership of Crennel, the Texans have been top-12 in rushing yards allowed in each of the last three seasons and top-three in passing yards allowed in the last two. While the secondary was the team’s strength last year, this year it is less certain with the loss of Bouye (PFF’s No. 2 cover corner last year) and Demps (PFF’s No. 10 safety). The five primary defensive backs still all had overall PFF grades of at least 70.0 in 2016, but the secondary has lost much of its depth.
With the return of Watt, the front seven is stacked, ranking as PFF’s top unit entering 2017. Clowney is shifting back to outside linebacker from defensive end, where he filled in for Watt last year. Clowney and Mercilus are top-10 edge players who form dynamic bookends to the linebacking core rounded out by the solid veterans Cushing and McKinney in the middle. Wilfork has retired and will be missed but his in-house replacement in Reader was solid last year on 40.0 percent of the team’s defensive snaps. And Watt is a potential Hall-of-Famer who has won the Defensive Player of the Year award in three of the last five seasons. Right now he has the highest implied odds to win the award again at +350, ahead of Khalil Mack (+500) and Von Miller (+500). That’s some big respect from the market for a player returning from a back injury.
Even if the secondary isn’t as good as it was last year, the defense should still be a top-five unit. It’s unsettling that a first-year play-caller in Vrabel is coordinating the defense, but Crennel is still around to advise — and it’s possible Vrabel could be better than his predecessor.
For a team that last year was 28th in scoring and 29th in yards on offense, the Texans have some intriguing skill position players.
Tom Savage, QB
Savage is sort of the old Hackenberg who stayed in school. He started 11 games as a 19-year-old true freshman at Rutgers in
1999 2009, breaking records for the most passing yards (2,211) and touchdowns (14) by a true freshman in the Big East Conference. (No wonder Big East football no longer exists.) Given his performance, Savage looked like a future first-rounder. And then everything fell apart. As a sophomore he was benched for ineffectiveness by maker-of-men HC Greg Schiano, and Savage responded the way you might expect from a future first-rounder — in fact, the way Troy Aikman responded in 1986: He transferred.
At Arizona in 2011, Savage had to sit a year per NCAA rules — and then the unthinkable happened: It didn’t work out. HC Mike Stoops was fired after opening the season 1-5, and when Rich Rodriguez (the coach who unleashed Denard Robinson) was hired Savage decided to transfer again because he didn’t think he’d fit into Rodriguez’s system. Now that Schiano was gone, Savage wanted to return to Rutgers but his hardship waiver to play immediately was rejected, so he instead transferred to Pittsburgh — and had to sit the 2012 season, spending a year of collegiate eligibility on the bench. In 2013 he finally played football and was decent but not notable, completing 61.2 percent of his passes for 7.6 adjusted yards per attempt. Of course, he was also a statue in the pocket with -208 ‘rushing’ yards on 76 carries (in college, sacks are counted as rushing attempts).
Given that he is big (6’4″ and 228 lbs.), slow (4.97-second 40), stiff (7.33-second three-cone), and strong-armed (57 mph ball velocity), Savage was bound to be loved by the old-school evaluators throughout the draft process. For instance, godfather of football Gil Brandt called Savage “the best quarterback prospect you’ve never heard of” and compared him to Aikman, whom Brandt drafted No. 1 overall to the Cowboys in 1989. Selected by the Texans in the fourth round in O’Brien’s first year with the team, Savage was widely considered a project who needed 2-3 years on the bench to grow into a potential starter. He’s entering his fourth season, so for Savage the time is now.
Last year he replaced Osweiler in a Week 15 come-from-behind win over the Jaguars, completing 63.9 percent of his 36 passes for 260 yards. For that game he looked like an NFL quarterback. He started the next week against the Bengals and ‘led’ the team to a 12-10 win, getting sacked four times and failing to challenge the defense down the field. He once again got the start in Week 17 against the Titans, who were one of the most generous teams to quarterbacks last year, but he was only 5-of-8 for 25 yards (with a fumble) when he was benched after a hit that eventually was revealed to have caused a concussion. He didn’t play again for the rest of the season. And then the team drafted Watson in the offseason.
Savage is 27 years old and has made only 15 starts (in college and the NFL) over the last six years. We have almost no performance data on which to evaluate him. Since drafting Watson, O’Brien has maintained that Savage is the starter, and he’s been endorsed by Hopkins. He’s reportedly been ahead of Watson in training camp, and he started the preseason opener, going 9-of-11 for 69 yards in a quarter of action — but almost nothing he’s done since he was 20 years old should make us confident that he’s capable of winning the starting job, keeping it for most of the season, or playing well as the starter.
That said, the Texans seem likely to make him the Week 1 starter. If there are any sportsbooks still taking action on Savage vs. Watson, take a look at the lines.
Deshaun Watson, QB
A four-year starter in high school, Watson shattered Georgia state records on his way to becoming a first-team All-American and the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback college recruit. Choosing to play for HC Dabo Swinney at Clemson, Watson flashed in eight appearances (five starts) as a true freshman, scoring 19 touchdowns as a passer and runner.
As a sophomore and junior, Watson was electrifying. A Heisman finalist both years, he led Clemson to back-to-back National Championship appearances against Alabama, winning it all in his final college game. With 8,702 yards and 76 touchdowns passing (and 1,734 yards and 21 touchdowns rushing) in his final 30 games, Watson was every bit the best player in college. In the final three games of each season — ACC Championship, playoff bowl game, National Championship — Watson was strong when his team needed him to perform, completing 62.6 percent of his passes for an average of 308 yards and 2.5 touchdowns (to one interception) and adding 89 yards and 1.3 touchdowns on the ground. As a college producer and winner, Watson has everything an NFL franchise could want in a first-round draft pick.
Except for arm strength. Although Watson tore up the combine with fantastic speed (4.66-second 40), agility (6.95-second three-cone), and burst (119.0-inch broad) for a player of his size (6’2″ and 221 lbs.), he represented himself poorly in the passing drills. He was accurate — but he had a ball velocity of only 49 mph. That number is unspeakably low given that 55 mph has become something of an expected threshold over the last few years. Almost no quarterbacks below that threshold have had NFL success since ball velocity was first measured at the combine in 2008.
At the same time, correlation is not causation. We need to consider multicollinearity when it comes to quarterbacks and ball velocity. Draft position is predictive of the opportunities a quarterback receives, and the NFL tends to prefer passers who throw the ball hard. They are selected with higher picks and have more opportunities to succeed. Over the last decade, only a few times have NFL teams used top-100 picks to draft quarterbacks with weak-ish arms: Christan Ponder (51), Jake Locker (54), and Chad Henne (53). That sample is small, and none of those guys as prospects had the superior production profile Watson has. It’s possible that most quarterbacks with weak arms don’t have NFL success at least in part because they’re not drafted with high enough picks and as a result don’t get opportunities to show if they’re actually good.
Tellingly, two quarterbacks drafted outside the top 100 with weak arms and dual-threat playing styles have broken out in the NFL over the last two years: Tyrod Taylor (50 mph) and Dak Prescott (54). Taylor finally got his opportunity to start after sitting on the bench for four years in Baltimore, and Dak got his chance to start only because the two guys in front of him suffered serious injuries. Once they got their opportunities, Tyrod and Dak succeeded — in spite of their noodle arms.
It makes sense that a quarterback with a weak arm would not be a good NFL player. At the same time, we can’t say definitively that a quarterback with a weak arm but strong draft pedigree, athleticism, and production won’t be a good fantasy player. We don’t have enough data to make that statement with certitude — and the data we have suggests that the combination of draft position, athleticism, and college production is probably more predictive of NFL success than arm strength is.
Quarterback evaluation is still more of an art than a science — but the numbers are on Watson’s side, and it also helps that he has the kingmaker O’Brien to mentor him, Hopkins to catch his passes, and an elite defense to keep the Texans in games. He might not play this year, but I’m willing to bet on Watson in dynasty drafts.
Right now he’s tied with running backs Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey at +400 with the highest implied odds to win Offensive Rookie of the Year. Of the three, Watson probably has the best real odds — but only if he starts within the first six games. Fournette’s Jaguars are extremely unlikely to make the playoffs, and if McCaffrey’s Panthers make the playoffs it will have more to do with the play of quarterback Cam Newton than McCaffrey. But Watson could quarterback the Texans to the playoffs and give stability and a bright-seeming future to a position that has been in turmoil over the last four years. That would probably give him an edge in the ROY race (assuming one of the backs doesn’t have a historic campaign).
Brock Osweiler, QB
Given that the team traded away next year’s second-rounder to get rid of him, his presence still lingers with the Texans. If Hamlet teaches us anything, it’s that ghosts are real.
Lamar Miller, RB
Miller is a good player with nice size (5’11” and 212 lbs.) and great speed (4.40-second 40), but he’s not a workhorse. Even though his 19.1 carries and 76.6 yards rushing per game last year were career-high marks, he didn’t stand up well to the workload (suffering shoulder, ankle, and rib injuries), and he had fewer carries per game (1.07) inside the 10-yard line than he did on average in his two final seasons in Miami (1.13). Last year in his 14 games he played on 63.3 percent of the snaps, which isn’t all that much more than the 59.8 percent he played with the Dolphins in 2014-15, when he averaged 14.82 DraftKings PPG. With the Texans, he averaged 14.58.
How can a guy who’s fourth in the league in carries per game have overall production so middling? Miller was horribly inefficient: He was 73rd with a 14.0 percent juke rate, 69th with 0.7 yards after contact per touch, and just 64th with 0.63 fantasy points per opportunity (PlayerProfiler). If Miller’s workload were secure heading into 2017, I’d look to buy him at a discount as a positive regression candidate — but his workload isn’t secure. Last year the Texans gave 100 carries to Blue, and this offseason they drafted Foreman with a top-100 pick. Miller seems likely to lose carries and especially goal-line opportunities this year.
He’s still likely to get 1,200-1,400 yards, but with only six to eight touchdowns Miller will be an expensively young version of Frank Gore. Given that Miller has an average draft position of 25.9 in DRAFT best ball leagues, I’d rather wait 50 picks and draft the original non-workhorse lead back. Miller’s lack of touchdown upside significantly diminishes his value.
Alfred Blue, RB
In four years at Louisiana State, Blue never surpassed 600 scrimmage yards in a season despite playing 41 games. At the combine, he measured in with elite size (6’2″ and 223 lbs.) but horrible athleticism (4.63-second 40, 7.15-second three-cone, 13 bench press reps). In fact his 91.2 SPARQ-x score is in the bottom fourth percentile of all running backs (PlayerProfiler). Still, volume is everything. He has 14 starts in three NFL seasons as the backup to Foster and Miller, and in his 11 games with at least 15 carries he’s averaged a respectable 14.78 DraftKings PPG. Blue very well could limit Miller and Foreman’s opportunities this season.
D’Onta Foreman, RB
A backup at Texas for his first two seasons, Foreman had a Doak Walker-winning campaign as a junior, rushing for 2,028 yards and 15 touchdowns on 323 carries in only 11 games. Since the year 2000, Foreman is one of only five players to hit the 2,000-yard rushing mark within 11 games:
- LaDainian Tomlinson (2000): 2,158 yards
- Melvin Gordon (2014): 2,109
- Andre Williams (2013): 2,073
- Matt Forte (2007): 2,007
While Foreman’s lack of receiving production is concerning — is he Williams v.2.0? — it’s useful to remember that LT wasn’t used much as a pass-catcher in college either. In fact, with his rushing production, receiving shortfall, size (6’0″ and 234 lbs.), and speed (4.45-second 40), Foreman is most similar as a draft prospect to LT and Derrick Henry — another 2,000-yard rusher.
Foreman hasn’t had a smooth offseason — he showed up to minicamp in May out of shape, and in July he was arrested for unlawful possession of marijuana and a firearm — but he showed well in the preseason opener, rushing nine times 76 yards and adding two receptions. In a run-heavy offense, he could become the change-of-pace and goal-line back as a rookie.
DeAndre Hopkins, WR
Here’s what I say about Hopkins in my piece on the top 100 NFL players:
The only ‘NFL quarterbacks’ ever to throw Hopkins a pass are Matt Schaub, Keenum, Yates, Fitzpatrick, Mallett, Hoyer, Weeden, Osweiler, and Savage — all of whom are somehow still in the league. With this nonatet of nothingness, Nuk has managed to accumulate more yards (4,487) and touchdowns (23) through the air in his first four seasons than any NFL wide receivers except for Randy Moss, Torry Holt, Jerry Rice, A.J. Green, and Larry Fitzgerald.
In DeAndre’s three seasons with O’Brien, the only players with more than his 470 targets are Antonio Brown (528), Demaryius Thomas (505), and Julio Jones (495). Hopkins is discounted at his DRAFT ADP of 28.5 and is a strong pivot play on the receivers being drafted a round ahead of him.
That said, Hopkins is likely a daily fantasy fade in some situations. Over the last three years he’s been a top-12 DraftKings wide receiver with 15.59 PPG, and like many receivers he’s been good as a home favorite, averaging 16.73 PPG with a +2.05 Plus/Minus. Historically, however, he’s had only a 43.8 percent Consistency Rating as a home favorite and a frightening 17.3 percent ownership rate in large-field guaranteed prize pools. In this apparently positive situation he’s been too inconsistent for cash games and too popular for GPPs. This year FantasyLabs users can review ownership trends across guaranteed prize pools of various buy-in levels with our DFS Ownership Dashboard, which is reason enough to subscribe to FantasyLabs.
It’s possible that sharp players will fade Hopkins as a home favorite this year. Be sure to monitor our Vegas Dashboard to see how the market views the Texans when they’re playing at NRG Stadium. If he’s favored, consider fading. If he’s an underdog, think about having some GPP exposure. In his eight O’Brien games as a home dog, Hopkins has 18.70 PPG at just 3.8 percent ownership. That pattern is exploitable. If you want to stack Hopkins as a home dog with his quarterback, do it with our Lineup Builder.
Will Fuller, WR
For the first month of his 2016 rookie campaign, Fuller looked like the second coming of Odell Beckham Jr., averaging 80.75 yards and 18.83 DraftKings PPG. In Week 5, though, he had only one reception for four yards — and the next week he showed up on the practice report with a hamstring injury (which he possibly suffered during the Week 5 contest). He didn’t play a snap in Week 6, and although he played nine of the 10 regular season games from that point on he was often limited in practice with the hamstring issue and then knee and hip injuries. His quarterback situation didn’t help him any — and neither did his five drops — but it’s possible that Fuller, who relies on his deep speed (4.32-second 40), wasn’t his full self after Week 4 on account of the lower extremity injuries.
Chosen with the 21st overall pick last year, Fuller was an early-entrant selection who averaged a 69/1,176/14.5 stat line as a sophomore and junior, capturing a combined 33.3 and uber-elite 52.7 percent of the team’s receiving yards and touchdowns. Because of his inconsistencies last year and collarbone injury this year, some people who drafted him originally in dynasty leagues might be growing impatient. He’s an upside trade target in long-term leagues. Even with his 2016 struggles, he was sixth in the league with a target distance of 15.3 yards. When he returns later this season, he’ll likely resume his role as the team’s big-play receiver.
Braxton Miller, WR
A 10-game starter as a true freshman quarterback at Ohio State in 2011, Miller became a superstar in 2012-13 in HC Urban Meyer’s offense. While he wasn’t a great passer (60.9 completion percentage), he was a phenomenal runner as a sophomore and junior, averaging a 199/1,169.5/12.5 stat line in those years. Then as a senior he injured his shoulder, missed the entire season, and returned in 2015 only to fall behind J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones on the depth chart. At that point he pivoted to the ‘Percy Harvin position,’ splitting snaps at receiver and running back. In 13 games he turned 25 receptions and 43 carries into 601 yards and four touchdowns from scrimmage — which isn’t bad for a guy in his first year in a new role. Four of his receptions came out of the backfield, and 293 of his 373 snaps were in the slot (PFF). Blessed with elite agility (6.65-second three-cone), he forced 16 missed tackles on his 68 touches.
Selected in the third round, Braxton did little in his injury-impacted 2016 rookie season, turning 28 targets into a 15/99/1 stat line in 10 games. Nevertheless, he has a good physical profile (6’1″ and 201 lbs., 4.50-second 40), is just entering his third year at the receiving position, and now has a new offensive assistant in route-running master Wes Welker to help him learn the subtleties of the slot, where he played 68.1 percent of his snaps last year. With Fuller out for a chunk of the season, Miller warrants limited exposure at his 216.0 DRAFT ADP. In dynasty leagues, he’s an ideal player to target as a supplementary piece in larger trades.
Jaelen Strong, WR
At the end of the 100th episode of RotoViz Radio, Fantasy Douche drops this nugget of wisdom: “If you keep the same prediction long enough, eventually it’s got to come true.” With that in mind, I’m quadrupling down on Strong. A 17-year-old redshirt at Pierce in the California Community College Athletic Association in 2011, Strong broke out in 2012 with a 67/1,263/15 campaign in 10 games. After transferring to Arizona State and putting up sophomore and junior seasons of 75/1,122/7 and 82/1,165/10 in 14 and 12 games, Strong declared early for the 2015 draft and at the combine put his elite size (6’2″ and 217 lbs.), speed (4.44-second 40), and burst (42.0-inch vertical) on display. Selected in the third round, Strong has done little over the last two years, appearing in only 18 games and compiling a 28/292/3 career stat line on 48 targets. He’s underwhelmed.
That said, the absence of Fuller should give him some opportunities to establish himself in 2017. On top of that, last year he played 64.9 percent of his snaps in the slot, and in his final season of college he easily led all draft-eligible receivers with 4.06 yards per route run from the slot against Power Five opponents (PFF). It’s conceivable that if he plays well when Fuller’s out he could push Miller for snaps in the slot when Fuller returns. Most importantly, Strong’s only 23. I have years to keep making this take.
C.J. Fiedorowicz, TE
Although Fiedorowicz played 42.5 and 54.8 percent of Houston’s snaps in 2014 and 2015, he was primarily a blocker as the second tight end in 12-personnel formations. Last year, though, he broke out in his third NFL season. While he did little in Weeks 1-3, in Week 4 he took on a bigger role and from that point forward he played on 69.9 percent of the offensive snaps. In his 12 regular season games as the primary pass-catching tight end, Fied averaged 7.1 targets per game for a 4.3/46/0.33 stat line as well as 10.93 DraftKings PPG with a +5.26 Plus/Minus. Fiedorowicz isn’t sexy, but he’s better than at least half of the starting tight ends in the NFL. Last year he led the Texans with seven targets inside the 10-yard line. He’s fair value at his 161.4 DRAFT ADP.
Ryan Griffin, TE
Over the last two years, the four-year veteran has played on 48.8 percent of the offensive snaps in the 25 games he’s been active, so he’s not insignificant. In fact, last year he was third on the team with 50 receptions. Re-signed to a three-year, $9 million deal, Griffin is likely to reprise his role as the oft-used TE2 in 2017. While his presence in 12-personnel packages makes sense given how much the team runs, he ultimately serves only to limit the potential of the team’s other, better pass-catchers without making himself a substantially more viable fantasy asset.
In the futures market the Texans currently have a 2017 win total of 8.5 games with a -125 over and -105 under. They’re also +120 to make the playoffs and -150 not to. Writing for Rotoworld, Warren Sharp gives the Lions the 13th-hardest schedule for 2017. Given the current lines, you can hedge by betting both on and against the Texans on these two props with one unit on the -105 under and one unit on the +120 to make the playoffs. If the Texans get nine wins and make the playoffs, you’re up 1.2 units. If the Lions go under nine wins and miss the playoffs, you’re up 0.8 units. If the Texans win at least nine games and miss the playoffs, then you are screwed. It’s possible but unlikely that will happen.
The Texans are currently +2,500 to win the Super Bowl, +1,200 to win the AFC, and +200 to win the AFC South. The Texans look like a possible playoff team but not one with a ‘real’ chance of appearing in the Super Bowl. Relative to the division rival Titans, the Texans have higher implied odds to win the Super Bowl (+3,300) and AFC (+1,800) but the same implied odds to win the division (+200). If you specifically prefer the Texans to the Titans, the AFC South prop provides the most value.
Here’s one trend to pay attention to during the season: Under O’Brien the Texans are 24-23-1 against the spread during the regular season but have historically underperformed (10-16) as underdogs and overperformed as favorites (14-6-1). The simple strategy of buying the Texans as favorites and selling them as underdogs has resulted in a 30-16-1 ATS record over the past three years for a .638 win percentage. This trend could hold true in 2017.
In researching for this piece I consulted Evan Silva’s excellent Texans Fantasy Preview at Rotoworld and relied on data from Pro Football Reference, Pro Football Focus, Football Outsiders, Football Perspective, PlayerProfiler, Team Rankings, The Power Rank, NFL.com, and the apps at RotoViz as well as the FantasyLabs Tools and Models.
Ian Hartitz contributed research to this article.