By Ryan “The Don” Bennett
It was an offseason of change in Houston as longtime coordinator Romeo Crennel was jettisoned in favor of rising defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver. Weaver, who has promised schematic changes to the Houston defense, adds a new wrinkle to a defense that looked like a JV squad in last year’s AFC Divisional Round Playoff Game when they allowed Patrick Mahomes to batter them with haymakers as part of a resounding comeback victory. So with these new changes and the return of mainstays like J.J Watt, just what can we expect from Houston in terms of IDP relevancy?
Surprisingly enough, former Defensive Player of the Year J.J Watt is not being given any love whatsoever in dynasty drafts, falling much farther than expected for a player of his pedigree (ADP of 71.2). Of course, his natural talent bears no repeating; he has long been an elite pass-rusher and excels against the run as well. Unfortunately, it is the injury bug that has been his undoing the past four years. Watt has only played one full season (2018) during that stretch, succumbing to various injuries in the rest. To project his ceiling we’ll use that 2018 season as a base.
J.J Watt 2018 Stats
Total Tackles 61 (47 Solo)
QB Hits 21
Pass Deflections: 4
Forced Fumble: 7
Fumble Recovery: 0
The takeaway here is that Watt is one of the best if not the best defensive linemen in the league when he is on the field. Stashing him could pay major dividends for those that take the risk. Anthony Weaver has already stated his intention to let Watt be the primary source of pass-rushing for the defense this season. Should he stay healthy, Watt may have one more elite season left in the tank. If you do select him, I would recommend taking another high-end DL if your league starts more than one to hedge your bets with.
The rest of the defensive linemen will not be key contributors for you. Angelo Blackson is, at best, a serviceable start in DT Start leagues. Blackson might be pushed to the side by rookie Ross Blacklock, a player the Texans are reportedly high on and believe will be an important part of their pass rush. Blacklock’s biggest strength is his ability to stop the run at the point of attack (9 TFL for TCU, tied for 2nd on the team). For now, Blacklock’s draft report states that he is the backup. Blackson and Blacklock are nothing more than Watchlist guys for me, but if your league is deep enough, I’d recommend snagging Blacklock and his upside as opposed to the veteran Blackson.
The first player you need to know about when it comes to this linebacker core is Zach Cunningham. The Pro-Bowl snub had a phenomenal 2019.
Zach Cunningham 2019 Stats
Total Tackles 142 (99 Solo)
Sacks 2, QB Hits 3
( 5 pressures )
Pass Deflections 9.5
Forced Fumble 0
Fumble Recovery 2
These numbers should make any IDP manager giddy. Cunningham, at the age of 25, had the best season of his career thus far and should only continue to improve. What makes him so gifted? Cunningham’s range and lateral quickness enable him to be aggressive against the run while his intelligence and ability to diagnose plays allow him in the right place at the right time more often than not. All of these factors enabled Cunningham to lead the league in run stops with 47.
Total stops in run defense in 2019
1. Zach Cunningham – 47
2. Luke Kuechly – 39
3. Bobby Wagner – 37
4. Joe Schobert – 36 pic.twitter.com/FxHSandljz
— PFF (@PFF) June 9, 2020
It would be surprising to me if he wasn’t a Top 10 LB this season, and you should not hesitate to pull the trigger on this rising star.
Benardrick McKinney has been very consistent in the last 4 years, including back-to-back 100 tackle seasons. He will be staying on the inside of the Texans defense so I see no reason for him not to be plugged in as a very formidable LB3/low LB2 with a repeat performance from 2019. Generally, we love to have linebackers who stuff the run inside the box while also getting opportunities to blitz up the middle.
Outside Linebacker Whitney Mercilus can be helpful coming off the edge, especially with a healthy Watt, but he is 29 so his last years are coming for IDP relevancy. Tread lightly and look elsewhere.
In both the NFL and fantasy football, the Texans secondary is their ultimate downfall. The only bright spot in this uninspiring secondary is third-year safety, Justin Reid. The Stanford alum has consistently been a DB3 for IDP purposes, an honestly underwhelming result for a player that was hyped heavily heading into last season. Despite that, I’m staying on the Justin Reid bandwagon for one more year. Reid has expressed excitement at the changes that Anthony Weaver has proposed for the defense, some of which may involve bringing safeties down into the box on blitz packages more often. Such a move would allow Reid the opportunity to accumulate tackles and QB hits/sacks. He has the talent and I’m going to stay on the wagon for Reid at least one more year. If Weaver takes advantage of Reid’s versatility, it could be a very productive year for the third-year safety.
The Texans have some tough defensive days ahead, but that may actually bode well for the players above when talking about fantasy relevance. While the impact of losing DeAndre Hopkins is yet to be seen, it is likely the defense will be in some long, drug out games. The result? More tackles, more points, and more IDP opportunities.