Should Andre Johnson Stay in Houston?
Nobody likes to lose. Nobody likes to feel like they are unwanted, or should give up. Yet, it seems those are the sentiments that longtime Houston Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson has about his team. On Tuesday, Johnson hinted at wanting a trade away from Houston as the team undergoes (potentially) yet another rebuilding phase. Johnson has been around nearly since the inception of the franchise, and it seems that he has seen nearly every season turn into a rebuild, as only three seasons in Texans’ history have seen them go above a .500 win percentage.
He has every reason to be concerned about the coming years as well. The Texans are on their fourth head coach during Johnson’s 11-year career, they slumped from a playoff team in 2012-13 to the top overall selection in the 2014 NFL Draft, and there's still no true franchise quarterback in place to run the Houston offense.
And yet, the Texans made the playoffs twice with a fairly average quarterback in Matt Schaub, due to their stellar defensive unit. Now with added reinforcements in the front seven on defense, should Johnson be as concerned about his team’s chances? Or is he worried that atrocious offensive play will bring his own career to an early close?
“Mama, If That’s Movin' Up…”
In breaking down the Texans we have to start, as all modern offenses do, with the quarterback position. The trio of replacement-level Ryan Fitzpatrick, mediocre Case Keenum, and rookie/long-term project Tom Savage wouldn’t inspire confidence in any receiving corps. But will this group’s lack of “franchise quarterback” sheen actually detract from the Texans?
Consider 2011, when Houston trotted out the most starting quarterbacks they ever have in one season: Schaub, Matt Leinart and T.J. Yates. It seems like this kind of quarterback carousel, especially with such below-average talent, would wreck an offense’s stability and send them careening out of contention. Yet the Texans finished 10-6 and made it to the playoffs, just missing being a top-10 scoring offense for that season by 13 points.
Now, we know better than to trust box score numbers here at numberFire, but even when we look at the total Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) for all Texans quarterbacks in 2011, we see that they accumulated 74.98 NEP, a solid number. When adjusted for defenses faced, the Houston Texans still wrangled themselves a top-10 Adjusted Passing NEP ranking.
This year could be a very similar story to 2011, as no true starting passer may allow for a committee approach at the position. Keenum may spot start a few games, and even Savage may sub in at points to get some work. However, this shouldn’t be an atrocious offense, as even presumptive starter Fitzpatrick was a top-20 passer in terms of Passing NEP as a backup in both 2012 and 2013. Individual value of players should be just fine, but we should not count on an offense in this state to be in playoff contention unless a few things fall their way.
“...Then I’m Movin' Out”
As for Andre Johnson himself, he's been remarkably consistent as a receiver regardless of any team turmoil surrounding him. Despite injury sidelining him for major parts of his career, he has provided a reliable and valuable target for the lackluster passers in Texans’ history. In no season where he played 13 or more games (except 2005, when he was deemed questionable for 10 weeks) did he accumulate less than 85.00 Total NEP, and five of those seasons saw him go above 100.00 Total NEP. In fact, in only three of his last eight seasons did he see less than 160 targets, and two of those were injury-shortened years in which he was on pace to eclipse that mark again. Those numbers make him a top 10 wideout year in and year out.
There should be no question on whether Johnson has been a top-flight NFL receiver and is deserving of a good team around him. More so, we want to know if he will still sustain his value as a very good receiver this late in his career. Some good physical and early career comparables for Johnson include: Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Keyshawn Johnson, and Jimmy Smith. This is clearly great historical company to be in, each with the physical profile of an NFL number one wide receiver, and a clear number one wide receiver situation.
What one must notice, however, is that Moss, Smith, and Johnson each suffered a stark drop-off in production at age 33. Owens had a career year at 34 and continued to play well until age 37, but he and Smith (who had very good years at age 35-36) seem to be more outlier than norm. Moss was never the same after, and Johnson retired after another mediocre age 34 season. Pro Football Focus’ research corroborates that wide receivers do tend to drop off a cliff at age 34 in terms of production.
Houston, You Have A Problem
If Andre can get out of Houston, he may not go to a team where he is the undisputed top wideout like he is on the Texans. Yet, if a ring is most important to him, he’d better make it happen quickly. There aren’t very many teams that a) have wide-open receiver spots, b) are in contention, and c) have the cap space to take on his monstrous deal. Remember, too, that this is a player who has missed large chunks of time to injury in his career, so the clock is ticking. Teams like New England, Carolina, or New Orleans who have an opening for a top receiver and possess a top-notch passing offense that is poised to win, would love Johnson, but unless he takes a major pay cut and restructures his contract, a move like that is unlikely for these cash-strapped teams.
The Texans also have a potential future replacement for Johnson in sophomore wideout DeAndre Hopkins, so there may not be a great situation for Johnson where he currently is. In his 2013 rookie season, Hopkins was only targeted on 14.47% of the routes he ran, and still racked up 802 yards receiving. If Johnson loses many targets to the up-and-coming Hopkins, it could spell disaster for the wideout’s stats.
Despite this young threat, Johnson may be best suited to stand pat and hope that his teammates pull through with him. After two seasons of more than 10 wins, I tend to believe that the Texans were more luck-and-injury-plagued than most. An elite defense should keep games within reach, so if whoever is under center can get Andre the ball and running back Arian Foster can stay healthy, the Texans have a shot at competing again.