FOOTBALL SEASON PREVIEW, PART 1: New era begins for Texans

It was a busy offseason for Houston’s pro football team. After firing embattled head coach Bill O’Brien four games into what would turn out to be a 4-12 season, the Texans made a Texans-like move and hired 65-year-old David Culley, a man with 27 years of experience as a collegiate and pro coach, but one who has never been a head coach or a coordinator at either level.

The Texans also hired Nick Caserio, the New England Patriots’ wonderkid as general manager. Caserio has been busy from Day 1 remaking the Texans roster. He signed 46 veteran free agents and along with draft picks, welcomed 53 new faces to Kirby Drive when the Texans opened training camp in late July.

And then there’s the Deshaun Watson story and what a story it is! After completing his most successful season as a pro (4,823 passing yards, best among NFL QBs, 33 passing TDs/3 rushing TDs), Watson demanded a trade after he was told by owner Cal McNair he would have a say in who the team hired as its next head coach.

Watson wanted Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy. The team conducted a video interview with one of the up-and-coming coaches and offensive minds in the league (he has had the good fortune to work with a quarterback named Pat Mahomes, who will make any coach look good). The Texans did not consider Bieniemy as their next head coach and Watson demanded a trade.

We all know what happened next. Watson has been accused by 22 women of sexual harassment and a Harris County Grand Jury is investigating one claim as a criminal matter. Watson did show up for training camp but is listed as fourth on the QB depth chart. It’s pretty safe to say he has taken his last snap as the Texans starting QB.

So what do the Texans do now? Well, they signed 10-year veteran quarterback Tyrod Taylor (9,770 career passing yards, 54 TDs) and drafted Davis Mills of Stanford in the third round. Caserio and Culley hope Mills is the team’s QB of the future. He only started 11 games at Stanford and played in 15, but he is 6-foot-5 and is an intelligent youngster.

For the moment, Taylor will be the starting QB and he will have speedy Brandin Cooks (81 receptions, 1,150 yards, 6 TDs) as his top receiver. The Texans lost the services of speedy Will Fuller when he signed with Miami as a free agent. Caserio hopefully upgraded the running game by signing veteran runners Mark Ingram (formerly of Baltimore) and Phillip Lindsey (formerly of Denver). Look for the Texans to feature the run this year to take pressure off of Taylor.

Also gone is perhaps the great Texan of all time, defensive end J.J. Watt. Watt asked for and was granted his release in January and signed with the Arizona Cardinals, where he is reunited with former Houston teammate DeAndre Hopkins.

While “change” is the word with the Texans, the NFL had an offseason of change as well as owners approved an 18-week, 17- game schedule beginning with the 2021 season. Seven new head coaches were also hired. Joining Culley as new head men are Arthur Smith in Atlanta, Urban Meyer in Jacksonville, Brandon Staley with the Los Angeles Chargers, Nick Sirianni in Philadelphia, Dan Campbell in Detroit and Robert Saleh with the New York Jets.

Meyer, one of the most successful coaches in the history of college football (he won two national titles at Florida and one at Ohio State) had the good fortune to draft Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence with the first overall pick in last springs draft. Lawrence will make his pro debut at NRG Stadium on Sept. 12 against the Texans.

Tom Brady (4,633 yards, 40 TDs) led Tampa Bay to the Super Bowl title with a convincing win over Kansas City last February. The Bucs return all 22 starters from last year’s title team and are a good bet to go backto-back, which would give Brady an eighth Lombardi Trophy.

Super Bowl 55 will be played in Los Angeles’s SoFi Stadium on Feb. 13.

TB should be the team to beat in the NFC South now that Drew Brees (80,358 career passing yards, 571 career TDs) has retired and will work as an analyst for NBC on Notre Dame games this fall. New Orleans head coach Sean Payton is one of the best head coaches in the league and the Saints will be competitive, but Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill won’t make Saints fans forget Brees anytime soon. The two combined for 1,003 passing yards and 4 passing TDs in 2020.

Brady has a load of talent on offense, led by WRs Mike Evans (70 receptions, 1,006 yards, 13 TDs) and Chris Godwin (65 receptions, 840 yards, 7 TDs). Don’t be surprised if TB improves on its 11 wins from a year ago, although they will be playing a much tougher schedule and all teams will be gunning for them.

Green Bay would like nothing more than to avenge their NFC title game loss at home to the Bucs. Packer fans were in a panic during the offseason when star QB and reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers (4,299 yards, 48 TDs) became disgruntled and wanted out of Cheeseland. Cooler heads prevailed and Rodgers reported to camp, signed a new contract and made the Packers once again Super Bowl contenders.

Rodgers has a load of talent of offense to spread the ball around, led by perhaps the game’s top wideout in Davante Adams (115 receptions, 1,374 yards, 18 TDs), a solid redzone tight end in Robert Tonvan (52 receptions, 586 yards, 11 TDs) and a strong running game led by Aaron Jones (1,104 yards, 11 total TDs).

If Green Bay improves on defense, they should challenge Tampa Bay for the NFC title.

Green Bay is the class of the NFC North, and if Dak Prescott can stay healthy, the Dallas Cowboys should be the team to beat in the NFC East. Prescott (1,856 passing yards, 9 TDs in just 5 games) suffered a brutal ankle injury against the Giants in Week 5 and the Cowboys stumbled to a 6- 10 finish.

Dallas has a top 5 receiving corps led by Amari Cooper (92 receptions, 1,114 yards, 5 TDs) and CeeDee Lamb (74 receptions, 935 yards, 5 TDs). Dallas needs a resurgence from running back Ezekiel Elliott (979 yards, 6 TDs). The return of offensive linemen Tyron Smith and La’el Collins should be a big boost to Prescott and Elliott.

The defense must improve and the drafting of Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons should give that unit a big lift.

The NFC West could be the best division in the NFL. All four teams have playoff potential, but I like the Rams to win the division because of the addition of former Detroit QB Matthew Stafford (4,084 yards, 26 TDs), who should flourish in Sean McVay’s offense. The Rams also have a stout defense led by 2020 Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald.

Seattle will also be a factor due to QB Russell Wilson (4,213 yards, 40 TDs) and WRs D.K. Metcalf (83 receptions, 1,303 yards, 10 TDs) and Tyler Lockett (100 receptions, 1,054 yards, 10 TDs).

Arizona will be a fun team to watch because of quarterback Kyler Murray (3,971 passing yards, 26 TDs/819 rushing yards, 11 TDs) and Hopkins (115 receptions, 1,407 yards, 6 TDs). Maybe Watt can help a decent defense move to a good defense.

The 49ers, who two years ago won the NFC title, should be back in the mix. Injuries decimated the team a year ago, but they should get their key players back.

In the AFC, look for the Chiefs to once again be the team to beat, but keep an eye on the Cleveland Browns. The Browns finished 11-5 a year ago as QB Baker Mayfield (3,563 yards, 26 TDs) came of age. Cleveland will pound teams with its running game led by Nick Chubb (1,067 yards, 12 TDs) and Kareem Hunt (841 yards, 11 total TDs) and has a solid defense led by former Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett (12 sacks).

The Chiefs will once again be tough to stop on offense led by Mahomes (4,740 yards, 38 TDs), speedy wide receiver Tyreek Hill (87 receptions, 1,276 yards, 15 TDs) and dependable tight end Travis Kelce (105 receptions, 1,416 yards, 11 TDs). KC lost the Super Bowl because its offensive line lost both starting tackles, but the team brought in five new offensive linemen during the offseason, led by former Baltimore All-Pro tackle Orlando Brown.

The NFC North will once again be one of the top divisions in the league. Cleveland will be tested by a resurgent Pittsburgh team and the always dangerous Baltimore Ravens.

PART 2 will be published next week.