The 2017 NFL season is just around the corner, and NFL teams across the country are preparing for training camp and the upcoming campaign. Among them are the Houston Texans, who finished 2016 with a 9-7 record, won the AFC South, defeated the Derek Carr-less Oakland Raiders in the Wild Card Round and eventually fell to Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots in the Divisional Playoffs.
As the Texans look ahead to the upcoming year, here are some of the biggest questions facing the squad this offseason.
Who starts at QB?
The Texans will definitely have an open competition at quarterback during training camp and the preseason — a competition between "incumbent" Tom Savage and 12th overall pick Deshaun Watson.
Savage has two starts and five games of experience under his belt and has 588 yards and an interception while attempting less than 100 passes in his career. So while he definitely has the edge in experience, it's mostly practice experience.
Watson, meanwhile, is clearly the QB of the future. Houston traded up 13 spots in the draft to pick him, and they'll give him every opportunity to earn the starting job and begin his tenure as the Texans starter.
Can J.J. Watt bounce back (no pun intended)?
We last saw (a version of) J.J. Watt in week 3 of the 2016 NFL season, and I say "a version" because that was not the J.J. Watt we've grown accustomed to seeing destroy opposing offenses. Watt sat the majority of the 2016 season with a back injury and finished the year with only 8 tackles and 1.5 sacks.
It was the first time in six years that we were treated to an NFL season without J.J. Watt — something football fans everywhere shouldn't have to endure. Watt is among the two or three most exciting players to watch in the league when healthy, and he has the awards and honors to show for it.
Now, Watt is back and ready to contribute in 2017. By all accounts he will head into training camp at 100 percent, although we can expect to see little if any of him in preseason play.
Will anyone step up behind DeAndre Hopkins?
The Texans have one of the top 10-15 wide receivers in the league in DeAndre Hopkins, but too often defenses can solely focus on Nuke and shut down Houston's passing game.
Last year rookie Will Fuller emerged as a legitimate No. 2 option, hauling in 47 passes for 635 yards and two scores to go along with Hopkins' 78 for 954 and four TDs. Tight ends C.J. Fiedorowicz and Ryan Griffin caught a combined 104 passes, running back Lamar Miller added 31 grabs, but the next receivers in line — Braxton Miller and Jaelen Strong — caught 15 and 14 passes, respectively.
You flat-out need more production out of your wide receivers. Now, Brock Osweiler was probably part of the problem, but the receivers need to play a bigger role in 2017, especially with a young quarterback in play.
What's going on with the offensive line?
Here's the status:
Left tackle Duane Brown skipped OTA's and a mandatory minicamp and is reportedly unhappy about his contract. If he holds out, the Texans don't have many options. Left guard Xavier Su'a-Filo has yet to play like a second-round pick, and projected center Nick Martin missed all of last year with an ankle injury.
Right tackle Chris Carter was just plain bad last year and he was only playing because Derek Newton tore both of his patellar tendons — an injury that is expected to keep him out all of 2017.
So…that's a mess. Houston will likely need veteran Breno Giacomini and rookie Julie'n Davenport to play this fall.
Just how good can this defense be?
As bad as the offensive line is shaping up right now, the defense is going to be special once again. Last year Houston gave up 301.3 yards per game, the fewest in the NFL. (And that was without J.J. Watt).
Now, the defense lost a few pieces — Outside linebacker John Simon headed to Indianapolis, cornerback A.J. Bouye signed with Jacksonville, safety Quintin Demps signed with the Chicago Bears and nose tackle Vince Wilfork appears to be headed for retirement.
While that seems like a lot to move on from, the Texans front seven is still going to be really, really good. Jadeveon Clowney took a big step forward last year in Watt's absence, and will now get to play opposite him. The linebacking corps. of Brian Cushing, Whitney Mercilus and up-and-comer Bernardrick McKinney added Vanderbilt's Zach Cunningham, and the coaching staff likes outside backer Brennan Scarlett.
The defensive backfield definitely lost two major components, but Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson are solid corners. Safety could be a weakness, but the front seven is so good the pass rush will aid their efforts.
Houston's defense will be a force in 2017.