The story of the 2011 season is well known by now. Nearly every key player for the Texans missed at least one game and Pro-Bowl players Mario Williams, Andre Johnson, and Matt Schaub all missed significant time. After suffering through nine consecutive non-playoff seasons, Texans fans felt the cruel sting of the injury bug just when their team finally became a legit Super Bowl contender. The Texans still managed to win a playoff game, but the injuries on offense cost them in the divisional round vs. Baltimore. Their roster is deeper and more talented then it's ever been and hopes going into this season are at an all-time high. Not surprising that the reaction has been disbelief and border line depression from the success-starved fans after three of the teams best players got hurt during the first week of training camp. All three players are expected to be ready for the start of the regular season, but seeing key players go down early on after what happened last season is a frightening scene for Texans fans.
Earlier this week I ranked the top Texans players based on talent; given recent events, today I rank the top five players the Texans can least afford to lose to injury. Again, these aren't the most talented players, but the players that would most hurt the Texans chances of winning if they were to get injured. Talent is factored in, but depth at the position is also very important for this list.
1. Matt Schaub
This shouldn't need a lot of explanation. In 10 games with Schaub the Texans went 7-3 last season and averaged 27.3 points per game. During the final six games of the season without Schaub, the Texans went 3-3 and averaged just 18 points per game; nearly a double digit difference. Over the last three seasons, Schaub has averaged 3,873 yards, 23 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, with a 95.7 QB rating; neither T.J. Yates or John Beck is capable of matching those numbers. Bottom line, with Schaub the Texans are a Super Bowl contender; without him they'll be lucky to duplicate last seasons results.
2. Andre Johnson
This was almost a tie with Schaub because a healthy Andre Johnson can lift up and carry a young quarterback like Yates. Since drafting Andre Johnson third overall in 2003, the highest the Texans have drafted a wide receiver before this year was in the third round with Jacoby Jones in 2007, and fourth round with Jerome Mathis in 2005. In fact, the Texans didn't draft any receiver at all in 2008, 2009, and 2011, and not until the 7th round in 2004 and 2006. Despite drafting two receivers this year (DeVier Posey in the 3rd, Keshawn Martin in the 4th), they simply don't have the depth to overcome an injury to their star receiver. Having Andre Johnson off the field doesn't just hurt the passing game, without a deep threat, opposing defenses will have no fear in bringing a safety down and putting eight in the box to stop the run.
3. Duane Brown
Losing a player with the talent of Duane Brown always hurts, but that player being the main person responsible for protecting an injury prone quarterback has the potential to cause double the pain. 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 and the Texans have no depth after promoting Rashad Butler to right tackle when Eric Winston got cut in March.
4. Johnathan Joseph
The Texans are one Johnathan Joseph injury away from taking a serious step back in their pass defense. With the addition of Wade Philips, Danieal Manning, Joseph, and others, the Texans pass defense went from being ranked 32nd to 3rd in just one season. The improved pass rush and better safeties wouldn't let it slip all the way back to 2010 levels; but I think they'd drop back at least 10 spots if Joseph missed much time. Having Joseph on the field gives Wade Philips the freedom to let his safeties roam around not having to worry about him getting beat deep and gives him the freedom to blitz more often knowing he can trust Joseph on an island against top receivers. He affects more positions than just his own and his absence would hurt the defense more than any other player.
5. Brian Cushing
Not only is Cushing a great player, but he's one of the emotional leaders of the defense and the team. On the field Cushing is a play-maker and has a tremendous nose for the ball. He's the not the fastest or most athletic linebacker in the league, but he seems to find the ball carrier and bring him down quicker than most. Cushing is key to their run defense and getting others lined up correctly when the offense audibles. With Daryl Sharpton still recovering from an Achilles injury, the Texans don't have great depth to absorb an injury at inside linebacker; especially to the, in my opinion, second best player at the position in the league.