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HOUSTON — After finishing the season ranked 28th in the NFL in passing defense, the Houston Texans have some work to do on their secondary.

There is one place head coach Bill O’Brien would like general manager Brian Gaine to start.

“There’s no doubt we would love to have Tyrann [Mathieu] back,” O’Brien said last week at the NFL scouting combine.

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And while the Texans head coach said several times that the free-agency aspect of the game is “a business” and that “it takes two to tango,” there’s no doubt Mathieu was one of few bright spots in Houston’s pass defense last season.

The former Arizona Cardinals safety quickly became a leader in the locker room after joining the team last March and was a difference-maker on the field as well. Mathieu was brought in to play safety, but he was moved around the field because of injuries in the secondary. He bet on himself last offseason when he signed a one-year, $7 million contract, and it paid off. Mathieu is set to receive a big payday from someone this offseason.

“He’s a guy that really meant a lot to our locker room,” O’Brien said. “I’ve said it time and time again, this guy came in and was there from the offseason program and then at the end of training camp was voted a team captain. I think that says a lot about the impact he had, not just as a player — he’s a good football player, he’s a smart football player, he’s a versatile player — but also, what he meant leadership-wise in the locker room.”

The Texans have another veteran entering free agency in longtime Texans cornerback Kareem Jackson, who was the Texans’ first-round pick in 2010. The veteran moved from corner to safety last offseason and had a lot of success at the position early in the season, but he ended up primarily playing cornerback, again, because of injuries.

“Kareem had a really good year for us, also,” O’Brien said. “Again, he’s a versatile player. He’s a guy that has leadership qualities. He’s been with us since the day I walked in here. He’s an original Texan, was drafted as a Texan and has had a good career here.”

Jackson is coming off of his best NFL season, with a career-high 87 tackles and 17 passes defended. He also had two interceptions, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and a sack. Though the team valued what Jackson did last season, it seems unlikely it would bring back both Mathieu and Jackson, especially if Jackson returns to playing safety. With Justin Reid coming off a successful rookie season, only one of Jackson or Mathieu is necessary.

The Texans’ first noteworthy roster move of the offseason was in their secondary. On Tuesday they released Kevin Johnson, who would have been owed more than $9 million for his fifth-year option if he was on the roster at the beginning of the new NFL year. The 2015 first-round pick missed the majority of the 2018 season after suffering a concussion in the opener against the Patriots and has played in only 35 games in his first four seasons. While it’s possible Johnson could return on a cheaper contract, the Texans were not willing to pay him top dollar at the position; he was set to make more per season than veteran cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph and Aaron Colvin.

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Joseph will return for the second year of the two-year, $10 million contract he signed a year ago after a strong season at age 34. Houston will hope for more from Colvin, who signed a four-year deal worth $34 million in 2018. Colvin missed time last season after injuring his ankle, but even after he returned, he did not play at the level the Texans were hoping for when they signed him and was a healthy scratch down the stretch.

“[Colvin] probably expected himself to play and perform better, too,” Gaine said. “I would say this: Aaron dealt with some injury last year. Unfortunately, he tried to come back from that injury and probably didn’t play as well as he hoped, so we’re hoping Year 2 of free agency, you get a better dividend and more contributions from the nickel position.”

The front seven is obviously the highlight and focal point of the Houston defense right now — it’s hard for that not to be the case when J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney are lining up together — but it’s not hard to see just how good the unit could be. The defense gave up an average of just 19.8 points per game last season, tied for fourth in the NFL, despite all the changes in the secondary. In 2016, Houston thrived defensively with a cornerback trio of Jackson, Joseph and A.J. Bouye. Since Bouye’s departure, there has been a big hole in the secondary.

“On the defensive side of the ball, the strength of our team, obviously, sits in the front seven. As much as you can pressure the quarterback, stress the quarterback, stress the football, that’s critically important,” Gaine said. “At corner, we’re dealing with some free-agent situations and we have to navigate that over the next coming weeks. So, we’ll continue to try to build the defense and make it a strength of the team.”

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HOUSTON — What started as a simple message turned into $37 million.

“I’m sitting here watching the news and checking the Internet and seeing everything that’s going on with Hurricane Harvey and the damage it’s causing back home,” Houston Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt said in a video he posted to Instagram on Aug. 27, 2017, from his hotel room in Dallas. “It’s very difficult.

“That’s our city. It’s very tough to watch your city get hit by such a bad storm and not be there to help. Not be there to help with the recovery. Not be there to help with the process. It’s very tough.”

So he made a request.

“So what I do want to do is I want to start a fundraiser. Because I know that these recovery efforts are going to be massive. I know that there’s going to be a whole bunch of people that we need to help get back on their feet.
J.J. Watt during a visit to the Covenant House in December 2017. “He’s really just a genuine person, and that comes out very much when you first meet him,” Covenant House’s executive director Leslie Bourne said. Courtesy Americares
“Whatever you can donate, please donate to help these people out.”

Watt set up a page on YouCaring.com, donating $100,000 of his own money and setting the goal at $200,000. He raised that in two hours.

For the next three weeks, the online fundraiser continued to grow. A year later, the money distributed by Watt to help the relief efforts has made a huge impact on the lives of those who received help.

“We go to some of the areas where we’ve rebuilt houses and we go and visit a house and I talked to one family, and I was looking at the houses around them that were still pretty beaten up,” Watt said. “They were like, ‘We haven’t seen those people since.’ A lot of people literally abandoned their house, whether they went somewhere else or — so, I think that while if you look at everyday life for most people, you may say, ‘Yeah, they’re in working, regular order,’ but I think there’s still a lot of people going through a lot of stuff.”

More than $30 million of the money was split up to benefit four organizations — Americares, Feeding America, SBP and Save the Children — and was designated to be spent over the next 18 to 24 months. Watt spoke with people who handled donations after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans to see what they did well and what mistakes they made and said he made it his mission “to ensure this money makes as large of an impact as possible” and that “the entirety of the funds would be utilized here in Houston and the surrounding areas for those who were affected most by Hurricane Harvey.”

‘Oh my gosh, this is J.J. Watt’
Watt arrived at Covenant House on a Tuesday in December, alone. As he got out of his truck and walked into the space used to house homeless youth, he was quickly spotted.

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“It took [the youth] just a few seconds to go, ‘Oh my gosh, this is J.J. Watt that just walked in,'” Covenant House’s executive director Leslie Bourne said. “And they were overjoyed with him. He spent so much time individually in talking with a lot of the youth. He’s really just a genuine person, and that comes out very much when you first meet him.”

Covenant House, which is just one of the organizations funded by the money given by Americares as part of what was raised by Watt last year, is in its 36th year serving as a shelter and a comprehensive provider of services for homeless youth (ages 18-24) and their children.

Watt stayed for more than an hour, talking to the young adults, taking photos, and seeing the damage that had been done by Harvey. He stood by what had been a nursery, which had an exterior wall that had to be replaced because of storm damage. And he toured a wing of the Crisis Center that had been quickly repaired, in part because of the money he raised.

“It was just a big boost to the kids,” Bourne said. “Their lives already are filled with trauma, and then the ones that are here because they lost everything due to Harvey … it was just a big bonus and a big plus to their lives to have someone show up who genuinely cared about their stories and genuinely cared what they were going through.”

The money Watt raised has had a lasting effect on Houston and the surrounding areas affected by the storm, which was the deadliest hurricane to hit the United States since Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Harvey flooded more than 300,000 structures and was directly responsible for at least 68 deaths.

Shelter from the storm

More than $30 million of the money J.J. Watt raised after Hurricane Harvey was split up to benefit four organizations — Americares, Feeding America, SBP and Save the Children. Courtesy Americares
One of the people aided by the money donated to Covenant House through Americares is Eric, a then-19-year-old father of two living in Sugar Land, Texas, when the hurricane hit. As the water rose, Eric, his girlfriend and her kids, ages 1 and 2, had to be evacuated by the Coast Guard on a large military vehicle to a shelter at Fulshear High School, more than 20 miles from Sugar Land.

Eric and his family stayed in the shelter for two weeks. After that, they became nomads, paying for hotels or rooms wherever they could find somewhere to stay. It was at one of these stops that Eric was robbed. Without any money to pay for a hotel, he turned to Covenant House.

“Especially when you’re a young parent, having to relocate, find shelter … it’s a heavy weight on your shoulders to do that all by yourself,” Eric said. “They really accepted me and my family with open arms. I really can’t even thank them enough.

“They sheltered us from the storm. Not Hurricane Harvey the storm, but the storm of everyday life. When you don’t have anybody to depend on, I knew I could depend on them here.”

In part because of the funding raised by Watt, Eric had a safe place for his children.

“Without that I probably wouldn’t be here, and I feel like I’m making a step in a positive direction from that. I couldn’t thank him enough,” Eric said. “I can nurture them here. We can color, read books and everything. It’s a surreal feeling actually just being here, knowing that this is a place for my kids … to love on them.”

‘A place to call home’

After his incredible online fundraiser, J.J. Watt said he made it his mission “to ensure this money makes as large of an impact as possible.” Courtesy Americares
John, 21, found his way to Covenant House immediately after Harvey struck. The morning after the storm first hit, he went to the nearest freeway to get as high up as he could. John had stayed at Covenant House before, and after losing everything during Harvey, he knew where he could turn for help.

“Covenant House has given me a place to call home and basically a family to call family,” John said. “Coming back to Covenant House, everything was better. We’re a family here, so basically having family around makes me feel like everything will get better.”

Along with housing, Covenant House offers services to help youth get back on their feet with education and career planning.

“[Covenant House made me] a better person,” John said. “It’s like Covenant House made me a [more] mature person than I was back then. I’m going to work, I’m focused at school. I want to become a pharmacy tech.

“At first I didn’t take life seriously, but Covenant House has prepared me to be out on my own and get my own place and keep my job.”

Covenant House kept its doors open during the storm, offering shelter to anyone who needed it. Immediately after Harvey hit, the shelter saw almost a 20 percent increase in homeless youth seeking assistance. The shelter serves an average of 90 young people every night on its Houston campus, located in the Montrose neighborhood, and has a strong street outreach program that has been directly impacted by the money Watt raised.

“There’s still homeless [people] out there,” Bourne said. “We see them on our street outreach program. I think we found 18 of them in July. As people are trying to get back in their homes or they’re still waiting on repair money for their homes, there’s still fallout a lot of times for that older youth that hasn’t transitioned out of the family. So we’re still prepared to take them in for the next year or so.

“Some people are starting to move into their homes, but it’s still not over. So we’re still expecting youth needing our services from the hurricane.”

Rebuilding homes and lives

Even with all his on-field success, J.J. Watt’s legacy in Houston is likely to be his massive Hurricane Harvey relief effort. Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire
At the end of November, Watt had the chance to see some of the work being done in person with the money that was raised. It was the first time he was able to get to a site after spending the previous month and a half recovering from surgery after he broke his leg during Houston’s Week 5 game.

“I went and saw a few of the homes that are being rebuilt by SBP after being completely gutted from floor to ceiling [and even the roof],” Watt wrote on Instagram. “The people and their stories were both heartbreaking and uplifting all at the same time. … Each of these families went through so much devastation and heartbreak, yet remain so positive and energetic, it was truly inspiring to spend time with them today.

“The work that SBP is doing in rebuilding these houses and helping to get people back in their homes is incredible, and thanks to your donations they will be building hundreds of homes over the next two years, each with a story like those great folks and each eager to get back into the comfort and safety of their own home.”

SBP was founded in 2006 by by Zack Rosenburg and Liz McCartney, who were living in Washington, D.C., at the time but volunteered at St. Bernard’s Parish in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. They started SBP six months after Katrina hit Louisiana. Since then, the organization has rebuilt more than 1,500 homes, and it opened an office in Houston in September 2017 to help people get back in their houses after Harvey.

The grant Watt provided SBP was for $8.5 million. According to Cli Roberts, the executive director of SBP Houston, each house costs about $35,000 to repair, so $3.5 million is going toward rebuilding the first 100 homes in 2018. The other $5 million has been granted to other organizations that are also rebuilding houses across areas impacted by Harvey.

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“It was incredible to see what J.J. Watt did by raising all of that money,” Roberts said. “So many people believed in him and donated, and that was incredible for SBP to be a part of it and to be trusted with that money and be able to go out and rebuild homes. One of the biggest barriers to recovery is funding, so knowing that we have this funding through Year 1 was just really relieving, knowing that we can move over 100 families home this year.”

SBP relies on volunteers to help rebuild homes. Colby Williams joined SBP because he has been here before. In 2005, he was living with his mother on Mandeville Street in Louisiana when Hurricane Katrina hit. Their home was too short, so they had to evacuate to his grandparents’ house and use a sledgehammer to break into the attic, where he said they spent “hours on hours” waiting to be rescued.

“Ever since I was involved in the storm, I had gotten help from other people, and I just wanted to fill that role,” Williams said. “I’ve always felt the need to help other people. And to be that support, that pillar for them to lean on.”

Williams said he has always been a football fan and “a huge fan of J.J. Watt,” but after seeing the time and effort Watt put into raising the money for those affected by Harvey, “it meant a lot.”

“We were able to get new tools and we were able to fund a hundred homes because of the J.J. Watt funds,” Williams said. “And now we have a fully stocked warehouse.”

Much more to be done

Watt has been an important part of this Houston community since he was drafted No. 11 overall in 2011. His list of donations and charitable contributions is long and admirable, but there is no doubt — even with the Hall of Fame-level of success he has had on the field — that what he did in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey a year ago will be his legacy in Houston.

Despite all of the work that has been done to restore Houston, a drive around the city reveals that there’s much more to be done.

“I think J.J. put it the best when he said last year: ‘It’s not going to take like a month. It might take a year, it might take two years, it might take three years,'” Texans coach Bill O’Brien said.

Although rebuilding Houston will take more time, there are tangible improvements and impacted lives that show exactly what the money Watt raised has done — and will continue to do — for Houston.

“The city’s been extremely resilient,” Watt said. “People have done a lot of work to get back to working order, I guess, but I think there’s also tons more work to be done. I think that it’s been out of the headlines for a long time and there’s been not a lot of, obviously, attention on it for a long time, but I think there’s still so many people that need a lot of help.”

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If Justin Reid had been drafted a year earlier, the Texans would’nt have been able to see him during OTAs.
But he wasn’t, so now he’ll be available to practice for the next two months.
Reid, who played collegiately in the PAC-12 at Stanford, will join fellow Cardinal alum Peter Kalambayi and the rest of the draft picks, free agents and tryout players this Thursday at NRG Stadium for the start of rookie minicamp. But before a rules change last October by the NFL, all PAC-12 rookies had to wait until mid-June before they could start work with their pro teams.
“They have the ability to take care of their profession and still go through and see their graduation,” Texans general manager Brian Gaine said. “It’s a delicate balance between both. But with the new rule it’s been able to accomodate both.”
The PAC-12 is on a quarters system, which means their graduations are sometimes a month later than most other colleges. The original rule was enacted so it would prevent athletes from skipping classes to work out with their NFL teams. That changed in mid-October, and Gaine is glad he’ll get to see Reid and Kalambayi.
“It’s a unique thing that helps us now, in terms of the players being here when we need them be,” Gaine said.
The rookies check in on Thursday, and will work on the field on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

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The Houston Texans had a chance to coach one of the most interesting and talented players at the Senior Bowl in University of Central Florida defender, Shaquem Griffin. The NFL asked the Texans to move Griffin around and they did just that, playing him on the edge as a rusher, as a linebacker, and sending him in to do some work at defensive back.

Griffin put in a strong showing on the field during three practices was named the overall best practice player by the Senior Bowl. That work caught the attention of both the South team’s head coach Bill O’Brien and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel.

“What a kid,” O’Brien said of Griffin. “I have been impressed with him in the meeting room and on practice field and he plays hard. He has a way of playing, his playing style relative to what his limitations are physically. He’s got a way of playing that really is interesting to watch. He is going to be an interesting guy to evaluate. He’s a tough guy and plays fast, good on special teams, a fun kid to coach.”

Griffin was moved around by Crennel each of the three days, helping showcase his skill set and showing he could rush the passer and cover when needed. The Texans staff also liked the work he put in during special teams making him an intriguing prospect.

Crennel liked what he saw from the versatile defender.

“He only has one hand but is out there battling with the rest of them, he’s got a great attitude and he’s got good ability and he doesn’t let the fact he only has one hand slow him down,” Crennel explained.

Griffin was born with amniotic band syndrome affecting his left hand, causing his fingers to not fully develop. Shaquem’s parents had his hand amputated when he was 4. Crennel is not worried about that when it comes to seeing Griffen’s work this week as a player on the NFL level.

“I think initially you would be concerned about it but then once you see the guy play, you know there is something special about him,” Crennel stated. “Then you have to see if there is a role on your team that he can fit, so I think everybody will do that.”

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The Texans made a stunning move up the 2017 draft in order to land a franchise quarterback, and it paid off big-time when Deshaun Watson proved to be the most exciting rookie of the first half of the season before an injury ended his year early. Still, the Texans know they have the most important piece of the roster locked in and multiple stars on both sides of the ball. So what do they need? Let’s dive into it.
2018 draft picks
Round 1: None
Round 2: None
Round 3: Houston, Seattle
Round 4: Houston
Round 5: None
Round 6: Houston
Round 7: Houston
The Texans of course paid quite the price to land Watson, sending the Browns their first-round pick in this draft for the opportunity to move up in 2017. Houston also sacrificed its second-round pick in order to clear Brock Osweiler from their ledger, sending it to the Browns as well. They did upgrade their fifth-rounder to a third-rounder in the trade that sent tackle Duane Brown to the Seahawks, which also netted Houston an extra second-rounder in 2019. With that future pick in tow, the Texans have the option to package a 2019 Day 2 pick with one of their third-rounders this year should they want to make a leap for a particular target in 2018.
Biggest offseason needs
Offensive line
Cornerback
Safety
The Texans are pretty well set up at their skill positions with two quality options in the running game, a beast in No. 1 receiver DeAndre Hopkins and a quality secondary option in Will Fuller, but they need to get Watson some help up front, and fast. The team can’t count on anything from right tackle Derek Newton, who’s trying to work his way back from ruptured patellar tendons. No one has played well enough on the line to lock up a starting spot, so it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Texans use their limited draft capital on multiple offensive linemen.
The front-seven has an excellent chance at being elite if J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus can stay healthy in 2018, as players like D.J. Reader and Christian Covington have played well. Even at inside linebacker, where it’s time to move on from Brian Cushing and save $8.5 million in cap space, the team has a pair of young second-round picks in Bernardrick McKinney and Zach Cunningham to lean on.

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The Texans don’t have too much to hang their hat on in the secondary though. Kareem Jackson might not be worth the expensive price tag, but Johnathan Joseph is a free agent and Kevin Johnson has been routinely burned in coverage. Talent needs to be found somewhere. At safety, Andre Hal is worth sticking with at one spot, but the team needs to find another capable starter next to him.
Prospects to watch
Jamarco Jones, OT, Ohio State
Jones showed drastic improvement in his final year with the Buckeyes, and he has the size and length to step right into the left tackle spot at the professional level. He could be available when the Texans go on the clock in Round 3, or the Texans could choose to make a move into the second round to draft a tackle.
Quenton Meeks, CB, Stanford

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Meeks is a long, rangy cornerback who’s had his fair share of experience on an island. As a run defender, he’s unafraid to lower the boom on running backs. The 6-foot-2 Meeks has six pass breakups and two interceptions this season for the Cardinal.
Ronnie Harrison, S, Alabama
Harrison is an enforcer on the back end of Alabama’s defense. While he doesn’t project to a center field role in the NFL, his versatility and thumping ability against the run will make him a hot commodity come draft time.