Hopes are high for the Texans in 2018.
Deshaun Watson's dazzling six starts in September and October gave us a glimpse of what's possible: anything.
The Texans scored 30 points or more in five of those contests, and averaged a tick under 35 points per game during that span.
As he rehabs from a knee injury, so too does defensive end J.J. Watt, who saw his 2017 end on the first series of the game in Week 5. Outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus will be back from a pectoral injury he suffered a few plays before Watt exited.
The return of those three playmakers alone gives ample reason for optimism about this autumn.
But John Harris and I recently got together for our weekly "In the Lab" podcast, and we each came up with three reasons to be hopeful that don't include Watson, Watt and Mercilus.
Don't get us wrong: we're JACKED that those three are returning. But there are other not-so-flashy components of the team that should give you hope that Battle Red-rosier days await.
We'll start with my three, and finish with John's three.
1. Return/growth of Bruce Ellington and Tyler Ervin- The former is a restricted free agent and the latter is coming off a foot injury that submarined his 2017 in Week 4. Ellington caught 29 passes for 330 yards and a pair of scores and also ran three times for 17 yards. He injured his hamstring in Week 13 at Tennessee. Ervin, meanwhile, caught eight balls for 38 yards in his second NFL campaign.
Each of these players is shifty, able to play multiple positions on offense, and capable as a returner of special teams. Ellington in particular flourished in the five games he played with Watson under center, catching 12 passes for 168 yards as the third option behind DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller. He's a restricted free agent and expressed an eagerness and optimism about the Texans in 2018, and will likely be back.
Ervin showed signs in May, June and training camp that 2017 would be a year of growth for him on offense. As a rookie in 2016 he was eighth in the NFL in punt return average with 9.7 yards per.
Another offseason with the team for each should pay dividends for the offense. Their dynamic abilities will be amplified by the return of Watson in union with Hopkins and Fuller.
2. D-line depth and quality- D.J. Reader, Christian Covington, Brandon Dunn, Joel Heath and Carlos Watkins all got a healthy amount of snaps last season. All are young and ascending with playmaking capability when they're combined with playmakers like Watt, Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney.
Reader and Covington ended the season on the injured reserve, but both are expected to be back and ready to roll for training camp, if not sooner. Winning up front on the defensive line makes things a lot easier on the rest of the defense, and helps get Watson and company back on the field sooner.
3. Nowhere to go but up- The offensive line had its share of struggles last season. Expect a new face or two to be added in free agency, as well as in the Draft. Look for Nick Martin to return from injury and take back his starting spot at center. Young linemen like Julien Davenport, Greg Mancz, Kyle Fuller and David Quessenberry will challenge for spots.
It was a down year, and a better o-line in 2018 should help propel this offense to new heights.
John Harris is looking forward to these three points of light in 2018:
1. Zach Cunningham's growth- The 2017 rookie inside linebacker played in all 16 games, and started 13 of them. He finished with 82 total tackles, second on the only to Benardrick McKinney. He was able to play the run, as well as more than hold his own in coverage. Only Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson had more passes defensed than Cunningham, who finished the season with six. The future is bright with him in the middle.
2. Kevin Johnson bounceback- The third-year cornerback missed four games with a knee injury, returning to action against Seattle. In 2016, he was sidelined for the final 10 games of the season with a foot injury. With a healthy offseason, Harris expects a much better year from the 2015 first-rounder.
3. 2 Hits in free agency- Harris thinks the Texans will get two key contributors in free agency, from outside the organization. Last spring, Houston re-signed many of their own free agents, and waited until OTAs and training camp to add outside help. This spring, Harris thinks that will change, and believes there's help to be added in the secondary and on the offensive line.
The Houston Texans roster in photos. (Updated 1/14/2019)