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32 in 32: Houston Texans must find a way to next level

"NFL Total Access" has launched its "32 in 32" series, breaking down the biggest subplots of every NFL team as the 2013 season approaches. Around The League will follow along and offer our own take. Up next: The Houston Texans.

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  1. There's a staleness in the air around the Texans right now. Maybe it's the glass ceiling that seems to be fixed in place over their heads. The Texans have established themselves as a perennial playoff team, and nine Pro Bowl selections last season shows that talent is in the building. But is there enough here to make the leap over the class of the AFC? Better health and some raised performances can ensure that.
  1. Matt Schaub, welcome to the hot seat. Schaub took much of the blame for the Texans' late-season slide, and with good reason. He threw just three touchdown passes in Houston's last six games as the team went from 11-1 to the No. 3 seed in the AFC and eventually lost to the New England Patriots in the divisional playoffs. At 32, Schaub should be in the prime of his career. He is good enough to be a part of a Super Bowl team. He just shouldn't be expected to lead the way. That's a tricky reality in today's NFL.
  1. Using their first pick in April's draft to bring in wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins was a no-brainer. The Texans have failed for years to find an effective complement to Andre Johnson, but Hopkins is a playmaker with great intangibles. Don't be surprised if he emerges as an instant contributor.
  1. Hopkins' presence should help Houston become more imaginative on offense. As I re-watched the Texans' 41-28 divisional playoff loss to the Patriots, I was struck by how little Houston went downfield in its passing attack. Dink-and-dunk reigned supreme even as the game started to get away from the Texans. By the time Schaub finally chucked one deep for a 25-yard touchdown to DeVier Posey, the matter already was settled.
  1. Brian Cushing's return cannot be underestimated. The Texans' defense never fully recovered after Cushing tore his anterior cruciate ligament during a Week 5 win over the New York Jets. Houston's lack of depth at inside linebacker was exposed when Cushing went down, and the team didn't invest in the position through the draft or free agency. Cushing needs to stay on the field.
  1. We know J.J. Watt won NFL Defensive Player Of The Year honors, but I still don't think he got enough credit for one of the best seasons ever in 2012. In just his second NFL season, Watt finished with 20.5 sacks, 16 tipped passes, four forced fumbles and 22 tackles for a loss. Like Lawrence Taylor before him, Watt has that rare ability to control a game from the defensive side of the ball. If the rest of his teammates can push things a bit further, it's Watt who can put them over the top.

Follow Dan Hanzus on Twitter @DanHanzus.

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