What the Houston O'Briens need to do to close the gap in the AFC
If you watched Sunday's Super Bowl (and let's face it; of course you did) you heard more than one reference to the Chiefs trailing the Houston O'Briens 24-0 before rallying on their way to a title. They also trailed Tennessee by 10 and San Francisco by 10 before rolling to a 31-20 victory and Kansas City's first Super Bowl title in 50 years.
Now that the season is officially over, it's time for an honest assessment of where Houston fits in the landscape of the NFL and AFC in particular. And one man - Bill O'Brien - will dictate whether or not the team makes up ground.
What Vegas says
As usual, early Vegas Super Bowl odds go up right after the prior year's game ends.
Here are the 2021 Super Bowl odds according to William Hill:
|San Francisco 49ers||7/1|
|Kansas City Chiefs||7/1|
|New Orleans Saints||10/1|
|New England Patriots||12/1|
|Green Bay Packers||15/1|
|Los Angeles Rams||25/1|
|Los Angeles Chargers||30/1|
|Las Vegas Raiders||30/1|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||50/1|
|New York Jets||60/1|
|New York Giants||60/1|
While the O'Briens are 25-1, they are basically co-fourth choices in the AFC with Pittsburgh and Tennessee. Teams regarded with better chances? The Chiefs (7-1), Ravens (7-1) and Patriots (12-1).
The Chiefs and Ravens were the dominant teams in the AFC in 2019-20 and deserve to be favored. The Titans made it a step deeper in the playoffs than did Houston, and the Steelers almost made the playoffs without Ben Roethlisberger, who will be back next season (presumably). So where Houston sits makes sense. Keep in mind, this is before off-season moves. The Chiefs will have to do some maneuvering to keep everyone. The Ravens might not be able to keep Lamar Jackson healthy for a full season again. The Patriots could easily be back but might also move on from Tom Brady and start over. The O'Briens? It remains to be seen.
Moves to be made
The Colts (40-1) could be a threat if they get a veteran quarterback. But all of these odds are more based on last year's results than what these teams will look like heading into camp. The gap between Houston and Kansas City as of today is significant. A 24-0 lead aside, there has to be a lot of moves made. And the Chiefs need to regress, both of which are entirely plausible.
The real question is what does O'Brien the GM do in the off-season? We know he is not going to bring in fresh voices on the coaching staff. And we know he will overpay his pets (Nick Martin and Whitney Mercilus) and give away anyone who he does not like (Jadeveon Clowney). So if your coaching is not going to improve, and you have limited draft capital, the team has one way to improve - free agency.
First things first
Houston has plenty of cap room, but some big deals that need to be made with players already on the roster will impact that. They need to extend Laremy Tunsil, and Deshaun Watson is due for a raise as well. They could hold off until next season, but going into the 2021 off-season with both players eligible to hit free agency would be a disaster. So they need to get at least Tunsil locked up now.
D.J. Reader will get paid by somebody. It will be interesting to see whether or not the team values him the same way it did Mercilus and Martin. Carlos Hyde had a big year, and he is a free agent as well. Bradley Roby is another potential free agent. He played well when healthy, but was he really good enough to be a No. 1 corner? That's what it will cost to keep him.
Without him, they have Gareon Conley, Vernon Hargreaves and Lonnie Johnson under contract. They need a legitimate No. 1, which should be available in free agency. But the price will be steep.
They also need help in the pass rush, which won't be cheap either. And if Reader leaves? They need to replace him as well. All that will just keep them where they are, not necessarily make them better.
And that's the real issue. How can they get better? It's all up to O'Brien the GM to close the gap. Because O'Brien's coaching staff isn't getting any better, and the draft is not going to help.
It will be hard just to keep the Texans where they are, much less improve. But there is a gap that has to be closed if they are going to compete with the Chiefs and Ravens, among others.
As of now, Vegas has them a long way off. And now that O'Brien is in charge of everything, it's on him to gain the ground, what he does in free agency will be the determining factor.