Best running back in the league. He gets the tough yards, he can break off a long run, he's great in the red zone, great as a receiver; there's just nothing he can't do as a running back. Over the last two seasons, Foster has rushed for 2,840 yards (98 per game), caught passes for 1,221 yards, with 30 total touchdowns. Ben Tate does provide better insurance to the position than they've ever had, but Tate doesn't come close to Foster in terms of his vision. Part of what makes Foster special is his ability to see the hole opening up where the play isn't intended to go and hit it for big yards. Tate is a good back but he doesn't possess that type of vision which became apparent when he filled in for Foster early last season and would run up the back of his blocker into the defenders while a huge hole opened up on the backside of the play.
2. Johnathan Joseph (2)
I don't believe in the term 'shutdown corner', but the Texans have never had a player closer to that term than Joseph. Guys like Darrelle Revis and Nnamdi Asomugha get all the pub when media and the fans talk about the best corners in the league, but Joseph deserves to be in that conversation. Joseph did get torched by Anquan Boldin during their regular season matchup with the Ravens, but overall Joseph provided Wade Philips with a reliable corner that allowed him the ability to blitz more often. In my opinion Joseph is the most important player on the Texans defense. He allows the safeties to have more freedom to roam, he gives Philips more freedom to blitz, and gives extra time to the pass rushers to get home by shutting down his receiver most of the time.
3. Duane Brown (3)
Brown is one of the most athletic tackles in the league and has the rare ability to not only shut down opposing pass rushers, but also get out on screens to make key blocks down field. As the Texans left tackle, he faces the opposing teams best pass rusher each week and didn't give up a single sack, only 4 hits, and 23 hurries in 2011. He's one of the best three tackles in the game; hopefully the Texans have enough money to re-sign him next off-season.
4. Andre Johnson (4)
This choice may surprise some, but I agree with Lance on the decision. Andre Johnson still has elite talent and is the third best receiver in the league in my opinion (behind Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald), but he missed nine games last year with two separate leg injuries, three games the year before that, and is on the wrong side of 30 at the age of 31. Johnson has more talent than some of the guys in front of him on this list, but his age and recent injury problems drop him down a few spots on this list.
5. Brian Cushing (6)
Here's the first difference between our two lists. I don't have a big problem with Watt being ahead of Cushing, but when deciding between two very close players, I give the edge to the guy who has done it longer. Cushing isn't the fastest linebacker in the league, but his 'nose for the ball' allows him to get to and bring down the ball carrier quicker than most. Lance describes this ability in more detail:
What really makes Cushing fly off the field at you is his ability to diagnose quickly and then make decisions with outstanding football instinct. His ability to get around blocks while guessing the right path to the ball is what made helped to vault him back up near the top of the inside linebacker rankings.
6. J.J. Watt (5)
Like I said before, I'd like to see Watt do it again. If he does, and I think he'll be even better, he'll probably move up this list next season. Watt has a non-stop motor, is extremely strong, plays great against the run, and was better than expected as a pass rusher. Watt is a perfect fit as a 3-4 defensive end. Lance agrees and had him ranked one spot higher than I did.
Watt’s strength at the point of attack is obvious, but what sets him apart is his ability to explode off the snap and destroy the plans of the offensive lineman in front of him. If he plays up to his potential, he will challenge Arian Foster and Johnathan Joseph for best Houston Texan.
7. Connor Barwin (9)
I think Lance ranked Barwin too low. When he was given a chance to be the primary pass rusher after Mario Williams season ending injury, he made the most of it. From week 9 to the end of the season, Barwin had 9.5 sacks, tying him with Elvis Dumervil and Jared Allen for the NFL lead. As a rookie, the Texans tried to make him a defensive end to mixed results. He has great hands and a quick burst, which made him pretty effective as a 3rd down pass rushing specialist; but he struggled with the other aspects of playing defensive end. Now playing as a stand-up linebacker, Barwin seems more comfortable with what he's asked to do, and I think it fits his natural gifts much better. Lance explains Barwin's pass rushing moves in more detail:
I think many of Barwin’s sacks and pressures were the result of outstanding one on one skills. Barwin’s "stab move" is a very underrated pass rush move that was able to create balance issues for tackles and open up inside pass rushing lanes.
8. Matt Schaub (8)
Lance and I agree on Schaub. Over the last three seasons, Schaub has averaged 3,873 yards, 23 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, with a 95.7 QB rating. Multiple that out over a full 16 game season and it becomes 4,425 yards, 26 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions; very good numbers, but can he stay healthy enough to put up those stats? Given the overall talent now surrounding Schaub, I think he's good enough to get them to a Super Bowl. He's not an elite quarterback, and probably ranks 10th at best among his peers, but he fits this system very well and can get the job done. Schaub isn't very athletic and he doesn't have a strong arm, but he's accurate and he knows where to go with the ball. With Schaub last season, the Texans were 7-3 through 10 games, averaged 27 points per game, and were considered a Super Bowl favorite; if he stays healthy, I think they'll resume that level of play.
9. Chris Myers (12)
I'll admit it, early on in his career with Houston I thought Myers was over-matched, especially in pass protection. He just didn't seem strong enough to hold up to the bigger defensive tackles, but over the last couple years he's been able to turn his weakness into a strength. Myers is an extremely athletic center and the movement the Texans ask their offensive line to perform fit into his game perfectly. Most interior defensive lineman simply can't run with him in the run game. Lance talks about his value for the Texans:
Myers has gone from being a scapegoat to being a key off-season re-signing by the Texans in just four short years. Make no mistake, I understand that Myers has much more value in the zone scheme than he might have in a man-blocking attack, but the loss of Myers would have hurt much more than the loss of Mike Brisiel.
Lance makes his case for Manning being in the top 10:
There is school of thought that Manning is a decent player who benefited from an outstanding pass rush. There is another school of thought (and I attend this university) that says that Manning is one of, if not THE, best tackling safety in all of football who also has the ability to cover WRs out of the slot and return kicks.
10. Antonio Smith (7)
The switch to the 3-4 benefited Antonio Smith greatly; perhaps more than any other player on the roster. Smith isn't a great pass rusher on the outside, and under performed in my opinion as a 4-3 defensive end. The switch inside played to his strength which is playing the run and occupying blockers. His work goes largely unnoticed because of his position, but Lance thinks he should be ranked even higher on this list:
The most underrated Houston Texan is the darling of coaches and people like Greg Cosell from NFL Films who watch coaches tape for a living...Smith was critical in setting up the outside linebackers on his side up for success with the "T/E" stunts that he was the catalyst for. In that stunt, Smith shoots up the field between the guard and tackle in an attempt to occupy both players which allows the OLB to loop underneath to the vacated area and with a clear shot to the quarterback.
Just missed: Danieal Manning, Ben Tate