After watching the Houston Texans fall short of championship expectations due to a scattershot offense that lacked sizzle and pizzazz, coach Bill O'Brien and general manager Rick Smith have gone all-out to upgrade a troublesome unit this offseason. With a flurry of free-agent moves ahead of a draft that should give them a chance to net a few key contributors, the Texans are not only positioned to repeat as AFC South champs, but they are suddenly the front-runners to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LI behind a revamped offense that should light up scoreboards around the league.
1) Brock Osweiler is a franchise quarterback to build around.
Despite Osweiler's limited experience as an NFL starter (seven career starts), there is no question that the quarterback, who signed with Houston after spending the past four seasons in Denver, is a significant upgrade over those who had previously started for the Texans during the O'Brien era. The 6-foot-8, 240-pound Osweiler flashes more arm talent, athleticism and playmaking ability than Brian Hoyer, and he has more upside than T.J. Yates, Brandon Weeden, Case Keenum, Ryan Mallett and Ryan Fitzpatrick displayed directing the Texans' offense at various points over the past two years. Skeptics will point out that Osweiler's 2015 numbers (61.8 percent completion rate, 245.9 yards per game, 10 TDs, six picks and a passer rating of 86.4 in eight games) are nearly identical to Hoyer's (60.7 percent completion rate, 236.9 yards, 19 TDs, seven picks and a passer rating of 91.4 in 11 games). But the four-year veteran's superior physical tools will allow O'Brien to use the entire playbook without restriction.
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film of Osweiler during his seven-game run as the Denver Broncos' starter in 2015, I was impressed with his ability to spray the ball all over the field with precision. He routinely delivered the ball within the receiver's strike zone, particularly on short and intermediate throws between the numbers. He shows outstanding timing and anticipation on rhythm throws from the shotgun. He catches and fires quickly on "quicks" ("now" screens, hitches, quick outs and slants), while also showing impeccable timing on one- and three-step drops from the gun. On traditional dropbacks and play-action passes, Osweiler's efficient footwork and sound mechanics allow him to deliver the ball accurately to receivers on digs and deep crossing routes. He is a crafty ball handler adept at executing strong play fakes in the backfield to lure second-level defenders to the line before rifling the ball into voids behind linebackers.
Considering Osweiler's strengths as a pocket passer and the Texans' diverse scheme, here are a few tactics that will likely be featured in the team's playbook when the regular season starts:
Osweiler spent four years honing his craft in an offensive system that featured the screen game prominently. He is comfortable throwing "now" screens and bubbles to the perimeter to quickly get the ball in the hands of dangerous playmakers. Given DeAndre Hopkins' electric talents as the Texans' WR1 (111 receptions for 1,521 yards and 11 touchdowns on 192 targets in 2015), the utilization of the quick-screen package is a no-brainer for O'Brien.
In addition, the Texans will likely explore the slow screen game, to take advantage of Osweiler's poise and patience as a screen thrower. He's a terrific ball handler, and his nimble footwork allows him to easily execute misdirection slow screens in the backfield, as evidenced by the slow screen to Vernon Davis in the video below, from the Broncos' Week 11 win over the Bears:
Osweiler has excelled as a passer when directing a quick-rhythm passing game from the pocket. He has a great feel for the timing and spacing of the quick game. Most importantly, he is very efficient completing "lay-ups," which should help boost his confidence and keep the Texans' offense in favorable situations on early downs.
Having studied the All-22 Coaches Film and looked at the Texans' personnel, I think O'Brien could feature more quick routes from empty formations to take advantage of the team's superior talent on the perimeter. This would not only allow Houston to deploy Miller on the outside to create a mismatch, but the empty formation will allow Osweiler to throw slants and stick concepts to either side to exploit coverage.
In the play below, from Denver's Week 16 win over the Cincinnati Bengals last season, Osweiler uses a quick concept from an empty formation to great effect. Broncos receiver Emmanuel Sanders is aligned in a stack position behind Demaryius Thomas on the left. The Broncos execute a skinny post-out concept, which requires Osweiler to field the snap and make a simple read to determine where to deliver the ball. With a great read and a perfect pass, Osweiler notches an 8-yard touchdown on an easy "pitch and catch" concept:
The Texans will also add more seam routes and vertical throws to the playbook. Osweiler shines when allowed to unleash vertical throws down the hashes and boundary, which plays to the strength of Hopkins. The Pro Bowl receiver is an exceptional jump-ball catcher, and his ability to shake free from press and cloud coverage will give Osweiler plenty of opportunities to rack up explosive plays (completions of at least 20 yards) this season.
With Osweiler and Hopkins in sync on vertical routes, the Texans' offense will feature more quick-rhythm shots in 2016.
Osweiler is a polished play-action passer with terrific ball handling skills and underrated movement skills. In addition, he throws with superb timing and anticipation on intermediate throws between the hashes and outside the numbers. Thus, the Texans should feature a dynamic play-action passing game to complement what should be an improved rushing attack, with Miller as the feature back.
Having studied Osweiler's play in 2015, it is apparent to me that he thrives within a passing game that uses deception and misdirection to move defenders on the second level. Whether it is via traditional play-action passes or movement passes featuring bootlegs, Osweiler has a knack for finding open receivers running free at intermediate range.
Considering Hopkins' superb route-running skills, particularly on digs and comebacks, the use of play-action should result in more explosive plays for the Texans' offense.
2) Lamar Miller adds some sizzle to the Texans' running game.
For all of the excitement surrounding Osweiler's arrival as the franchise quarterback, Texans fans should rave about the addition of Miller to the lineup. The four-year veteran is an electric runner with an extraordinary combination of balance, body control and elusiveness. He jumps in and out of holes like a cat, yet displays underrated strength and power running through contact. With Miller also flashing exceptional speed and acceleration, he is a rare back capable of delivering a home run on an inside or outside run.
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film, I was surprised at how easily Miller found creases on inside zones and power plays between the tackles. He is one of the few runners with the discipline to adhere to the "one-cut" principle on zone plays, while also flashing the creativity to slip out the back door on powers (down blocks on the front side, with a back-side guard pulling around as a lead blocker).
Below, I've provided a couple of examples of how well Miller finds the crease on inside runs and power plays.
In the play below, from the Miami Dolphins' loss to the New York Giantsin Week 14 last season, Miller runs the power to perfection. He breaks the huddle aligned as the halfback beside Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill in a spread formation. Miller takes a counter step before taking the handoff and following left guard Dallas Thomas through the hole. After making a few nifty cuts and slipping through a couple of tackles, he races 38 yards to the end zone for a critical score:
In the play below, from Miami's matchup with Houston in Week 7, the Dolphins have Miller in the "dot" position. Miami is executing an inside zone play, with Jordan Cameron kicking out the defensive end (Jadeveon Clowney) to the left. Miller patiently waits for the hole at the line of scrimmage before scooting through on the way to an 85-yard score:
As a receiver, Miller could emerge as a game-changer for the Texans. He displays soft hands and superb ball skills snagging passes from quarterbacks on swings, screens and option routes. In the screen game, in particular, the Texans could take advantage of his exceptional speed, quickness and elusiveness by getting him the ball in space with a convoy of blockers leading the way. This was his specialty with the Miami Dolphins; the Texans would be wise to put him in a similar situation as the feature back.
In the play below, from Miller's spectacular performance against the Texans last season, he is positioned at tailback. Tannehill takes the snap and fakes a reverse to Jarvis Landry before retreating to toss a screen pass to Miller. The shifty playmaker catches the ball on the flanks and weaves around multiple defenders on the way to a 54-yard score:
3) An explosive playmaking receiver can be added on draft day.
After adding a few nice pieces to the backfield, the Texans need to turn their attention to the wide receiver position in the draft to find a dangerous playmaker capable of alleviating some of the burden on Hopkins to carry the passing game. While Hopkins is a capable deep-ball threat as a WR1, the Texans need a speedster on the perimeter to exploit single coverage on the back side when opponents double-team the Pro Bowl receiver. In addition, the presence of Miller in the backfield will create some big-play opportunities when defensive coordinators elect to drop the safety into the box to contain the running game.
Looking ahead to the 2016 NFL Draft, I believe there are plenty of receivers available in the early rounds to fill the role of the Texans' designated deep-ball specialist. Baylor's Corey Coleman and Notre Dame's Will Fuller certainly come to mind when examining prospects worthy of consideration with the 22nd overall pick.
Coleman, the 2015 Biletnikoff Award winner, is a 5-foot-10, 205-pound speedster with 4.4 speed and exceptional leaping ability (40.5-inch vertical jump). He torched Big 12 opponents running simple routes (hitch, slant, go and post) on the perimeter, but also flashes promise as a "catch and run" playmaker on bubble screens and crossing routes.
Fuller, a standout pass catcher with 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons, is squarely on the radar of the Texans after posting 4.32-second 40-yard dash time at the NFL Scouting Combine. He is a legitimate vertical threat capable of running past the defense on go and post routes, but he also shows potential as an intermediate route runner. He shows good quickness, balance and body control getting in and out of his breaks. He also displays some fearlessness venturing across the middle in the red zone. Although there are concerns about his hands and ball skills based on his glaring drops on tape, Fuller caught the ball cleanly at the combine and looked like a natural pass catcher snagging the ball away from his body. If he continues to show progress as a pass catcher in private workouts leading up to the draft, he could jump into the conversation as a first-round value when the Texans select on Day 1.