Each week, theScore will go division by division, highlighting which three players’ performance will most impact their team’s season in 2017.
Watt is the Texans’ best player but his case for inclusion on this list is less obvious than it appears upon first glance. Last year, Watt played three games before undergoing season-ending back surgery, his second operation during the calendar year. When healthy, there isn’t a single defender more dominant than Watt, and he remains as compelling as ever as he returns from injury.
Houston finished first in total defense last season as Watt remained sidelined, gaining significant contributions across the board from its front seven and secondary. Watt can guide a talented group that learned to play without their leader last year to new heights.
The Texans will have to make up for a somewhat uncertain quarterback scenario, and if Watt puts together another transcendent year, it’s possible the club could make their deepest run in franchise history.
Hopkins’ production dropped off significantly during the 2016 season, but it’s hard to fault him, as he had to suffer through a year’s worth of errant passes from Brock Osweiler. With Tom Savage and 2017 first-round pick Deshaun Watson dueling for the starting quarterback role, it’s reasonable to expect Hopkins to shatter the 1,000-yard barrier once again.
At 25, Hopkins is a veritable nightmare in one-on-one scenarios, sporting the physicality and catch radius to snag balls over or around defenders. Although Will Fuller is expected to make strides this year, Hopkins is the fulcrum of the Texans’ passing game and he will likely dictate how far the Texans’ offense can go in 2017.
Jadeveon Clowney deserved many of the plaudits for his breakout 2016 campaign, but McKinney may have slipped under the casual fan’s radar. McKinney earned second-team All-Pro honors, working in tandem with Whitney Mercilus and Brian Cushing to round out an outstanding front seven. McKinney recorded 129 tackles, five sacks, and a forced fumble last year, but his raw numbers belie his true impact on the Texans’ defense.
The Texans will be relying on their defense to win the AFC South once again, while the offense runs a system that’s designed to eat up the clock. McKinney is very good in coverage and against the run and will be relied upon again to make a number of stops if the Texans opt to use a number of aggressive blitz packages next year. Watt and Clowney get the headlines, but it’s McKinney that does the dirty work for the young, talented Texans’ defense.
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