This article is part of our Team Previews series.
The Texans have a pair of top-tier skill players in DeAndre Hopkins and Deshaun Watson, but need to add reliable depth options, or have existing players remain healthy, to stay ahead of the surging Colts. That means Will Fuller and Keke Coutee need to play more than a combined 13 games.
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
A HEALTHY WATSON
Having a healthy Deshaun Watson at quarterback was instrumental in returning the Texans to the top of the AFC South in 2018. He completed 68.3 percent of his passes for 4,165 yards, with 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions, while playing all 16 games despite injuries to his ribs and chest. Those midseason injuries slowed Watson, who relied heavily on the running game while averaging a mere 231 passing yards per game over the final 11 contests. The third-year signal-caller has full health and no restrictions entering this year's training camp, which has coach Bill O'Brien optimistic. That wasn't the case last season, when Watson was coming back from knee surgery. The Clemson product's focus last summer was split between improving his game and rehabbing the knee. The next step for the Texans is to better protect Watson, who was sacked a league-high 62 times and was under pressure on a league-high 281 dropbacks (per Pro Football Focus). It's a miracle he didn't suffer a more serious injury. Watson can help his own cause by balancing his desire to throw deep and avoid taking hard hits. The Texans added two tackles among their first three picks and signed free-agent blocking tight end Darren Fells to protect their QB. Having healthy targets would help, too. Will Fuller and Keke Coutee were MIA too often last year.
STILL MILLER TIME
Lamar Miller was a popular bust candidate entering the 2018 season after recording a career-low 3.7 yards per carry in 2017. The appearance of diminished production and the return of dynamic quarterback Deshaun Watson figured to marginalize the ground game as a whole. A funny thing happened on the way to burying Miller's fantasy value, though. D'Onta Foreman's Achilles injury lingered, and he didn't return until well into December. And Watson suffered an injury to his ribs Week 5 that resulted in a drastic reduction in passing and a greater reliance on the running game. Miller averaged 101 rushing yards during one six-game stretch, helping carry the offense while Watson mended. He finished the season averaging 69.5 rushing yards per game and scored a combined six touchdowns (five rushing, one receiving). He was the primary beneficiary of the team skewing toward the running game in 2018, but a fully healthy Watson could tilt things the other way this year. Miller's rushing attempts could take a hit, but the passing game is good for Miller, too. He's been active as a pass catcher going back to his days with the Dolphins. Houston also had trouble keeping receivers healthy, so Miller's not done yet. Foreman still has to prove he's healthy, while Miller, in the final year of his contract, will return as the top back.
THE OTHER TARGETS
There's DeAndre Hopkins, but who else? It starts with Will Fuller, who's been producTive when paired with Deshaun Watson. The two played 11 games together over the last two seasons and connected on 11 TDs. The mind grows feverish at the thought of both playing 16 games in one season. The issue is Fuller's ability to stay on the field. He's missed 15 games over the last two years and will be attempting to come back from a torn right ACL. Keke Coutee flashed ability during his rookie season. However, the flash was visible in just six games because of a recurring hamstring injury. When available, he averaged nearly seven regular-season targets per game. He also was the leading receiver in the team's playoff loss to the Colts, who took Hopkins out with double coverage. Beyond that, Lamar Miller has been a competent receiver in three years as a Texan, with a 77.3 percent catch rate. However, he's averaged just 2.7 targets per game during that span. The tight ends were afterthoughts in the passing game plan most of the year until injuries hit the wideouts, forcing Watson to target them more toward the end of the season. With Demaryius Thomas' short stint with the team already up, it's now up to Fuller and Coutee, active just 13 games in total last year, to draw some of the coverage away from Hopkins.
PIVOTAL PLAYER: DeAndre Hopkins
Nearly a third of quarterback Deshaun Watson's throws last season targeted Hopkins. With injuries hitting the team's other wide receivers and a devalued tight end corps on hand, Hopkins served as Watson's security blanket, hauling in a PPR-friendly 115 catches, while helping the Texans capture the AFC South title.
RISING: Ka'imi Fairbairn
The Texans didn't do a very good job in the red zone last year, ranking 29th with 50 percent of their drives ending in TDs. That meant plenty of chances for Fairbairn, who led the league with 42 field-goal attempts and 150 points.
FALLING: Jordan Akins
Akins, a third-round pick last year, didn't do much damage as a rookie in an offense that de-emphasized tight ends. This season, he'll compete for snaps with both 2018 sixth-rounder Jordan Thomas and rookie project Kahale Warring.
SLEEPER: Keke Coutee
When Coutee got on the field, the slot receiver out of Texas Tech proved he could ball. With Will Fuller still needing to demonstrate he can stay healthy, Coutee becomes the next best target for Deshaun Watson.
KEY JOB BATTLE – TIGHT END, PASS-CATCHING OR OTHERWISE
The Texans have underutilized tight ends since Deshaun Watson took over the offense, so it may not matter which player emerges with the most snaps. Ryan Griffin, a regular at the position the last five seasons and 2018's target leader among the group, is no longer with the team after an offseason dalliance with the law. That leaves the Texans relatively inexperienced. The names to watch as pass catchers are Jordan Akins and Jordan Thomas, a pair of 2018 draft picks with a full season of experience. Thomas worked with the starters during spring drills and finished with more targets, catches and touchdowns than Akins last season, although Akins had more yards. Houston added a third tight end in the 2019 draft, selecting Kahale Warring in the third round. He impressed during OTAs and minicamp. At a position with underwhelming competition, a rookie like Warring could work his way into a prominent role. Meanwhile, free-agent pickup Darren Fells, age 33 and with 10 touchdowns over the last four seasons, will primarily be a blocking option.
TASHAUN GIPSON – S (from Jaguars)
Hasn't missed a game since 2015 and replaces Tyrann Mathieu.
AJ McCARRON – QB (from Raiders)
Provides team with an upgrade at backup QB.
KAHALE WARRING – TE (Rd. 3, No. 86 – San Diego State)
Has the size (6-6, 250) to play but is a late bloomer in terms of football.
TYTUS HOWARD – T (Rd. 1, No. 23 – Alabama State)
One of several offseason moves designed to better protect the QB.
KAREEM JACKSON – CB (to Broncos)
Figures to see a lot of work at safety with Denver.
ALFRED BLUE – RB (to Jaguars)
D'Onta Foreman is now set to serve as the team's No. 2 back.
DEMARYIUS THOMAS – WR (to Patriots)
A ruptured Achilles makes the wideout uncertain for Week 1.
TYRANN MATHIEU – S (to Chiefs)
Was wanted back, but K.C. backed up the money truck for him.
THE INJURY FRONT
DeAndre Hopkins, WR – There's nothing new about Hopkins playing at less than 100 percent – he was a frequent guest on weekly injury reports in 2018 – but the shoulder injury he suffered during the team's playoff loss to the Colts turned out to the most serious. An issue that was first reported as an AC joint sprain was later revealed by the wide receiver to be ligaments that were torn from the bone. While Hopkins planned to be ready for the start of training camp, he'll instead spend time on the PUP list as he tends to an ankle concern. His importance to the offense is obvious, so the Texans are unlikely to push him and will probably limit his exposure during preseason games.
Will Fuller, WR – Fuller suffered a season-ending injury Week 8 last year when he suffered a torn ACL in his right knee, marking the second straight season he's missed significant time. The Notre Dame product hasn't been able to stay healthy as a pro, going from 14 games during his rookie season to 10 in 2017 and then seven in 2018. The latest update offered by the team is that Fuller will be ready for Week 1, but that was after saying he had a chance to be ready for training camp. Without a firm timeline, Fuller is a gamble, but given his production since hooking up with quarterback Deshaun Watson – he ranked 12th in the NFL with an average of 14.6 air yards per target in 2018 – there's a potential big dividend.
Keke Coutee, WR – Coutee was limited to six games last season due to a recurring hamstring injury. Houston won all six games he played during the regular season, and he managed to remain intact for their playoff loss to Indianapolis, scoring the team's lone touchdown while hauling in 11 balls. When he was on the field, Coutee was productive, so keeping him healthy is an offseason priority. Per reports out of the offseason program, Coutee showed the same explosion he did as a rookie before the hamstring bug got to him in training camp. The Texas Tech grad spent the offseason focusing on soft-tissue work to prevent the hamstring from biting him again in 2019. Coutee is on the small side and isn't about to fight through contact or make contested catches, so being quick and elusive – something a healthy hamstring will do for him – is vital to his game.