How to lose a GM in 17 months: what to make of the Brian Gaine firing?

I think the best way to sum up Brian Gaine’s tenure as general manager of the Houston Texans is that he had small ambitions and accomplished those well.

Gaine didn’t trade for Deshaun Watson. He didn’t show much urgency at the trading deadline in coming away with only Demaryius Thomas. He signed a single player this offseason to more than a one-year deal: Tashaun Gipson. (Angelo Blackson was re-signed to a three-year deal.) He didn’t trade up to get Andre Dillard. He was content to build through the draft — which he crushed in 2018, it must be said. Gaine was always going to make moves that would only benefit the team or be irrelevant in a year, because he never aimed to do more than that. The Texans took a low-risk plan and got an eleven-win season for it.

I don’t think there’s much more that can be read into Gaine’s tenure because 17 months isn’t much of a timeframe to leave your mark on a franchise. We’ll see how the draft picks pan out, of course. But otherwise this move just leaves me with many questions, which I’ll try to address one-by-one:

Who was responsible for firing Gaine?

That’s a great question. Here are your main suspects:

Bill O’Brien: Has fired numerous coaches that were “his guys,” Gaine was “his guy.” Won a bloody PR war — or I guess as bloody as anything one-sided can be given how little media is given access to the Texans front office — against Rick Smith, despite Smith’s wife having cancer. John McClain noted in his column on the situation that Gaine and O’Brien’s relationship had “eroded.”

He’s the odds-on-favorite in the clubhouse to me because he’s got a long track record of winning culture wars. Being on O’Brien’s staff is, I imagine, like living in The Toadies’ “Possum Kingdom.”

Jack Easterby: The new Texans “executive of team development” seemed to be singled out by the most well-sourced Houston football guy I know, Lance Zierlein:

McClain noted that Easterby has gained “widespread influence throughout the organization.” I know jack crap about Easterby and won’t pretend that I do, having never ever interacted with him. All I can gather from the internet paints him as a religious man — former chaplain for the Chiefs — and someone who fits the mold of a leadership coach.

Perhaps it’s possible that Easterby and Gaine didn’t agree on some things, and that O’Brien was informed of those? Possible.

Cal McNair: Now the way the stories are written point very strongly to this being new owner Cal McNair’s decision. He asserts the power in the Texans PR post about it, and most retellings involve him being the one to actually pull the trigger:

Here’s why I think that’s a bit off-base: McNair has been involved in his father’s businesses for most of his adult life. He’s also got a background as an investor in the pre-Texans days with his father’s companies. It would seem wildly out of character for McNair to do something so impulsive, particularly given Gaine’s five-year contract. This man has been patient for his entire life. He may have signed off on the order because he was convinced to, but I don’t think it’s a step he comes to on his own. And exactly what football sense does he have to make such a leap? No, no, no. None of this adds up.

Janice McNair: Nope, this ain’t it.

I think there’s two real suspects here, and I think Occam’s Razor suggests that maybe Easterby and O’Brien discovered something about Gaine they didn’t like and, using O’Brien’s supreme power in the organization, forced Gaine out.

What does the timing of the move tell us?

There are a couple of ideas I have about things that may have informed the urgency of this move:

  • Charles Robinson of Yahoo! claimed that there has been almost “zero” movement around Jadeveon Clowney’s contract. It’s possible that the Texans didn’t like that — I think it’s more likely that O’Brien doesn’t trust Clowney and didn’t really mind, but I can’t completely dismiss this as a possibility.
  • It’s possible that Easterby and O’Brien determined that Gaine was spending too much time scouting traits and not enough finding productivity. Keep in mind that almost all of Gaine’s high draft picks this year, as well as his big free-agent signings in 2018, were tools-first. Tytus Howard and Max Scharping are big and fast, Kahale Warring is The Tools Guy, and Lonnie Johnson has almost zero to recommend on play alone.

    I would dismiss this because I think that’s also O’Brien’s M.O. — remember that the main targets at quarterback that O’Brien had were Jimmy Garoppolo, Tom Savage, and Ryan Mallet. The big arm at the expense of anything else. I think that also starts with O’Brien.
  • The Texans may have gone through OTAs, looked at their roster, and realized just what their lack of impact this offseason has done. Now, I should note that from what I’ve seen as far as OTA coverage, Howard and Scharping have done fine. But remember that not every OTA is open to the media, and perhaps a lot of the in-OTA scouting the Texans did scared them. It’d scare me to defend the AFC South with this team too. Sometimes you need that crystallizing moment?

    I don’t completely buy that theory either, but it feels stronger to me than the other two.
  • They didn’t trust Gaine’s evaluation of the end-of-roster players, nor did they appreciate his tendency to bring in hurt players. Which I think is kind of interesting because I thought special teams was much improved last year, and I think most of the moves that Gaine made in that vein worked out pretty well! The end of roster wideouts didn’t do great towards the end of the season, but which UDFA rookie looks good at WR2? DeAndre Carter was an inspired waiver wire pickup in the middle of last season.

    But the injured player thing rings a bell to me. Look at Seantrel Henderson and Matt Kalil — the front office invested heavily in guys who have almost zero recent track record of staying healthy. It’s been a complaint of many in the Houston media.

What can be salvaged from a dreadful offseason?

Well, there’s my Jadeveon Clowney contract idea. That’s one way to use the cap space. They could similarly front-load a Will Fuller extension if they believe in his health. DJ Reader could be front-loaded if they want to lock into a run stuffer in 2019.

Unfortunately, there is no rewind button. Of NFL.com’s top 75 free agents, Morris Claiborne, Corey Liuget, Michael Crabtree, and Jay Ajayi are still out there. Could the team make some trades? Sure, but the positions they need the most help at are the ones that are the most unlikely to have anyone become available at. Wanna trade for like, Jason Spriggs? Make some sort of godfather offer for Laremy Tunsil? Start throwing random late-round picks around for depth guys you think have a chance ala Chris Myers way back in the day? Every NFL team needs cornerbacks and no NFL team has three good offensive tackles.

The time to be this aggressive was three months ago, not now. No matter who the next GM is, the only way he’s going to successfully use that cap space is to think so far outside of the box that he’d never be on O’Brien’s radar.

The offseason has already capped Houston’s ceiling.

Who will the Texans hire?

Well, before we get to the part where we discuss the options, let’s talk about the reputation you build when you ice a general manager 17 months into a five-year contract: Nobody good is coming, and you’re going to be used mostly as a negotiation tool by agents. Congrats to Joe Douglas!

The good news (I guess?) is that nobody who wasn’t on Bill O’Brien’s Friendster page was coming anyway. This organization had offensive coordinator open for years and couldn’t bring themselves to fill it from the outside. In interviewing people for the job last time, the organization interviewed two people — Gaine, and Jimmy Raye III, who conveniently satisfied the Rooney rule. Hey, so do Ray Farmer and Martin Mayhew! I’m sure they’ll be getting second interviews, right?

O’Brien will do one of two things: he’ll try to hire either Nick Caserio from New England or Monti Ossenfort from … New England. My guess is that if neither of them are granted permission, you’ll see Chris Olsen continue in the role while O’Brien and Easterby figure out who else O’Brien knows that might make a good general manager. I’m not going to tell you there’s zero chance the Texans hire from outside that pool, but I will be floored if it happens. I’ve seen Scott Pioli mentioned by Jason La Canfora and will start to believe that when someone with sources besides La Canfora says it’s a possibility.

A user’s guide to using Houston’s cap space to make Jadeveon Clowney happy

This offseason has been, if not universally panned, I would say at least mostly disparaged by smart people who happen to like the Houston Texans and are free to talk about it. The Texans are, as of this moment, carrying $41 million in cap space. Free agency as a construct is done. Gerald McCoy is out there as I write this on Thursday afternoon, but probably won’t be when this posts. I still think some of the running backs in free agency would upgrade Houston’s roster. But otherwise you’re looking at trying to rehabilitate the injured/washed — guys like Michael Crabtree and Eric Berry — or just finding a complete unknown.

So the Texans have $41 million in cap space, plus Clowney’s roughly $16 million cap figure. Even if you have hated the offseason they’ve had up to this point, they have a unique opportunity here, it’s something that has precedent in the NFL via both the 49ers and the Jaguars.

via Over The Cap

When re-signing franchise player Jimmy Garoppolo, the 49ers heavily front-loaded the contract. His cap figure was $37 million after the first season on account of a 2018 roster bonus of $28 million guaranteed. His cap figure in 2019 is just $19.3 million. For future years — all essentially option years for the 49ers — he’s around $26-$27 million. That might sound like a lot — remember that Matt Ryan and Ben Roethlisberger have $33 million cap hits in 2020. Aaron Rodgers is at $32.6 million in 2020. Russell Wilson is at $31 million in 2020. Being at “only” $26 million is still quite a discount from the star quarterbacks.

The Jaguars used this strategy successfully with a number of their free agents from their big cap space days. Julius Thomas, to name one player, wound up with a $10.3 million cap hit in the year that he signed, and a $7.3 million cap hit in his second season. If Thomas had actually been good, the long-term contract structure would have helped the team retain him. Instead, it made him a lot easier to get rid of.

via Over The Cap

So what the Texans could do with Clowney, instead of getting wrapped up in his long-term value, is use their available cap space in 2019 to satisfy him without getting locked into a contract that’s onerous long-term. Let’s use DeMarcus Lawrence’s contract as an example, since that seems to be the one every agent is comparing against. Lawrence makes $48 million fully guaranteed on a five-year, $105 million contract — the cap hits start at $11.1 this year, then float into the low $20 million-a-year range starting in 2020.

Let’s frontload that deal. Let’s say we make Clowney’s 2019 cap hit $33 million with a nice signing and roster bonus. Let’s say we aim to make the first three years palatable and fill the last two with unlikely to-be-earned things that could lead to a re-negotiation. That leaves us with something like this:

2019: $33 million
2020: $13 million
2021: $14 million
2022: $22 million
2023: $23 million

Those are cap figures the Texans can work around — the backend of the deal is as good as the middle of Lawrence’s deal, and the front end is beautiful for facilitating contracts like Deshaun Watson’s extension. What else are the Texans going to do with this cap space? Clearly not much. When you wipe out $33 million of the $57 million (cap space plus Clowney’s tag), the Texans still have plenty of available cap space to pursue trades or free agents if they’d like. It’s a win-win that would reward Clowney, help the Texans long-term, and do something with this cap space they’re not using now.

Quick FAQ!

Rivers, do you really think the Texans would consider this?

Haha, of course not. The Texans front office is run like a Madden simulation of a small market front office.

Rivers, do you think Clowney is worth the money?

What is anybody worth, anyway? Only what they’re willing to pay you. I think the better way to ask this question is “Would an NFL team give Clowney more money than this as a true free agent?” and the answer is “obviously.” I don’t see him work every day, and I can’t speak to why Houston might find his various dings more or less likely to reoccur. I do think it’s pretty evident from their actions that they would rather not be committed to him long-term.

Rivers, why not just trade Clowney?

Well, do you like having a good football team? I’m happy to say I think Whitney Mercilus is underutilized by this defense and that he could fill in 70% of what Clowney offers, but that doesn’t mean it’s a for-sure truth. It’s also something a smartly-run defense would be able to do without getting rid of their star edge player who happens to be able to stand up and wreck things as an interior rusher.

Do you remember trading Duane Brown for a second-round pick — more than most players fetch — and watching his cap space sit unutilized while Deshaun Watson took more sacks than any player since Jon Kitna on the Mike Martz Lions? I do. It was Not A Great Outcome. Maybe Lonnie Johnson will make us forget all about it, but I have my doubts. The traditional media and teams, in my view, underrate what above-average NFL play is worth.

Also, you know, the part where they should have traded Clowney like two months ago if they wanted anything back.

Kahale Warring could be special, but he’ll have to fight history to contribute right away

With their final premium pick in the 2019 draft, the Texans spent on another tight end: San Diego State’s Kahale Warring. Warring’s background is intriguing — he barely played football in high school and walked on for the Aztecs. He’s got basketball player attributes that many teams value highly out of the tight end position, and what I saw in watching him with the Aztecs is a player that is a lot more developed than I’d think.

Warring went to the NFL combine and ran a 4.67 40-yard dash, showing well in both jump metrics and both shuttles as well. His only poor time was in the three-cone drill, which does show somewhat when blocking. Warring isn’t great at reacting to quick moves.

As a receiver, Warring is quite polished and should be able to contribute if called upon. I like to focus my study for things that I think I see a lot on Texans tape, which is why it drew my eye that Warring was able to contribute often when the play broke down and he was making it all up:

He had another play like this against Nevada where the quarterback scrambled to the sideline, and Warring was able to dig a ball off the turf. When Deshaun Watson is your quarterback, being able to play outside of the structure of a play is important.

This play actually didn’t count, but get a look at the process that he shows:

I think he shows a lot of well-demonstrated fundamentals as a pass-catcher. He could be a little bit less obvious when he’s blocking downfield, and he could get a little bit better shaking off opponents at the line of scrimmage. SDSU moved him all around the formation, and jamming him was fairly effective.

I do think his blocking is still something in development. He was trusted to make a lot of blocks, including some I think are very common in the Houston offense:

But I felt like technically speaking, as a blocker, he was a little raw. The functional power was there, and he can definitely get his mitts on a linebacker and hold up. But quick NFL linemen are going to be able to shed him without a lot of problems as it stands. Watching these games kind of reassured me that Daniel Fells would have a big role with the Texans this year — don’t get me wrong, Warring has potential, he just might not be ready to go from Day 1.

Where I think he fits in with what the Texans do is that the Aztecs did plenty of combo blocking, and at times Warring would come off and hold a lineman on the backside. No cut blocks that I saw, which I’m guessing is something that the Texans will ask him to learn. He’s somebody that you have to beat with a real move, though. That does factor into the process.

So here’s my devil’s advocate version of why I think this was still a bad pick even though I like the player:

— The Texans literally never throw to their tight ends. Ryan Griffin was the main tight end last year, saw 743 snaps, and drew 43 targets. Jordan Thomas saw 470 snaps and drew 27 targets. Combined, they roughly got 17.3 snaps per target. Even though the target split was fairly even on a seasonal level, most of the time Houston’s No. 2 receiver is the actual target sponge. It just got hidden because of constant Will Fuller and Keke Coutee injuries.

— The only time in the O’Brien era where tight ends were actually a focal point of the offense happened with Brock Osweiler and C.J. Fiedorowicz, and that happened because Osweiler’s first reaction to pressure was to throw over the middle to anybody, no matter how covered they were.

— The Texans already had a receiving tight end they ignored last year despite good limited results: Jordan Akins. Maybe they’re out on him entirely — we can’t read all the way into it from the outside. But it does seem like a waste of resources to just freeze the guy out after one season.

— If the thing was “let’s train a better blocking tight end,” well, you can do that without spending a third-round pick. It’s true. Fells is on the roster, bring in some UDFAs and find one.

That said, look, I get the pick. I think he’s good. I just have my doubts that he can win the uphill battle of Texans offensive history, let alone the battle that most tight ends face to be relevant in their first season.

2019 should be Bill O’Brien’s last chance to get it corrected

The Houston Texans have been granted a major luxury by virtue of their standing in the AFC South throughout Bill O’Brien’s tenure. The teams in the division have often been bad. This has led to a number of easy schedules. The Texans finished with the fourth-easiest schedule in the NFL last year per Football Outsiders’ opponent DVOA numbers, and they finished with the easiest schedule in the NFL in O’Briens inaugural season. Their toughest schedule, in 2017, was 11th-hardest out of 32.

FO’s preseason projections didn’t have a lot of variance with what actually happened — the only meaningful difference in those years was that 2016’s schedule wound up slightly harder than expected. I’m privy to some of the early projections this year, and no matter where the landmark settles, the Texans look poised to have the toughest schedule of the O’Brien era. On a subjective level, I expect things to look even more rude.

I wrote earlier this offseason about the only time the Texans ever successfully corralled a game against a top quarterback under O’Brien — it took a superhuman effort from J.J. Watt, perhaps the best game of his career. This year, the Texans will play Pat Mahomes, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Andrew Luck twice, Drew Brees, Cam Newton, and Matt Ryan. The worst quarterback they’ll play is probably Joe Flacco — maybe Lamar Jackson if he doesn’t improve at all. FO’s projections are sanguine on Houston’s defense, but those projections don’t account for Houston’s enormous defensive splits depending on level of competition. There are no evident Blake Bortles or Zach Mettenbergers to beat up on this year.

So let’s start with that — the conservative ethos of O’Brien is going to be tested. Houston went 2-4 in the 2018 regular season in one-score games where they allowed 22 or more points. One of those wins occurred because Frank Reich refused to settle for a tie in Week 4, and the other came against Sam Darnold. They went 0-4 in those games in 2017, three of which actually came with Watson starting. They went 1-2 in those games in 2016, with another overtime win over the Colts. So over the past three seasons, they’re at 3-10 in close games where they allow more than 22 points, two of which were won in overtime. Want to buffer it out to O’Brien’s early career? Me too. The Texans have played 18 one-score games where they’ve allowed 22 points or more and won three of them.

This is not the only area in which conservative thinking could cost the Texans. An offseason cast in O’Brien’s mold has kept the talent from keeping up with the AFC’s big spenders. The Texans set a dollar threshold they would not pass and it took them out of the running for retaining Tyrann Mathieu (the player they really wanted). More importantly, it cost them a shot at any of the good offensive line free agents. They set a threshold on what they’d give to trade up and it priced them out of picking up a tackle prospect I think could reasonably start on Day 1 in Andre Dillard. While I think the Texans did okay in repairing the holes that free agency and retirement left, I don’t know of a single position you can point to with the confidence that they’ll definitely be better next year — it all is relying on health, jumps in player skill, or projections for non-elite rookies.

O’Brien’s moves have all spelled more than ever that he believes in making Deshaun Watson a pocket passer. Carl Smith was brought in to help Russell Wilson’s play from the pocket more — I don’t believe there’s much left to pare down of Watson’s out of structure game at this point. Watson threw just nine interceptions and had a 69.1% completion rate despite, I would argue, not being an ultra-accurate passer. Watson is not fully controllable in the way that O’Brien would prefer, but O’Brien can still exert a lot of influence as head play caller. These moves have positioned the Texans to play away from Watson’s strengths out of the structure of an offense and with his legs to force a defense to respect him as a runner.

“It’s on me,” is a pretty common O’Brien rallying cry, but never before has it been as true as it will be this year. The top-tier talent the Texans offer can still play with anybody, but this year is going to call for changes in approach away from the normal O’Brien conservative ethos. To his credit, O’Brien has been able to make some terrific in-season changes when pressed. He knew Watson wasn’t ready to run his system in 2017, and the system he created for Watson torched the NFL. He knew that the running game wasn’t playing well down the stretch last year and spent a lot of Week 17 using Watson as a designated runner to great effect.

But this is going to be a year where the ego is going to take a pounding and things aren’t going to come easy. It’s a schedule that calls for quicker adjustments than what O’Brien has done in the past. If they do what they’ve done, the Texans are going to get punched in the mouth. Playoff contention is going to involve winning a lot of close games against good quarterbacks. By the time O’Brien is ready to adjust — at least based on past history — the Texans might be so far behind in a race that it won’t matter.

As I’ve said before, the top-tier talent in Houston is as good as it is anywhere, and that will keep them in games. But I have my doubts that the Texans are going to be coached in a way that unlocks their potential. This team learned nothing from last year. It went out and got more zone cornerbacks and is going to pretend that they can instantly solve problem areas in the draft. It’s too clever by half.

And there will be no running from the blame for O’Brien, just as there wasn’t against the Colts in the playoffs. The quarterback is talented. The defensive pass rush is individually terrific, and the team has discounted cornerback because they want to get by playing zone. They had a chance to fix the offensive line and cornerback and didn’t. They stuck by their player value system and are now carrying roughly $40 million of cap space into the season. The kind of player and price intersection they are looking for is so low-risk that it can only be drafted or developed. No free agent with real options is going to sign with the Texans for what they want to offer — only the ones that have something to prove.

Narratives are an ever-evolving thing in the NFL, and few teams ever truly break out of the stratospheres they’ve been on for years. The more likely result for non-elite teams without great coaching is that they’ll bob up and down as their schedule and injuries dictate. The outside narrative might be different — look at all this talent the Texans have, there’s no way it should be missing the playoffs. Close observers have known O’Brien to be flawed and mostly one-dimensional for some time.

But if the results don’t match the talent, even the notoriously slow-to-act McNair family might have to shuffle the deck. I don’t think seven or eight wins is going to throw O’Brien in the danger window. But anything less than that and, even with three years left on the contract, the seat could get hot.

The more likely scenario is one that Texans fans will dread — a down year, no playoffs, and more excuses.

On Max Scharping, a Texans prospect I actually think is NFL-ready

Again, it was somewhat unsurprising that the Texans would focus on offensive linemen even after getting a tackle in the first round. With their second pick of the second round, the Texans went back to the line in drafting Northern Illinois’ Max Scharping.

Asked to describe the draft class in one word, Brian Gaine told Texan TV’s Drew Dougherty that word is “bigger.” Scharping is definitely bigger. Gaine emphasized Scharping’s body hitting their internal parameters, as well as Scharping’s versatility.

Scharping went to the combine and, like fellow second-round pick Lonnie Johnson, put up a pretty good set of scores given his size. Scharping came in at 327 pounds, but finished average-to-above-average in just about every combine metric he did. Most impressive to me was the 4.69 20-yard shuttle time given how big a part of the tackle skill set that is.

Scharping as a pick hits a few genres I am much more comfortable with than first-round pick Tytus Howard. For one, he’s a four-year starter with an excellent track record. Pro Football Focus’ stat pack has him allowing just five sacks in his NCAA career — that’s in almost 4000 snaps. Their grades are as nice as you’d expect given that, and he tuned down his amount of penalties in his last two seasons, splitting from 8 in the first two to 4 in the second two.

I appreciate how active he is in the run game from the two games I was able to consume. Scharping has the power to set an edge, and there are more videos of him absolutely planting D1 competition than, say, Andre Dillard:

Scharping had a good array of corner blocks and turns to where I don’t think that clip is an unreasonable display of his power. He has a nice anchor when he locks on to his target. Here’s one of him stonewalling one-on-one in the passing game:

Scharping struggled in the games I watched dealing with spin moves and stunts. He’s the kind of lineman that tries to win early in the down by getting his hands on you, and if you can win the hand game against him early, that gives you a good chance. Here’s him getting engulfed by a spin move:

But you look at what he can offer — smart play, terrific anchor, has some hustle to the edge — I think he can be a solid starting right tackle from Day 1. He has the potential to be more than that, and I wouldn’t even necessarily rule him out as a left tackle even though he’d be slow to the edge. It depends on how many reps he’s going to be able to win mentally.

Also, even though I don’t think this specific play is replicable in the pros, I like that he’s got his head on a swivel enough to keep finding people to block:

Scharping is my favorite of Houston’s first three picks and the only one I’m entirely sold on contributing in a positive way in his rookie year. His track record is strong, his athleticism is quite solid for his weight, and he’s got a good mind for the game. The question will ultimately be how far the upside is. Lance Zierlein’s comp was Ricky Wagner, which would be kind of a mid-tier result. He does still have plenty to polish — the hands being too low in his stance is something I noted that concurs with Zierlein’s report — but I don’t think he needs an entire mindset change.

I’d have rather picked him at 26 than Tytus Howard.

Lonnie Johnson’s athleticism is terrific — his cornerback play still needs work

The worst-kept secret in the world was that the Texans were bereft of talent at tackle and cornerback coming into the offseason, then did little to help that in free agency. That essentially forced their hands in the draft, and so when the Texans came to their second-round picks with a tackle already selected, it made a lot of sense that a cornerback was coming off the board.

General manager Brian Gaine described Johnson as an “Outside cornerback with excellent height, weight, speed. Six-foot-one and change, 210 pounds, 4.40 (40-yard dash), played very well in the Senior Bowl and matched up versus some very good competition. Played very well in the Bowl game. Very aggressive in run support. He can play perimeter press coverage, can play man coverage.” Sometimes the PR world is funny because of the way it selectively omits things. The Texans used some Pro Football Focus stats in the article I’m quoting from to boost their other second-round pick, Max Scharping. They did not use any for Johnson.

Johnson’s athleticism is quite good for his size. He had a solid combine, with impressive percentiles among cornerbacks in jumps (90th in vertical, 72nd in horizontal), and pretty much held even across the rest of the board. Considering how big he is compared to most cornerbacks, again, that’s not a bad thing.

But Johnson’s college production wasn’t great — PFF has him allowing three touchdowns last season, with five missed tackles. For his college career, the passer rating against was 109.5. He only played big snaps in two seasons, and had zero career snaps before that. He was, despite Gaine’s words, a little tentative in run support.

One of those touchdowns allowed came against Vanderbilt, and showed that Johnson has some work to do with his strength in fighting for the ball at the catch point:

Another of them came against Texas A&M on the goal line, where I thought Johnson had pretty good coverage on an island but the throw was enough to beat it.

What I think the Texans liked about Johnson — and something I’m beginning to think is the No. 1 thing Houston coaches look for — is his ability to read-and-react on short balls. Check out what he did at the Senior Bowl:

Here’s a similar play that happened in-season, against Florida:

Every time I deep-dive a Texans CB acquisition, there’s at least some evidence of them reading in short zones and coming downhill aggressively to put a lick on someone. That’s a core trait for them, and Johnson fits that.

As for Johnson’s run support, well, I think his run fits are a little over-aggressive sometimes. He was taken advantage of numerous times by Georgia. I think his tackling form is a little finesse-based right now, and he’s got some poor tape. Basically, don’t expect him to replace Kareem Jackson in the run game right away:

I’ve got more video clips on Twitter of Johnson, but I don’t like when writers put out huge video pieces where you’re going back-and-forth from watching to reading. So, I lead with what I thought were big deals and you guys can comb through extra clips at your leisure.

Johnson also had some struggles pressing at the line of scrimmage, both against Georgia and against Penn State in the bowl game. (I do agree with Gaine that he played better in the bowl, though.) I thought he had problems with late movement. One of my least favorite plays, and one that makes me worry about his instant NFL fit, came against the Bulldogs. They motioned someone to bring Johnson across the line of scrimmage pre-snap, and ran one receiver in front of Johnson as a natural pick. Johnson actually curved so far around the receiver that there was about five yards of space. Johnson actually put a big lick on the receiver on this play, but that much free space in the NFL will get you crushed.

It’s hard to say exactly what Johnson will become because, for the most part, every rookie NFL cornerback is going to get whipped early. The ones that don’t are a) exceptions to the rule and b) usually top-20 draft picks. I wasn’t expecting an instant impact either way, but the more I dug into what I could find of Johnson, the more I think he won’t be more than a 500-snap player in 2019. He’s just got a lot of growth to find as a player to live up to what his body is able to do. I probably would have found someone a little bit more pro-ready if it were my board, but you can certainly understand why the Texans were tempted.

All three of Gaine’s top two rounds of choices were at the Senior Bowl, which is interesting to me. Maybe the Texans think seeing these players up close in a professional environment, and how they respond to coaching, is a big factor. Maybe they even think players that can take coaching easily are an inefficiency.

I am not going to tell you I think Johnson is a sure bust just because his college tape is inconsistent-to-poor. I think the Texans have a hypothesis worth disproving, and that the price for a player with this kind of body is about what the price will always be. Let’s hope it comes together. Let’s just also remember that Lance Zierlein’s NFL comp on Johnson was Tharold Simon, who started five games in his second season and never made it back into an NFL rotation after toe injuries wrecked his third season. Simon was regarded as somewhat of a disappointment compared to his raw tools.

Tytus Howard is a solid tackle prospect, but he may not help right away

With their first-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, the Texans watched as two teams maneuvered in front of them. The final one, Philadelphia, took the player the Texans coveted, Washington State left tackle Andre Dillard, with the 22nd overall pick. It was frankly incredible that the Texans got as close to nabbing Dillard as they did, as I think he probably deserved to go about nine picks earlier. I believe Texans fans will, long-term, have a reason to lament that non-move. At the cost of a couple of lower-round picks, the Texans could have secured an opportunity that doesn’t come around very often: a played they needed at a price that was lower than expected. It doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence that GM Brian Gaine no-commented on the trade-up situation.

With the 23rd overall pick, the Texans settled on Alabama State’s Tytus Howard, a small-school prospect who went to the Senior Bowl. I will be up front and tell you that this is a harder pick for someone like me to vet because Alabama State game film isn’t falling out of my ears.

Let’s start with the athletic profile. Howard went to the combine and ran a 5.05 40-yard-dash, which is in the 89th percentile among all NFL tackles at the event. However, his 8.49-second three-cone drill time was disastrous — in the sixth percentile of all NFL tackles. His arm length would not sway you to draft him if that was something you were focused on, and outside of the jump, the rest of his combine results were a little mediocre.

I think the athletic profile undersells his game speed. Howard has a real nice initial kick and set, and he can cover ground in a hurry with wide, sweeping strides. He’s got the body to be an NFL left tackle, though I don’t think he’s in Dillard’s class as an overall athlete and believe his athletic profile might falter against the true freaks of the NFL edge rusher corps.

Howard has shown the power to bury SEC linemen on running plays, and from what I saw has enough hustle to get to the second level on an NFL pull or combo block.

It is, as it is for Julien Davenport, an issue of technique. When Howard’s hands are right, he looks incredible:

When Howard’s hands are not good, he gets walked back pretty easily:

I don’t think that’s something extraordinary to point out — I just compare to Dillard who I thought had superhuman recovery ability. Howard really doesn’t have that. In fact, when Howard gets beat, he has a tendency to grab. What I watched of him against Auburn left me thinking he could have been flagged for holding or false starts another two or three times. Here’s the one he was actually called for:

Again, I’m not reinventing the wheel by pointing out that a HBCU tackle might need some work on his technique to become a good NFL player. Lance Zierlein said Howard reminded him of Duane Brown. I think Brown was a cut above Howard as an athlete, but there is definitely upside to grow into.

With Howard it’s going to be about wrangling all those parts to work together, something that was evident even on the small bits that I was able to watch. Even people who do have more reps than me would tell you that they don’t have much. Howard had just 115 college snaps before his senior season.

If the Duane Brown comp excited you, remember that Duane Brown was not good in his first season. In fact, he split time with Ephraim Salaam and often was overmatched.

***

Don’t necessarily use my skepticism of how the Texans played this draft as a crippling indicator that Howard, himself, is a bad player. I do think Howard is a solid left tackle prospect. But the problem is that the situation the Texans had screamed for them to move up and get the more elite prospect. They’re in a situation where the current linemen are so bad that anybody they picked was destined to see the field early. Dillard is more or less plug-and-play as a pass blocker. I am less sanguine that Howard will be that way. I am open to the idea — mostly because, again, I don’t have a lot of video of him to study. But what I do see leads me to believe he’s not going to come in and be great right away. I think the timeline on Howard being a good NFL player starts in 2020, not 2019.

If Howard is forced into action at left tackle this year, I think Texans fans will lament the situation. I don’t think he’s a finished product. If you want to be super cynical, you can look at the lack of development the Texans have had from their offensive linemen and wonder if this is the kind of player they should be taking a chance on. Nick Martin, Martinas Rankin to this point, Davenport, Xavier Su’a-Filo … it’s not been pretty.

Howard has a chance to be a starting NFL left tackle. My expectations for 2019 are low.

Retrospectus: The 2014 top-of-draft debate

It’s May 2014, the Texans have the No. 1 overall pick, and last year’s starting quarterback, Matt Schaub, was about a month away from being traded. Bill O’Brien was entering his rookie season as a head coach. What should they do?

That was the conceit of what Steph Stradley asked assorted smart football brains in May 2014, in a piece titled “Houston Texans 2014 first draft pick time capsule.” I was also asked to contribute, so I joined along.

There were four basic camps at the time of this draft that we can sum up the positions on like so:

— The Texans have to draft a quarterback — there were about four legitimate answers in this subset between Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel, Blake Bortles, and Derek Carr. The Manziel crowd was much more vocal than the other crowds, which made some sense because he was a divisive prospect and nobody on the outside knew the extent of his off-field issues.
— The Texans have to take the best player available, which in this case is Jadeveon Clowney, a generational pass rushing prospect on pure athleticism.
— The Texans have to take the best player available, but Khalil Mack is better than Jadeveon Clowney because Clowney’s last year in college wasn’t very productive.
— Trade down (which I am going to gloss over because it was impossible for them to trade down for real value without a legitimate No. 1 quarterback prospect enticing a trade up — and you know they were taking that player if he existed in this draft.)

I was of the opinion that the Texans had to come out of the draft with either Bridgewater or Manziel. Here’s my full capsule from the time:

I was stronger on Bridgewater, but I think the relentless Manziel hype got to me a bit at the time — mostly because I recognize that quarterbacks who can make plays outside of the structure of an offense have a real place in today’s NFL. I thought Manziel could hit that and develop in a structured game, but I think we can safely say at this point that he wasted his opportunities to become that kind of player. I was completely out on Bortles because I didn’t think he was consistent enough with his accuracy. I was out on Carr because I thought his play in the pocket when pressured was horrendous.

So the cut-and-dried analysis of the No. 1 pick, in retrospect, looks like this:
— Jadeveon Clowney was a good No. 1 overall pick.
— Khalil Mack has been the better player, though mostly because of Clowney’s health in my opinion. Mack’s just a smidge better.
— Aaron Donald was probably the best actual player in the draft — he went 13th overall to the Rams because he was short and that matters to scouts … because reasons.
— Picking a quarterback No. 1 overall would have been a bad investment in retrospect.

However, go back and read what I wrote at the time — most of that actually did come true. The more nuanced view is that not picking up a quarterback did blow up on Houston.

The Texans quadrupled their win total in 2014, going from two wins to nine wins. They had no way to address quarterback. Quarterbacks went 1-2 in the 2015 NFL Draft and there wasn’t another one picked until the third round — the most successful quarterback in the class after Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota was probably Trevor Siemian. The Texans selected Kevin Johnson at 16th overall, signed Brian Hoyer, and still weren’t a real contender. (Notably, the Chiefs came into NRG and destroyed them.) In 2016, they signed Brock Osweiler to a contract that was so bad they needed to trade a second-round pick to get rid of it. In 2017, they traded up to select Deshaun Watson. It cost this team $26.03 million in paid salary, two first-round picks, and a second-round pick to pass on quarterback in 2014. And, along the way, yes, it wasted the end of Andre Johnson’s prime. It wasted some of DeAndre Hopkins’ prime, some of J.J. Watt’s prime — and that’s just to name off the actual Hall of Fame candidates.

Bridgewater didn’t wind up being a good pick, but that’s because he was felled by a catastrophic non-contact knee injury. In his two years as a starter, he varied between competent and promising, depending on what you wanted to emphasize and how much credit you wanted to give him for the trash offensive line the Vikings put in front of him. Bridgewater only had one season of healthy Stefon Diggs — Diggs’ rookie year. He also threw for nearly 3,000 yards in 12 starts in his rookie season despite his top five receivers (by targets) being a 31-year-old Greg Jennings, second-year Cordarrelle Patterson, Matt Asiata, Jarius Wright, and Charles Johnson.

This was a clear scenario where, given a choice between two outcomes, the answer should have been “yes and yes.” The Texans should have selected Clowney, then traded up for Bridgewater rather than using the 33rd overall pick on a guard.

I’m a big fan of the aesthetic idea of futures that will never happen. (I was a big Chrono Cross fan, loved The Dead Sea, even though the game itself was lacking in some areas.) So that timeline would have been fascinating to live through. It was always weird to me that the Texans would stick their noses up at a good quarterback prospect because of size and arm strength. Remember that Watson didn’t exactly check all those boxes either, and frankly, I think they were obscenely lucky to wind up with Watson in 2017. There are trade-ups for quarterbacks in that range (think Blaine Gabbert) that crippled franchises for years.

It’s interesting to me to look back on this because even as I look at what Houston has done this offseason and haven’t been a huge fan of it, I can’t tell you that they won’t compete in 2019. They have top-end talent in their prime at so many important positions that the building blocks can overcome a lot of bad play if put in the right circumstances. I don’t necessarily believe they will against a tougher schedule, but I can’t discount it either.

And the main reason I can’t discount it? The quarterback is good.

When I come back to my thoughts in 2014, I don’t think they were off. I don’t think they would have been better off in 2019 if they’d taken Bridgewater over Clowney, but they certainly passed on a chance to get a real quarterback prospect. And they paid for it, over and over again.

Why my Texans war room would target Andre Dillard

There are five NFL positions I think have more sway on a down-to-down basis than the others: quarterback, wideout, pass rusher, cornerback, and offensive lineman. Quarterback is obvious — I don’t think I need to waste words convincing anybody of that one.

The other four positions work hand-and-hand with the environment of a passing play — passing plays being the predominant value play in the current NFL. Each of those positions have more responsibility as far as what happens than the others. If a pass rusher creates a pressure, the throw is hurried and more likely to be bad. The easier time a receiver has getting open, the more space and time a quarterback has to get it to him. If a cornerback locks up a receiver in man coverage, the ball will take longer to get out. (If a cornerback is Darrelle Revis or Richard Sherman-esque, it effectively condenses the field.) Finally, if an offensive line is able to win decisively, a quarterback will have more time to diagnose and find the correct play. If an offensive line is incredibly bad, it changes the entire way an offense can play.

The Texans are weak at two of these positions: offensive line and cornerback. I would argue that none of the cornerbacks in this class have the potential to be Jalen Ramsey or the Kansas City version of Marcus Peters. They may do very well in the context of their play, but they won’t be shutting down a side of the field by themselves.

I’ve written numerous times about how untenable the offensive line situation is this offseason. Julien Davenport shouldn’t be relied on to get better. Matt Kalil shouldn’t be relied on at all. Seantrel Henderson has started two games in three years. While there is some reason to believe in the talent in the interior of the line, there is no rational reason to look at those three tackles and believe any of them will be good next year. Davenport could be good, but that’s asking a lot.

So if there were an offensive lineman I grade as an elite pass protector in this class, I think that player is worth paying a premium for. The wreckage of the Duane Brown trade has left the Texans with an extra second-round draft pick, and it may be time to turn that chip in.

Thankfully, there is one, and his name is Andre Dillard.

***

What are the things you look for as far as projecting a college athlete to the NFL level? For me, it’s a combination of the following things: athleticism, talent, ability to stay on the field, intangibles, and college production. Let’s run down the checklist.

Athleticism: At the NFL Combine, Dillard ran in the 89th or better percentile among tackles in every combine agility drill except the vertical jump. Athleticism in an offensive lineman is a key trait for NFL opportunity, especially at tackle. Dillard passed with flying colors.

College production: Dillard lead all offensive linemen in pass reps per Pro Football Focus, and dominated at it per their charting.

Not only were Dillard’s pass blocking grades obscene — they’ve been obscene for three seasons in a row. He’s got three straight seasons of a 90-plus pass blocking grade in PFF’s charting. Jonah Williams has zero. Given Dillard’s experience blocking in the Air Raid, I weight his production even higher because true Air Raid attacks have faltered in the NFL the second a defense discovers a weak lineman. (Think back to the Mike Martz Lions that fell apart with Jon Kitna.) I don’t think PFF’s charting is the end-all-be-all of college football analysis or anything, but it is telling when they find an outlier this wide.

Health: Dillard has played 985 or more college snaps in each of his last three seasons. We can’t really project what will happen on an NFL level injury-wise, because NFL punishment is much different than NCAA punishment. But we can say that there’s nothing concerning about his past history.

Intangibles: This is something we have little access to outside of public media scouting reports and quotes from anonymous scouts. Lance Zierlein noted that Dillard is “intelligent with high character,” in his scouting report. Dillard’s combine interview appeared well-spoken to me and he would fit in well with Houston’s media culture:

I particularly like that he says he’s hard on himself, but that’s just like, my opinion man.

Talent: Now here’s the part where people get to wildly disagree! Most of the conversation from Dillard’s detractors is about his lack of run-blocking acumen. It was something he brought up in his own combine interview, and it’s obviously not a big part of Washington State’s game plan. The Cougars ran draws where Dillard would fake-set and try to take his guy out of the play without really engaging him. They also ran a lot of misdirection and stayed away from one-on-one drive blocking.

I do think there are some elements of how Dillard played in the running game that are great fits for the Texans. The Texans mainly ran zone last year, and I think the athleticism of Dillard is a great fit. In the games I watched of Dillard’s, his pulling was exceptional and often led to Washington State’s best results. (Remember, Lamar Miller’s 97-yard touchdown run last year came because Davenport pulled up the middle.)

Fans of good zone-blocking will also appreciate this against Washington, where Dillard settled a combo block, then went up and got another man:

I think Dillard’s power is somewhat underrated because he makes it look so easy. Maybe they call this play holding, maybe they don’t see it, but look at how easily he turns his defender on this play against Wyoming:

These are plays that I’ve picked because I think they show off both his athletic upside and poke some holes in the idea that he can’t run block. I do think his run block technique could use some work — it gets very two-handed shove heavy at times — but I think the natural power is there.

Then there’s the pass blocking, I picked this one because it shows off a) his motor and b) his ability to deal with a stunt:

One thing that became evident from watching Dillard play a few games is that he’s got an insane ability to recover from poor-looking positions. Even though his technique wasn’t always flawless, he was usually able to take contact to his upper body and re-direct it without even getting walked back. When he was beat to the outside by a step or so, he found a way to cut it off. When Davenport gets beat by a half step, he usually winds up helping the quarterback up.

How much you’re willing to project his run blocking talent based on what we do have — admittedly not much — is the key issue. I think people make a bit much out of the idea that he hasn’t Quenton Nelson-style pancaked anybody. Those are a) videos that people love to watch, b) videos that offensive line disciples love to promote because of their dominant rarity, and c) things that are much less likely to happen at the NFL level. I’m more of a consistency charter — I’m looking for nuances, ebbs, and flows. In a way, the Nelson piledrivers were no different than valuing Josh Allen’s arm because of a few laser touchdown passes. Great! How often are those likely to happen in the NFL? But people pick up on things they don’t see much of in their viewings — they leave a great first impression.

I think there’s plenty of functional strength in Dillard’s game and agility that would be a boon in a zone-blocking scheme. My interpretation of the facts — emphasizing that I do not have anyone’s character profile for him in front of me — is that a little technique clean-up would go a long way and that he’s going to make some early mistakes while he learns what his athleticism can and can’t do at the NFL level. If he learns those lessons, he’s going to be a load for defensive linemen to deal with.

***

I say all this, and I say that I think Dillard could struggle some in his first season. But I believe he will eventually be a top-tier NFL left tackle, and that is what you’re paying for here. The ability for the Texans to fix left tackle with someone who was guaranteed to be solid or good right away was never on the table. Every time they’ve tried to do that in free agency, they’ve been outbid handily. This is about making sure that the wound doesn’t fester.

So, this is the flag I’m planting. I would trade up for Andre Dillard if I had to. I think he’s the only premium left tackle prospect in this draft, and I think the need is so glaring that the Texans should put a premium on addressing it quickly.

I know it’s unusual for teams to trade up for offensive linemen — I think he’s worth it.

Is Julien Davenport a project worth fixing?

When the Texans traded Duane Brown and Duane Brown’s Very Important Unfilled Cap hit to the Seahawks, the hope was that Julien Davenport would be able to fill his shoes at left tackle. In his first full season starting, Davenport was an unmitigated disaster. He lead the NFL in blown blocks per Sports Info Solutions and was the main cog of a bad line that dragged down Deshaun Watson and Houston’s passing game.

But what I want to show you today is why an NFL coaching staff will look at what Davenport did last year and see that as teachable. I don’t agree. But I also don’t have the intimate knowledge of the player that they’d have from seeing him, day in and day out, and talking to him about every play. Remember that a lot of football coaches approach their job with the idea that they can “teach this kid to play” and he’s good. That factors into this as well.

Davenport’s background is imperative to understand in evaluating him, because he’s a small-school player with big tools. The 40-yard-dash at the NFL Combine was a 5.35, but that undersells how quick Davenport moved his feet. The 7.57 three-cone drill time pointed to a player who, at nearly 320 pounds, had the agility to play tackle at the NFL level. He was decent enough on tape — but on tape at Bucknell — where, well, who cares? You better be dominant at Bucknell. I actually didn’t care for his college play on tape because he seemed like he spent an awful lot of time standing around while a play was still happening, but you can judge for yourself:

While Davenport got beat a lot in 2018, it wasn’t because he was physically unable to play. Yes, he got bullied around by the Patriots in Week 1 after he moved to the right side of the line mid-game. But, parked at left tackle, I thought he anchored well most of the time when he got there.

Otherwise, I don’t think he was problematic from a physical standpoint. Yes, there’s a highlight you can find where he dead sprints out of his stance against the Titans because he was not respecting the edge enough. And yes, there are more false starts than you can shake a stick at — I even found a pressure in one of these games where he stayed on the line an extra beat:

But the majority of the problems I see in Davenport come from his punch and his hand technique in general. He gets beat after contact more than anywhere else. Let’s start with a game against the Bills in Week 6, his second game back at left tackle after the Texans removed Martinas Rankin from the starting lineup. He’s matched against Jerry Hughes on this play, because this is now a Jerry Hughes blog for some reason:

I want you to focus on the outside hand. I want to be clear that I am no offensive line expert and the knowledge I have tried to cobble together is on the shoulders of giants. My dad is not an offensive line coach like Lance Zierlein’s. But one thing I’ve heard from watching his old RSP Film Room is that for a tackle, you want the inside hand to be the “guide” hand. You want that to lead first. Davenport’s hurries and sacks allowed are often lowlights of him completely ignoring this advice. He’s often engaging the defender only with his outside hand. Here, against, Hughes, he only gets the outside hand on him.

Hughes rips into his upper chest to get Davenport off-balance. This happened against the Titans as well in Week 2, where Derrick Morgan did the same thing to him. When you are trying to catch someone one-handed for a punch in this retreat position, you open yourself up to whiffing completely at the point of attack. That’s where Davenport got played on more than a few blown blocks.

Here’s another one where leading with that outside hand hurt, in Week 7 against Yannick Ngakoue and the Jaguars:

You can see that Davenport is in fine position to make this block at the point of attack. But because he’s coming with only his outside hand, Ngakoue is able to rip past him at the point of attack. It’s an easy quarterback hit. When you give Davenport an easy, bull-rush target to anchor on, he generally does pretty well with it. Bend the edge and have a good hand game? He was toast.

Even his good results show room for technical improvement. Take this block against Bradley Chubb in Week 9:

You’re seeing Davenport leaning into this block — the back is hunched over. This is where a more technically-sound rusher would use that momentum against him and get past him if he could get out of Davenport’s punch.

When I watch Davenport, I don’t see a player who can’t play at the NFL level physically. I see a player who didn’t understand the subtle nuances you need to play at a high level, and I see a player with poor technique in a few notable areas. I would feel more comfortable with him at right tackle than left tackle long-term, but I don’t think he’s out of the water at left tackle. He won’t have the speed to shut down the best in the game to the outside.

The mental errors, the hand positioning, the technique picking up stunts — hoo boy did the Broncos almost kill Deshaun Watson on those. The Texans have a tackle who doesn’t know how to play tackle yet. Many NFL teams have players like that starting at right tackle on a permanent basis because it’s cheap and sometimes everything clicks for them. Houston watched Derek Newton develop into a good player after years of him getting slaughtered on the outside — same deal. Newton always had the physical gifts.

The uncomfortable point here is that the O’Brien era Texans just haven’t had the same culture of development with linemen. Xavier Su’a-Filo stagnated. Nick Martin is on his way there. Do you trust Davenport to take a step forward with this coaching staff? That’s the question that ties up a lot of questions about the draft with it.

Matt Kalil has better technique at this point, but it’s an open question if he can live up to Davenport’s body. Remember, Kalil has played 18 games in three years, and in 2017 his backpedal looked like a crossover dribble.