Texans' second-chance secondary jelling just in time for playoff run

Texans cornerback Bradley Roby returned from a hamstring injury and picked off a Tom Brady pass in a victory over the Patriots. Tyler Smith/EPA

HOUSTON -- When Johnathan Joseph looks around the Texans’ cornerbacks room, he sees an entirely different group from a year ago. Joseph, in his 14th NFL season and his ninth in Houston, is the only remaining corner on the roster from last season.

The Texans have four cornerbacks who were first-round picks, all drafted by other teams. Three of the four -- Bradley Roby, Gareon Conley and Vernon Hargreaves -- were acquired since the end of last season. The Texans traded a 2020 third-rounder in October to the Raiders for Conley, and they picked up Hargreaves off waivers on Nov. 12.

With Conley and Hargreaves, Houston took a chance on players with a lot of talent and upside who are still on rookie deals, and it is starting to pay off.

The secondary had struggled most of the season -- in part because of injuries -- and is still ranked 28th in the NFL after allowing an average of 262.9 passing yards per game. But the group is coming off two of its best games of the season -- victories over the Indianapolis Colts and the New England Patriots -- and is improving just in time for Houston's playoff run.

Hargreaves, the newest addition, after he was cut by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, said he’s still “learning the lingo” and getting acclimated to the Texans.

“We haven’t bonded yet,” Hargreaves said. “We haven’t mixed yet, especially on the field. I don’t think we’ve reached our potential yet, but you can definitely see it in the room. We all know who got drafted where, obviously. We all paid attention to each other’s careers. We know who each other are.

“The sky’s the limit for us. We can be as good as we want to be. It’s just going to take a little bit more time. I’ve got to get acclimated. [There are] a few guys coming back from injury, and things of that nature, but I think we can get this thing rolling.”

With Houston’s limited draft-pick capital in the next few seasons because of several trades, the Texans have had to be creative in building their secondary. They won’t have picks in the first or third rounds of the 2020 draft, and the Dolphins own Houston’s first- and second-round picks in 2021.

“Roster-building never takes a rest,” Texans coach Bill O’Brien said.

In Week 12, the Texans held Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett to 129 passing yards and no touchdowns, and in the Texans’ victory over the Patriots on Sunday night, quarterback Tom Brady threw for 326 yards, but a lot of those came late in the game when the Patriots were forced to throw. Brady held on to the ball for an average of 3.40 seconds, which was the longest for him since the 2016 season.

Roby, who has been the Texans’ top corner this season when healthy, intercepted Brady in the first quarter, which “got us going,” according to O’Brien, and set up the Texans’ first touchdown of the game. Houston did not trail the rest of the game.

That success, O’Brien said, is in part because of the way that Houston’s secondary has improved its communication this season, even with the new additions.

“We spent a lot of time in the meeting rooms and in the walk-through rooms just making sure we were lined up right,” O’Brien said. “Even if we were disguising, when the ball was snapped, where were you supposed to be? Get to where you’re supposed to be or cover who you’re supposed to cover.

“I think good secondary play, a lot of it is about great communication, being on the same page with how you want to handle a different look, and I think our guys did a good job of that.”

Houston will have decisions to make after the season on whether to bring Roby and Hargreaves back in 2020. Roby is on a one-year, $10 million deal, and the Texans also can choose whether they want to bring back Hargreaves, who is owed more than $9 million with his fifth-year option for 2020, but the money is guaranteed only if he is injured.

Joseph said it not only helps to have so many talented players drafted in the first round but also that their experience has made a big difference.

“Throughout our careers, we’ve all been a starter at some point in time," Joseph said. "If a guy goes down, the next guy steps in. So to have guys like that to be available at this point of time in the year, that’s big for us.”