NFL Picks: Excellent Betting Value Found on Texans' Season Win Total Going Under 8.5

Sterling Xie

Friday, August 21, 2015 12:43 AM GMT

Friday, Aug. 21, 2015 12:43 AM GMT

The 2013 Houston Texans were an extremely unlucky bunch that deserved better than its league-worst 2-14 record. Sure enough, Houston made the NFL’s biggest jump in win total last year, going 9-7 and coming within one game of a return to the postseason.

Bettors are now high on Bill O’Brien’s bunch: at 5Dimes, Houston’s over-under wins total sits at 8.5, with the “over” bet sitting at -120.

However, despite the positive vibes, the +100 line on the “under” bet looks like a much stronger choice. Last year’s Texans just barely cleared that 8.5-win hurdle, but did so while playing a fairly soft schedule. Using their DVOA projections, Football Outsiders pegged the Houston Texans with the easiest schedule in the league last season. And indeed, though Houston finished with a solid plus-65 point differential, much of that was built upon its ability to bully the league’s also-rans. In the Texans’ nine wins, the combined winning percentage of their opponents was a putrid .298 (43-101). Conversely, the teams that beat the Texans seven times had a combined winning percentage of .634 (71-41). Two-thirds of Houston’s wins came against teams that finished 4-12 or worse, and the Baltimore Ravens were the only above-.500 team the Texans beat all season. Even in that game, the Texans benefited from Joe Flacco posting the worst single game completion percentage (21-for 50, 42 percent) of his career.

Granted, the Texans have the fortune of playing the NFC South this season, while also receiving four games against rebuilding division foes Tennessee and Jacksonville. The newly released Football Outsiders Almanac 2015 projects Houston to have the 27th-ranked schedule by DVOA, certainly not a large jump from last season’s slate. If the Texans are simply the same squad that took care of business against the dregs of the league, Houston could very well find itself above .500 and on the fringes of the playoff race for the second straight year.

Unfortunately, Houston appears to have some pressing personnel questions that could even prevent them from reaching that ceiling. Arian Foster’s groin injury, which has been covered extensively at numerous outlets already, is the most problematic factor facing the Texans season. As running backs become increasingly marginalized, Foster remained a uniquely important centerpiece in the offense last year.  Despite missing three games, the Pro Bowl back either carried the ball or received a pass target 319 times last season.  In other words, Foster was the focal point on roughly 30 percent of Houston’s plays last year (that number would jump a little higher if you throw out sacks, since no one is being targeted on those plays). Among running backs, only DeMarco Murray, Le’Veon Bell and Matt Forte accounted for a higher “usage” rate on his team’s plays last year. 

But all those players played 16 games—if you prorate Foster’s carry and target totals to 16 games, he would have accounted for 37 percent of Houston’s plays, a figure only Murray eclipsed in 2014. Unfortunately for the Texans, they won’t get to find out if Foster can carry a similar burden in 2015. Though optimistic reports have emerged suggesting Foster won’t miss over half the season like initially feared, it’s hard to imagine the Texans having him for more than 10 to 12 games even if all goes well in his recovery.   

It’s unlikely the passing game can pick up the burden with such a massive component of its offense missing to start the year. Houston deposed 2014 starter Ryan Fitzpatrick and replaced him with free-agent signee Brian Hoyer, who will compete with holdover Ryan Mallett for the starting job. If the veteran Hoyer wins the starting job, it’s hard to see how that represents an upgrade over what Fitzpatrick supplied last season. Hoyer’s conservative play in Cleveland helped propel the Browns to a surprising 6-3 start, but things went south when defenses exposed his inability to pressure the secondary vertically or outside the numbers. Overall, Hoyer actually turned the ball over more frequently than the notoriously mistake-prone Fitzpatrick, in addition to making fewer big plays down the field:

  

Player

TD %

INT %

Yds/Att

Brian Hoyer

2.7%

3.0%

7.6

Ryan Fitzpatrick

5.4%

2.6%

8.0

 

That hardly sounds like a winning combination, and just as the Browns tried to move on to Johnny Manziel last year, it’s easy to envision the Texans eventually giving Mallett another shot under center. In two starts against the Browns and Bengals last year, Malllett compiled a 2-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio on 54.7 percent passing, good for a 48.17 QBR. Those are reasonable numbers for a player making his first career starts, though Mallett’s second start against Cincinnati went poorly after he tried playing through a pectoral tear that would end his season. Mallett at least presents some element of the unknown, unlike Hoyer, though it might be slightly telling if he can’t perform well enough to beat out the vet. 

Regardless of who starts, the Texans figure to lean on their defense, especially in Foster’s absence. Despite mostly middling talent, J.J. Watt’s otherworldly exploits helped the Texans defense finish sixth in both defensive DVOA and yards per play. Houston drafted cornerback Kevin Johnson and inside linebacker Benardrick McKinney in the first two rounds, both of whom should see substantial playing time right away. The Texans could also potentially receive a huge edge-rushing burst if Jadeveon Clowney proves healthy following microfracture surgery, though the track record for that operation is spotty.

But is the defense strong enough to overcome the likely regression from a Foster-centric offense? Research has shown that defenses are less consistent year to year than offenses, meaning that it’s naturally less stable for teams to build around their defenses. Defensive-oriented contenders like the Seattle Seahawks have typically enjoyed top-10 offensive attacks as well; offense-deficient teams like last year’s Bills and Texans squad haven’t been able to rely solely on their defense. Houston is staring at the same formula this year. With a slightly tougher schedule and less balanced personnel after Foster’s injury, the under 8.5 wins bet looms as an excellent value on the NFL futures board.

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