Pro Bowl wide receiver Andre Johnson, the No. 3 overall selection in 2003, has more receiving yards (2,118) in his first two seasons than any top 5 draft pick over their first two seasons in the last 20 years. Johnson was the second receiver drafted that year, after the Lions selected Charles Rogers with the second overall pick.
Of the 19 players selected by the Texans in the 2002 expansion draft, only three remain on the roster: free safety Marcus Coleman, nosetackle Seth Payne and defensive end Gary Walker.
The Texans went 4–2 in the AFC South last season, their best division record ever. They beat the Titans in Nashville for the first time, but lost both games to Indianapolis. In fact, Houston is 0–6 all-time against the Colts, losing by an average of 15.3 points.
After 36 games, the Texans finally won back-to-back games for the first time in team history last season against Kansas City in Week 3 and Oakland in Week 4. The drought was the longest by an expansion team in NFL history.
Rush to success
Running back Domanick Davis became the 13th player in the past 20 years to rush for 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons.
The Prophecy: "Reaching the postseason in year three is unlikely, but Houston is a team on the way up."
The Lie: "The Texans expect a much-improved defensive line this fall."
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Any doubt that the honeymoon is over for the Houston Texans was put to rest during a six-week stretch during the offseason.
The entrance to Reliant Park resembled a bus terminal with a major makeover on defense that resulted in four starters from a year ago -- inside linebackers Jamie Sharper and Jay Foreman, cornerback Aaron Glenn and strong safety Eric Brown -- being given their walking papers.
“This is the first year the team has had to make some very tough decisions,” nosetackle Seth Payne says. “If there was anybody on this team that didn’t realize the reality of life in the NFL, they do now. I don’t think (the Texans’ front office) was trying to send a message, but a message got sent.”
The message: It’s time to win.
The Texans have improved in the win column in each of their three seasons, going 4–12 in 2002, 5–11 in 2003 and 7–9 in 2004 after an embarrassing home loss to Cleveland in the season finale ruined a chance to finish .500.
In three seasons, David Carr has emerged as an on-field leader worthy of being the No. 1 overall selection in the 2002 draft. Carr has improved in each of his three seasons, throwing more touchdowns (16) than interceptions (14) for the first time last year. Despite taking a pounding, Carr has been durable, missing only four of 48 games.
The Texans have an experienced backup in Tony Banks, who re-signed during the offseason. Banks is familiar with the offense, and there’s been little drop-off when he’s been forced to play.
There should be competition between Dave Ragone and B.J. Symons for the No. 3 job. Both players spent the offseason playing in NFL Europe.
Domanick Davis is coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, yet questions remain about his durability. Injuries have forced Davis to miss time during each of his first two training camps. Davis, a fourth-round steal out of LSU, got stronger late in the season and averaged 111 yards over the final six games, including a 158-yard performance against Jacksonville in Week 16.
The Texans might have been sending Davis a message with the selection of Oklahoma State running back Vernand Morency in the third round. Both backs are similar in size and running styles.
Tony Hollings, a second-round pick in the 2003 supplemental draft, was considered the team’s running back of the future but has dealt with injury problems and may have to fight off Morency for the backup job.
Jonathan Wells, who led the team in rushing in 2002, could be in the mix after being used on special teams the past two years.
Andre Johnson offers matchup problems, but opponents confounded the Texans by rolling their coverage to his side of the field. Even against constant double teams, Johnson managed to set team records with 79 receptions for 1,142 yards and earn his first Pro Bowl appearance.
The team re-signed deep threat Corey Bradford and must find a way to regularly incorporate him into the offense. The Texans vowed to get the ball in Bradford’s hands more in 2004, but he finished with just 27 receptions, three more than the previous season.
Jabar Gaffney and Derick Armstrong have reliable hands, but neither has stretch-the-field ability. The most intriguing prospect might be fourth-round draft pick Jerome Mathis, who was clocked at 4.28 in the 40-yard dash at the combine. Mathis is raw in his route-running but has playmaking ability when he gets his hands on the ball.
The team is hopeful tight end Bennie Joppru, who spent the first two years of his career on injured reserve with a chronic groin problem, will be healthy enough to play.
After failing to trade for Pro Bowler Orlando Pace in the offseason, the Texans enter this season with Seth Wand again the starter at left tackle. Wand, who had an up-and-down first season as a starter, excelled at run blocking but struggled with speedy pass rushers. If Wand stumbles, one option is moving Chester Pitts back to left tackle. Pitts played the position for two seasons before moving to left guard. In that scenario, the Texans could play Milford Brown at left guard and arguably have their best five linemen on the field at the same time. The right side of the line is solid with Zach Wiegert at guard and mammoth Todd Wade at tackle.
The Texans’ implementing of a zone-blocking scheme produced some of the highest rushing totals in franchise history late in the season, but pass protection continues to be a problem. Carr has been sacked more times (140) than any other quarterback in the league over the past three seasons.
Major injuries to Payne and defensive end Gary Walker have made this one of the team’s weakest units the past two seasons. Payne, a proven run stopper, is coming off surgery to repair two torn hamstring tendons, and Walker had just a half sack two years removed from making the Pro Bowl. The team attempted to get younger and more athletic on the defensive front during the offseason, using its first-round pick on Florida State defensive tackle Travis Johnson. The initial plan is for Walker, Payne and Robaire Smith to remain as the starters.
The biggest offseason shakeup came at linebacker, where the Texans parted ways with Sharper and Foreman. Entering training camp, the unit will include new starters at three of the four positions.
The biggest addition was free agent Morlon Greenwood from the Dolphins, who will replace Sharper on the weak side. Kailee Wong will move inside to replace Foreman, marking Wong’s third position change in as many seasons.
The outside linebackers, the key ingredients of the 3-4 scheme, are young and inexperienced. Jason Babin, a first-round pick in 2004, was inconsistent while learning a new position as a rookie. Third-year pro Antwan Peek is arguably the best pass rusher on the team but lacks discipline.
The Texans finished next-to-last with 19 sacks in 2003 and last with 24 in 2004.
The biggest acquisition of the offseason came prior to the draft with the trade for cornerback Phillip Buchanon. The move eventually signaled the departure of three-time Pro Bowler Aaron Glenn, who was released less than a week later. Buchanon will be paired with Dunta Robinson, who led the team with six interceptions and finished second in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting.
The Texans like to play man coverage, which is a strength for both players and nickel back Demarcus Faggins, whose stock continues to soar.
Marcus Coleman made a smooth transition from cornerback to free safety. The team also is anxious to see how second-year pro Glenn Earl improves after taking over the starting strong safety job at midseason. Depth is a concern with the offseason departures of Marlon McCree and Eric Brown. The Texans were fifth in the league with 22 interceptions last year.
The main objective during the offseason was to find an upgrade over return specialist J.J. Moses, the incumbent the past two seasons. Mathis and Reggie Swinton are likely to compete for the kickoff duties, while Buchanon is a top-notch punt returner.
Kicker Kris Brown and punter Chad Stanley both played with injuries throughout last year. Brown missed seven field goals in 2004, including a stretch during which he missed a field goal in four consecutive games.
The Texans did little to address their two biggest issues heading into the offseason -- improving the pass rush and pass protection. Instead, a defensive unit that did not allow a touchdown for 13 consecutive quarters last December lost four starters and now must rely on several unproven players.
Coach Dom Capers has preached patience, and he’ll probably need it this season. The Texans have improved in the win column each of their three seasons and can expect to win eight or nine games in 2005.
With a talented young quarterback in Carr and one of the league’s top receivers in Johnson, the Texans have something to hang their hat on. If the defense is able to rush the passer effectively, the young secondary, led by corners Robinson and Buchanon, could live up to expectations. Even so, the Texans are probably still another season away from a trip to the playoffs.