USA TODAY Sports photo of Texans QB Deshaun Watson
USA TODAY Sports photo of Texans QB Deshaun Watson

2018 win total: 8.5

2017 ATS record: 7-9

Optimist view

With the healthy returns of a three-time defensive MVP, a second-year quarterback who, brief or not, made an MVP-caliber NFL rookie introduction and a former double-digit sack artist, the Texans' injury reinforcements are as impressive as any league-wide.

Although it's been two years and two back surgeries since we've seen his top form, J.J. Watt is still only 29, and since injuries began taking their toll, teammate Jadeveon Clowney has ascended to one of the top two-way front-seven defenders in football. The last time they were healthy together for close to a full season, even with Clowney yet to fully emerge, Houston boasted a top-five defense.

Throw in a new-look secondary with Tyrann Mathieu, rookie Justin Reid and new starting CB Aaron Colvin, old coordinator resuming his role leading the 'D' in Romeo Crennel and it's easy to envision the Texans going from dead last in the NFL in scoring (29th in yards per play) to somewhere near the top of the league.

Deshaun Watson took over for Tom Savage at halftime in Week 1 and, over 26 quarters as the starter, led an offense that averaged more than a touchdown per quarter and north of 33 points per game. Moreover, he did it with a rotten offensive line whose prospects have improved and with little semblance of consistency amid his supporting cast not named DeAndre Hopkins.

Pessimist view:

Watson has torn both ACLs over the past four years, and it's certainly possible — perhaps likely, even — that he doesn't quickly return to being the same transcendent dual-threat improviser he was as a rookie. In addition to his rehab, he must adjust to an O-line with at least three new full-time starters, a scheme that Bill O'Brien went back to the drawing board to redesign this offseason and opposing defenses with a full offseason to dissect his tape.

Hopkins might have been the best receiver in the NFL not named Antonio Brown last season, but his sidekick, Will Fuller, continues to tantalize. The 2016 first-rounder scored seven touchdowns on only 242 snaps with Watson but failed to find the end zone —or crest 44 receiving yards in a game — on 288 Watson-less reps. Plus, the run game, while persistent, didn't pack much punch after Watson's injury, averaging 3.9 yards per carry (compared to 4.4 with him); can a run-centric attack be more dynamic if Watson is relegated more to the pocket?

We already saw the crushing effect of Watt's and Mercilus' absence on 'D.' With them, Houston surrendered an average of 22 points — including a shootout loss in Foxboro and Week 1 defeat vs. Jacksonville in which the Texans surrendered 10 sacks and four turnovers — compared to 29 points without them. If there are any setbacks with Watt's broken leg (or balky back) or Mercilus' torn pec, things could again snowball. (And the injury histories of Clowney and Mathieu are well-documented.)

On schedule:

Returning from injuries or not, there's no grace period for Houston's 'D' with trips to New England and Nashville to open the season. And the Texans' first two home games — Giants in Week 3 and Cowboys in Week 5 — come against prime NFC East rebound candidates.

A Week 10 bye is flanked by trips to Denver and Washington, but the slate might be conducive for a final flourish: Four out of the final six games are at home, including the Colts, Browns and a finale vs. the reigning division champion Jaguars that ultimately could decide the South.

Prediction: Over.

The Texans went 9-7 in O'Brien's first three seasons with Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brian Hoyer and Brock Osweiler leading the offense. It'd be wise to assume last year's blip was namely the byproduct of the NFL's worst injury situation. Conversely, it'd be unwise to bet against the rare talent and football character of Watt and Watson as they try and regain their status among the NFL's brightest stars and lead Houston back atop the division.

Previous projected win total breakdowns

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