Ranking the 10 most important Texans for the 2020 season

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For the Houston Texans to contend in the AFC, they'll need many players to step up. Gone are the likes of DeAndre Hopkins and Johnathan Joseph, enter a new era down at NRG Stadium.

With the AFC wide open behind Baltimore and Kansas City, anyone could be a dark horse to represent the conference down in Tampa Bay come February. Houston's offensive line has been patched — as has their receiving corps.

Although the defense struggled in 2019, perhaps a change under new coordinator Anthony Weaver could make the old pieces sparkle. For Houston to look like legitimate Lombardi contenders, these 10 Texans will need to step up.

10. CB Gareon Conley

The Texans used their third-round pick from the Jadeveon Clowney trade to bring in the former Raider. For the first time in his career, Conley looked content in coverage for the Steel Blue, tallying 27 tackles and 11 pass deflections.

Houston declined Conley's fifth-year option, but a continued growth on the outside could lead to a handsome payday following the 2020 campaign. The 28th ranked passing defense needs a long-term option to replace Joseph, so here's hoping a valued mid-round pick pans out for the secondary's future.

9. RB David Johnson

The only way O'Brien looks like a genius for trading Hopkins is if Johnson rebounds. Not only did Houston trade away for an undervalued position, but a player with limited production. Since signing his $39 million extension in 2018, Johnson has only managed to rush for 1,285 yards and nine touchdowns.

In a more run-heavy offense, perhaps Johnson can see his production increase. Overall, without a definite change of pace runner to go along with Duke Johnson, Houston's offense could be a colossal blunder.

8. WR Randall Cobb

After a rebound year in Dallas, Cobb signed a three-year, $27 million deal with the other team in the Lone Star State. As the No.3 option with the Cowboys, the soon-to-be 30-year-old impressed, averaging 15.1 yards per catch and three touchdowns.

Likely the focal slot option, Cobb should bring a balanced role in the short to intermediate part of the field. This should also provide stability in the production that was left behind by Hopkins.

7. OT Tytus Howard

What looked like a flawed pick turned out promising. Howard excelled at right tackle for eight games before a knee injury sidelined him for the year. Showing strength against the pass rush, the voters dubbed him worthy of being on the All-Rookie team in 2019.

Howard will need to improve in run blocking, but Houston might finally have their bookends to build around Deshaun Watson. Here's hoping another season continues to prove in favor of the FCS star's progression.

6. S Justin Reid

Reid has emerged as one of the top Texans defenders entering his third season. Last year in playing both roles, the former Stanford star recorded 78 tackles, two interceptions and a fumble recovery. With Houston needing a leader in the secondary, this could be a season for Reid to step up.

The Texans signed Eric Murray to replace Tashaun Gipson. Reid's tackling style, along with overall coverage skills, could pair well with the versatile Murray. If he takes the next step, Houston's horrendous secondary could become one of their stronger assets for the future.

5. OT Laremy Tunsil

The splash trade made before the season, Tunsil developed into a standout tackle on the blind side with Houston. Grading out as one of the top pass protectors in the league, the franchise gave him a three-year, $66 million extension to become the highest-paid tackle.

Tunsil will now have to live up to that contract by eliminating the penalties. The 26-year-old led the NFL with 20 last season (3 were declined), and despite his talent, that's a huge blunder for a premier player. For Tunsil to be worth the deal, he'll have to become far more well-rounded in all aspects.

4. DE J.J. Watt

Until he calls it, Watt is going to be a factor in the Texans' success. Last season could be the start of the end of the three-time Defensive Player of the Year's Hall of Fame career. Watt missed eight games in 2019 due to a torn pectoral muscle, leading to his third injured season in four years.

Watt returned to MVP form in 2018 with 16 sacks off the edge. Meeting in the middle of the past two seasons should allow him to remain relevant as a focal point of Weaver's scheme.

3. WR Brandin Cooks

O'Brien could have added a wide receiver with the 57th pick last April. Instead, he traded for a speedy, yet potentially problematic Cooks as Houston's new top target. When healthy, the former Rams star can be a prime target and a 1,000-yard receiver.

Cooks' production diminished last season after suffering his fifth concussion, finishing with 42 catches for 583 yards. As the immediate first choice to replace Hopkins, combining his speed with Watson's arm could lead to multiple highlight moments in a promising offensive year.

2. LB Zach Cunningham

Cunningham flew under the radar in his first two years with Houston. Year 3 was promising as he tallied an AFC-high 142 tackles and 7 tackles for losses. One year after earning his first Pro Bowl nod, Cunningham now could be up for a big payday come 2021.

A hard-hitting defender with excellent speed, Cunningham has the tools to be one of the more well-rounded linebackers in the game. The former second-rounder will need to improve in coverage but could take over as the Texans' leader in the front seven.

1. QB Deshaun Watson

Of course, Watson will need to factor in somewhere, but he alone could carry Houston deep into the season. Taking that next step in Year 3 as the franchise quarterback, Watson finished with 3,852 yards and 26 touchdowns on his way to a 10-6 record.

Watson's ability to create big plays and avoid the pocket pressure has kept the Texans on the winning side. It's time to see him be more relaxed and trusting that his supporting cast will help contribute instead of doing too much. Watson has the chance to be an MVP in 2020 and many years to come.

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Now my job: Texans feast on Lions

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Thanksgiving is full of tradition. There's the typical family gathering, large meal, and of course, football. Sometimes, new traditions are added and old ones are retired. I think the Texans did both in their impressive 41-25 win over the Lions in Detroit. Old traditions were carried on (Lions losing on Thanksgiving), some were put to rest (Texans not being able to get turnovers), and new ones were started (multiple passing touchdowns by Deshaun Watson in six straight games).

The fact that this defense got three turnovers in the game was unbelievable! They got all three in the first quarter within the span of eight plays. JJ Watt's pick-six was insane. He went for a batted ball, ended up catching it, and ran it in. They forced Jonathan Williams to fumble on the Lions' very next play from scrimmage and recovered it. On the Lions' next possession, the Texans recovered yet another fumble after the challenge was reversed. Great call by the coaching staff to challenge and win. The defense looked good. Tyrell Adams stood out because he was in on those two fumbles, made 17 total tackles with 14 of them being solo tackles. They also brought pressure that seemed to make Matthew Stafford very inaccurate and resulted in four sacks. I give defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver credit for knowing he needs to blitz to get pressure, but the run defense has to improve.

The offense kept the tempo up in this game as well. The spread and hurry-up were used to keep the Lions already staggered defense off balance. Knowing the Lions were without a couple defensive backs, I thought it would be the perfect marriage of their defense and the Texans' offense. A buddy asked before the game about the line (Texans -3.5) and the over/under (52.5). I told him bet the Texans and the over because neither team can play defense and both have good quarterbacks. Offensive coordinator Tim Kelly put together another good game plan and Watson executed it flawlessly. One route combo I saw later on in the game I particularly enjoyed. Two receivers were tight to the left side. Cooks ran a hook/curl and settled in the middle of the zone while Fuller ran a vertical route. Duke Johnson ran a swing route to that same side. It left Cooks wide open as the attention went to Johnson in the flat, Fuller deep, and the action to the other play side. Route combos are important because it gives the quarterback different reads as he goes through his progressions and lets him pick apart the defense based on what he sees. Combine that with Watson's play and the way Kelly has changed his play calling now that he's liberated from he who shall not be named, we're seeing a beautiful thing.

As good as things were, there's still room for improvement. The defense gives up way too many easy yards, both run and pass. They can't get pressure bringing only four and will often give up big plays if the blitz is picked up. Plus the run defense is still an issue as evidenced by the Lions' first possession of the second half. The Lions ran the ball 10 plays straight for a total of 58 yards on that drive. Utterly ridiculous! Watson was good (17/25 318 yards and four touchdowns), but he missed two more touchdowns with passes slightly off, and continues to hold onto the ball too long at times. The difference between these two issues I've presented here is the fact that Watson has so played well, his "issues" are minor and very correctable, while the defense is terrible and there's no easy fix in sight. But let Romeo Crennel and Anthony Weaver tell it, they're getting the most out of these guys and they're playing disciplined.

The thought that this team may actually creep into the playoff picture may take shape better after next week if they can beat the Colts. I doubt it, but it is getting interesting. Let's see what else happens around them because they need help getting there.

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