Better, worse or the same? Texans' offense aims to roll with changes

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HOUSTON -- While trading DeAndre Hopkins was the most shocking change the Houston Texans made on offense this offseason, another switch could end up making just as big an impact.

In March, Texans coach Bill O’Brien handed over playcalling duties to offensive coordinator Tim Kelly. The move is designed to allow O’Brien to focus on the bigger picture on and off the field, as he is now the team's general manager. It’s the first time O’Brien won’t be calling plays for the Texans since the 2016 season.

Kelly, who has worked closely with quarterback Deshaun Watson in the past and during the Texans’ virtual offseason, reiterated O’Brien’s views that the Texans have a layered, deep group of playmakers on offense even after trading their star wide receiver.

"I think when you look at the people that we have in our offensive unit room right now, you’ve got a lot of explosive players there for us, guys that have unique skill sets, guys that are experienced and guys that have produced at a high level in this league,” Kelly said. “It's an exciting thing to be able to kind of sit back and watch those guys come together throughout this virtual offseason and learn the offense and kind of come together as one unit.

“We've got a great quarterback, a guy who's going to be able to distribute the ball and again get the ball to the guys that are winning, and we've got guys who have won consistently for a long time scattered throughout that room. ... Obviously those are guys that have produced and that are coming in with a great mindset and with a chip on their shoulder and are working hard every day to make sure they're on the same page with the coaching staff and making sure they're on the same page with Deshaun."

A rundown of each position group and whether they are better, worse or the same now compared to last season:

Quarterback

Additions: Nick Tiano (undrafted free agent)

Losses: None

Returners: Deshaun Watson, AJ McCarron, Alex McGough

Better, worse or the same? The same

The Texans are set at this position with Watson, and Houston signed McCarron to a one-year, $4 million contract this offseason. McGough spent time on the active roster and the practice squad with the Texans in 2019.

The biggest change in the room is that Kelly is also the quarterbacks coach. Carl Smith, who held the position last season, is now an offensive consultant.

“[We have a] really good quarterback room there with a lot of experience, and those guys really enjoy working with Tim Kelly,” O’Brien said.

Wide receivers

Additions: Brandin Cooks (trade), Randall Cobb (free agent), Isaiah Coulter (fifth round of NFL draft), Tyler Simmons (undrafted free agent)

Losses: DeAndre Hopkins (trade)

Returners: Will Fuller, Kenny Stills, Keke Coutee, DeAndre Carter, Steven Mitchell, Chad Hansen, Isaac Whitney

Better, worse or the same? Worse

The depth is greater, but it’s tough to say the wide receivers are better after Hopkins’ departure. This is the position with the most turnover this offseason, and that began with trading Hopkins, an All-Pro receiver for the past three seasons, to the Arizona Cardinals. Houston did add two established veterans in Cobb and Cooks, who are likely to produce as long as they stay healthy.

Speaking of healthy, Houston is hoping for a full season for Fuller in his fifth NFL season and for him to lead this group of speedy receivers.

“I think what we have at that receiver position right now is a very diverse group of receivers,” O’Brien said. “You have Will Fuller, who has produced in great ways when he's been healthy; he's produced a lot. You have Kenny Stills, who came in here last year and did a really good job. Now you add Brandin Cooks [and] Randall Cobb.”

Running back

Additions: David Johnson (trade), Scottie Phillips (undrafted free agent)

Losses: Carlos Hyde (Seahawks), Taiwan Jones (Bills)

Returners: Duke Johnson, Cullen Gillaspia (fullback), Karan Higdon, Buddy Howell

Better, worse or the same? Worse

Hyde had his first career 1,000-yard season for the Texans in 2019, but he wanted more money than Houston was offering early in the offseason. Instead, the Texans traded for David Johnson, who has dealt with injuries and declining production since his breakout season in 2016.

O’Brien clearly believes he got a productive three-down back in Johnson, but it was certainly a more expensive option for Houston. The Texans are counting on Johnson playing at the level he did early in his career and hope he gives Watson another reliable target in 2020. Given Hyde’s impressive output in 2019, though, it’ll take a lot for Johnson (David) & Johnson (Duke) to be as efficient.

Tight end

Additions: Dylan Stapleton (undrafted free agent)

Losses: None

Returners: Darren Fells, Jordan Akins, Jordan Thomas, Kahale Warring

Better, worse or the same? The same

O’Brien is excited about being able to bring back Fells because he thinks the year the tight end spent in his offense will lead to an even better season in 2020. Fells is coming off the best season of his six-year NFL career with 34 catches for 341 yards. His seven touchdowns set a franchise record for touchdowns by a tight end in a season.

Although Warring is listed as a returner, the 2019 third-round pick spent all of last season on injured reserve. The expectation for Warring, Kelly said this offseason, “is for him to be on top of his game mentally when he comes in, just like all of them, and be able to compete for a spot once we get on the grass.” If Warring is healthy and begins living up to his impressive physical profile, he and Fells could create a potent one-two punch at the position.

Offensive line

Additions: Charlie Heck (fourth round in the NFL draft), Brent Qvale (free agent), Cordel Iwuagwu (undrafted free agent), Elex Woodworth (undrafted free agent)

Losses: Chris Clark (unsigned)

Returners: Laremy Tunsil, Max Scharping, Nick Martin, Zach Fulton, Tytus Howard, Senio Kelemete, Roderick Johnson, Rick Leonard, Kyle Murphy, Elijah Nkansah, David Steinmetz

Better, worse or the same? Better

After restructuring Fulton’s contract, the Texans have all five starters returning for the first time since O’Brien took over as head coach in 2014. The unit took a step forward last season with the additions of Tunsil, Howard and Scharping, and now with a whole year together and no changes to the starting five in 2020, Kelly expects the group to continue to improve. While the group is the same, the Texans are banking on the young unit to be better in 2020 as Howard and Scharping take steps forward from their rookie seasons.

"There's a lot of chemistry that goes into that position of playing next to one another, how certain people are going to handle certain blocks and how it's going to feel and the different responses and reactions that you'll get,” Kelly said. “... Having all five of those guys back is vital.”