FALCON POINTS

If J.J. Watt can actually return for the playoffs, the potential impact is huge

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The Texans might have given themselves an early Christmas gift.

On Tuesday, the Texans designated J.J. Watt for return from the injured list. They now have a 21-day window to activate him. Watt can return to practice, and the hope is he would be available for the playoffs. Even if he is not 100 percent, Watt would provide a major boost to a struggling defense if he can get on the field.

At 10-5, the Texans finish the season with the Titans on Sunday. For all practical purposes, they are locked in to the four seed in the AFC, barring a surprising Kansas City loss to the Chargers. The reality is most key players should be rested on Sunday, and even if Watt is ready to go, that should include him as well. Having him healthy for a probable playoff game with the Bills would be critical to their chances.

And if he can be ready for the playoffs...


 How much impact?

Watt's impact on the defense can't be understated. Even when he is not showing up on the stat sheet, teams have to account for him, freeing up other defenders to make plays.

In the eight games with Watt in the lineup, the Texans had 17 sacks. (That includes the Raiders game where he was injured in the first half and the Texans did not register a sack). In the seven games since, they have 14 sacks, while that may not seem like a big difference, 10 of those 14 came in three games against the Jags, Patriots and last week against the Bucs. The seven games includes another game where they did not register a sack at all and two games where they only had one.

Despite missing those games, Watt remains second on the team with four sacks.

With Watt in the lineup, opponents averaged 362 yards on offense per game. Without him? The Texans have allowed 407 yards per game. With a healthy Watt, they allowed over 400 yards just once, in the opener when they gave up 510 yards to the Saints, thanks in part to a terrible scheme that relied on overmatched defensive backs. In the seven games without him, they have allowed over 400 yards four times, and nearly that - 391 - in the ugly Broncos loss.

Concern about the longterm

While some may want Watt to rest up and fully recover for next season, the simple question is why? Is he risking re-injury? Of course. But he would have all off-season to recover, and if you aren't going to risk it in the playoffs, when would you ever? Isn't that why you play the game? Watt is at the stage of his career where he may not have a lot of games left in him. Having him for a potential playoff run would be huge. Watt has appeared in just 32 of a possible 63 games over the last four seasons so anything you get out of him is a bonus. Play him now, and worry about next year next year.

The next step

Assuming Watt is able to go, even at 80 percent he should help a defense that ranks in the bottom half of the league in most categories. They have rebuilt the secondary on the fly, and Watt's presence should allow Whitney Mercilus and D.J. Reader more opportunities to put pressure on the quarterback, which would help the corners and safeties in coverage.

If he can play - and after all, that is no lock - it will be great news for a team that has had minimal postseason success. Watt's presence would put the defense as currently built at 100 percent for the first time all season. Watt would join in-season acquisitions Gareon Conley and Vernon Hargreaves and a healthy Bradley Roby in the secondary, something the Texans did not have when Watt went out. Barring a key injury on Sunday, the Texans defense would enter the postseason in as good a shape as they have been all year.

That's if Watt is ready.

We will find out if that happens soon enough.

Of course, if the offense continues to struggle, none of it will matter. But if Watt is ready, it's the best Christmas gift the Texans could have gotten.

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Cristian Javier has proven he's a quality starting pitcher. Composite image by Jack Brame.

The 2022 regular season is nearing its end and while for the Houston Astros the true test will begin in the postseason, now is a good time to look ahead at what the team’s starting rotation could look like in 2023.

The big question will be whether long-time ace Justin Verlander returns to the team. Heading into 2022, there was doubt whether he would even be with the Astros coming off Tommy John surgery. Verlander re-signed with Houston on a two-year deal with a player option for 2023.

His production in 2022 has been nothing short of sensational. Verlander has the most wins for the Astros with a week left in the season. He has a 1.82 ERA, 0.84 WHIP and 5.2 wins above replacement. More importantly for both Verlander and the Astros, is that he has played in 26 games and counting this season.

Whether Verlander remains with the Astros will likely depend on whether Houston is willing to spend. It is highly likely Verlander opts out of his player option following the strong 2022 campaign he has put together and looks for a bigger payday. Houston has shown it is not afraid to let key players walk in the offseason, so let’s take a look at a potential rotation with and without Verlander.

If the 39-year-old, who will be 40 by the time the 2023 regular season starts, stays with the Astros, he will undoubtedly be either the No. 1 or No. 2 pitcher in the rotation along with Framber Valdez, who is right behind Verlander in wins this season at 16. If Verlander leaves, Valdez should be the new Astros ace at No. 1.

Behind those two should be pitcher Lance McCullers Jr., who in seven games in 2022 has a 2.38 ERA and has cooled the concerns about his right flexor tendon strain being a long-term concern. He suffered the injury last postseason.

After those three, things begin to get interesting. Let’s say Houston opts to stay with a six-man rotation. The fourth starter could be Luis Garcia, who has a 3.90 ERA in 2022. The 25-year-old has shown he is more than a capable starter for the Astros.

The big question is if Hunter Brown can lock himself a spot in the rotation. Numbers wise, he makes a solid case to be more than Houston’s fifth starter as he has garnered 1.13 ERA through four appearances and two starts.

Brown’s starts have been against the Texas Rangers and Detroit Tigers, so there is a bit of a caveat there, but the upside undoubtedly should put him in the conversation for a starting role in 2023.

If Verlander leaves Houston, it should be more of a guarantee that a spot in the rotation as a starter for Brown is locked. Another factor in whether Brown is a starter could be if the Astros keep Dusty Baker as manager. Baker has shown at times he is willing to side with veterans over younger talent.

Other factors in Brown’s role will also be Jose Urquidy and Cristian Javier. Urquidy has a 3.88 ERA in 28 games, all of which have been starts. Javier has a 2.65 ERA in 29 appearances, 24 of which have been starts.

Javier’s role for the Astros the last couple of years has involved starting and coming out of the bullpen, but this season he has shown that he is a capable starter. Based on this season’s play, Javier should have the edge for a starting spot, which leaves the question, what should the Astros do with Urquidy?

If Verlander walks, and Houston opts to keep a six-man rotation, then he just slides in and becomes starter No. 6. If Verlander stays, then is he willing to accept a role out of the bullpen, or do the Astros continue to use Brown out of the bullpen? Over the course of the season, both Brown and Urquidy will undoubtedly have chances to start throughout 2023.

Because of the long grind of an MLB schedule, the Astros should not trade whoever doesn’t get a starting role if Verlander stays, but how likely is it that it is even a problem for Houston? Regardless of who leaves or stays, the Astros should also continue with a six-man rotation because over the course of 162 games, it is what is best for your starters.

If the Astros bring back general manager James Click, based on how the Astros have seen players like George Springer and Carlos Correa walk in the past under his leadership, it is likely Verlander leaves Houston, but at the same time, many didn’t believe he was going to be back at all for 2022.

One thing is for sure, the Astros have a great problem to have. So many starting pitcher candidates, many of whom can be under team control for several years. So even if Verlander walks, an unforeseen injury happens, or a player ends up being disgruntled, Houston has more than enough flexibility to remain among the American Leagues’s best.

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