Last year, the Houston Texans’ top-ranked defense carried an abysmal offense to the divisional round of the NFL playoffs. They were able to do it without JJ Watt, arguably the NFL’s best defensive player over the last five years. Watt will be returning in 2017, and it looks like help is coming on the other side of the ball too.
The pass rush remained extremely effective without Watt thanks to the emergence of Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus. The top pick in the 2014 draft, Clowney was the complete package coming out of South Carolina. He had the quickness, fluidity, power, and active hands to be a Pro Bowl defensive end for a very long time. After a couple injury riddled seasons, and flashes late in 2015, Clowney was able to put it all together and establish himself as a terror on the edge in 2016.
As good as Clowney was, it was Mercilus who spearheaded that Houston pass rush. He also enjoyed a breakout season in 2016, with his quickness and deadly spin move making him one of most disruptive edge rushers in the league.
It’s scary to imagine how good this pass rush can be when Watt gets back. For the first time since the group was formed after the 2014 draft, we’ll get to see how deadly Clowney, Mercilus, and Watt can be together.
However, Watt’s presence won’t be the only upgrade for this already dominant front seven. Second round linebacker Zach Cunningham was a guy who many were surprised to see fall out of the first round, and for good reason. His combination of length, power, and athleticism will allow him to routinely shed blockers with ease against the run, as well as cover at an exceptional level.
This year however, the defense may not have to shoulder the same load it did in 2016. The Texans gave up a pair of first round picks to move up and snag Deshaun Watson, who they believe can finally solve their quarterback woes. Watson isn’t a perfect prospect by any stretch, but his arm strength, athleticism, and winning intangibles may be enough for Bill O’Brien to mold into a quality passer. Surrounded by playmakers like DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller on the outside, with Lamar Miller in the backfield, and an excellent offensive line in front of him, Watson could play at a high enough level in his rookie year to keep the Houston offense from being a liability again.
The Texans have an elite defense, a good coach, and a great supporting cast on offense. Now, they may have their answer at the game’s most important position. If Watson pans out and this team stays healthy, Houston could be back on top of one of the league’s most improved divisions.