Seven Takeaways from Texans OTAs

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

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If you’re feeling left out to dry on the posts — sorry. The summer is pretty much Football Outsiders Almanac season for me and I’ve got the entire AFC South and the top prospects chapter. So I’ve put in a good 10,000 words this past week, just not a lot in the service of the Texans that you can read in this moment.

So the Texans put minicamp to bed and decided that OTAs are enough, we got a solid month of players in town working out and a slew of interviews with the coaching staff. Here are my takeaways:

1) It sure seems like the Texans want us to believe they’ll play Tytus Howard at guard

During our huge outpouring of assistant coach pressers last week, James Campen was asked about Tytus Howard and Marcus Cannon competing at right tackle:

Since that came out, in-house media has also repeatedly hinted at surprise changes on the line, and John McClain came on their radio show and out-and-out said he thinks Howard will play guard.

I’m of two different minds of this. One is that the Texans were playing around with the idea of Howard at guard in his rookie season, even giving him a start there in the second game of the season, so maybe they just don’t think he’s developing quickly enough at tackle. I actually think that Campen came off as extremely insightful in his deeper interview with John Harris and Marc Vandermeer, particularly when compared to the uh, genius that was Mike Devlin:

The second part of this is: Why is a team that has almost no good young players yanking around another young player to a new spot to accommodate a 33-year-old right tackle who didn’t play last year and has a real cap charge? It continues what I’ve banged on before about this team’s troubling inability to understand that the youth on the roster has to be served for the Texans to go anywhere.

I wasn’t really a huge fan of the Cannon trade to begin with — not because he’s bad but because he’s old. But if he’s so valued that he’s moving the only Texans-selected first-round pick on the roster not named Deshaun Watson off of his spot, that makes me even more skeptical of the move. To be clear, we don’t know if this move is actually going to happen. But it sure seems to fit what we know about how this team operates.

2) Deshaun Watson was never a Texan, we have always been at war with Deshaun Watson

Listen, I’m aware that you can’t say anything about Deshaun Watson’s legal cases. Nobody’s asking for that. But what the patented Caserio Veil of Secrecy has created here is a case where we just outright deny that the guy exists because there’s nothing they can say about him.

The lack of transparency about the situation isn’t making it any less of a distraction. It’s very obviously a distraction from what the Texans are trying to do. Having a coherent statement to give out about where the organization stands on Watson would, at this point, be a welcome change. The more optimistic Texans fans are tired of hearing the questions about it — and I totally get that — but as long as it remains an unanswered question, the question is going to continue to be asked in a few different forms.

It came out that the Texans were on the phone with Kellen Mond when he was picked by the Vikings and they pivoted to Davis Mills. I find it extremely hard to believe that they just happened to decide that both quarterbacks were at the top of their board without some emphasis on the position. We know what that means the front office has decided.

At this point it feels fated that the Watson situation will play out the way that Watson wants it to play out, the only questions left are when the court cases and NFL attention go away enough to make other teams comfortable pulling the trigger, and how badly the Texans will get short-changed for his services. (And I don’t mean that I think the Texans are getting a second-rounder, I mean that when I hear “three first-round picks,” that’s not enough for the guy I saw play in 2020.)

3) r/cosplay football coaches

OK, is it unfair to make fun of how involved Caserio is on the field at OTAs? Probably a little bit. He’s the general manager and it stands to reason that he’d be there. Same with his superior, Jack Easterby:

But at the same time, they clearly have a lot of power, I have pulled no less than one Easterby photo out of every photo gallery the Texans have posted. It’s very clear where the power in this organization is.

Texans in-house media has at times tried to play off Caserio throwing at camp as a positive thing — like versatility but for general managers — and even talks about him throwing at Pro Days in the past. When you look at how hands-on the churn has been — to the point where there is almost a roster move per week — and how close to the action these two get, it’s impossible for me to not come away thinking that they have a lot more power over this situation than David Culley has. That’s all. Just recognizing the power dynamic as we see it created in person.

4) The fantasy of running the ball a lot more is alive

It was never not going to be an area of emphasis, but what struck me about this comment was not that Texans OC Tim Kelly said they’d run the ball more, but that they thought they’d improved schematically and with personnel already. The Caserio Veil of Secrecy Texans have not spent a lot of time actually communicating an offensive ethos, leading to a widespread speculation train of the Texans taking Baltimore’s run game from Culley/Mark Ingram/Andy Bischoff and running it.

I think the closest thing to honest we got out of these offensive coaches was what Pep Hamilton said:

They don’t really know what that means because, well, it’s hard to win games in the NFL with an easy-to-spot run game. If you run read-option with Tyrod Taylor and Phillip Lindsay — the best-case scenario in my opinion that this team has — defenses are going to stack the box. Then you’re asking this receiver and tight end group to win one-on-one balls or the play-action game to be much, much better than it was last year.

Ultimately, unless there’s a huge improvement on the defense, this team isn’t going to be able to run much anyway. While the team was empirically bad at rushing last year as well, a lot of people looked at the problem as if it was simply “they don’t run very much,” when it’s hard to run when your defense is getting lit up badly enough for Jake Luton to have a chance at a game-winning drive, and for Brandon Allen to carve it up for 380 passing yards.

5) The EDGE rusher conundrum

On the defensive side of OTAs, we got a lot of optimism about players like Jacob Martin, Charles Omenihu, and Whitney Mercilus:

I think what slips a lot of minds when we discuss these things is how bad the run defense was in 2020, where it was an open sieve. Jon Greenard spoke to that some in his presser:

And yeah, I get using that as fuel. But how about an actual address of the situation? The only interior lineman the Texans added who has an actual history as a good run defender is Vincent Taylor, who was pretty bad at it in a small sample last year. Ross Blacklock might have some bounce-back ability because he was clearly unable to hold two gaps last year. But add that might on top of Greenard/Omenihu/Martin/Mercilus re-weighting to get to 4-3 status and not having much history of being positive run defenders (Greenard was fine in a small snap size). Shaq Lawson is more of a pass rusher. Zach Cunningham was horrific reading gaps last year and I don’t know that the Texans have added the linebacker that’s going to make him as comfortable as he was with Benardrick McKinney in 2019.

The defensive talk has focused on three things: getting turnovers, getting turnovers again, and how the system will let them play faster. Greg Jackson, the safeties coach, gave some content during his interview that I found actually somewhat insightful rather than vague:

By far, the Lovie Smith defense in a role where he’s able to focus entirely on it is the most optimistic thing the Texans have going for them right now. It’s a solid secondary of potential bounce-back players and not a ton of weak links on paper assuming Vernon Hargreaves doesn’t con his way into a starting spot yet again. If you want optimism, the idea of some designer Lovie blitzes and/or coverage disguises that maybe he wouldn’t get to implement with the head coach workload is very tempting.

But to get to those passing downs, they’re going to need to be much more stout as a defense, and I think that might be the No. 1 most pressing question as far as the difference between a team angling for the first pick in the draft and a team that can steal a few wins here or there. Run defense might be about finishing and want, but there’s not a lot of established want on that defensive line.

6) I feel for the players, this situation is impossible

Texans players have mostly been pretty quiet about the situation unfolding within the team, encouraged to either outright ignore it or dance around it, but we got a small window into it with this Phillip Lindsay interview.

When I think about this team coming together, and try to think about how I can sell people on following and rooting for them this year, I think a lot about the movie Major League. Most people are sick of the bumbling ownership and front office. But Major League wasn’t about that dynamic so much as it used that dynamic to drive together a bunch of “has-beens and never-weres” into a team that cared for each other. I realize I can’t get a lot of you guys in on the ground floor of rooting for good things to come to the higher-ups. I realize I can’t excite you by citing Tyrod Taylor’s rushing stats. I wrote that article and nobody cared.

But if you’re in some kind of conflict about how you can cheer for this team, the answer is to pull for the players:

Listen, I can promise you that Tyrod Taylor doesn’t care about any Easterby or whatever. A lot of players on this roster are on this roster looking to get another year in the bigs, trying to catch the eye of someone on a better team or someone who will open up the pocketbook for them with a good year. That in and of itself, is impossible to root against. We’re pulling for these guys to show that they belong, and for them to have, as Jake Taylor would call it, “one final trip around the sun.”

7) Jesus, etc.

One last thing about the state of fandom around this team right now is that Kamu Grugier-Hill’s comments about bible study got a lot more traction than they might have otherwise got:

Now, I’m not going to go out of my way to defend Easterby — but keying in on this quote in the way that some did was a little disingenuous and I want to show you why. I was digging into a lot of recent AFC South stuff for writing my chapters. Here’s something I pulled from the Colts self-documentary:

Imagine if that happened on a Texans media station. Everyone would be hooting and hollering for days. That’s a choice that the Texans have made for themselves, but probably one that doesn’t need to be as emphasized by some of the fanbase as it is. Let’s focus on how Easterby’s management has shackled the Texans rather than turn every mention of Christianity into an r/atheism thread. There are many Christian NFL players. I was much more intrigued/curious about this Grugier-Hill quote:

To say what he said here, unprompted as far as the question itself, was an extremely odd public stand to take. To the point where it almost could be read as sucking up in public. Nobody really followed up on that, but THAT was something that spoke quite loudly to me.

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Davis Mills shows some advanced concepts, it’s a blank slate on whether he’ll perform to that consistently

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

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I need to start out this breakdown with a little bit of a rant about the optics because a very effective bit of PR-speak that the Texans have put out there is that Mills “could have been a first-round pick in 2021.” Well, here’s why that works well for them:

– it’s optimistic
– it’s completely unprovable, because we’ll never get a chance to see how that would have played out
– Mills has started so few games that it creates a vacuum of uncertainty about what he’ll become, so leaning into that idea works in the same way that this is the year that Kahale Warring will finally show us what he can do. Anybody with an NFL-level body can do the things it takes to be an NFL starter. The subset of those who do is small, and the subset of those who do without demonstrating it loudly in college is smaller.

The problem is that, well, if he went back to school, he could also have bombed and gone undrafted. It’s not hard to see the physical tools and pedigree that got the Texans interested in Mills. It’s not hard to see the splashes of advanced play that you want from your quarterback. What Mills lacks on his game-by-game resume — the top-strength arm throws that would wow scouts — isn’t really something that Stanford’s offense creates. They didn’t create many of them for Andrew Luck either. But the opportunities that he’s had to hit those throws have been less hit and more hit-or-miss.

Projecting Mills to be a first-round pick in 2022 would have relied on a lot of growth over this next college football season. He was inconsistent when he played, and he didn’t have many starts in college. His process was great on some downs and sloppy on others. His seam throws were good sometimes and poor on others. The highlights, more than anything, make a quarterback prospect sizzle to the scouts and there are a few really nice ones on Mills’ reel. But on a down-by-down basis, I don’t think there’s a lot of dispute that Mills left plenty on the bone last year. He will need to improve from what he is coming out to be an NFL starter.

And he can do that. In no way should we rule that out. But let’s be honest about what he’s starting from.

Where this prospect comes from

Mills came out as an Elite 11 quarterback with offers to basically any school he wanted out of Atlanta. Alabama, Georgia, Miami, Michigan, Michigan State, Ole Miss, USC, UCLA, Wisconsin were among the schools that made offers. He settled on Stanford. He was 61st on ESPN’s 300 in 2017. Here’s the scouting report on him from that time:

AREAS OF IMPROVEMENT: Lean and will need to fill out his frame. Lacks the cannon arm to make all the throws. Does not have the speed to be a true dual threat. Mechanics are less than ideal, but he gets the job done. … BOTTOM LINE: Mills is a very polished passer at this stage. If he can add some more bulk, he has a chance to get on the field sooner rather than later at the next level.

Mills was only 198 pounds coming out of high school and he obviously made good on the bulking up bit.

Physically Mills hits a lot of the traditional benchmarks to become an NFL quarterback. The one that stands out to me after watching him play is that his hand size of 9 1/2-inches is just barely in that traditional checkmark box. There are throws where Mills seems to have a good idea of where the ball should go but the ball just comes out a little bit awkward and I’m wondering if that is a hand size issue or not.

As a runner, the Cardinal used Mills as a part of their read-option package and he carried the ball fine. He has solid enough speed but not a lot of change of pace on the go. I didn’t see anything that would keep him from being a part of a package, and he has the size to take a solid NFL-style hit. Sometimes he comes up with plays that surprise you as a physical specimen because he seems a little underwhelming and then all of the sudden this happens under pressure:

Mills did not play against Oregon in Stanford’s season opener of a COVID-impacted short schedule, but he played enough to lead the Cardinal in expected points added. The Stanford pass offense was slightly above-average, but their defense had a down season in 2021 and that kept them at 4-2.

Stanford played a regular schedule in 2019 and Mills split time with K.J. Costello. Stanford’s defense got blasted, allowing 29.8 points per game and allowing six separate teams to drop at least 30 points on them, including Washington State and Arizona. Mills handily out-played Costello in completion rate, yards per completion, yards per attempt, and was about even on yards per carry. Costello transferred. The Stanford offense tended to play ball control and were interested in staying on schedule, so they weren’t very explosive. They did wind up running a fairly low amount in both 2019 and 2020 because of the defense. The Cardinals wound up 67th in 2019 passing S&P+ and 31st in 2020 total S&P+. (Sorry about not having a passing split, Bill Connelly went behind the paywall.)

As a “pro-style” quarterback, whatever that actually means in 2021, Mills relies on his intuition and reads. He wanted to go to a team that would let him do that. I’ll get to the eval on that in a bit, but that was the one interesting thing I heard from his Pro Day presser. I think he knows that he is going as far as his mind will take him.

Mills decided to come out this year in part because of how badly COVID wrecked Stanford’s season, to the point where they couldn’t play home games — and obviously there was a late start factored in to that. David Shaw explained a little further on In The Loop a few weeks ago:

And so that’s how he became available for the draft, how his college team fared, and the circumstances that created him. Let’s talk about how he actually played.

The eval

Texans fans are obviously a bit spoiled from the past couple of seasons as far as how Deshaun Watson performed off-script. You can’t reasonably expect Mills to provide that level of play in those scenarios, because Watson’s ability on off-script plays are part of what makes him a franchise quarterback to begin with. But I was pleasantly surprised that Mills showed some good improvisation skills. I take this next video bit from The QB School — aka J.T. O’Sullivan, former NFL quarterback — who has done four different videos on Mills that I think are a good watch as far as what to expect.

Mills shows some really good intuition on this rep. Reads the play well, goes through his progressions, knows enough to know that his back would get one-on-one, and this is not a wildly easy throw on the run with a man in his face. If you think about the major factors you’d want in an NFL quarterback, outside of the cannon arm, I think Mills displayed all of them at some point in his career at Stanford. He gets deep into his reads, he shows some ability to win outside of the structure of the play, he shows plus-plus anticipation, he can place balls really well on the seams and outside, he is willing to step into throw. Look at this ball in the face of this pressure:

That’s stupendous placement with a free runner, the kind of jaw-dropper that they make highlight reels out of. That’s not the only time I’ve seen him drop a throw like that into a rusher either, so he’s comfortable with the hits. That’s humongous for my own personal evaluation of his worthiness because there’s nothing I can’t stand more after (under breath) watching certain quarterbacks who have been employed here (/under breath) take crumplesacks.

So, the thing with Mills is that he’ll show you that, and he’ll also show you a lot of process where you’re wondering what exactly he’s seeing. I’ll go back to the QB School tapes for a clip that just simply has to be a throwaway while I note that I don’t think much of Stanford’s play-action game worked well so it should be a smooth transition to Tim Kelly’s offense…

Finally, I think this play from the 2019 USC game exemplifies a lot about Mills’ downside as a prospect:

They have the play they want. Check. The receiver wins on the double move. Check. Mills sells it with a terrific pump fake. Check. Process all good. The throw’s not even in the receiver’s basic area.

That’s the play I kept coming back to with Mills’ lowlights. He shows a lot of technical prowess as a player. He sees what he has created fairly well. But then it’s time to throw the ball and, well, sometimes this happens:

Walking away from about 7-8 of Mills’ games watched and slowed down, I think there’s a lot of upside to him as a player and I can see what the hype is about. It’s just also kind of obvious that, well, if he hits the throws he creates, he’d be a first-round prospect. He didn’t, and so he’s here in the third round. That’s the rub. That’s why “he would have been a first-round prospect” has become the saying around the hub, because projecting improvement in a football player is victimless and we all do it for the guys we are rooting for.

How he fits the Texans

Well, nobody cares about the Stanford Virtual Reality System stats, Davis. Sorry, I think you’re in for some learning on the bench and I think that would have been the case on a good team or a bad team. Nick Caserio basically gave a 300-word “no comment” when asked about Mills’ franchise quarterback status:

I totally understand the pick. If you hit on Davis Mills then you either a) find yourself not needing a quarterback or b) find yourself in a spot where you might be able to pick a quarterback and trade a Mills who maybe showed some real steps forward in 2021 before the 2022 draft. It’s the highest-upside swing this team could make and they desperately need high-upside swings. Zero complaints about the pick. I preferred Mills over Kellen Mond and Kyle Trask in that tier.

I do want to leave you, though, with this thought. The Texans under Brian Gaine successfully insta-started Justin Reid, created roles for Jordan Akins, Jordan Thomas and Keke Coutee. They did that without a first- or second-round pick. Since that draft, when was the last time you can remember someone the Texans had starting right away and being legitimately good? As a rider, who on the roster do you think has developed appreciably well under Jack Easterby’s tutelage? I think I could sit here today and write that Reid’s best season was 2018. I don’t know that Tytus Howard and Max Scharping — handicapped as they were by Mike Devlin — took a major step forward in 2020. Thomas got cut. Akins and Coutee have seen roles seized from them by free agents. Lonnie Johnson probably had the best season of any of the 2019 picks and he had to move to safety mid-season. Charles Omenihu is absolutely the best success story since Easterby came on and I don’t think I’ve seen enough to leave me convinced he can handle being a run downs player as a base 4-3 end.

So Mills has appreciable upside, but he’s now a Texan. Is that a death knell? No. But am I a little skeptical that this group will grow him well? You better believe it. I hope Caserio brings a new influence into “the program.” But they also just signed 39 veteran free-agents. So. You know. What is development anyway?

In an ideal world, Mills fixes the too-frequent process errors and too-frequent errant throws and becomes Matt Ryan’s heir. I believe he can hit that kind of upside, because there’s not a lot he hasn’t shown he can do as a quarterback. That arm strength is going to keep him off the top-top-tier of quarterbacks as far as scouting rankings, but I think he’s got plenty of arm to play in the league and hit the throws he’ll need to hit. His anticipation as a thrower is so good that if he continues to develop mentally as a quarterback — understanding everything and batting. 900 on pre-snap diagnosis instead of .500-.700 — he’ll be very good.

His floor to me is, well, he’s a competent Cody Kessler-esque backup who you ask to hit easy passes and keep the offense moving. Given that this team set $7 million on fire over the last two years by letting A.J. McCarron do that but with worse pocket presence, that’s not too shabby. As I said, I like the pick. Wait, nevermind, there’s Jeff Driskel.

There’s a lot riding on how good of a player Mills is for the future of this franchise, and I do think he’s an honest attempt at a quarterback answer despite some rumored medical red flags from other teams. You’d really hope that he’d get a chance to start no matter wha–

Ah, well, nevertheless.

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Competition is what happens when you lack established talent and aren’t interested in creating it

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

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The 2015 Texans had a quarterback competition between Ryan Mallett and Brian Hoyer. The winner of the competition was every other team in the NFL, because neither player had the requisite talent to just be named a starter outright.

To be sure, this is a glib view of competition as a general ethos — not every position is as difficult as quarterback, there are many positions where a competition can produce a productive player — I get that it’s an oversimplification and that there are places where a competition can help a team. But carrying it as a cudgel rather than a natural outgrowth of accumulating young talent that deserves to play is something that, in my head, is worth sounding an alarm about.

The Texans are repeating one of their worst mistakes from last season, a lesson that they should have learned after it repeatedly smacked them in the face during an 0-4 closeout to the season. It is not much of a surprise, you see, because everyone involved in that disaster of a year closed ranks and pretended nothing bad happened. Romeo Crennel is still on the staff as a consultant. Tim Kelly is still the offensive coordinator. Jack Easterby survived with unprecedented power for a non-GM/HC. You see, if only they’d not gone 2-9 in one-score games, it would have changed everything about the perception of that season. That’s a core value they have retained, and it is something I fear will make the 2021 season unbearable.

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Do you remember anything John Reid did last season?

Reid was the Texans’ fourth-round pick. I wrote a scouting report on him because I liked him the most of the Texans draft picks last year. He sounded smart and he walked the walk as far as I could tell. He was coming into a situation where the team had very little in the way of good established corners; that’s generally something that portends playing time for young players. Reid instantly got on the field against Kansas City in the opener, though he was fairly quiet.

He didn’t have another 30-snap game until Week 16.

I don’t have a lot of ego tied up into my evaluation here. Obviously, I’m rooting for John Reid to be a great player, but if he doesn’t become an NFL starter that’s a fairly expected outcome for a fourth-round pick. The problem is that by not giving him snaps, the team has created a situation where nobody has any idea what he actually is. The upfront investment in rookies is a four-year contract, and the upside is that if they overperform their draft spot, you are gaining value over the course of that rookie deal. Sometimes they don’t work out, or they play poorly, and that’s where competition can be a good thing. But if they never get a chance to play, was it a competition, or was it just a decision?

Keke Coutee has been with the Texans for three seasons. He hasn’t had 350 snaps in a season yet. The team has had every reason to want to boost Jacob Martin as he’s the main piece they got from the Jadeveon Clowney trade. He hasn’t reached 400 snaps in a season yet. In-house radio went and fluffed Easterby’s hog for not trading Jordan Akins. Akins fell from 655 snaps in 2019 to 405 last year. Some of that is about missing three games, but even after coming back from his concussion he was never the full-time tight end. All three of those guys are going to be free agents after 2021 and nobody has any idea what kind of season they’d put up with a full snap share. They’ve each had some big individual highlights in small samples, so why have they not been given those snaps to grow?

Outside of Tytus Howard, the Texans haven’t had a first-round pick since Deshaun Watson. That’s a big part of the reason the roster is in the state that it is. But it’s hard to not see the pattern of a lack of trust in the youth that they’ve created since Easterby has been installed. It’s hard to develop players if they can’t play. If Justin Reid were drafted in 2019 instead of 2018, would he have 800 snaps yet?

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Coming off a 4-12 season, with Will Fuller and J.J. Watt gone and an expectation around the league that Deshaun Watson will not play for the team in 2021, the Texans would seem to be an ideal roster for an undrafted free agent to crack. They are the only team in the NFL with a win over/under total of less than 5 in Vegas circles.

So, of course, the Texans have signed just four undrafted free agents so far: A&M linemen Ryan McCollum and Carson Green, UCF WR Marlon Williams, and Missouri WR Damon Hazelton.

Undrafted free agents all sign three-year contracts with a restricted free agent option in 2021. While it’s obviously patently silly to bank on your team generating Arian Foster, it has happened before! Many big-name NFL stars come out of undrafted free agency, and even if you only hit on someone to “role player” or “solid,” that’s a lot of money saved over the course of the contract. As this team is widely predicted to be terrible, it should have been set up to be big players in undrafted free agency. The Texans should have been banging on Dylan Moses’ and Marvin Wilson’s phones with a huge guaranteed offer. Instead, this happened:

The team filled up 87 of its 90 roster spots, mostly early in free agency, mostly in the name of competition. Listen, I’m not going to trash the players on this roster. Live your dreams out Cole Toner, I’m pulling for you as long as you put on Steel Blue. But given that this team is widely projected to be awful the second a Watson trade goes down and it becomes inescapable reality rather than widespread belief that he won’t play for the Texans ever again, there’s not a lot of value to the Texans for Cole Toner being here. If Cole Toner wins a center job over all his other competition, and plays poorly, he won’t be playing long. If he plays well, the Texans have to immediately pay him. Bill O’Brien uttered the phrase “layers and layers of players,” during the 2020 offseason. That philosophy never existed with this organization before Easterby’s hiring. In fact, I think you can draw an interesting line to the Laremy Tunsil trade, where they were bent over a barrel, and this desire to make sure that they have multiple “answers” of depth at every position.

From a value proposition, though, 4-7 year free agency is a non-starter when compared to undrafted free agency. Particularly this year, when scouts were not allowed as much contact with players as usual and you would expect there to be more mistakes and guys who should not have made it to this point.

I haven’t brought up the idea of tanking here because a) I don’t think the Texans are trying to tank and b) I think it’s harder to tank in the NFL than you’d expect from an outside theoretical sense. But since I keep being asked: Not only do I think the Texans are not trying to tank, I think they have doubled-down so far on their own beliefs that they believe they’re going to compete. They say all of this stuff so openly and so often that it’s hard to escape the fact that they believe it matters:

The Texans don’t just have a plan to improve you as a football player, they need to “assimilate” you. You need to give yourself to them entirely. They earnestly believe that this “program” matters. To some people, it might just be football, a sport that you play. Not to these guys, who have bought in so hard on this collective attitude that if you want to get deep into the weeds you can start to wonder if what it means to be a Houston Texan is a lifestyle instead of a profession.

To them, all of that matters much, much more than just signing talented football players and letting them play. There’s a dogma that what they believe about scouting personality and character traits matters more than, say, cost-value propositions about what kind of players are valuable to team building and which aren’t. It’s why David Johnson and Mark Ingram will completely block us from ever knowing if Buddy Howell and Scottie Phillips are good enough to be NFL running backs.

As long as it persists, this team will be spinning its wheels.

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I don’t have high hopes for the 2021 Houston Texans. It — earnestly — is taking a lot of restraint to come back to pulling for the players in the face of how stupid all of this seems, because my instinct is to just bury my keyboard in the yard and never think about Texans football again until there’s another regime change. What happened last year should have been punished instead of rewarded.

I think the gap comes down to this:

My best-case expectation for the Texans is for them to spend 2021 developing as many young players as possible and seeing what happens. If that means some of them get beat in a big situation, or some of them do not embody “what it means to be a Houston Texan” when they have an extra strawberry shake on Friday or come in at 6:15 instead of 6:00, that doesn’t matter to me. You see who John Reid and Ross Blacklock and Jon Greenard and Jacob Martin and Garret Wallow and Jordan Akins and Brevin Jordan are and if they are good enough to be long-term fixtures on your roster. You start looking ahead to 2022 and have no belief that you’re going to make the playoffs until 2023, when you might have finally accumulated enough talent to make that feasible.

I have no faith the management of this team agrees with a word of that. The actions have spoken very loudly — from 2019 to now — that this team does not care about developing its young players. If it happens, they’re cool with it. They’re not going to spend a lot of snaps on it. They’d rather have a cornerback competition and let Vernon Hargreaves allow 7.5 yards per target than let Keion Crossen allow 8. They believe they can win instantly because they have the right group of player personalities and beliefs in place. They have already told you exactly what they believed in by heading to the free agency counter and signing older players by the bushel.

In short, they learned nothing from 2020. There are ways that this can play out that can be better for their long-term growth than others. Someone who wins a competition could be a trade deadline asset — quick aside to Jack Easterby’s beautiful, beautiful work in not trading Will Fuller while also managing to piss him off last season. Youth that flashes heavily in the preseason can get claimed on waivers and allowed to flourish here. But as a general rule, they have decided what the player they want thinks and acts like and what his floor is, and that’s more important than young players getting snaps, because those players might make mistakes.

It’s very easy to tune out what the Texans are trying to tell you, because on the surface there’s not a lot of distinguishing notes between Typical Vague Football Talk and the kind of amateur phrenology they’re banking on here. But in simple terms: They believe they’re smarter than the rest of the league despite how big of a flop the last two years have been and how disastrously they’ve been owned in every trade they’ve made. They earnestly believe that. They have to, to continue operating how they have.

Over the past three seasons, Deshaun Watson and the rest of the stars and solid contributors on this team have been able to mostly brush aside the dumb things that this team did and take them to the brink of contention. Those players have left or been sent away en masse. Watt, Fuller, Clowney, DeAndre Hopkins, D.J. Reader, Tyrann Mathieu, Kareem Jackson, Benardrick McKinney. Andre Johnson has basically quit his association with the team. Watson would like to.

Front and center this year, with no more star cover? This team’s poor management, from ownership to personnel to the man who has his hand in just about everything they do. They believe you can’t go wrong doing what’s right, to paraphrase our last Cal McNair public appearance with questions, but they’ve yet to do anything to build the trust that they know what’s right, let alone how to build a football team.

***

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The end of detention

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***

What the last few days felt like was a punishment. The Texans had to watch 66 picks go by before they selected on Friday night, and while everyone else had their shiny new toys lined up, the Texans were to face the wall and count off players on their division championship winners.

Friday itself? It was fine. Despite the fact that Nick Caserio is now running the show, it spiritually didn’t feel a lot different than the 2020 NFL Draft. I wasn’t over the moon about anyone they picked on either day, but they were fine, rational picks of players who were hanging around at about the spot they should be taken according to draftnik consensus. I can’t really fault the Texans for not moving around the board more given their lack of pick value to play with, and I sure as hell am not going to unload on them for not taking the players I’d prefer because I have enough self-reflection to tell you I’m not a draft scout.

What today meant for me, and what I hope it means for you if you’re suffering through this with your heart on your sleeve, is that it closed the book on the ill-fated Laremy Tunsil trade. We’re done having to watch every other team in the NFL pick before the Texans are up. The organization itself is not going to be incredibly sturdy until a seemingly inevitable parting with Deshaun Watson happens and they procure the tools and picks with which they can actually rebuild something.

No matter what happens in the 2021 season — and I’m prepared for the worst — the Texans will at least be able to actually pick someone early in the 2022 NFL Draft. That’s a small thing that I took for granted before these last two years. I wish I hadn’t had to find out that I took it for granted, but that can be water under the bridge. Something from these cursed ~18 months that can be fully left behind.

***

Nick Caserio views his job mostly as he sees it through the processes and calculations of what he believes his job is. What I mean by that is that I wasn’t at all surprised by the fact that he didn’t offer much of an endorsement of Davis Mills as a franchise quarterback after selecting him with his first pick as a Texan. He has already engaged in seventh-dimension chess about the various ways the pick could and couldn’t work out, checkmated himself three times and you four times, and is going to tell you about it in very general terms to avoid giving away anything that he knows.

I don’t personally think Mills offers a lot of franchise quarterback upside. I think of him as a potential steady backup and someone who, hey, who knows, could surprise you. The guy who came to mind when looking at the traits list was former Browns third-rounder Cody Kessler. Kessler had his backers in the draftnik circuit, had some prowess and juice as a good decision-maker. Where Kessler failed was that he didn’t have the arm to actually cash the checks his brain could write. Davis has more upside as a downfield passer, but much, much less actionable experience. Asides, of course, from his work in Virtual Reality Football:

You’re not going to find clean prospects at 67th overall. This is, arguably, the highest upside roll the Texans can take. If Davis hits his ceiling, the quarterback situation is taken care of with a 10th-15th-best quarterback in the league-type, an Eli Manning or thereabouts. It’s not incredibly likely that he hits it, but given the season we’re all staring down, I think it’s a worthwhile risk to take.

If you put me in charge of the board in that moment I probably would have taken Indiana safety Jamar Johnson. I know that the position is fairly loaded for this season, but I have my doubts that Justin Reid and the Texans are going to see eye-to-eye about his value and think Johnson could break in with dime packages this year as a prelude to something bigger in 2021. Hey, Johnson’s still on the board! Plenty of time left.

***

Then, after rumors that they might be looking to move back, Caserio actually traded back into the third round to bring in Michigan wideout Nico Collins. The move cost the Texans one of their fifth-rounders tomorrow, as well as a 2022 fourth-rounder from the Rams. This is actually a fairly significant trade-up in terms of pure draft chart value.

Me, I pretty much believe the draft ends right around pick 100, maybe a little later. The way teams rate players after the obvious physical fits gives ample space for guys to slide around. So if you assume that the Rams are going to be pretty good next year (they did just trade for Matt Stafford), and that the pick probably won’t be close to the top 100, I can squint enough to get over it. The Texans traded into the top 100 and gave up only one pick close to it. Not great value, but fair enough.

Speaking of obvious physical fits, that is what Nico Collins is.

Collins is a huge, physical receiver who profiles as the outside guy that the Texans didn’t really have on this roster. He’s not the same kind of burner that Will Fuller is, which kind of shows up in a subpar 20-yard split. When Collins gets going, he gets going, but it takes a few strides to get up to top-flight speed. A lot of his career prospects are going to come down to if his playing speed is average or solid-average. Because of how often he just kind of disappeared in drives (granted it’s Michigan and Shea Patterson was rough), I kind of see him more in the No. 2 wideout ceiling/No. 3 wideout floor range. A rough floor is that Collins becomes a quality underneath guy who moves some chains with tough catches. For a ceiling, I could imagine him playing like Marques Colston but in a bit different of a role because of the differences between the Saints tree and the Patriots tree. Most draftniks described Collins as something close to a tease — humongous highlights but not much consistency.

I am more excited about this pick than I am about the Mills pick because I think there’s a more reliable floor, but if you plugged me into this spot I probably would have gone with another defensive player. If not Johnson, then maybe Washington corner Elijah Molden. This team did just finish a full NFL season forcing less than 10 turnovers, right?

***

I will spend time watching through games, interviews, and draftnik breakdowns of these two (and perhaps one other pick) in the future to flesh out my feelings about them — these are planned posts of the future — but these are my first blush, surface-level looks. I’ll do more of these tomorrow unless Caserio trades all the picks away for Jimmy Garoppolo. (I’m kidding, I think.)

I don’t think anything happened here tonight that should cause fans any extra grief unless they were holding out hope for Watson to change his mind about staying with the Texans. (When asked about it, Caserio filibustered the question.)

I’m just glad that this is the last NFL Draft we have to endure in detention.

***

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Welcome to the Dead Sea

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***

There’s a very thematically interesting dungeon in the ill-fated Chrono Trigger sequel Chrono Cross called The Dead Sea. The concept is that it’s a collection of timelines that didn’t happen for one reason or another — the Chrono Trigger universe that was supposed to be destroyed, for example, is one of many scenes from dead universes. Or, to quote directly from the game text: “A future denied of all existence because of a change in the past… A future that was destroyed even before it was born rests here… condensed into the Dead Sea.” These snapshots become ruins that are stagnant, frozen in time, and ghosts rummage around the place. It’s such a cool concept for a dungeon that the game hooked into … and then immediately could not keep up with on any real level.

This is the most exciting time of the NFL calendar year for most teams, because they are thinking about creating their future. Fans get to squabble over who the best player in the draft is, get to think about the future of the franchise and how it could change with one correct pick. Guess right and you get DeAndre Hopkins. Guess wrong and you get Cordarrelle Patterson. Even teams with low first-round picks can look forward to that kind of debate. But that future, like many for the Texans, is consigned to the Dead Sea.

The future where Deshaun Watson was traded before his many lawsuits made it implausible. The future where the team kept Brian Gaine and never decided to listen to Jack Easterby. The future where the organization didn’t lose the plot in the eyes of their franchise quarterback. The Texans still exist in so much as they are a real entity, but as a franchise they have become a team of what could have been rather than what is.

***

I think it might be a little overstated the extent that Watson’s trade value has declined or to say that his market is dead; it only takes one team. But there’s likely little to be done about moving Watson right now as his crisis continues to escalate, for sure. We have seen players with haunting off-field issues like this move after things are done — Astros fans may remember Roberto Osuna — but to make a move for someone as an investigation is being undertaken by the NFL and as a lawsuit begins to form would create a PR vortex for the acquiring team that would be hard to swallow. When these lawsuits do eventually resolve, the offers that would have been on the board for him before the draft may not reappear. It could potentially get to the point where the Texans decide it’s not worth moving him for the quoted prices, and they carry the most valuable asset in the NFL that has no interest in playing for the team. Perhaps on the suspended list for a bit.

There are fans who are trying hard to believe that this team has improved, and maybe they have in some small ways on special teams and with depth. But those moves don’t make up for losing two of the four best players on a 4-12 team to free agency and a request to be released, then watching the Watson situation go from denial to bargaining to no acceptance. This team doesn’t pick until the third round of the draft. The only player they’ll have in the first two rounds from either of the 2020 and 2021 drafts barring a trade up is Ross Blacklock, who had an abysmal rookie season while getting yanked around into roles he wasn’t fit for. Outside of Shaq Lawson, Desmond King, and Phillip Lindsay, this team didn’t add much in the way of established starter-level talent in their prime either.

I’m at the point where I’m trying to imagine writing about this team in September. I’m trying to imagine putting together a gamer after a, let’s say, 23-10 loss to the Titans. The run game got some yards with Tyrod Taylor. Here are some passes he couldn’t connect on for one reason or another. He said he had to hit those throws and he didn’t. David Culley said he wanted to dial up some plays early to get him comfortable but they couldn’t find a rhythm. Special teams blocked a field-goal attempt. The defense held on in the red zone pretty well, but gave up a back-breaking run to Derrick Henry in the third quarter. And this offense can’t play from behind and that was that. There’s one bullet point about how (Lawson, Tytus Howard, Justin Reid, etc.) played well and how that’s cool and might be something to build on. This is the optimistic side of me trying to match them against good teams.

This team has been consigned, folks. This team is in the Dead Sea. When I write about them as a football unit, you vote with your eyes about how little you believe in them. Me trying to craft a realistic optimistic upside to the offense was roundly ignored. I can’t blame you, because I can’t defend anything that’s happened here. All that’s left is what happens with Deshaun Watson.

***

Watson’s status deteriorated rapidly after the public testimony from Ashley Solis and the written testimony of Jennifer Baxley hit two Wednesdays ago. He was hardly in a great place before that, with the Texans issuing a letter to season ticket holders in which Cal McNair said the team was “deeply troubled by any form of abuse and we condemn this type of behavior.” But after that public testimony entered the record, Watson was dropped by sponsors and dropped out of almost all of the in-house Texans TV video introductions purposely. Innocent before proven guilty does not apply to optics. I don’t consider this a prelude to a trade, I consider it a play where an unpopular figure is minimized.

The court of public opinion on sexual assault has become a much tougher environment for a defense to win in, and while I’m not sitting here telling you I know that these cases are going to prove that Watson is guilty, I definitely think Tony Buzbee understands the positives of pressing knowledge to the public. Watson’s lawyer, Rusty Hardin, has spent the last three weeks digging up 18 masseuses that would testify to Watson’s character and trying to get defendants publicly named. Listen, if there are 40 masseuses willing to testify to Watson’s character one way or another, and 22 of them are willing to accuse him of something untoward, that’s not exactly a batting average I would want to be trumpeting.

To me, not a lot has changed since Watson’s first statement with the defense: The defense is that none of this happened and that they’ll prove it in a trial. I would love to believe that world where he is cleared exists, but just from the outside? This looks really, really bad. The number of people involved in the lawsuits and how specific the details are in a few key areas that repeat are not great signs. This could get him an NFL suspension and it already has Watson’s public image getting destroyed daily. Whether or not his desire to get traded elsewhere is happening or not is almost a non-event right now. Now that this has become a public relations firestorm rather than a small civil suit, this has become an issue where it has been bad enough for long enough that it has become easy human heuristics to assume the worst. By that I mean: Nobody with a majorly-sourced public platform that I can see is talking about this in a way that suggests the Texans will make out well.

Something Pro Football Talk brought up last week was that the Watson camp was willing to pay some money at some point: “[I] wanted to check in on this to see if Ms. Solis wanted to either help us understand the rationale behind the $100k demand or come back with a different figure,” Scott Gaffield wrote on Watson’s behalf. “As I said to [attorney] Cornelia [Brandfield-Harvey] last week, we don’t believe that the alleged facts show that Deshaun did anything wrong with regards to Ms. Solis, but we are nevertheless happy to continue the conversation around a reasonable settlement figure because we believe he can learn a lesson about having put himself in this situation.” That’s been repeated in reporting by the Washington Post, that there have been a couple different settlement windows that the defense has not taken.

I am not a lawyer, nor do I know the details of these cases front and back. But I think we’ve given the Watson team about a month since these allegations first started popping up and they have floundered themselves in the court of public opinion. I have to think if they had an easy way to protect Watson’s image — reminder, he is losing millions because of these endorsements being cancelled — they’d have gone to it. The best they have so far is that Watson engaged in consensual sex with some of these women. And, well, that’s not what you’re hearing from 22 women. The thing is, until or unless the Watson campaign has a tact beyond denial and attacking the character of the accusers, it’s kind of hard to hit on an effective defense — in the court of public opinion — that exists in 2021.

That’s about it until they actually get to a courtroom or a settlement table, Buzbee has proven that he is going to continue to effectively use the media to push out what is best for his clients, which has repercussions for Watson that are already mattering now.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to see how much changes as things stand today. There’s more hearings to be done, and more listening for us all, as we see just how far into the Dead Sea Watson’s career will go. Even a settlement may not assuage the commissioner’s office.

***

When Bill O’Brien was fired, there was a sense of relief from Texans fans that finally the Texans could coalesce around their young star quarterback and build something new. As I wrote at the time, it was an opportunity that they needed to ace. There were many potential positive futures for this team that they themselves sabotaged by holding on to Easterby. The Watson situation could not have been anticipated — the generally accepted company line I’ve heard is that they knew about a one-woman lawsuit but did not see it blowing up and becoming this — but they chose to put their heads in the sand about moving him because it did not fit the narrative they wanted to craft. In doing so, they may have consigned the future where this team had a highly drafted quarterback this year into the Dead Sea. And then, cherry on the shit sundae, Watson’s ongoing litigation has a potential ending of him throwing the best version of who he could have been in there as well.

All there is right now is a team that cannot find a ceiling to the number of positive situations they can self-sabotage. And it’s sad and dumb and heartbreaking to just understand how the team that was up 24-0 on the soon-to-be Super Bowl Champion Chiefs could not possibly believe any harder that they are on the right track. Because what has been created here is a situation not unlike the Hue Jackson Browns or post-Jim Harbaugh 49ers or Dennis Allen Raiders. The talent level is so depleted and the reputation so bad that it may take three or four years to finally reload it to contender status … except those teams I mentioned were actually willing to make big changes. Crap on Jed York all you want, but he didn’t hold on to Chip Kelly for a second season. This Texans team ardently seems to believe that it knows what it is doing. In fact, in the above VOD, Cal McNair asks fans to “trust that they know what’s right,” but nothing they’ve shown since Easterby joined the front office deserves that trust. That’s the most dangerous part.

Twice in three months, Nick Caserio has been forced into the “there’s a lot bigger problems in society” than the Texans rhetorical device. He’s right about that. But the fact that he even has to say it belies a lot about the state of this franchise now. It may be the worst-run major sports franchise in major American sports, maybe neck-and-neck with the Rockies and maybe the Sabres depending on the eye of the beholder.

As Steph Stradley would say, this is the time to put your feelings in escrow. This situation has been bleak for so long that it’s only natural to believe that surely things can only get better from here. I’m trying to hold on to the little scraps of hope and faith I see along the way — hopefully the third-round pick is a steal, and the UDFA class is terrific and a lot of these vets that got signed are beaten out and catch on somewhere else. Hopefully the Watson allegations are resolved in a way that is a positive outcome for the women involved and in a way where Watson can rehabilitate his status in a way that jives with the character he’s displayed in the past.

But it’s hard to think of this team as anything but an aftermath right now. What could have been is gone. What remains is a team of players who don’t deserve the rancor they’re going to get because they’ve been asked to do the impossible: make this look good.

***

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Optimism Prospectus: Texans Offense

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

***

I am pretty much incapable of optimism as an operating system when it comes to these Houston Texans. I don’t trust the leadership of the team. I don’t believe the David Culley CEO head coach plan is a good one, much as I am pulling for him to make it work. I don’t believe that any organization that would dig in around a failed culture because the owner is a big fan of the culture leader has a bright future.

But I want to express what I believe is a rational optimistic viewpoint for this team as a thought exercise. Not because I believe any of it will happen, but because the fanbase gets a little whiny if I don’t throw in a little sunshine every now and then. Well, these are my beliefs of how much things can change.

The offense
2020 DVOA: 13th (8th pass, 32nd run, second-easiest schedule in the NFL, 15.5 adjusted games lost — third-lowest)

If Deshaun Watson, for whatever reason, comes back, the ceiling of this offense is high enough to make the team a playoff contender and a tough out in the playoffs. He is simply that good. I don’t know that this is in anyway feasible at this point, and I am not trying to get anyone’s hopes up or handwave the allegations he’s dealing with away. He made an ascension into a top-five quarterback last season that nobody saw, despite playing in an offense that absolutely could not run the ball and, at times, playing with almost no receiver help. Because I don’t see him coming back, I’m going to leave this paragraph hanging here and move on. But because it would change literally everything about this team, the caveat has to come first.

Tyrod Taylor’s best years were spent with the Buffalo Bills, leading a run-first offense with a Hall of Very Good back to three consecutive above-average seasons. The 2015-2017 Bills finished fourth, first, and then 20th in run offense DVOA in a year that got Greg Roman fired mid-season. The pass offense DVOA declined precipitously after a ninth-place finish in 2015. Since moving on from Buffalo, he’s been a place-holder for young quarterbacks, keeping the Browns warm for Baker Mayfield and the Chargers job to mentor Justin Herbert for a few games.

The two major knocks against Taylor as a passer are his lack of deep strikes and his sack rate. Taylor threw 25% of his passes as “deep” or “bombs” per FO charting with the Bills in his first season, but fell to 22% in 2016 and a ghastly 16% in 2017. To be fair, that 2017 Bills team had no receivers of note — Kelvin Benjamin was just about done with his time in the league and their leading receiver by targets was rookie Zay Jones. (Note that this is not slandering Taylor’s deep ball so much as noting he doesn’t uncork it often.) The Bills had a decent-to-good offensive line over those three years led by Eric Wood, Cordy Glenn (and then Dion Dawkins), and Richie Incognito. Taylor never threw more than 436 attempts in a season and was sacked at least 36 times in all three years. He took two sacks in his one start last year and 13 in three starts with the Browns. He’s going to take sacks.

What you want to get from Taylor is value in the running game — the read-option doesn’t quite have the same veneer of newness today as it did in 2012 or 2015 when Roman began using it extensively, but teams still generate a lot of value from it. Taylor had only three designed rushes with the Chargers last year and they generated a total of one yard, and he had only 22 yards on six designed runs with the Browns in 2018. Taylor is still a good athlete for a quarterback and it wouldn’t surprise me if the Texans took a page out of the Ravens notebook, however we’ve heard little from the players or the staff that would confirm that they’re doing this. At his best, Taylor was providing roughly 90 carries of 5.4 YPC to the offense every year in Buffalo. That is his major upside, provided he hasn’t lost a step.

Ryan Finley realistically needed to hit the ground running in his chances without Andy Dalton in Cincinnati and didn’t. He’s been a disaster in his 119 NFL pass attempts so far. No reason to wishcast a bunch of improvement on him or pretend he’s the quarterback of the future. He could be an adequate backup, but the list of quarterbacks drafted outside the top two rounds who go to a new place and suddenly thrive is short.

The Texans don’t have a Shady McCoy in their backfield rotation. I think the majority of David Johnson’s “breakout” at the end of last season was a fluke. His two biggest catches came on busted plays with Watson creating late in the down, his biggest runs were big holes caused by the re-insertion of Roderick Johnson.

If there’s a spot to be optimistic with Johnson it’s that the offense last year didn’t really provide him much space as a pass-catcher and there’s nobody in the backfield currently who should threaten his role there. But it’s not like Tim Kelly got him involved suddenly after O’Brien was deposed, and that’s a little bit of a concern to me. Dumpoffs are a more reasonable request for him, and I think that’s something that quarterbacks both control and that Taylor has a lot of history with. McCoy got 50 targets a year and led the team in targets in 2017. I could see a rise for Johnson along those same lines if he keeps the job.

If we’re being optimistic, I think the best-case scenario for the Texans is that Phillip Lindsay takes control of the job at some point in the first four weeks of the season. He’s the back with the most recent success — back-to-back 1000 yard seasons to start his career before a down 2020 as Melvin Gordon’s backup. I think the ideal distribution of roles is probably something like Johnson third-down back, Ingram goal-line back, Lindsay lead back. Well, I am actually not sure if Ingram has the juice to do goal-line stuff anymore, but I assume he’s going to get carries somewhere.

Brandin Cooks rebounded from his down 2019 in 2020 and then demanded to stay, so the Texans re-worked his deal. It still wasn’t quite the dominant aerial show of 2016-2018, but I think a lot of that was locked away by the offense being terrible at play-action. Only 26% of Cooks’ targets in 2020 qualified as “deep” or “bomb.” In 2018, it was 32%, and in 2017, it was 43%(!). However, going from Watson to Taylor probably hurts his chances of getting deep looks in a vacuum. One of the sneaky secrets of last year’s Texans offense is that there wasn’t much to “but they weren’t healthy!” about and Cooks playing 15 games certainly qualifies. Cooks was targeted 120 times last year and the most common route was a curl — but he was only targeted eleven times in the red zone, and four of those were against the Titans in the Week 17 finale. Cooks lacks the physicality to be a plus-plus player there or to handle the RPOs that went to Will Fuller last season. To me, he’s a good No. 2 receiver who will be stretched as a No. 1.

Unfortunately, without Hopkins, that tough interior player may not be on the Texans roster right now. Chris Conley was signed in free agency to give a bigger body and may wind up starting outside, but he had just six red zone targets all of last season and only one of them was completed for positive yards. He also had just eight red zone targets in 2019 — and six of them happened after Week 15 with the Jaguars basically eliminated. He did at least show a little more physicality inside on slants, catching six of the eight of them for four first downs in 2020 — that just wasn’t part of the package in the red zone for the Jaguars.

Randall Cobb and Keke Coutee sort of replicate each other as inside receivers. Five of Cobb’s 48 targets came as an outside receiver. Four of Coutee’s 40 targets came as an outside receiver. Coutee has the juice that I think Cobb has lost at this point, but Cobb has the surer hands and is less disaster-prone. It’s hard to tell the guy you signed to a big money contract last year that he’s not good enough to start, but I think a Coutee breakout is probably one of the only real chances this team has to improve on last year. Cobb is going to give you 50-70 catch-and-fall-downs.

At tight end, the Texans enter the last season of Jordan Akins’ rookie deal with no real idea of what he can be. Akins is 29 already, and Jack Easterby was lauded by John McClain for not trading him at the deadline for … some reason?

Akins has demonstrated the ability to be a No. 1 move tight end for a few years now, but seems to always get hurt or otherwise left behind whenever that chance should be occurring. After Will Fuller got suspended prior to Week 13, it was my supposition that Akins would grow into an enhanced target role. Instead he got just three total targets in Week 13, and wound up with just 21 total targets over the last six weeks of the season. To put that in perspective, Chad Hansen had 14 combined targets in Weeks 13 and 14 alone. I’m a big fan of the ability that Akins has, but it seems like the offense has a hard time getting to him as a read. Regardless, along with Coutee, this is one player who has a chance to breakout.

Pharaoh Brown was the best Texans tight end last year and, frankly, the only one who had any prayer at blocking anybody. I can see a lot of 12-personnel in this offense’s future given their likely reliance on running the ball. I don’t think there’s like, untapped potential here. What they saw last year was a jolt and they should be hoping they get to see it again this year. Kahale Warring is on the roster but the list of guys who come from doing almost nothing their first two seasons to being a major contributor in year three is so small that I can barely take his presence seriously. I also wouldn’t be surprised if he was cut, because he’s going up against Not My Guys! syndrome from Nick Caserio.

The offensive line is one area where the Texans should definitely improve next year after their firing of the disastrous Mike Devlin, who often seemed to be speaking a different language when interviewed. The media hasn’t gotten a real chance to speak to James Campen yet, but this is an addition-by-subtraction move to me.

The interior line did not play well last year. Zach Fulton and Nick Martin are gone, while Max Scharping will no longer be carrot-and-sticked by idiots.

The biggest thing this offense can do is to create a line that is worthy of the investment that has been spent here — Laremy Tunsil’s huge amount of picks, the first on Tytus Howard, the second on Scharping, and additionally now a trade for Marcus Cannon and his big cap hit. I don’t know exactly how the Texans will suss it out, but my best guess is that they will put Cannon at right guard. Outside of Tunsil, nobody on this line has played a lights-out 16 games yet — and even Tunsil has had a rough game or two. We’ve seen plenty of flashes from Howard. But this unit needs consistency in a big way in 2021, and Howard’s pass protection is going to be even more amplified in terms of importance with Taylor in the pocket.

Summing it up

Obviously without Watson (or some sort of trade that looks more unlikely by the day) there’s no way this pass offense is going to crack the top 10 in DVOA again. I think it would be overly optimistic to believe it will crack the top 20. I’d be more down at about 22-23 myself as an optimist’s point of view. Taylor is limited, the receiving corps has red zone limitations, and Will Fuller is a bigger loss than people are giving him credit for. I think the best-case scenario is, kind of like Bill O’Brien’s rookie season as head coach, the team is able to grind enough yards on the ground to make that irrelevant. Maybe not a top five season because of the lack of tackle-breaking talent and elusiveness involved, but I could see a read-option and offensive line-influenced, I dunno, 3% DVOA? Something along those lines. Something near the bottom of the top 10 that runs a lot of clock.

I know the roster isn’t full yet, I know the rookies haven’t been drafted yet. I think there’s some hope inherent to that that I’m pricing in (better receiver, more dynamic back, highly-drafted center). But it’s hard to see an optimistic upside for this offense, as currently constructed, as more than a top-20 unit without Watson. I think that relies heavily on Taylor being up to the task of 16 games started with his 20s athleticism, as well, which I’m not at all about to bank on. It’s a really old unit on paper and if their defensive schedule gets harder that’s also not great news.

***

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What competition means for the Houston Texans

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

***

Something that became very evident in the pre-free agency scuttle for the Texans is that they believed heavily in the idea of “competition.” It’s something that David Culley preached in his latest presser, when he said “Competition makes everybody better, and you’re always trying to do that through free agency. You do that through the draft, and that’s a yearly thing, and that’s something that we’re trying to do right now.” It’s something that became apparent via Nick Caserio’s interview with Sean Pendergast and Seth Payne when he said that he was aiming for “singles” and “doubles” in free agency.

A feeling I am getting from a lot of the fanbase is that they are somewhat miffed that the Texans aren’t being given more credit for their moves. They want to talk about improving the culture and, to Houston’s credit, they’ve done a good enough job selling the idea of competition that several fans have begun parroting that idea to me. It’s a nice little dopamine hit to make real changes! I certainly don’t think anybody can be “upset” at what has happened in free agency. I have my idea: I would rather have signed a young player with some room to grow like a William Jackson or Carl Lawson than eight special teamers. But what we don’t know — or I should say, what we only know implicitly — is how free agents with actual options viewed the Texans.

https://texanswire.usatoday.com/2021/03/23/chris-conley-texans-david-culley/

So let’s make a distinction then: My major issue with the Texans offseason is that I think they should have hoarded money to sign more guys like Desmond King and Phillip Lindsay — guys who slipped through the cracks of real free agency — instead of spending in advance of free agency on David Johnson, Justin Britt, and Mark Ingram. They pre-determined their strategy and it felt like they got caught off-guard a bit by the market.

As I write this on Sunday night, Jadeveon Clowney is still a free agent. I know he comes with warts, and you should too, because he is unsigned in free agency after a few weeks for a reason. But he’s only 28, has shown the ability to be a core player for a team in the past, and could rebuild value here. I felt the same way about Sammy Watkins before he was signed on Friday night. Malik Hooker and Al-Quadin Muhammad are extremely young off rookie contracts. Maybe they see these guys and are trying to pounce — they’ve certainly treated the salary cap like it’s not much of an obstacle so far with the amount of restructures they’ve done. I would have prioritized that over what the Texans did in their opening free agency salvo.

But my main objective to what the Texans have done is that it gets harder and harder to pull someone like that from a salary cap standpoint when you’ve signed five different linebackers/special teams players to have a competition. Likewise, when it comes time to pull undrafted free agents — a place where the Texans can actually potentially sign guys who will matter for four years instead of one — the amount of depth that the Texans have signed may make it hard for them to grab a deep class.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with wanting to have a competition. Bill O’Brien absolutely would have been better served to have competitions at times instead of sticking his favorites in their spots. The Texans will also draft players that will come in and provide extra competition at some of those spots as well. Special teams play will get better as an obvious emphasis point. You’d hope that bottom-of-the-roster play would get better as well, though that’s really about the evaluations.

But the thing about competition in the NFL is that when you do it with veteran free agents it is just a band-aid, and this team as currently constructed, without Deshaun Watson, will not benefit much from all these marginal improvements. They will improve, but they will improve from two wins to three, or three wins to four, or five wins to six with an extremely optimistic outcome as far as coaching and health goes. It’s not exactly what you’re hoping for if, say, your best-case season outcome for the team is to get the No. 1 pick. (I wouldn’t say I’m one of those people, by the way, but you still need a credible quarterback solution if Watson’s allegations do not lead to him somehow starting for this team in September.)

The real problem here — and the reason I would favor just hitting the salary floor this year if I couldn’t load up on the Clowneys and Watkinses of the world — is that once the competition is done here this year, they’re done. This team does not have many current paths to long-term roster improvement because of the Laremy Tunsil trade. Deshaun Watson is only on the roster in spirit, and may eventually give some new players in this box via trade. Outside of that, Lonnie Johnson, Charles Omenihu, Max Scharping, Ross Blacklock, Jonathan Greenard, and Tytus Howard are the only players under 27 with an inside track to a starter role that are guaranteed to still be on the roster in 2022. I don’t think many of those guys have star-level ascensions to come — I think we would have seen more from them by now if they did. That’s not to say that they can’t be very effective players, good starters, and so on. But I doubt there are multiple Laremy Tunsils or DeAndre Hopkinses or J.J. Watts in that group. You might find one, if you’re lucky.

Justin Reid, Jordan Akins (not appearing in this photo because he’s 30 and had a minor league baseball career), Jacob Martin, Keion Crossen, P.J. Hall, Buddy Howell, and Keke Coutee are going to be free agents after the year. That is a major problem with not giving your young players snaps and space to develop and calling it “not a rookie year” and blaming a lack of readiness on not having enough offseason reps like an imbecile. The only young player in this entire free agency class that’s gotten snaps is Vernon Hargreaves, and Hargreaves has proven time and time again he doesn’t deserve them. (That’s something that happened after O’Brien left, too, by the way, when Romeo Crennel continued to make sure young players never sniffed real playing time.) I don’t know how good any of those players are except for Reid. If the ethos is to simply get enough veterans to not rely on young players, well, those players aren’t going to develop.

If I’m Desmond King, why am I here for more than a year if the Texans don’t blow me away with an offer? They’re still fairly likely to not have a good team barring a complete change of heart on the trade stance by Watson. You get an in, and an in is something, but if your team is barren, players understand they’re not actually winning much here. If you can’t offer winning, or stars that promise wins, or youth, anyone with an option off the ship will probably take it unless you overpay them. If I’m Kevin Pierre-Louis, and I turn 30 in October as I’m going 5-12 while having a good off-ball linebacker season, do I want to be back here in 2022 or do I want to try to get a ring while I still can?

So I would prefer to flood the roster with UDFAs, make it more likely that you hit one, and if you do, suddenly, that’s an asset. If UDFAs don’t face a lot of competition to make a roster, by the way, that’s often a selling point to their agents! (The talent level matters too, which is why the Texans will still be attractive to some players, but I think the best way to approach this is on a grander scale, understanding that these things won’t always work out.) The Patriots in recent years have signed J.C. Jackson, Adam Butler, Jacob Hollister, Kenny Moore, Jakobi Meyers, Cre’Von LeBlanc, and Jonathan Jones out of UDFA spots. If Houston could get four or five undrafted free agents out of this class that have starter upside, that would be a huge coup for them.

Now, could that happen anyway? Maybe! But I would argue that priming the pump for that is the best use of Houston’s resources right now. I would argue that a UDFA special teamer who struggles Weeks 1-12 while he learns the NFL speed and comes on in the last month of the season is more valuable than anything Terrence Brooks could give them. That’s no slight on Brooks’ value or talent, that’s just an admission to the way the NFL economic model currently works. By flooding the roster with veterans that will eat offseason reps, the Texans are creating roadblocks for youth that could suddenly step up.

That’s a willful choice, and it’s one that remains consistent from the O’Brien administration. Maybe it works out in a positive way and someone flips a pick for some of these players at the trade deadline. I think a more realistic view of where the Texans are at would show that they would be better served letting the youth on the roster settle how good they are on the practice field and preseason, and then living with the inconsistency for 17 weeks. Trying to buffer the roster into five- or six-win territory doesn’t do them a lot of good as long as the quarterback questions remain unanswered.

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The dynamic of fandom and Deshaun Watson’s sexual misconduct allegations

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

***

When Ben Roethlisberger was accused of raping Andrea McNulty, what I remember the loudest from those days is the lashing out that Pittsburgh fans engaged in online. This came in a few different ways, be it discrediting the accuser, harassing the media that was covering the story, or the more benign “say it ain’t so” tact that heads straight down to denial.

With Deshaun Watson, I don’t see a lot of that. I’m sure some of that is because we are entering into a more civilized era of choosing to believe women when they allege something like this. I’m sure some of it is because the Steelers have bars in big cities with a bigger fanbase than the Texans have as a general concept. I’m sure there’s a racial tint to it, as there usually is. But I think most of it is because Watson has chosen the path of spiritual teamlessness and most of the people who would be in his corner in this way are mainlining Desmond King interception VODs and trying to talk themselves into the Texans winning six games instead of four.

If I put away the analyst hat and put on the fan hat for a paragraph or two, it’s one of the weirdest things I’ve ever experienced. Imagine you spend half of a decade post-Matt Schaub hoping for any kind of good quarterback play, let alone the kind that melts faces like Watson does. What he did in 2020 was something that, paired with that level of team success, is impossibly rare. Also, because of his totally understandable decision to pull his levers to get away from Texans upper management, something that is almost impossible to celebrate properly. While I don’t take it personally in any way that Watson wants out, well, am I supposed to celebrate having what we longed for over many years getting instantly yanked out of Houston the second it appears? Am I supposed to make highlight VODs that will get 300,000 Twitter views while people @ him with their fanboy jersey swap pictures?

Then there’s an accusation. Then there’s three. Then there’s 13 and 10 more women being talked to. It’s very hard to believe that it’s an isolated incident when there’s 13.

***

One of the things I struggle with the most as a self-editor is dealing with how I am supposed to treat players objectively and fairly. I know that Vernon Hargreaves has been very bad by almost any empirical or eye-based test that is public knowledge. I was raised on a background of Baseball Prospectus snark. I marinated at Football Outsiders, where we have written sharp-sounding things that have aged dull over the years. (For instance, I remember being called out in a predictions piece a couple of years ago about how I believed Antonio Brown would underperform with the Raiders because he seemed like he’d “left the reservation,” because that probably wasn’t a great choice of words. And I accepted that and asked for an edit.) At the heart of the job, there’s an acknowledgement that certain players aren’t good enough for the role that struggles with the idea that you need to find an entertaining way to say it without actually ravaging the player. It’s a hard line to walk and one that I haven’t always been great at.

So I think Hargreaves is terrible at the job the Texans ask him to do. He’s still in the 99.8th percentile of all football players, ever, by virtue of being an NFL journeyman in 2021. He’s obviously trying his hardest and has impressed someone at some level, because the Texans keep employing him. There’s an overwhelming drumbeat of positivity coming from the team itself about him, because the team isn’t going to put out anything negative about their own employees.

In the pandemic era, if a player doesn’t control the media about themselves by injecting themselves into it, what we get are surface-level insights. I know that Hargreaves laughs a lot when he’s on the field because he was mic’d up that one time last season. But if you asked me if I thought Hargreaves was a good person? I’ve got no idea. In fact, because of the things he talks about and the thought that I’ve seen him take on answers when taking questions, I’d be more inclined to say that Justin Reid is a good person. Only one of those guys called me an asinine punk on Twitter last year, and it wasn’t Hargreaves. But what I know about Hargreaves are some things he did. What I know about Reid is a little closer to a story. That doesn’t mean I’m tight with him, it just means he’s put a personality out there that I can empathize with.

And it is much the same way with Deshaun Watson. I’ve covered him for the better part of three years and the personality he’s put out there has been engaging and driven. He’s not afraid to promise the moon to the fanbase. He’s not afraid to straight up say that the culture needs to change. He’s not afraid to break down why how the Panthers were defending him worked and why how the Falcons were defending him didn’t. Outside of admiring his football prowess and understanding of the game both on and off the field, though, I don’t know much about who he is as a person. I know things he did: buy a house for his mom, start his own foundation, write a book. But there aren’t exactly unguarded 75-minute sessions of him shooting the shit with his friends. He hasn’t dialed me up and told me 10 Things He Hates About Jack Easterby and his entire trade pref list while we’re both cooking dinner.

Ultimately, the feelings that the player creates on the field becomes most of the fan sentiment around them. I think Brennan Scarlett is one of the best people the Texans employed over the past couple of years. I think Whitney Mercilus is a terrific speaker and a 100% team guy. 95% of the conversation I read about either player over the last six months is “thank God he’s gone” or “we’ve got to find a way to get rid of him.” At the same time, the feelings the player creates when they speak add sentiment for me. But those are just two layers in trying to figure out who someone is and what they’re capable of.

So, back to Hargreaves. I try to be kind. I try to wrap criticism of him more towards the people who keep playing him and employing him on this team. I try not to just scream out from the rafters that this guy sucks. But obviously, his level of play impacts a lot of how we feel about him. That’s just natural for anybody; fan, coach, general manager, beat writer, or whatever. If Hargreaves had 12 allegations about anything, he wouldn’t be a Texan right now.

Watson’s play and football mind impacts a lot of how I feel about him, and I think that’s natural. It’s also natural to want to give the benefit of the doubt about something like this when you like someone and want them to succeed.

This is why I’ve mostly tried to practice silence.

***

My major reaction to the sexual misconduct accusations of Deshaun Watson has been pretty simple: You have to separate it from football, and you have to listen. His agent said as much last week:

So, simply put, what I’ve been trying to do is listen. While I’m not conceited enough to think that all my Twitter followers are going to agree with a take that I put out there — quite the opposite, as I learn every day on the hellsite — I also don’t really want to create a pulpit about a serious legal matter. The problem is that fans generally just want the exact opposite: immediate conclusions, instantly, and often repeated at them daily.

It’s hard to find a perfect messenger when you’re trying to pick lawyers, and Tony Buzbee is far from that in my eyes. I don’t much enjoy the phrase “Tony Buzbee’s Instagram Account” entering my daily lexicon. I would have voted against him when he ran against Sylvester Turner had I still had an in-city residence to vote from. I think he’s trying to dial up public sentiment against Watson to create pressure for a settlement, knowing that an athlete can’t really undo the reputation hit that comes with this regardless of truth. That very well may be in the best interests of his clients, and I’m not going to put him on blast for it, but I don’t have to like any of it.

I am not a sources guy, and so you should take what I say with a hectare of salt, but my belief is that there’s probably some fire around this much smoke. Not saying that Watson did what was alleged. Not saying that Buzbee necessarily has good evidence about what he is alleging, or that Watson is going down in flames. Just saying that when DMs pop up wherein Watson apologizes to his masseuses about making them feel uncomfortable … that’s not the sort of thing I think would be sent about popping a boner in a session or something. It is also not the sort of thing I’d expect to see be brought out so early in the process, which makes me think there might be a lot more here.

Mike Florio came out the day that this DM surfaced and said it wasn’t a smoking gun, but he meant that from a legal standpoint. The fact that Watson made a woman uncomfortable enough for him to DM her is, to me, evidence that there’s something here.

The TexanSphere is versed with a great number of people with law backgrounds. Steph Stradley, Tim the Battle Red Blog face (who I can never figure out how seriously he takes his anonymity so I’m not going to put his last name up here), Mike Meltser, who has passed the bar in two states. Here’s one thing Meltser had to say about the situation last week:

I think that is the hinge to all of this from a legal standpoint: They’re all civil cases, so far none of the cases I’ve seen have a plaintiff who has gone to the police. There’s not anything at stake here beyond money for them. So, if you are hoping for something like an exoneration, that’s something I’d be interested in knowing the “why?” of.

But if what we’ve seen so far holds true, well, I wouldn’t be surprised if this escalates past the civil courts either.

***

One thing I think that society in general — and men in particular — have to get is that who someone is in public isn’t who they are in private. As humans, we generally all have flaws in one way or another. I didn’t publish this piece on Monday because I decided that watching the Houston Cougars play college basketball was more exciting to me than trying to slog through the very difficult thoughts and emotions a piece like this takes, even if it is “my job” and it would be “ideal to put a piece out on Monday.” That is a very small example of me being flawed. There are many, many, other examples.

Who Watson is to us and who he actually is to other people can be different things, and it’s not hard to square. We don’t have the intimacy required to enter that section of his life via football.

It goes without saying that the actions spelled out in this are things that nobody should do. I very much hope Deshaun Watson didn’t do them. I also don’t have a lot of reason to sit here and tell you that he didn’t, what we have right now is simply he said versus she said. There’s a helplessness to the whole thing because all I can do is spectate. This won’t be something that just goes away tomorrow. It is likely to be a pretty protracted process without a settlement — Harris County’s court systems are flowing quite slowly right now. And, well, every day we will likely read something new. All I can do is keep listening and not give in to the base reactions that bubble up.

Regardless of what happens, I think the damage has already been done to Watson’s personal brand and that there will need to be some ownership of that if he wants to move beyond it. If he wants to blanket no comment on these things, fair enough. I think that the members of his fanbase — wherever it winds up being — with a conscience are going to have weigh these lawsuits with a skeptical eye if he doesn’t speak up about it.

This initial statement was extremely strong. But as more and more of these lawsuits have popped up, there hasn’t been much in a way of a response to them. And, keep in mind, with civil suits, the easiest way to end them is to settle them. By coming up with this opening statement, we’re teetering on Not A Great Look territory if he decides to settle, right?

***

OK, now that we’ve ridden out 3,500 words to keep anybody but the diehards from getting this far, here are my takes on how this matters as far as commonly asked questions from a football perspective:

Is there a conspiracy?

This came up at Buzbee’s presser last week, where he said he had no idea who Cal McNair was. I can see why this particular front office would inspire people to believe that there’d be a conspiracy about this, but this kind of idea generates a lot of trails. Think of this less from the perspective of the Texans wanting to keep Watson and more from the perspective of an individual employee losing their job, potentially opening themselves up to NFL sanctions, and so on — what incentive do they have to do this? It’s an idea that catches a lot more flies before you think out all the repercussions.

No, I don’t believe there’s any conspiracy here for any NFL teams.

Is Watson’s trade value harmed?

I would say not a lot. Others would say otherwise. Here’s what John McClain wrote about it:

This was notable to me because that’s the first time I’ve seen McClain present that as “the Texans were planning” rather than “the Texans should” — but anyway, I disagree. I do think this will matter some for the very top-end of the market. I don’t think a team will be willing to trade you a Kyler Murray or Justin Herbert for Watson if these lawsuits continue to stick to Watson.

But broadly speaking, if you were getting assets before, I expect the assets to largely be unchanged. I don’t think the Dolphins and Jets can pivot to the Franchise Quarterback Store. You can either get a real thing, or you can roll the dice. It’s not surprising that a lot of the smoke coming from the well-sourced national reporters this week sort of tampered down on trade value expectations, because the people talking about the expectations aren’t the Texans, who have not talked about moving Watson at all. I could still see the Texans making a move that isn’t for enough value, but that was always an option with this front office dynamic. (And that isn’t a shot at Caserio so much as a shot at the volatility that Jack Easterby brings to the front office in my opinion.)

Did this change the timing of a trade?

Kinda depends on what you believed to begin with. I’ve never believed that the Texans were going to move Watson by the draft. Albert Breer wrote that this has frozen the trade market for buyers, too. Which, fair enough, but it takes someone to sell to be willing to buy. There’s really nothing at stake when someone who can’t buy something tells you he won’t buy it.

Where does this leave the Texans?

In an even weirder spot than before, if that were possible. By Texans Cinematic Universing the trade demand, they have run into a spot where that option might be off the table until some of these charges are settled or fought in court. And then there’s the possibility that Watson may be put on commissioner’s leave or whatever other form of self-justice the NFL wants to throw out there. It might be a cloud that hangs over this franchise for a while.

I’m actually more curious about where it leaves Watson. As recently as three months ago he was one of the brightest young stars in the NFL, nobody had a bad word to say about him. Now between these allegations and the trade demand, that public persona that he carefully crafted is being torn apart. I’m very interested to see what the reaction — if there is any — will be beyond how he and his lawyer respond specifically to the charges.

***

Keep listening. I really hope this turns out to be a non-story, but the more I’ve listened, the harder it has been to believe that.

***

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Free agency’s opening salvo shows the many different masters that Nick Caserio has to serve

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

***

The Texans drowned us in a sea of small stakes content over the past few days. The Shaq Lawson for Benardrick McKinney trade struck me as inspired, and I can see ways that some of their signings work out in a positive way.

However, what struck me hardest is the strain that the Deshaun Watson/Jack Easterby dynamic has put on Nick Caserio’s pursuit of re-imagining this team. Limited resources are one thing, but the future of the franchise is effectively in flux and that’s a hard thing to present in free agency to anybody who has a real option on where they want to play next year. In other words: you can overpay free agents who have a choice, or you can watch them sign anywhere but Houston. Here’s a quick rundown of the genres I think Caserio was put up against in deciding this plan:

The Greater Easterby Fellowship

As I have pointed out on this blog several times, Cal McNair (and Bob) have a belief in building-by-consensus. “We needed [interim head coach] Romeo Crennel to focus on coaching the team. Jack Easterby is a great person, a great leader and a consensus builder, so he is who I chose to serve as our interim GM,” McNair told ESPN in November. What that means is that anybody who is in a major position of power for the team has a real vote on what happens. And what that means is, of course, Jack Easterby is allowed to have a say. I want to share the video of Seth Payne and Sean Pendergast’s interview with Caserio and focus in on what he said when asked about bringing David Johnson back:

That abstract start to the answer is nothing new for Caserio, but I think it’s very telling that he didn’t even begin to defend Johnson’s piss-poor 2020 production. He offered “production at different points.” My read of this is that this wasn’t a signing that Caserio actually loved. My read of it is that he got outvoted.

I think anybody who was on the 2019-2020 Texans in a veteran, largely unproductive role has to be looked at with an extremely skeptical eye at this point. That extends to my large amount of frustration that the team will wind up yet again have Vernon Hargreaves at corner. The depth chart in front of Hargreaves is just unsettled enough for him to again wind up playing large portions of the season despite being empirically awful at the job no matter which set of numbers you look at. The Texans have continually defended him in public, be it Anthony Weaver as defensive coordinator or D’Anton Lynn as secondary coach in his few availabilities:

I don’t want to dwell on this too much, because every organization has their favorites and Caserio is not immune to his favorites either. But when a consensus builder literally just failed in a historical way at helping shape the roster that is in place today, he probably shouldn’t have much say! Yet he does! Go Texans!

Layers and layers of players

One thing it was impossible to leave the recent David Culley or Nick Caserio pressers with was a sense that they value quantity over quality.

This is an approach that is extremely weird to me for a team that doesn’t have a lot of finished parts and, in my opinion, lends some credence to the idea that Watson’s dispute with the Texans will take a long time to settle. These small special teams-focused moves and bargain-bin replacements you hope can hold up are finishing touches on a great roster. For a roster like the one that the Texans have right now, they feel tonally off. This team isn’t a fifth-place special teams DVOA from winning anything unless Watson is here, and even then, it’s not like that kept them from being 4-12 last season.

Most of these moves are one-year deals, so the Texans have a lot of space left to pivot to something if the Watson situation gets even worse. But at the same time, if one of these guys vastly outplays his contract, the Texans get no real reward out of it. The player is right back to free agency or in Caserio’s office angling for a big raise.

When you look at the opportunity cost of signing these special teams guys, potential linebacker solutions, Mark Ingram, David Johnson, and Christian Kirksey and put it up against trying to lure an actual talented football player to the Texans and backfilling with younger players who may not do as well, I think it’s a poor choice for a team with this little talent on the roster. This team needs to be embracing the idea that it can manufacture some good value out of youth rather than treating it with skepticism. Their ability to offer young guys a chance in a churn is one of the most valuable things they have right now.

Which leads us to another major point of the shadow that the Watson-Easterby/McNair standoff envelops:

Does anybody actually want to be a Houston Texan if they have a choice?

I listen to the readers and commenters of this blog/Twitter/the greater Texansphere, and I think a lot of you are tired of hearing about the Watson situation. I empathize in that it feels like your fandom is under attack on a daily basis, even if that isn’t a fully rational feeling. The reason it remains a big deal is not just because of Watson’s obvious talent and how badly other people covet it, but also because the perception around the Texans is currently awful. Players want to play with other great players. Watson is one of them. He’s one of them who you literally can’t find a non-hot take artist to say a bad thing about. And he’s holding out. That sets a tone that is hard for free agents to ignore.

Let’s imagine any rational top-of-the-line free agent with multiple suitors looking at what he sees in the Texans situation right now. There’s the state income tax not existing; that’s real nice. But the team finished 4-12 last season and the only reason they didn’t finish 2-14 is currently something you can’t count on being there. Upper management is the biggest joke in the NFL and they essentially exist in a mindset where there is no separation of church and state. David Culley is not a head coach with a long history of success in putting guys in roles to succeed — and because of where he was plucked from, there’s no way he could have that reputation yet. Any one of those things could be a red flag to a guy like Joe Thuney, John Johnson, or William Jackson signing with the Texans. All of them? It’s a death knell. You’re gonna have to overpay them to get their interest.

So when you see a Kirksey signing, a Justin Britt signing, a Mark Ingram signing, all happening pre-free agency and over the minimum, what that tells you is that the market for those guys is limited. Indeed, none of the three of them finished last season in their team’s plans. Britt didn’t even spend any of the 2020 season on a team after his 2019 ACL tear. That doesn’t mean they can’t claw out effective seasons in the right circumstances with the right locale. But it also is indicative of the very real issues those guys had in the eyes of other NFL teams.

Ingram had a 40-yard touchdown run, untouched, against the Texans on fourth down in Week 2. That run outgained or tied five of his 10 biggest yardage days of last season and he didn’t finish the season on the active roster; he’s 31. Kirksey has played 20 games in the last three seasons and will turn 29 before the season.

Maliek Collins, who I admittedly like a little more as an upside play compared to these pre-FA guys, had no sacks last season. The details of this contract don’t even really seem to trust Collins, guaranteeing him just $2 million of the reported $6 million. If they find someone else in training camp, he could easily be cut. We don’t have the details of my favorite signing of Monday’s lot, Kevin Pierre-Louis, but his contract is “up to $7 million,” not $7 million. I like Vincent Taylor and we considered him on the FO Top Prospects List a couple years ago. He’s getting $850,000 guaranteed.

None of these guys are taking minimum deals to play here, they are here because they had sad markets in a crushed offseason. The Texans set them slightly above that.

And what that really means is…

Real talent has to be acquired through trades

The two most talented players added to the roster were added via trade on Sunday. The Texans acquired Shaq Lawson from the Dolphins for Benardrick McKinney, and they acquired Marcus Cannon from the Patriots in a series of pick-swaps.

While I’m somewhat surprised that McKinney reportedly had multiple teams interested in trading for him, I think the Texans did good to fill a real need area with Lawson. Lawson reminds me a lot of former Titans EDGE player Derrick Morgan — he’s not a consistent finisher, but he can generate enough pressure to be a good secondary rusher. Big body, looks the part outside of shorter arm length. It’s not really Lawson’s fault that the Texans don’t have a No. 1 EDGE player, so it’s unfair to judge him in that context. But he’ll deliver some sort of known floor up front.

The Cannon trade price was largely inconsequential to the bottom line unless you believe this is such a deep draft that the 109th pick should be at a premium as compared to the 120th, which I can’t really see as true. Where he plays … that’s a great question. Either he or Tytus Howard will likely move inside to right guard, which makes Zach Fulton, Britt, and Max Scharping fighting to fill two slots assuming perfect health. At the end of the day, he’s a good lineman despite no 2020 to speak of because of the COVID-19 opt-out, but he’s also 33 and is likely not a long-term fixture or a reason to feel good about moving on from Laremy Tunsil or anything like that.

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This isn’t really a column in defense of Caserio’s first day of free agency. I don’t think anything greatly changed for the 2021 Texans Monday, but I don’t think the signings in and of themselves are bad ones. They’re the kind of signings where, when paired with other big moves, you can look at as low-risk stabs at production that had to be chosen in deference to the salary cap. When they are the entire sustenance of the meal? That’s like making the entire plate out of broccoli. I love a good floret or five, but you know what else I like? Protein and starch.

The thing is, there’s no way I can sit here and tell you I believe that all of this is a grand Caserio design. I do think he would have chased special teams guys either way. But beyond that? What can you really do when you general manage these Houston Texans and there’s no clarity on Watson’s future? What can you do about players and roster spots that are clearly Easterby-given? The Texans Cinematic Universe has created a stasis that makes it impossible to compete for free agents with other real options. The only solutions are more money or pre-existing relationships. They might win a medium-sized fish before this is all over, but if they do, I bet it comes because of one of those two things.

Maybe one or a couple of these guys comes out and has a nice season and it can be a bright spot in what is looking more and more likely to be another lost year. I appreciate that as these signings come down they are a dopamine hit for fans and any kind of move is viewed as a “culture shift” and even the older players can be “mentors for young players.” If you wanna get high off of that, I’m not shaming you in the slightest. But the culture has been set by upper management, and it is here to stay regardless of how many pass-rush moves Charles Omenihu learns from Lawson or what Cannon teaches Scharping about bull rushes.

This team is in a state of suspended animation until Watson is traded or appeased. The only people who don’t know it are the owner and Cal McNair.

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Glory Deflecting (How To Disappear Completely)

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

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This week the big Texans news was J.J. Watt fleeing this terrible front office and the very same front office giving David Johnson a contract for some reason. I’ve written about both of those topics at length already, so let’s instead focus in on what the Texans primed us for on Wednesday:

Jack Easterby, I will spare you the six minutes if you are busy, does not appear in this video. He has not appeared publicly since last September’s Deshaun Watson extension press conference. The only comments he has offered in public since that point are responses to Sports Illustrated exposes — and not answers, just responses. Texans in-house media goes out of their way to avoid acknowledging that he exists. Despite that, he continues to gain more and more power in the organization, having burrowed deeper into the business side of the organization after Jamey Rootes’ resignation.

I want to talk about the power dynamics of this situation because they are revealing. For the most part — Jerry Jones is a notable exception because he literally can’t help himself — owners do not make a lot of public statements. Some of that is because they employ people below them, like, say Culture Vice Presidents, to make statements for them and their team. Some of that is because, as you may have noticed under the stewardship of Cal’s father, Bob, team owners are really good at saying incredibly stupid shit and creating public relations fires. And some of the second part feeds into the first part because several owners are smart enough to know that nobody wants to hear what they want to say. Words can never override actions as far as trust lost goes, and the best way to shut up a bunch of unhappy fans is to win.

To go back to the end of the second SI article though, I want to give you the quote that matters here: “They got the owner to take the blame for everything. Never heard that.” That’s a major issue here and something that has only grown over the last two weeks: Cal McNair somehow feels like an employee at the company he owns.

Jack Easterby feels like the owner, the guy who says nothing and is letting his football people work under his parameters.

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In my role as Senior Easterbyologist of the Internet I have come across many quotes in podcasts and sermons and what not that explain a lot about how all of this happened. One that strikes me as pertinent to this scenario is Easterby’s shift away from public speaking:

A term that Easterby has used in similar talks before — and a reason why he himself is practically a ghost of a person — is “deflecting glory.” By that he means that you shouldn’t want the attention of your works, you shouldn’t relish that. Instead you should deflect your glory to making others look good and, more pertinently for his past role, making God and Christianity as a whole look good.

You see this reflected (deflected?) in how the Texans have pushed their media campaign of late. The Texans are spending a lot of time talking about the community, having Cal McNair out and about on the streets, and just generally talking up his leadership:

At one point last week, here’s what the Texans website looked like as far as media videos:

The players are afterthoughts. This is a team that is about good deeds and human interest stories. Two McNair stories, one thing about twins playing each other on Thanksgiving, and another of the free agent special teams player being nominated for the Walter Payton award. OK, OK, it’s the offseason. The winter storm thing was a big deal. Let’s look at what other teams with brand new staffs are doing, though:

Some football teams, it turns out, realize that their fans care about football. Sorry, I know I’m dwelling here, but it’s jarring to realize that there’s a whole football world out there beyond the Houston Texans that understands that their fans … care about football.

When the Texans released their “Building the Texans,” video, it was immediately apparent that Easterby was doing more glory deflecting. McNair, Nick Caserio, and David Culley were all front-and-center. Each of them provided absolutely nothing to the video about what the actual plan is here, because there isn’t really a plan beyond whatever we’re living through currently is. Drew Dougherty and Deepi Sidhu telling the fans once a week that they can’t talk about the employment status of their higher-ups is literally the closest this franchise has right now to an actual connection with the fanbase. This video fell on ears that have already drowned in the toxic positivity that this organization has embraced. The result was that the social media person got ratioed, again.

Like most of Jack Easterby’s problems as an executive, this is a problem of scope. It doesn’t really matter that you’re a glory deflector when you are preaching or pursuing disciples or whatever. When you have immense power in an organization that is generally perceived as a public trust, though, you owe people explanations. You need to have accountability for your actions. You don’t get to just make an “oopsie, I lost the franchise quarterback’s trust forever” and then nothing happens.

However, when you look at who is in power here. When you look at who chartered the jet to head over and pick up Caserio, who put these plans in place for the assumed Josh McCown takeover as head coach at Some Point When David Culley’s Time Is Up, who is putting the McNairs front and center on media … you quickly realize that actually, you do get to do that. Because you are the power. You don’t have to be the owner in name, and you get to have the cake and eat it too.

It is inherently selfish for Easterby to force other people to answer for him and to hide. John McClain noted on a radio hit on Friday that he’s been trying to get Easterby to answer questions on the record since he became interim GM in early October, so it’s not like the media interest isn’t there. He talks about servant leadership, but won’t serve the fanbase.

Because he’s a coward, you see.

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It’s natural to want to believe, as a fan, that something deeper than this is taking root somewhere. That Nick Caserio is going to be taking advantage of the free agency period to ink the kinds of bargain contracts this team needs. That maybe Deshaun Watson will show up and his bitterness will wither away as he spends more time away from Easterby and McNair.

Here’s what gets me: It’s not materially hard to get fans on your side. I have lived through several stupid PR campaigns about bad moves that have done their job. People to this day still believe in the Laremy Tunsil trade, even when one of the picks is third overall. They even got, I would say, at least 25-50% of their fanbase to buy the stupid-as-hell idea that wideout speed mattered more than DeAndre Hopkins. Only the very adamant fanboys are even trying the “David Johnson’s last four games mean he’s actually good!” line on me. Because this team isn’t even pushing that. Hell, they haven’t even announced Lovie Smith as the defensive coordinator yet! They have pivoted to Not Football.

I think largely we’ve been shown by this organization what they care about by what they’ve focused on first. We’ll see some mid-grade signings of people with Patriots backgrounds and maybe a player or four willing to be overpaid to have a story to tell in 2025 for his future media career. But the David Johnson re-signing told us all we needed to know about the direction of the team. They care much more about how good they’re going to make the McNairs look handing out things other people cooked than they care about creating the scenario that would make this team palatable for a superstar quarterback. One decision begets another.

Some football organizations care about football. It may just not be for this one anymore.

Perhaps if Texans fans could brand themselves as a charity in need of assistance, maybe their owner could get some valor from running the organization like he gives a damn about it.

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I’m writing this article free of charge — this website is ad-free and non-intrusive. If you enjoy my work and want to encourage me to produce more, please feel free to leave me a PayPal tip.