As I was watching Bill O’Brien talk to the media at the NFL Combine — we’re definitely in triple digits for how many times total I’ve watched him talk over the last five years — it occurred to me that there’s little to be done at this point.
I don’t mean that to sound dramatic, as if O’Brien is steering the Texans into an iceberg or something. I just mean that we’ve largely reached the point where his coaching style and influence is a known thing that we’ll have no deep surprises with. O’Brien is going to talk about how it’s important that he improves, but he’s not actually going to change anything stylistically unless things are completely wrecked, and nobody above him is going to hold him accountable on those words. If the players are good enough to play him into better situations, so be it. If not, well, the Texans will probably struggle at some point. Nothing I write is changing this, and nothing you as a fan can say — yes, even the people who leave Periscope comments about how O’Brien sucks because he won’t trade for John Ross — matters.
There’s a powerful sense of helplessness around being a fan today that I think has grown and festered as we’ve moved into the 2000s and 2010s. What I keep coming back to is that sports teams are, in a sense, no different than O’Brien. They don’t have anybody to answer to.
Impartial commissioners as a model that would try to do what is best for the game have been replaced by “Yes sir” commissioners who serve only the interest of the owners. Sports teams have become such big content providers, and rocking the boat in sports journalism so discouraged, that a team can essentially hold any combative local media hostage by their press pass if they want to. National media? If you work somewhere that broadcasts the games, prepare to get tattled on the minute you cross the line. Finally, home fans are completely irrelevant to today’s sports experience. Someone has paid for the TV rights, advertisers have given even more knowing that sports is essentially the only game in town that still is watched live. The Chargers can play in a shoebox and make money. The Raiders can take eight years to build a stadium in Las Vegas and be profitable. Any fans that show up are a bonus.
As a Houstonian, I see a lot of anger directed at sports fans for not showing up on time. “Fans as empty seats” at the start of a Rockets game is practically a trope. Texans games are dead until 15 minutes to kickoff. The Astros won a World Series recently so they’re exempt for a bit, but in the early 2010s that stadium was a mausoleum. The passion of the fans is always critiqued, but not necessarily the role of teams in how they make fans feel.
When you think of the purely transactional nature that these businesses — yes, not teams, businesses — take now, is that actually a surprise? There was never a logical reason to be a fan of the local sports team. They never actually represented you or your city. When you pull back the curtain on this entire industry as some teams have done over the past decade in just shamelessly accumulating money and giving unlimited time for “the process” to play out, and you just roll a d20 to decide which non-answer you’ll give to the press, why should fans be engaged?
Because you’ve partnered with Fast Food Joint A to McChicken us if someone hits a home run in the right inning? Because some of your players did some charity things and you taped it? Because you salute the armed forces? Neat, that makes you just like everybody else with a platform and a focus group. The reason those Texans fans are outside instead of waiting for the game to kickoff is because the tailgate is more of a bonding point than the sport itself. There are real people to talk to and discover out there instead of rotating Instagram selfies on a board. (And to be clear, I think the Texans social media do a good job of creating videos that engage fans! But they can only do so much.)
It takes a special amount of humanity to engage people in 2019. You’ve gotta have Steve Kerr as your head coach talking about racial relations. You need your star players taking an interest in struggles that people can actually relate to. Sure, some teams have a transcendent superstar that is just so fun to watch it doesn’t matter. But most teams are not blessed with that.
If you can’t do humanity by association, you need to at least do humanity by storyline. “We messed this up, so we’re changing it like this,” or at the very least “this team is rebuilding/this team is ready to contend/this team is contending.” If you stay stuck in the same storyline for too long, you become irrelevant. Hell, with how quickly storylines are expected to change these days, teams get criticized just for being in the same section of the story too long. Nobody identifies with “The Process Is Happening” for five years. Most of us have tried to fix something in our lives on our own at some point, be it learning how to get better at a skill, overcoming a personal barrier, or something like that. That doesn’t last for five years.
When you come at sports from a purely transactional place, where the games are just a business, you’re never going to see the humanity.
And I guess that’s what drives me nuts about every O’Brien press conference. This isn’t about how objectively smart what he says is or what motives he has to share actual information. I feel like he’s telling you, in the most direct way that he knows how, that he is not here to talk you out of your apathy.
He is here to induce it. He understands football in his way and, other than an infusion of talent too good to ignore, that way will play itself out in a pretty inevitable way unless fortune is heavily for or against him.
As teams have gotten more and more inured to outside criticism and accountability, they just continue to drift farther away from having a coherent storyline. The Texans are hardly the only team to do this — I spent 6,000 words in Football Outsiders Almanac 2018 talking about the Jets, Dolphins, and Bills. They’re all the same way. If you run a football team like the CEO of a corporation, you can’t be surprised when your fanbase starts skeptically applying the same value calculation to you, wondering what exactly they’re supposed to be getting out of this.
So once again, let me talk about my misgivings with the coaching staff plan before I get into exact position-by-position specifics. That way I can better showcase the difference between what I’d recommend and what I think Houston will do.
In 2018, I thought this unit had matchup issues against a certain type of team: They were called the Indianapolis Colts. (Rimshot.) But, no, it could just as easily have been the Chiefs had the Texans advanced further in the playoffs. Houston was primarily a zone-coverage team, and they refused to take advantage of their depth in pass rushers to really create havoc because Crennel decided to get ubercute with Whitney Mercilus. As I detailed for The Athletic, Mercilus was relegated to this sort of awkward chess piece role — it was kind of like putting a bishop on the board and pretending it was a knight.
Mercilus had to play zone coverage. He had to play outside on standard downs against two tight-end or two-back sets. He sometimes spied the quarterback. The easiest solution to all of Houston’s problems was putting Mercilus, Watt, and Clowney on the line of scrimmage and saying “stop it.” But they rarely did. My guess — purely an informed guess, not anything I’ve heard from a source — is that the Texans and J.J. Watt wanted Watt to play only on the outside to keep his back healthier. While Clowney sometimes stood over the interior line, it wasn’t an every down look. Houston could have put Watt inside, where he has been at his best throughout his career, and put Mercilus and Clowney outside. They never really did. That means something.
The ripple effects of this decision are going to run clear throughout this piece, so let’s get it on the board early.
EDGE: J.J. Watt (star contract minus salary cap growth), Jadeveon Clowney (free agent — will be tagged), Whitney Mercilus (midscale contract), Duke Ejiofor (rookie deal), FA/Draft
This is an offseason where I expect the Texans to move on from one of Whitney Mercilus or Jadeveon Clowney. Clowney with a franchise tag would probably command more in the trade market if a team decided to believe in him. Mercilus would be less messy to jettison, though, and with a year left on his contract and coming off a bad statistical season, might be the kind of player a bargain-hunting team would come for. (Yes, he’s going to be a Patriot, that’s what I’m saying.)
I would keep them both. You can never have enough pass rushers in today’s NFL and I think the pieces fit better together than the Texans used them last year. But at the end of the day I expect one of them will be gone. If I had to guess, it would be Clowney. But again, I want to be clear I have no source on that. Clowney, to me, is worthy of getting of a five-year, $100 million dollar deal in the near-Khalil Mack range. His interior play as a pass rusher was the most consistent trick Houston had all season to generate pressure.
J.J. Watt had a fabulous season and should have won Comeback Player of The Year in my opinion. But it is what it is. He’s the boringest great player in the NFL, and even his press clippings are so sweet and kind that they just fade into the background of our consciousness. We had a full season of content at The Athletic Houston between two writers and barely even touched on how great he is. It’s expected. He’s become the player where it’s only a story if he’s not dominant. With three years left on his deal, he’s not a priority re-negotiation and I think well worth his contract as long as he’s repeating 2018. I am worried about the potential of a weakened Watt heading into the last two years of that deal, because this city and this team rightfully loves him and I think he’ll get whatever he wants. I’m never going to bet against Watt, but long-term back injuries are not a great investment. I’d want to keep him on this deal as long as I could, maybe with some token guaranteed money added as necessary ala Julio Jones last offseason.
Duke Ejiofor showed enough in his limited looks that I would be happy to have him as a developmental pass rusher going forward. If the Texans do move one of Clowney or Mercilus I imagine he will not be playing the full Mercilus role from last season, but he’s shown well and has enough of a draftnik profile that he was on the radar of the Top Prospects lists I do for ESPN/FO. If one of Mercilus or Clowney gets moved, I expect pass rusher to be in play for a Day 2 pick. Again, take this with a grain of salt because I’m not sure where NFL consensus will end up, but I am personally a big fan of Louisana Tech’s Jaylon Ferguson and could see him make it to the second round.
Interior linemen: D.J. Reader (final year of rookie contract), FA/Draft, Brandon Dunn (FA), Carlos Watkins, Joel Heath
One thing that I could see getting interesting this offseason is how the Texans value D.J. Reader. The nose tackle has been the key to one of the best run defenses in the NFL — the No. 1 run defense in the NFL statistically last season — over the past couple years. Nose tackles are limited in the scope of their value, but Reader contributes more as a pass rusher than most of them. The two contracts he’ll be looking at (as of now) are Damon Harrison’s $24 million in guarantees and Star Lotuleilei’s $25 million in guarantees. Something like a 5-year, $50 million deal with $28 million in guarantees could be in play over a three-year guaranteed term. I think I’d pass on that price and try to recreate Reader in the draft while I had bargain help in free agency afterwards. I think the Texans might sign up for that deal, especially if they trade Clowney. Personally, love to have my defensive tackles actually kick ass instead of being Jeff Zgonina
The interior is one of the most free-agency heavy areas of the team, with Christian Covington, Angelo Blackson, and Brandon Dunn all up for new deals. My personal opinion is that Heath and Watkins have flashed enough in those roles that I’d be comfortable letting the market terms dictate who comes back. I think Covington will catch on elsewhere as someone else will believe in his pass rush numbers. Dunn and Blackson I could see coming back on short-term deals. Maybe something like $8 total million over two years with one-year guarantees would be about where I’d stick in the mud for either of them. I expect the Texans will prioritize bringing back Blackson.
I could see a drafted player at this position as well, but it won’t be a priority fix so I won’t even pretend to know a fifth-round target. Perhaps the Texans will just try to recreate Dunn and Blackson, whom they found cheap in free agency. That would also be a smart play.
This position seems pretty straight-forward to me. Bernardrick McKinney is your tacklebacker who has the speed to cover but not necessarily the instincts. Zach Cunningham is your speed linebacker who plays good zone coverage but isn’t who you want to see man-to-man on Darren Sproles outside. Dylan Cole makes great reads but isn’t as athletic as Cunningham and thus will likely only retain spot work. Only Cole’s contract is up before 2020, and Cole will be an RFA at that point. I expect this rotation to mostly hold until Cunningham becomes a free agent. I will note that long-term I’m not sold on Cunningham because I don’t trust his instincts in man coverage, but I also don’t think he can’t improve on that with another year to develop.
Brennan Scarlett was quite impressive for the Texans last year as a core special teamer and bit player on defense. He showed a lot of versatility in coverage, in run defense, and on the line of scrimmage. I wouldn’t call him a must-keep as an RFA, but I think he’s worth a tender and possibly even a match on a cheaper deal. Scarlett is never going to overwhelm with physicality, but is smart, instinctive, and plays the system well. If you keep him, I think you close the door on Brian Peters, because Peter Kalambayi played well enough to also retain a core special teams role next season. As an incredibly experienced veteran, Peters simply will cost more on the veteran minimum than most rookies. Hopefully for his sake the Texans keep him, because I don’t think there’s anything wrong with his play. The way these things tend to play out with special teamers is either they get signed instantly or they bum around waiting for injuries. You could see either outcome with Peters.
Cornerback: FA/draft, FA/draft, Johnathan Joseph (cheapie contract), Kevin Johnson (fifth-year option), Aaron Colvin (star slot contract), Deante Burton (UDFA rookie contract)
Let’s talk about what to do at the position that was slagged the most last season. I think the easy way to go about this is to acknowledge that the answer of rookie addition or free-agent addition is simply “yes.”
In free agency, my unquestioned No. 1 cornerback would be Ronald Darby, however, he’s so far ahead of the other cornerbacks that even coming off an ACL tear I expect him to get a contract way over where I’d put his actual value. He’s not a No. 1 cornerback to me. If for some reason he’s available for less than $25 million in guaranteed money and less than a three-year commitment, that’s probably worth pursuing.
The two free agents I like the most in this class are Jason Verrett and Morris Claiborne. Verrett is always hurt — that’s why he’s made it to free agency — but he’s been empirically impressive in pretty much every season he survives. He’s sort of the Tyler Eifert of cornerbacks at this point. He’s off a Torn Achilles and a torn ACL in 2016. Obviously he’s not a good bet to stay healthy and be healthy on Day 1, but I like the idea of a team with a lot of one-year cap space just offering him a contract and seeing how training camp goes.
Claiborne has been a reliable journeyman corner for a few seasons. I don’t think of him as any great shakes, but he’s got the size and speed to deal with players that Johnathan Joseph can’t, and he’ll give some buffer room for the development that I think is inherent with rookie corners.
Joseph comes into 2019 as a zone-heavy corner who could be platooned in serious cases. That means rookies and Deante Burton could both get called upon for more serious work against the fastest of the fast in certain packages. I expect the Texans will just let him keep his spot on seniority, and fair enough, but it’s going to cost them some big plays.
This early on in the draft process it doesn’t mean much, but for my money, Deandre Baker of Georgia is a perfect fit of player and team with the Texans. I’ve seen him mocked around the middle of the first round all the way to the end of the first, and the only thing he’s really missing is size. I have a thing for players who play bigger than their actual size, and I think Baker fits that bill. Otherwise, look, pretty much every cornerback in the draft will be linked to the Texans at some point.
Aaron Colvin remains on the roster after a 2018 debacle of a free-agency season solely because the Texans can’t clear money by releasing him. I think he deserves a fresh start this year at slot corner, and he’s not terrible in that role historically. He’s not going to earn the contract money, but that doesn’t mean he can’t dunk on his 2018 form. The Texans can regroup on that deal after 2019.
I have no idea what the ruling actually is on Kevin Johnson being able to be cut given he finished the year on IR. If he can be cut, I expect him to be cut. I think Johnson’s salary will pretty much dictate whether the Texans keep one of Kareem Jackson and Tyrann Mathieu or both.
Safety: Kareem Jackson (FA), Justin Reid (rookie contract), Andre Hal (cheapie contract), A.J. Moore (UDFA rookie contract), Mike Tyson (UDFA rookie contract)
Speaking of Jackson versus Mathieu, let’s talk about that right now. How many teams do you know that carry a fourth safety as good as Andre Hal? The Texans sort of got away with it this year because Jackson immediately moved to corner and because Hal was coming off a lymphoma. Here’s a take that goes beyond the statistics that are colored by playing bad quarterbacks: He’s still slow enough at this stage of his career that he needs to be a safety. The Texans will be making a grave mistake if they evaluate last year’s tape and decide he can stick outside in 2019.
Mathieu is a tough subject for me. I think he’s a good player, but the way that safeties have been valued on the free agent market over the past couple of seasons make me feel a bit weird about giving him $10 million a season. Mathieu’s size makes it easy for him to get bullied by bigger tight ends. His football acumen and approach? No questions there for me. I won’t be sad if he’s one of Houston’s safeties in 2019. But I wouldn’t want to be handing him a huge contract given how easily pieced together most safety units are and the fact that Hal is already a more-than reliable third safety. I would choose between Mathieu and Jackson in favor of Jackson because I think he’s just a little more physical up front and I suspect the Texans will be able to pay a bit less to keep him. They’re both good players to me though, so no tears if they’re both back.
Justin Reid‘s rookie season was somehow impressive and yet not quite as good as I think his DROY backer fans took it in 2018. Reid’s tackling and range has him in a good spot to continue to develop into that player, but the Texans got a little burnt over the second half of the season and I attribute that mostly to learning experiences by the rookie.
Depth is good at this position. A.J. Moore was a core special teamer all season, and Mike Tyson played adequately after coming over as a waiver claim. I don’t think this team needs to draft a safety, though I wouldn’t be surprised if they targeted another bargain safety ala Mathieu if the market makes that the play.
Texans wide receiver Will Fuller played in seven games last season and he seemed healthy for maybe three of them.
Fuller, 25 in April, is a breed of player that I would argue has become more and more rare as teams have gotten deeper into sports science and nutrition. The team has every incentive to keep him on the field, but they can’t.
His ACL tear against the Dolphins in Week 8 was unfortunate, but even outside of the ACL, there were 33 separate Rotoworld updates on the status of his hip and hamstring over the first eight weeks of 2018. Fuller had knee surgery after the 2017 season, a season in which he also missed time due to cracked ribs and a broken collarbone suffered in training camp. The leg and hamstring problems also bothered Fuller in his rookie season, forcing him to miss a couple games. As much as I’ve joked in the past about how the NFL seems to overworry about how a player’s body looks from a scouting perspective, Fuller was heavily dinged for his skinny build coming out of Notre Dame. Not just his overall build, but his legs in particular. So far, those concerns have been realized.
Last year, Fuller took a massive step forward on the field. I would argue, in fact, that his numbers even underrate how good he was because he essentially played decoy while his hamstring was bothering him. Fuller led all non-qualified receivers in Football Outsiders’ DYAR in 2018, and his DVOA in 2017 ranked him 17th in the NFL despite playing several of those games with Tom Savage. In six starts with Savage after Watson tore his ACL in 2017, Fuller managed just 144 total receiving yards.
Nearly a third of Fuller’s targets in 2018 came on Curl or Comeback routes, per Sports Info Solutions charting. He builds enough respect with his speed that this should be a staple play of the offense. Here’s one example of it in Week 3 against the Giants:
I don’t think Fuller gets enough credit for how few drops he’s committed over the past couple of years. He only had two in 2017 per Sports Info Solutions. Last year? Zero. Now that’s not to say that he’s not ever going to drop a pass again, but it’s a lot less of a weakness than I thought it’d be in 2016. This particular catch against the Giants showcased a nice ability to make a play on a short ball. Here’s another catch that Fuller’s speed manufactured against the Colts in Week 4
The Colts come out with a quarters look, but transfer over to Cover-3. Fuller sells his deep speed so well on this play that the corner gets completely turned around respecting Fuller’s deep speed. The only question on this corner route was if Watson was going to be able to sneak it in before Fuller went out of bounds.
Here’s a complete list of every post-merger NFL receiver to have 11 touchdowns in his second and third season in the NFL while playing 17 or fewer games: Will Fuller, Kenny Britt. If you expand that list to 24 games (giving a player a half-season off), here’s how that expands:
When I create a list like this I play around with a lot of splits to try to find what I think is the right control group of players — the hard thing about comparing Fuller to most of these receivers is the lack of receptions. The comparison that actually wound up ringing the most true to me, both stylistically and statistically, was Marvin Jones. Jones wound up with 51 receptions in his second season alone — even despite being surrounded with A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, Mohammed Sanu, and Jermaine Gresham. Jones then missed his entire third season to ankle and foot issues. Players like Britt and Chris Henry hit on off-field scenarios that Fuller isn’t dealing with. Players like Julio Jones and Watkins, I would argue, had better pedigree and delivered more immediately.
Houston’s passing game going forward is one that has a lot of no-brainer situations to me. Deshaun Watson deserves to have the Brinks truck backed up in front of his house. DeAndre Hopkins is going to be a star as long as he stays healthy. Keke Coutee is going to be, at worst, a good slot receiver. The offensive tackle position needs to be sledgehammered and rebuilt. These are all positions that, give or take a grade of effectiveness, I think most rational people can agree on. Fuller is the element of this passing game that is entirely volatile.
From a contractual standpoint, Fuller is intriguing because he’s up against a lot of things the NFL typically values highly. He’s not healthy. He hasn’t been consistent from game-to-game. At the same time, he has so much going on from a scouting perspective that offers value — the speed, the ability to take safeties with him, the effortless way he changes gears. Jadeveon Clowney’s franchise tag situation has been interesting to watch and project on to Fuller, because I’d argue they had a similar beginning to their careers even if imagining them as the same is kind of funny because of the body disparity. They both make things look incredibly easy when they’re on. When they win big it’s a splash play that can change the entire game. But the injuries and inconsistencies are real.
If Fuller plays a healthy 16-game season in 2019, I think we might be talking about a top-10 NFL receiver. What’s it worth to have two of those on the same team at the same time, and what’s it worth if you can’t count on one of them to stay there? The fifth-year option debate with Fuller is going to be pretty easy — the second-contract one is going to inform a lot about the Texans cap situation and offense going forward, and it may be a significant risk for them no matter how good Fuller is.
I’m separating this into a few posts because I don’t want to drop 5,000 words on one piece.
There is nothing I can do about my beefs with how this team is coached so I’m not going to run through that disclaimer on every position, but obviously it is a shadow that looms over the ceiling of the entire organization. Ultimately I have players I like that would not be used exactly in the way I’d prescribe. So I’ll also be trying to add people I think are good fits for what the coaching staff wants as well, even if they are not the exact players I’d go after.
QB: Deshaun Watson (rookie deal), FA signing, FA signing
I’ve got nothing against Brandon Weeden but I have serious doubts that he could manage the team well through a multi-week Deshaun Watson injury. He’s 35, 36 in October, and hasn’t started a game since 2015. To me, Weeden being a primary backup when your quarterback takes as many dings as Watson takes with his playmaking style is a bad fit.
So, who to chase then? I think Tyrod Taylor might allow the Texans to keep most of the offense they run normally with Watson, as well as give them enough juice as a runner to creatively manage through some games. I don’t know what Taylor’s market is like but the Bills ran him out of town and the Browns didn’t even give him a month as a starter — I think he might have to settle for being a backup. The Texans don’t figure to be cap-strapped and could give Taylor a decent one-year deal in the $4-$5 million range without it changing anything. (Alternately I like Colin Kaepernick but I have my doubts the Texans would actually be interested for reasons that are incredibly obvious.)
Most of the other quarterbacks are unproven, because the generic backup quarterbacks that hit the market have only proven to be mediocre in a best-case scenario. I want more upside. A player I’ve always been enamored with that is still young-ish and has shown something in his NFL starts is David Fales. Fales had a nice start with the Dolphins at the end of the 2017 season, and while he doesn’t have a deep ball, he can manage a short game pretty well. I’d also be sniffing around AAF youngsters Luis Garcia and John Wolford. I’d be willing to take a chance on Brett Hundley, who I think will be way too inconsistent to win you a game on his own but has more upside than a lot of the backups that are hitting the pool. Hundley’s another guy you can use in the run game, and he’s got enough arm talent to burn someone if a defense plays his receivers too tightly. He may not actually hit the throw … but he could. If the Texans were willing to take a chance on someone who has had actual off-field issues, Chad Kelly looked pretty solid for the Broncos last preseason as well.
A major emphasis for me would be finding a running back who could contribute as a receiver out of the backfield. So, my No. 1 target would actually not be a free agent at all. The Browns just signed up Kareem Hunt, giving themselves a three-headed backfield with Nick Chubb, Hunt, and Duke Johnson. I think Johnson has been underutilized by his staff, and with Hunt in tow, perhaps you can invest a late-day trade or pick swap to acquire a running back who can be the main head of a committee in a best-case scenario and, worst-case, is a terrific third-down back. That’s what this team has needed for years. I’d actually prefer to trade for him because I don’t want to get involved with RFA compensation if I can avoid it. The Patriots are able to bilk lots of extra draft picks in this way. The Browns would assume the guaranteed parts of Johnson’s contract, the Texans would give up, say, a fourth- or fifth-rounder. That’s a win-win to me. Ty Montgomery could fit that role as a pure free agent, as could Darren Sproles if he decides not to retire.
I expect the Texans to just roll with the last year of Lamar Miller’s contract. That’s fine. I think the team could get marginally more efficient play by releasing him, but he’s a solid zone scheme back. I expect they’ll also probably wind up with Alfred Blue as part of the platoon again because the coaching staff seems to love him. I think Blue’s play has not merited him getting the looks that he has already. Running back is a position where, if you’re not going after Le’Veon Bell, you’re not going to have to pay big premiums anyway. Might as well shop at the top of the market. I’d like to see Jay Ajayi as a Blue replacement — he’s always run powerfully and I think he makes a lot of sense as the between-the-tackles back in a platoon. Spencer Ware also seems like a good fit for the role, although he has been pretty prone to injury.
With D’Onta Foreman‘s torn Achilles one year further in the past, this is pretty much a make-or-break year for him as far as his NFL future. If the Texans don’t trade for a back, I think drafting one in the middle rounds is clearly on the table. It’s hard to forecast who exactly will be on the table this far from the draft, as we don’t get much clarity from inside the bubble until post-Combine, but to throw a name on the table I think Memphis’ Darrell Henderson is a good fit for how O’Brien calls plays and when the Texans will be able to justify spending a pick.
Wide Receivers: DeAndre Hopkins (star contract), Will Fuller (rookie deal), Keke Coutee (rookie deal), DeAndre Carter (ERFA), Vyncint Smith (UDFA), Steven Mitchell (UDFA)
Not much to be done here in my opinion. I understand fans are going to hand-wring about bringing back the same lineup because Will Fuller and Keke Coutee both dealt with long-term injuries, but they’re so good when they’re healthy that I don’t have a problem with it. Give them some real time to actually play themselves on or off the field. I’d actually be open to extending Fuller right now, as we enter the final year of his rookie deal, but I’ll write about that more at a later date.
I thought DeAndre Carter was reasonably effective after being claimed off waivers. Fumbles a bit much for my taste in the punt return game but he can fly and he can make people miss — in my viewpoint he’s a solid No. 4 receiver and worthy of the tender.
I doubt this is an area the Texans target in free agency or in the draft unless a screaming value comes at them. You could see some roster churn between Smith and Mitchell if they find someone who offers them more on special teams than those two did last year.
Tight ends: Jordan Akins (rookie deal), Jordan Thomas (rookie deal), FA/draft
I thought Jordan Akins had a fantastic rookie season and was puzzled by how little he was utilized, particularly when the team ran out of wide receivers towards the end of the season. Akins is not a blocker, but he’s a move tight end with reliable hands and the size to win the ball in traffic. He took some big shots and held on to the ball fairly well last season.
Meanwhile, Jordan Thomas fit into the same basic mold but was a little further ahead on the depth chart because the coaches thought higher of him as a blocker. Thomas, a former college wideout, has soft hands and should be an ideal No. 2 tight end for at least the duration of his rookie deal.
I’m out on Ryan Griffin — but, like Miller, he’s in the last year of his contract and I expect the Texans to keep him because he makes almost no impact on the bottom line. Griffin was a net negative in run blocking and, even though his most memorable incomplete passes included a lot of Watson’s lowlight reel, I don’t think he adds a lot as a receiver either. I’d be trying to find a more reliable blocker — someone like Nick Boyle out of this free agent class — who can do the catch-and-fall-down thing as well. Tyler Kroft is another name that fits. Just someone who can actually complement Los Jordans.
I have a special interest in Tyler Eifert because he’s a true difference-maker at the position and he’s so injury-prone that he won’t command any real money. That’s a gamble I’ll take to training camp, especially with the team having as much cap space as they do. If it works out, great. If it doesn’t, oh well.
Alright, here’s the big mess to clean up on this side of the ball. Kendall Lamm would be on my callback list, but he wouldn’t be a priority re-sign. I expect the Texans feel about the same by their decision to re-sign Seantrel Henderson. I would go ahead and release Senio Kelemete and Greg Mancz for cap space ($3.15 million). They both struggled this season in some ways. I expect in reality the Texans will actually keep Mancz. Kelemete, I could see it going either way.
I’d make Rankin a full-time guard, thought he showed decently in that area towards the end of last season when given a chance. Here’s the order of free agency/trade operations for me: in order, I’d pursue Matt Paradis, Darryl Williams, and Ty Neskhe. If the team was able to land Paradis, who I expect to be one of the biggest free-agent prizes in the league despite coming off a fractured fibula, I’d move Nick Martin to guard. I’d be willing to give Paradis something north of what Ryan Jensen got last offseason, a four-year, $42 million contract with $22 million in guarantees — a contract that essentially amounts to a two-year contract with options. I think Martin will play better at guard where he can focus on less pre-snap, and I think Paradis is an elite center that will help run blocking and pass protection. You can sub in Rodger Saffold if you like him better in this plan — Paradis is younger and I would want any good play I got from Martin to be a bonus, rather than something I’d rely on. I think you come into the season with Zach Fulton on hand, ready to replace Martin wherever. I expect the Texans will not do any of this and instead will let Mancz spell Fulton, Martin, and Rankin up the middle.
Nsekhe is my sleeper option to fill left tackle — I think he gets overlooked because he was stuck on Washington behind Trent Williams for his entire career. But every time he’s gotten on the field, he’s played solid-to-well. He’s already 33, so he’s not going to command a huge long-term deal. But that’s a play I think you make when Juli’en Davenport is your penciled in left tackle.
I like Williams as a low-cost gamble at right tackle. Williams disappointed for the early portion of his rookie contract in Carolina, but was second-team All-Pro in 2017 before missing most of 2018 to a torn MCL and a dislocated kneecap. I don’t think he’s who you want manning left tackle because I don’t think he has the speed for it, but he’s only 27 and the injury should depress his market a bit. If he were coming off the 2017 season now he’d figure to get $30 million in guarantees. As is, I bet he still does well for himself. But this is the one guy in this tackle class who I think is talented enough to actually get into a bid war for.
I’d offer some trade options but I think it largely is a draft-only thing when it comes to tackles. Teams don’t trade star tackles very often. I wonder why that is and if Deshaun Watson has any thoughts on that. 🤔
This year’s draft pool at tackle is deep and has multiple potential options that could make it to Houston’s first-round pick, but it does seem to be a class where evaluations vary wildly. Having not dived into tape and thoughts on the subject as often as I’m comfortable with, I’m going to mostly abstain from the discussion for now. Jonah Williams seems to be bandied about as the safest pick, if not necessarily a true top-10 left tackle for everybody. My “I’ve watched some college games but not intently studied this” opinion is that Andre Dillard and Greg Little make up the second tier of potential left tackles.
I expect the Texans to just sit back and take the best offensive tackle on their board when they select, unless they have a high enough grade on someone to trade up for them. My gut feeling is: three weeks into free agency any fan who was riled up about the offensive line last season will probably continue to be baffled by the lack of investment. If that doesn’t come to pass, I think the team will have grievously over-evaluated a tackle like Trent Brown.
In breaking on to the scene in an abbreviated sample in 2017, Deshaun Watson absolutely torched defenses on slant routes. He threw nine of them, completed seven of them, and had a league-leading 55.4% DVOA on those passes. It was hardly the only throw he was good at, and it was a small enough sample size for a stathead to collectively shrug their shoulders about it.
While I do not have DVOA for specific routes just yet — that comes later in the Football Outsiders calendar — I do have success rates. Watson’s success on slants in 2018 is still quite impressive: He threw 47 slant patterns, 30 of which were successful plays. He went 33-of-47 on slant patterns for 376 yards, three touchdowns, one interception, and 18 first downs.
So, cool, tidy that stat up for a Tweet that will get retweeted around context-free so that everyone can quotetweet their own opinion to it. “Wow.” “He’s becoming so great.” “I didn’t know this throw was so good,” and so on.
But let’s actually figure out why these throws were so successful — what goes in to making the slant a successful play for the Texans?
When the Texans ran slants in 2018, it was usually out of a couple different concepts. Against the Patriots, they started the season using the packaged play concept that worked so well for Watson in 2017. Despite the fact that Watson played poorly against the Patriots, it had nothing to do with the packaged plays:
Run-pass options ravaged New England in Week 1 — in fact almost all of Watson’s positive plays came off of slant throws. 6 of 6 for 74 yards, four first downs, and a touchdown. He was 11-of-28 on non-slant targets for 102 yards.
Naturally, that was enough to move away from packaged plays as a staple concept of the offense for the rest of the season. In watching every slant throw that the Texans attempted in 2018, I only counted a rogue throw here or there that actually came with play-action. I … well, you get nowhere by trashing coaches. But I will never understand why Bill O’Brien went away from packaged plays as a staple concept of Houston’s offense. It did wonders in 2017, and even when it failed in the small sample sizes it was given in the rest of 2018, it wasn’t because the throws weren’t there to be made.
Empty sets became a staple concept for Houston in the passing game this year. It gave Watson the ability to determine more of the pre-snap field, and the slant off empty sets in particular became one of the Texans “have to have it” playcalls. They called it with 19 seconds left in Indianapolis to set up the game-winning field goal in overtime. They called it multiple times against the Jets in Watson’s go-ahead touchdown drive. Because of how easy it is to manipulate the coverage out of empty, it takes sharp instincts to actually fight back against the Texans. That sort of play did happen in Week 4 against the Colts:
If Anthony Walker is properly occupied, this is a completion. But because he is able to read the quarterback’s eyes, he makes this play on a ball that’s not even thrown to his man. Watson saw Walker, and adjusted to try to squeeze it in before Walker’s throwing lane, causing the ball to head right to Pierre Desir. That was the one pick that the Texans had against a slant this year and it took a terrific read and, I would guess, good coaching on tendencies to be able to come up with it.
Watson’s accuracy over the middle was generally very good
When Watson was incomplete on a slant, it usually wasn’t by much. Keke Coutee and Demaryius Thomas both had balls in hand range that they didn’t catch — Coutee presents some problems being much shorter than Hopkins, and I don’t think Thomas and Watson were entirely on the same page at that point.
I’ve got another couple of routes I want to show off because I think they demonstrate other elements of Watson’s game that particularly works well on these routes. Here’s one against the Giants in Week 3:
I like slant routes as a second or third option for Watson because he seems to have good recognition instantly on them — he makes the read and attacks the throw or moves on. Here, under pressure by the Giants, he steps up on the money deeper down the field.
Then there’s this throw against the Jaguars in Week 7:
Watson is great at lofting throws — the Jaguars actually anticipate this throw to some extent and have Barry Church waiting in the flat, but it doesn’t bother the Texans because Watson just flicks the wrist right over Church’s head.
Watson’s most accurate throws come over the middle, and his ability to put touch on the ball can be a handy tiebreaker when he notices underneath defenders.
The Stat Dump: DeAndre Hopkins usually being the target helps
Hopkins was the target on 34 of Watson’s slant throws. 24 of those were successful plays.
Per Sports Info Solutions database, only 13 of the 47 slant patterns Watson threw were in zone coverage.
From the beginning of the season to Week 7, most of Houston’s slants came from the slot. From Week 8 to the end of the season, most of the slants came from the outside receiver
Nine of the first 28 slant targets Texans receivers had in 2018 came from the outside. Only five of their last 19 slant targets came from the outside.
Now that you know why slants work for the Texans, there’s only one thing left to say, right?
Bring run-pass options back as a staple concept, Bill.
I know you don’t like all this fancy stuff, but the personnel screams for it, and if nothing else it’s another way to help your running game. I know you love to pound the rock. Let’s frame it like that: it gives those box defenders yet another reason to not make the right read and instead give you an advantage. That’s what you like, right? I like easy throws over the middle myself, but we can agree on this, right?
ESPN is all over the Le’Veon Bell beat as the beginning of the offseason cycle begins. Both Mike Wells (in a bold predictions column) and Dan Graziano (in a less team-by-team focused bold predictions column) matched the Texans with the star running back.
I can understand where national reporters are coming from when they link the team and the player together. The Texans have $64 million in cap space before they decide what to do with Demaryius Thomas on a torn Achilles at a $14 million cap number. In other words, even Jadeveon Clowney’s inevitable franchise tag isn’t going to keep the Texans from having some cash to splash. Heck, releasing Lamar Miller would free up another $6.2 million in cap space — that can help pay for Bell.
Meanwhile, the Texans have been one of the NFL’s run-heaviest teams since Bill O’Brien took over. O’Brien’s default persona as a coach is to win with a conservative, run-heavy attack against any team that will let him. The Texans had an average lead of 1.61 points at the beginning of each of their offensive drives — to put that into perspective, they were ahead of the Saints as far as average lead. The perfect way to sustain a running game is to get a back for whom blocking barely matters. That’s what Bell has delivered.
In Bell’s last season on the field, 2017, he forced 79 broken tackles per Sports Info Solutions — the second-highest total in the NFL. I mention this because it is something entirely under his control, unlike yards per carry. He’s an empirically good running back in the sense that he was making something out of nothing more often than most of them. Bell was also in the top 5 of all running backs in the statistic in 2016, and likely would have been a leading candidate in 2015 had he played more than six games — he was on pace for 51, which would have placed him in third.
So in the sense of putting two and two together, I get where these writers are coming from and understand their rationale. On paper, the Texans should value Bell’s skill set more than most teams, and they also have the cap space to make it happen.
I think there are many reasons to disbelieve that the Texans will actually be interested, though most of them could be turned on their head by the ownership change from Bob McNair to Cal McNair being more of a shift than I think it will be.
— The team has steadfastly refused to spend big in free agency as a core value. Johnathan Joseph and Brock Osweiler are the only two times Houston has ponied up to sign any free agent, and the Osweiler signing was both a child-touching-a-hot-stove moment and, simultaneously, still cheaper than most quarterbacks. They’re a team that tends to bring in the Aaron Colvin or Antonio Smith-level player, or Robaire Smith for you older fans out there. — The team refuses to negotiate with malcontents. They got Dunta Robinson out the second they could after he wrote “Pay Me Rick” on his shoes. They traded Duane Brown for a second-round pick even though it made Deshaun Watson get destroyed last season. Bell was such a pill for the Steelers last year that I find it hard to believe the Texans would be comfortable investing in him. What he did in rejecting the franchise tag, be it his call or his agent’s, was off-the-charts crazy in a league where most teams want players to show up and be consistent. There’s nothing consistent about what Bell did. — Brian Gaine’s first year of free agency was limited to tepid splashes. Besides Colvin and Zach Fulton, nobody got much of a guarantee of being on the roster in 2019.
That isn’t to say there’s no chance that the Texans will pursue Bell — I just think it’s not very likely.
But, back to those broken tackle leaderboards for a second — let me show you why I wouldn’t chase Bell: Three of the top six players in broken tackles last year were not first-day picks or cheap free-agent signings. Adrian Peterson, Chris Carson, and James Conner. 2017’s top six included Alvin Kamara (third round), Kareem Hunt (third round), and Alex Collins (UDFA for Baltimore). 2016’s top six had David Johnson (third round), Devonta Freeman (fourth round), and Jay Ajayi (fifth round). NFL teams have proven to not be all that great at figuring out what a good running back looks like, and at the same time, NFL backs have notoriously been very poor returns on investment because the position only beats up it’s stars worse the longer they play. By the time any running back hits unrestricted free agency, he’s lost his best years. You want to develop Le’Veon Bell, not pay him.
If you follow me enough to be reading this, and are familiar with most analytical football thought about running backs, this conclusion won’t surprise you. Analytical football and valuing running backs are oil and water.
The Texans might have enough money to make Bell a compelling one-year offer (as far as actual guaranteed money) and see how he fits into things in 2020. Maybe even a two-year guaranteed layout could make sense. It kind of depends on how the Texans want to approach Will Fuller’s contract. But I would argue that it is imperative for the franchise to sign Deshaun Watson to a contract extension as soon as they can in 2020 for their long-term cap health. When you combine that with the negotiations for Clowney and J.J. Watt entering the last year of his guaranteed money in 2019 — maybe mix in something long-term for D.J. Reader if they want to really get frisky — it becomes difficult to see how the Texans can weigh their gigantic holes at cornerback and offensive line against the cash outlay I expect Bell to want and come to the conclusion that it makes sense.
While I love Bell as a player, and I have no problems at all with national writers “mocking him” (for lack of a better term) to the Texans, I think his situation is a lot more tenuous than it might appear from the outside. Football has mostly resisted the appeal to higher statistical knowledge, but I don’t know that there’s a team out there ready to give the Todd Gurley contract to Bell coming off a year where he did nothing but alienate his team. I could definitely see a Bryce Harper/Manny Machado-esque freeze coming for Bell. When you combine a negotiating team that wouldn’t even take the franchise tender with a slightly more enlightened NFL, it could be a tough sale. And that’s before we even get into the noise about the Steelers transition tagging Bell.
Inserting Bell into the Houston offense would give them a core of skill position players that would be among the league’s best. Bell’s past makes him worthy of a real investment. I just don’t think either the Texans or the rest of the league are going to be thrilled about making it.
One of the things implored on me often by angry sports fans that have Twitter accounts is that I am criticizing things that I don’t know about. You don’t know what Josh Allen is like. You don’t know that drafting this particular running back early is bad. A lot of sports writing from an analytical perspective is about empirical reasons to not believe things that fans want to believe — and well, it’s not conducive to constructive conversations. People want to be inspired to believe that their team is different. Often, it isn’t.
So today I want to write about something that nobody can tell me I don’t know about: My own career in sports media. I will pull no punches about where I came from or what I did to get where I am today. Some of it was luck, some of it was skill, some of it was timing. Each of those things have been both good and bad, at different times. This is an exercise in sharing what I learned along the way. Hopefully it’ll help out some people who aren’t sure about whether they want to write or not.
The early years
I went to college to try to get a creative writing degree because it was essentially the only thing I’d been encouraged in since I was 13. I had a knack for writing terrible things as a child and being encouraged to write less terrible things.
I suppose I should perhaps explain that a bit more. When I was a child, my parents divorced when I was 2. This created, at first, a dynamic where I was almost drowning in attention. My parents competed for me in some respects. As I got older, my father became more distant. He gave a kidney to his brother and struggled with an addiction to painkillers he developed from that situation. My mother re-married, and all of the sudden I had two ADHD-diagnosed step-brothers and a new sibling that left me completely isolated in my own house — and then I’d just moved to a big high school from an elementary school with a graduating class of two.
In some ways, this was a good thing — I became a lot less needy and gained a lot of perspective I’d otherwise not have. But it also made me chase that encouragement gap. I don’t think about how things could have been different often because it’s something I just take for granted now. But looking back, that was probably the impetus for all of this.
I only remember small bits of the early years of college internet writing, but I was baseball-focused in those days. I wrote a dreadful fan fiction article at a site called MetsGeek that got me on the staff and won me a set of DVDs. I remember arguing that they should sign Barry Zito. I was really in on those mid-2000s Mets, with Carlos Beltran and David Wright. The 83-win St. Louis Cardinals broke my college-aged sports heart.
I’d always kind of admired the idea that someone could write on the internet. In those times, days of internet sharing before we all discovered how to really be assholes to each other, it was rewarding to bask in that earnest energy. You’d seek out your niche websites and accumulate good stuff to read and think about. I gravitated towards sports more and more because writing what I studied was much easier than writing fiction to me. My most successful fiction story at this age was about Al Borlin building a balsa wood bomb shelter, and not a single character in it had multiple dimensions.
I dropped out of college a couple of times because my now-divorced mother had suffered some heart attacks. She couldn’t work quite so much as more, and I was trying to help her out as the invoices of her graphic design company became less frequent. Investing the money I’d spend on college on trying to make her life easier was a sacrifice I wanted to make, and helping her with some of the duties of raising my half-sister made me feel like I was repaying her for all the trouble of raising me.
I became aware of this site called Football Outsiders for the first time around 2006 or 2007, and not only did I enjoy the basic vision of it, I was happy to see football in a new light now that my city had a football team and a head coach that wasn’t Dom Capers. One of the first things I remember doing with football is volunteering to chart games for Football Outsiders, back before there was a Pro Football Focus or anything like that. I taped these games on a literal VCR and rewound them for hours. The first game I remember charting was the game where this happened:
I finally became comfortable enough with my football knowledge to post about it on the internet in 2009. I started my own blog, posted some game charting observations, and wrote just often enough to catch the eyes of the SB Nation Blog for the Texans, Battle Red Blog. (Mostly by annoying them with e-mails. Remember when you e-mailed websites with stuff you thought would be relevant to their interests?)
2010 and 2011 were years of massive growth. I quickly ran up from Battle Red Blog to SB Nation Houston writer to SB Nation Houston editor — I took in some of the advertising money that BRB got when I did those posts, and the SBNH posts were some of my first actual paid writing pieces. (I believe I never made more than $60 for a post on any of these.) The writing was good, but not great. I memorably can remember then-SBNH editor Tom Martin pulling me aside to make me stop double-spacing after a period. I also remember an obsession with nose tackles that was passed on to me via osmosis from people I otherwise respect. I still spent plenty of time charting games for FO. This was all work that I could not have done without a lot of privilege, because a lot of it was for free or cheap. SBNH’s editor role paid $800 a month, if you’re curious to know about where we’re at with that. Compared to the media stuff I’d worked on in college — assistant editing at a magazine and writing for The Daily Cougar — it was a lot of money.
One thing about Battle Red Blog and SB Nation that I still feel like I’m chasing in some respects was the ability to write about whatever I wanted. The further up the food chain you go, the more you have to negotiate every piece. Editors get involved. Site direction isn’t yours as you cater to a specific audience. I’m not going to tell you I’m some unique flower who hits all the right notes when I write alone, because that’s not true. What’s actually true is I write Found Jacoby Jones poetry. But I do feel like writing alone makes me more productive on a per piece basis, because nobody is stopping me from just letting the words come out.
Anyway, they were years of massive growth, but they were also years of massive personal loss. My father overdosed in 2010. There’s a long non-fiction story about driving up to collect what he had left from a trailer park in Hays county that I still need to write some day. The hellstorm that his life became, that I walked into upon opening his trailer, was a sobering moment that I think scared me straight from some bad paths.
My mother’s health continued to decline, and she succumbed to a stroke in early 2011. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything as painful to me personally as the night before she left for the hospital and never came back. My mother was a proud woman, who was always picking herself off the mat after bad things happened to her, over and over again. She was coming off another heart attack, had been diagnosed with cancer, and after doing some work for a friend she just plopped on the couch. She had nothing left. It never crossed my mind that she would die — and I don’t think it ever crossed her mind that she would die, either — until I saw her on that couch, exasperated with her state of being. She snuck in one last “I love you” on a gurney before a crew of doctors overwhelmed her. I was given her phone and instructed to call the family together. I never saw her awake again.
This was by far the most uncertain time of my life, in January 2011. I didn’t have a settled place to live. I didn’t have a plan for the future. I made that same $800 a month. I didn’t even know how to make scrambled eggs. I lived for a solid week off a huge portion of barbecue that my then-SB Nation higher up John Taylor sent me. In writing this post I dug through some of the old emails — it’s kind of ridiculous just how easy it is to document my mood swings from these moments. That’s what online journaling will do for you. But between my grandfather trying to kick me out of my mother’s old house, me self-medicating with food, and the uncertainty of where I was supposed to go and what I was supposed to do, it was a lot.
This was a tumultuous five months which then culminated with…
I’d been chasing the Bill Barnwell-vacated Football Outsiders Assistant Editor gig. I had no idea how many people were in the race, or what their qualifications were. I don’t want to say that Football Outsiders saved my life, because that’s kind of cliche. But … if I didn’t get this job, I was probably going to be working at Starbucks or something. I was probably about three months away from just taking any old job I could and getting out of the game at a serious level.
I came on with Danny Tuccitto and was alarmed when given the mailbag keys at the people I’d beat out for the job. Nate Dunlevy was one name I can remember. It was, uh, an interesting transition to go from “I edit a website that serves a very small community” to “I’m now writing reaction pieces to free agent signings on ESPN.com.” I went from making $800 to making $2500 a month, plus some other compensation that came with helping to write the book I’d grown up reading for most of my early adult years and other outside projects.
I took a few things for granted at FO. One was getting to edit much better writers. Imagine pouring over Mike Tanier’s stuff for three years and somehow not getting any better. The original roster we had at the time was phenomenal. I only briefly got to edit Doug Farrar. But we had Bill Connelly, we had Ben Muth, Tom Gower, Brian Fremeau, and Matt Waldman. And that’s only the people who were there when I first started, not even getting into other writers I loved editing like Cian Fahey and Matt Hinton.
FO is a family. I haven’t always kept up with those guys, but I feel like I could meet up with them anywhere and naturally shoot the shit. But when I was working there, our boss Aaron was dealing with some difficult times in his personal life — I won’t get into them here, but he’s documented them plenty well in the past — and after a few years I was looking for growth and not finding a lot of open areas. I wanted to apply the knowledge I had gained from editing all these guys, but wasn’t finding it easy to fit a niche that the website wanted fit. The result was I got a column that sometimes came out on Sundays called Three-Cone Drill, and it was all over the place both in the way I wrote it and in how it was received by both Aaron and the readers. To be honest, I was all over the place too around this time. I’d had a rough breakup that I’m still not entirely comfortable relating online, and the overall takeaway of it left me wanting to close myself off from everybody.
It was sort of a situation where I was looking for a next step, and I was getting frustrated with being held back. I understood why it was hard for Aaron to make that a priority — but I felt like I was dying on the vine because I wasn’t making the same sort of advancements I’d made when I was on my way up the ranks. I felt like I needed to get permission to do anything. I was getting jaded.
And that’s about when I got some feelers from Collin McCollough over at Bleacher Report kind of sussing out my interest in joining. I had reservations about joining an online publication that had such a bad record historically, but I also knew that they were chasing a bunch of other talented writers. And, well, as noted above, I like feeling like someone actually reads this stuff and wants me on their side. So, it was time for this…
I came aboard to Bleacher Report on a one-year contract for $47,500. That’s more than I’ve ever made doing this, and it was a first-class operation every step of the way. When I had acute bronchitis and could barely sleep without choking, they did not make me feel like I was doing them a disservice, and did not force me to the computer. I have nothing but good things to say about my main editor, Wes O’Donnell, nor the weekend editors Justin Onslow and Ian Kenyon. They had a writing coach on-staff (I forget her name and I think my Bleacher Report e-mail was scrubbed) who was a joy to talk to.
The problem from my perspective with the Bleacher Report gig became one of scale. I didn’t bring very much of a following with me. At the same time, something that becomes very true with every one of these big sports media websites is that there is only so much promotion that can be done on the company’s end. They can’t promote everybody, and when you pay big bucks to make your national team better with people like Matt Miller and Mike Freeman, the promotion deservedly goes to the people the company has the most investment in.
Another issue of that scale was that if the national writers cover something, you don’t want that duplicated. Some of our division writers got to write in places with huge economies of fan scales that had a lot of interesting players and topics for discussion. On my end, I covered the 2014 AFC South. The Jaguars and Titans were two of the worst teams in the NFL, and didn’t have big fanbases to begin with. The Jaguars literally started the season with Luke McCown at quarterback. The Texans had J.J. Watt’s near-MVP season — I think I wound up writing about 2-3 total pieces about Watt all year because national writers poached him. Then, we had the AFC South Champion Colts, with Andrew Luck being a witch and carrying an otherwise bad team through the Pagano-Grigsonverse. They made the AFC Championship, and got destroyed 45-7. Those were the two interesting players in the entire division and there was no real race. The only surprising thing I had to write all season was when the Colts beat the Broncos in the divisional round.
At the end of the day, though, I still feel like I failed BR in some important ways that I had to learn. I didn’t really commit to the company the way I should have — I didn’t Tweet my fellow writers’ posts often enough, I didn’t follow enough of the right people at the right time. I wasn’t very good at Twitter at the time, and was afraid of self-promoting myself, let alone promoting other people. I don’t think I totally slacked it off or anything, but I think a little extra effort would have gone a long way towards getting my contract renewed in a different form than it was.
As it was, they completely axed the divisional writing program — a smart move by them, I think. The only thing I think a big national for-free brand gains from doing team-by-team coverage is the small share of fans who are so married to the brand that they never look for other team coverage. As the internet becomes more and more ingrained in our culture, people are more and more used to searching for the content they want.
I didn’t take this well, but it didn’t really have anything to do with Bleacher Report. It was just a bad fit for my first real time writing for a national audience. The minute I hit this beat it was irrelevant and it only grew more irrelevant with each passing day. My audience certainly couldn’t make it relevant.
The Freelance Life
Without breaking it down to specific dollar amounts — because it would take a long time to remember and list out every company I’ve written for over the past couple of years — I never wrote for less than $75, and my high dollar amount for an article delivered was $750.
Freelance writing has overall, not been my favorite job. It combines one of my least favorite things, uncertainty, with one of my other least favorite things, rejection. I mostly wound up here because I was a terrible networker. I could have spent the latter half of my Bleacher Report gig trying to find real work elsewhere, but I didn’t. A lot of the gigs I’ve wound up doing have been people approaching me, mostly from people who know me in the past. I’m no different than your average football coach, just staffing with whoever has worked with me before.
I learned a lot of harsh lessons about freelance writing in a very short time, mostly about what kind of #content people do and don’t want. But, as I said with Bleacher Report, I think when you are only a writer, and you come into it without a big pre-settled audience, you’re at a big disadvantage. I had problems holding on to bigger gigs because they were looking at their numbers and not seeing the kind of metrics they wanted. When you’re freelance, nobody invests in you. They give you a couple of articles to see if it’s working, then tell you to screw off if it’s not.
Football writing tends to be a seasonal thing. When football season has been on, and I’ve been actively trying to work, I often wound up with seven or eight pieces a week. When football season is over, I have working in the Football Outsiders Almanac, I have done Athlon Magazines a couple seasons in a row now. But other than that, it’s usually been pretty dead. Hopefully that’ll change with some of my recent things, and more of a re-commitment from me to the cause.
2017 was the closest I ever came to just giving up on writing. For one, I had a new hobby that I was rejuvenated and engaged by: speedrunning Final Fantasy IV at a world record level. It’s been extremely rewarding to actually have something I can make progress at and see results in without having to worry about how someone else sees it. The time is the ultimate arbiter, not some impressions number on a stats page. I can pitch a hundred things I think are awesome ideas at companies and not get anywhere … or I can play a video game for speed with the strats I already know are killer and satisfy that internal desire to compete with people that I thought died with my YMCA basketball days.
At the same time, I just felt like I was going through the motions and not learning anything new. I wasn’t sticking up for my writing time, I wasn’t trying to get better anywhere. I got married and moved in the 2018 offseason, so that contributed to the feeling that I just didn’t have a lot of time to deal with it anymore.
But … I was actually super inspired by the challenge The Athletic Houston gave to me this past season. It was a paysite, the best of the best, so I knew I’d want to spend time raising the quality of my work. They chased me and even had a phoner interview for a freelance position. I knew I’d get a chance to actually cover games at the stadium, which was something I had wanted to do for a long time but never had much experience with.
I knew I was in for some topsy-turvy asks when our site editor was assigned to us after I came on board. I wasn’t the editor’s pick, and the editor wanted to do what worked everywhere else in his opinion — film pieces. I hadn’t ever done specifically a film piece before, but I was happy to accept the challenge. I’m not claiming I became Chris B. Brown overnight or anything, but I think I created a good body of work and learned better practices for creating videos. The fans certainly seemed to respond to it, and as I got more comfortable with the gig I think some of the best work of the season happened down the stretch. I was getting good quotes from players. I was creating things I would have wanted to read. I was really hoping that I’d be able to spend more time working on the videos for them this offseason, maybe get a full press pass next year. But, alas.
Getting let go from that gig wasn’t a huge surprise because I don’t know that my role was ever going to be a long-term ride there. They hired a newer beat writer in the KC Star’s Aaron Reiss, and I think they wanted a more established name helping to bring people to the table for the start of things. Aaron is awesome, by the way, and he’s going to slay the gig. I can already tell.
Anyway, being let go kind of inspired this. Both this post and this rejuvenation to actual self-writing on a basic-ass blog. Because I had a funny feeling that I lost somewhere along the way of all this freelance stuff and rejection: I was earnestly wanting to share things again. When I got the phone call that I was let go, for the first time in several of these calls or e-mails, I had no dread about the situation. I pounded the goddamn rock for The Athletic. I gave it my all and improved. And I’m ready to embrace that improvement again.
Getting let go like that inspired me to look back on where I’d been and — for the first time in years — get myself in that mindset I had before the helplessness took over. And no matter how the freelance stuff goes this year (or hopefully, no matter what happens as far as me getting an actual full-time gig) I know I need to make sure to write some things that I want written no matter how many places reject them.
For some writers it will be the money, for some writers it will be about the fame, for me it’s the combination of feeling like I’m in the sandbox and people I respect are admiring whatever I happen to slap together.
I wrote several times about the Houston running game for The Athletic in 2018. It was wildly inconsistent on a pure results basis. The first two games both yielded at least 148 rushing yards, then the team went a month rushing for under 100 yards just once … and then, they ran for 145 yards or more in four of their next five games. Finally, to close the season, they were held under 100 yards in three straight games, then had 134 against the Jaguars with Deshaun Watson holding the ball more often than ever.
One thing I wasn’t able to do in-season was look on a broader scope about certain types of plays — losing an entire day to charting a game is a tough sell when there’s only so much time in the season in which I can write. Thankfully, Sports Information Solutions can help us here, as they chart every play in the NFL season and even chart what types of runs each team uses on each down.
I suspect that if you are a fan of the Texans or have followed my writing at all, you’ll already know that despite the Texans finishing 26th in rushing DVOA, Deshaun Watson was a major positive influence on their running game. Watson finished with 89 carries, the second-most of any quarterback in the league, and a 7.7% rushing DVOA.
The problem with Houston’s running game isn’t hard to see, but I will bold it anyway
Houston Texans running offense by rush type:
NFL Success Rate
Yes, the Houston Texans were a zone running team that could not run zone to save their lives in 2018. The funniest part about this chart is that you can draw a direct axis to games they ran for 100 yards and how likely it was they ran Power — only 14 of their Power runs came in the seven games they didn’t reach 100 yards rushing.
While charting blown blocks is a highly subjective thing, and the Texans offensive problems go beyond just blown blocks, I think it is instructive to focus on Nick Martin here. Martin is the one player on the line that I think escaped most criticism, but he had more blown blocks than any lineman that ran zone for the Texans last year.
Per SIS, Martin blew seven rushing blocks on zone plays in 2018. No other Texans lineman or tight end had more than four blown blocks on all rushing plays in 2018.
Martin simply has to be more consistent on his combo blocks and with his initial get-off at the line of scrimmage. Most of his blown blocks are issues of hand positioning on the run rather than play speed. He gets his arm on an opponent, but not the full block — I think he also has a tendency to get a bit too upright when he’s on the move.
Another factor is an NFL truism that makes a lot of sense and is something the Texans will have to deal with next year: Zone blocking schemes take chemistry and time to grow that chemistry. It could be argued that when Martin passed off Steve McLendon up there, that he thought Kelemete would be in good position to make that play. That’s the kind of sixth sense about teammates that grows over time. The Texans core offensive line (Kendall Lamm, Julian Davenport, Kelemete, Zach Fulton, and Martin) had barely played together at all before 2018.
Now Houston is faced with another offseason that seems likely to be rife with change. I think Fulton is safe because his contract tells us he is. (He would save the team almost no money on being cut.) My thinking is that Davenport will not be an unquestioned starter, and that Martinas Rankin will get a long look at left guard. Kendall Lamm and Seantrel Henderson are likely to be part of a battle to start at right tackle. This is before we even get into how free agency and the draft will play out and who might be added besides a Davenport challenger.
I think as the Texans head into next offseason, they need to be a little more cautious with just how much zone they run. The personnel in place — Lamar Miller notwithstanding — wasn’t great at it, and it’s likely that the offensive line will all be learning how to play with each other again in 2019. This unit had most of it’s success running with Power and using Watson to get a numbers advantage. That’s where I’d build the run game to start with, mixing in zone on a good basis to get a read on how the players are gelling.
Unfortunately, this coaching staff clings stubbornly to what it wants to do, and it would not surprise me if I’m writing this same post somewhere next offseason. The big key is Martin — if he’s the linchpin of this offensive line, the Texans need a resurgent 2019 season from him in the worst way.
I’m a freelance writer and editor for hire with bylines at The Athletic, ESPN.com, Bleacher Report, Football Outsiders, VICE Sports, and several others. If you made it this far, and you have a say in a media company, I’m happy to listen to offers at rivers dot [email protected]
Nearly a month ago, I got to sit in a press conference where Bill O’Brien said the same thing he says after every big loss. The Colts had just destroyed his offense, holding the Texans to seven points. In so many words, it was his fault, and he’d have to coach better.
The problem isn’t that O’Brien can’t coach better. I have a lot of respect for the things he handles well, and he runs a locker room as well as any NFL coach as far as demanding the respect of his players. The problem is that there’s no actual accountability for O’Brien to coach better — at the end of the day, he is accountable only to himself as far as improving. He hasn’t done much to improve his game-calling or situational issues. The same old issues crop up over and over again. The team plays too slow in hurry-up situations. The team comes out unprepared against any head coach who plays against tendencies. The offense wants to play their game and never what the defense gives them. And so on.
Ownership — busy dealing with the fallout of Bob McNair’s death — has rubber stamped “good enough.” Brian Gaine’s done a fabulous job during his first season but clearly isn’t O’Brien’s peer as far as final say, no matter what the job titles would lead you to believe. The idea of where this head coach’s coaching will improve falls squarely on the head coach.
Enter Tim Kelly, a lifetime O’Brien assistant coach, who worked with O’Brien at Penn State as a graduate assistant. This post is going to be fairly critical of Kelly’s hiring, but it doesn’t have a damn thing to do with him, because I don’t think anyone can tell you how Kelly will run an offense. Kelly has never been an offensive coordinator at any level. Maybe he’s been a terrific tight ends coach — I don’t know of any way to measure his work from the outside beyond conjecture. He was made available for one media session by the Texans this year. Best I can tell from my Google-Fu, he seems to be trusted to take scouting visits for the team as well.
O’Brien has been a head coach for five seasons now. The only assistant coach he’s had on his staff that has received a real promotion from an outside team is Mike Vrabel, and Vrabel is more Romeo Crennel’s assistant than O’Brien’s. Most have either made lateral moves like Sean Ryan did in heading to Detroit, or have headed down the food chain or back to college. Pat O’Hara went from offensive assistant to quarterbacks coach under Vrabel, I guess. Wes Welker may head elsewhere for a promotion on name value alone.
This is not to say that Kelly can’t be a playcalling genius — maybe he’s a visionary and we’d have no idea from the outside. But the optics need to inform an outside take of this situation. Here are those optics: Bill O’Brien has never had a good coordinator waiting in the wings in his offensive staff, and he has promoted somebody who has never been an offensive coordinator before rather than chasing somebody, anybody, who could provide a different perspective. O’Brien has doubled down on what the Texans have already created, and offensive coaches have tended to flee his staff.
My read of the situation is that O’Brien believes he needs to have full control of this organization even though it’s clear from the outside that he is struggling with it. That it would be better off if he delegated some tasks. In the words of Richard Feynman, “you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” O’Brien believes it must all be on him, so it is.
We haven’t even gotten into whether Kelly will actually call the plays or not — maybe that’s something we get more clarity about once the hiring is official. But regardless, there’s not a lot I think anybody can be confident about with this move. If you want to explain it away from a place of optimism, you probably can. I’d just note that if the Texans hired, say, Todd Monken (to name one guy who settled for a similar job title) as their offensive coordinator, it would make me a lot more optimistic about their outlook.
A lot of a fan experience, I’ve come to realize over the years, is about expectations. What are your expectations for the season to come, and what is a reasonable expectation for this team? My expectations for the Texans are that they have so much offensive talent that, if everyone is healthy, they could still have a great offense even with mediocre playcalling. It’ll torch some other talented teams, and that will spark optimism. But my expectations are also that good coaching is necessary to beat the best teams, and nothing that O’Brien has done yet has backed up his frequent proclamations that he has to improve.
I’m a big believer of the idea that your actions speak a lot more to me than your words do. It’s easy to talk about doing something better. Harder to actually do it when you make no changes. Hopefully Tim Kelly is the next head coaching superstar and this post gets retweeted at me over and over again years from now. I wouldn’t bet on the process that created him as an offensive coordinator getting it right.