HOUSTON -- A year ago, the Hoiuston Texans sported the top-ranked defense in the NFL.
It was an aggressive, frequently dominant unit built around pass rushers J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus, run-stopping linebacker Benardrick McKinney and the cover skills of top cornerback A.J. Bouye.
A year later, a defense taken over by defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel during the offseason when Romeo Crennel was shifted to assistant head coach, has dipped to 20th in total defense. It ranks 28th against the pass and 10th against the run.
Of course, the Texans haven't had Watt and Mercilus on the field for the majority of the season due to injuries. Plus, Bouye signed a five-year, $67.5 million free-agent deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars in March.
Texans head coach Bill O'Brien remains complimentary of the work Vrabel has done in trying to hold the defense together under adverse circumstances.
"He's doing a good job adjusting and putting guys in position to make plays," O'Brien said. "We always can improve, everybody can improve, but I think overall he's done a good job."
O'Brien said he could see Vrabel being an NFL head coach in the future.
A fiery former New England Patriots All-Pro outside linebacker, Vrabel has built a strong rapport with his players.
"He has very good relationships with his players," O'Brien said. "If you know anything about Mike, one of the things about Mike is he takes a vested interest in his friendships, his relationships with his players. He knows a lot about every guy, whether it's family things or whatever it might be. So, I think that's one of his strengths is that he's got strong relationships with the people around him."
--Texans starting wide receiver Will Fuller V has been out the past three games with cracked ribs, but he is making progress toward a potential return Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers.
O'Brien said he could see Fuller playing this week.
Plus, the Texans listed Fuller as limited in practice, based on an estimate of his activity if they had held an actual practice Wednesday. The Texans conducted a light walk-through practice inside NRG Stadium.
The fastest player on the Texans' roster with a 4.28 time in the 40-yard dash, Fuller has caught 17 passes for 326 yards and seven touchdowns this season. Fuller was drafted in the first round last year out of Notre Dame.
--Although tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz was placed on injured reserve after suffering his third concussion of the year, the Texans do expect him to return for next season.
The Texans signed Fiedorowicz to a three-year, $21.5 million contract prior to the season that included $10 million guaranteed.
Fiedorowicz missed eight games earlier this season with a concussion and was later activated from injured reserve-designated to return. He finished the season with 14 catches for 127 yards.
"There's been no discussion with him yet," O'Brien said. "I think in these situations you have to let the player kind of, first of all, get back to where he's feeling normal. He's taken some shots, obviously, he's had three in a fairly short period of time.
"So, we'll wait to see really when he starts feeling better, we'll sit down and talk about him and talk about what he's thinking about things. But, C.J.'s been a really, really top-notch football player for us. Great guy to have around and we expect to have him in the future, no doubt about it."
--O'Brien didn't hold back when asked about whether he thinks the NFL should expand game-day rosters from 46 players.
O'Brien hopes these issues are addressed in the next collective bargaining agreement. He also wants more time to work directly with players in the offseason, another frequent complaint from NFL head coaches.
The Texans have experienced myriad injuries, including losing quarterback Deshaun Watson and defensive end J.J. Watt, this season. Some of their practice sessions have been impacted by the unavailability of starting players, too.
"I know that there's really a few schools of thought on this in the league, but coming from where I've come from, who I've worked for, learning how to develop players, I don't think there's any question that there should be an expanded practice-squad roster and an expanded roster on game day, I think," O'Brien said. "Forty-six game-day roster, obviously with us, lately has been very difficult. When you experience six or seven injuries in a game, you're down to 40 players.
"Really, it's 37 because you're not putting (punter Shane) Lechler at linebacker or (long snapper Jon) Weeks at center or (kicker) Ka'imi (Fairbairn) at safety. I think there's a lot of room for conversation on that. Again, I'm just a head coach and I don't really have a lot of say in that, but I have some definite opinions on it."
NOTES: WR Bruce Ellington (hamstring) was placed on injured reserve. ... OLB Brennan Scarlett injured his foot and was placed on injured reserve.