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Andre Johnson ended his OTAs holdout and reported to training camp on July 25, 2014. Unfortunately, as often happens with players who hold out of spring conditioning sessions, Johnson suffered a hamstring strain on July 28 and then sat out of practices on July 29 and July 30.
What if the July 28 injury had been a catastrophic knee injury, rather than a strained hamstring? What would the Texans (and fantasy owners) do faced with a Houston offense minus Johnson? That's what we're going to explore in the paragraphs below.
We are in unfamiliar territory with the Texans entering 2014. Johnson established a long string of dominant performances in Houston while catching passes from Matt Schaub during a six year run from 2008-2013. Johnson has gone over 1,200 yards receiving in five of the last six seasons, and has posted over 1,400 yards receiving in four of the last six campaigns, with 181 targets for 109/1,407/5 receving last year. However, all that rapport is history as the Texans' season fell apart last year, and Schaub ended up first benched and then was traded away to Oakland during the offseason. Gary Kubiak got fired after the team's collapse, clearing the way for new head coach/offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien to take over the Texans' team and offensive personnel.
Looking at new starter Ryan Fitzpatrick's track record in the NFL, we see a streaky quarterback who usually explodes for two-to-three 300+ yards-passing games per season, but a guy who is more often in the 220-260 yards passing per game region. Fitzpatrick also has a history of posting four-to-five sub-200 yards passing games per year, so there will be days when the receiving pie in Houston is relatively modest.
Coach O'Brien has quite a track record as a quarterbacks' coach/offensive coach, serving in New England as the offensive assitant during 2007, wide receivers coach in 2008, and then quarterbacks' coach from 2009-2010 before coordinating the 2011 offense - from 2009-2011 Tom Brady put up 371/565 for 4,398 yards passing, 28 TDs and 13 interceptions; 324/492 for 3,900 yards passing, 36 TDs and four interceptions; and finally 401/611 for 5,235 yards passing, 39 TDs and 12 interceptions (Brady had his career-best year as a passer during O'Briens year as offensive coordinator). It's also worth noting that O'Brien saw Fitzpatrick twice a year from 2009-2011 while O'Brien worked for New England - and now the Texans have signed Fitzpatrick to start for O'Brien during 2014. We'll see if O'Brien can smooth out the wild variances in Fitzpatrick's performances from week-to-week.
For the sake of this What If? article, let's posit that Fitzpatrick attempts about 500 passes in Houston this year - he'd likely have a similar outcome to his 2012 campaign in Buffalo, with ~300/500 for ~3,400 yards passing, 24-ish TDs and 16-ish interceptions. If Johnson were out of the picture, there would be around 170 targets to spread around amongst the remaining pass-catchers in Houston. The starters in Houston this year besides Johnson are probably DeAndre Hopkins at wide receiver #2; Garrett Graham at move tight end/H-back; and Arian Foster in a dual-threat mode out of the backfield. Ryan Griffin will also be on the field a lot in two tight end sets.
Hopkins, Foster, Graham and Griffin. These four would claim large chunks of Johnson's 170 targets and have an increased role on the offense. Foster would see the bump in targets and probably also have more balls handed off to him.
DeAndre Hopkins would become the #1 wide receiver in Johnson's absence - Keshawn Martin and DeVier Posey aren't ready to headline a NFL passing offense yet. If there was a way to add Hopkins to your roster, he'd be worth trading for (assuming the other owner would let him go - most wouldn't but you never know).
Posey looks like the #3 receiver on the depth chart as of Early August - he isn't likely to be drafted in the shadows of Johnson and Hopkins, so it is likely that Posey would be on the waiver wire. He'd be bumped to #2 receiver in Johnson's absence, and would have enough work in that role to be of value as a fantasy sub during bye weeks, etc. If Martin beats out Posey for #3 receiver during training camp, then Martin would be the guy to add.
Nobody, but I would be a lot more cautious about starting Fitzpatrick without Johnson. The passing matchup would have to be very favorable for Fitzpatrick to appear in a lineup sans Johnson. Since Fitzpatrick is likely to be a backup fantasy quarterback (at best) on most rosters this year, the impact on fantasy teams would be limited to their starter's bye week or in case of an injury to the top quarterback on the fantasy squad.
If you acquired Posey/Martin, wait until he has a strong game, and then offer him in trade to a wide-receiver-hungry owner. I don't see Posey or Martin as a consistent producer even if one of them is starting as a result of Johnson's absence.