The Houston Texans started 11-1 and looked like the team to beat in the AFC until falling three times during the final four games of the season. Houston still won the AFC South, but couldn’t parlay that into a championship season, as the Texans fell in the second round of the playoffs to Baltimore.

The core of the team is back. Any team with Matt Schaub, Arian Foster and Andre Johnson has the weapons to be competitive on offense and J.J. Watt was a demon defensively in 2012, overcoming several injuries in the process.

But the Texans also suffered some free agency defections to contributors like linebacker Connor Barwin and tight end/fullback James Casey. So where does the team stand heading into the 2013 season? Ryan Cook, editor of Toro Times, says despite having a few holes to fill, this team isn’t far away.

Zoneblitz: The Texans went 12-4 in 2012 but lost three of four to end the regular season and, for the second year in a row, lost in the second round of the playoffs. How would you assess the season and what does the team need to do to get deeper into the postseason?

Cook: Even though the season stalled again in the divisional round, it can’t be called a complete failure. A lot of fans think anything less than a trip to the Super Bowl is a waste, but the Texans going 12-4 in 2012 had some meaning. The biggest plus was of course J.J. Watt’s numbers, but that’s exactly what the team needs more of – defense. The linebacker spot struggled significantly against guys like Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Andrew Luck, three guys that slammed the Texans with a loss. Keeping tight ends in front of them cost the Texans linebackers a lot of yards last year, and they struggled against guys like Adrian Peterson, too.

Zoneblitz: Andre Johnson still has great skills, but he’s getting up there in age. Owen Daniels is injury prone. James Casey left for Philly. Do the Texans have the offensive skill players necessary to complement Matt Schaub?

Cook: Definitely. A lot of people think Schaub is the problem, and that is partly the case. Arian Foster is the best complement a quarterback can have, and as long as Andre Johnson is playing, his height alone offers a lot of options in the air. The Texans do need another wide receiver though, someone with reliable hands and a strong frame. DeAndre Hopkins probably offers them that.

Zoneblitz: Any concerns about Arian Foster or was the slightly lower yards per carry due to other factor, such as an offensive line seemed less consistent when the team released Eric Winston?

Cook: No concerns for me. The offensive line didn’t struggle, in fact they did a great job of keeping Schaub upright. They did however struggle to create running lanes, and that’s something I think newly signed fullback Greg Jones should help set up more.

Zoneblitz: J.J. Watt chased the sack record last season while nursing torn elbow ligaments and other injuries? How good can this guy be and what will a healthy Watt do for the Texans’ defense in 2013?

Cook: I can’t even put a guesstimate on how far Watt can go. To think that he played all of last season hurt is crazy, and he’s only going to become scarier with experience. Seeing Brian Cushing back healthy should help him out a lot as well.

Zoneblitz: Connor Barwin left for Philadelphia. Brian Cushing is coming off injury. How do the Texans stack up at the linebacker position?

Cook: There’s obvious need for a linebacker in this year’s draft, particularly on the outside. Speaking of Cushing, no one knows how healthy he will be coming off of ACL surgery, and the Texans could do with a few more sacks in 2013. Re-signing Tim Dobbins for a third year was a good move, he brings in some depth and expertise on special teams.

Zoneblitz: The Texans brought in Ed Reed to replace Glover Quin. What are your thoughts on that exchange?

Cook: Ed Reed is an obvious downgrade from Glover Quin, but I like the experience he brings. The defense as a whole needed another veteran that has seen it all, and Reed shouldn’t be any trouble in the locker room. I’ve always supported Wade Phillips’ thoughts on defense, and he loves Reed. So I think it’s great for younger guys like Brice McCain at corner to have some guidance.

Zoneblitz: What do you think of the job General Manager Rick Smith and Coach Gary Kubiak are doing running the Texans?

Cook: No complaints. It’s been a tight cap year for everyone, and Kubiak and Smith have done well. I’ll reserve my entire judgment until after the draft, but the way Smith lured Reed into signing with the team was genius.

Zoneblitz: Who on the roster do you see having a breakout season in 2013

Cook: Johnathan Joseph. He’s in the prime of his career at age 28, and even though he had a standout year last season earning a trip to the Pro Bowl, Joseph had only two interceptions. Those numbers should rise a little next season I think.

Zoneblitz: How do you feel about the team’s approach to free agency thus far and what would you like to see Houston do in the draft and the rest of the offseason?

Cook: Free agency hasn’t been bad. The Texans lost Quin and immediately recognized his loss, instead of waiting a few weeks to see how the market played out. Losing Connor Barwin wasn’t fantastic though, especially for the cheap price the Eagles signed him for.

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