Is Julien Davenport a project worth fixing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t start Matt Kalil in 2019, please

He’s a fine swing tackle, but if Kalil is a starter, the Texans will be in trouble

There is nothing wrong with adding Matt Kalil to a football team. He has a wealth of starting NFL experience, and the Texans don’t have much of that.

Where adding Kalil goes wrong is in the expectations of Matt Kalil. Kalil is not the franchise left tackle the Vikings drafted him to be. Every season after his first season in the NFL has been a tremendous disappointment. You don’t need me to tell you that Kalil isn’t a star left tackle at this point. You can use the fact that he was released and the years of slagging he’s taken on the internet as context clues. The Panthers were mocked off planet football analytics for giving him $31 million guaranteed in 2016. Another of Dave Gettleman’s cringe moves.

The question is if he can be a useful starter. The factual record we have looks like this: Kalil has played one full season in the last three years. He blew a top-20 amount of blocks among left tackles in 2017, his full year, per Sports Info Solutions. He was terrible in 2015 as well. I don’t think there’s any way you can spin putting Kalil at left tackle as a good thing in 2019. Kalil’s at a stage of his career where a good offensive line coach or a change to guard is something to talk about. Perhaps he’s even just someone who is on the bench as a swing tackle. But, on a pure utilitarian standpoint, is he one of the best 96 tackles in the NFL today? Probably! So I won’t dig in on this move too hard.

Minnesota drafted Kalil third overall, and so he can “ride the ride” as far as baseline physical attributes. 306 pounds, ran a 4.99 40-yard dash at the NFL combine. Plenty tall. This is becoming a Houston Texans lineman starter kit. Every lineman they’ve drafted under O’Brien, be it Xavier Su’a-Filo, Nick Martin, or Julian Davenport, is physically gifted. Kalil’s issues are all about technique. When he has good reps, he looks great. When he technically messes up something, he looks bad. I want to dig up something that Brandon Thorn, a writer who focuses on linemen, posted on Kalil a bit ago:

You can see that Kalil’s punch is impressive — we’re talking about rocking back one of the best pass rushers in the NFL in Cam Jordan. But the technique is poor, and Kalil loses later in the down. This happens a lot from the video I’ve watched.

Here’s one from Week 2 of 2017 — The Bills and Jerry Hughes in particular pillaged Kalil in this game. Kalil shuffles back and tries to punch Hughes out of the play:

Hughes has gotten so far past Kalil that he winds up with only Hughes’ back shoulder as part of the punch. At this point, throwing the punch has put Kalil off-base, and Hughes easily bends the corner to finish the sack. Here’s a second sack Hughes got off Kalil:

Kalil tries to speed up his punch and get it out very early in this play, but his arms are way overextended. Hughes spins him, the sack is easy — this sack actually put Cam Newton out of the game. One thing that comes up over and over again in Kalil’s lowlights is losing the initial punch, either by losing the hand game or overextending himself.

The other thing that becomes clear to me about Kalil is that his lateral speed in 2017 was shot. To be fair to Kalil, he has dealt with a ton of injuries in his NFL career. But his get-off gait is very awkward, almost like he’s pushing himself off the turf instead of sliding. It takes him some extra time to regain his footing off of these push-offs. Let me show you a rep he had last year versus a rep in his rookie season:

Notice how smooth the slide of Carolina’s right tackle is compared to its left tackle. Compare Kalil against himself when he was younger and less banged up. I’m not sure if injuries changed this or what — I’m not a doctor and I’m not a head coach — but Kalil’s initial off-the-snap set was ugly in 2017. It forced him into awkward positions. A lot of his allowed pressures and sacks were like Hughes’ second sack — he overcompensated so deep outside that the spin lanes were open.

Given how Houston’s young offensive linemen have developed under Bill O’Brien and Mike Devlin, I wouldn’t bank on a major improvement from Kalil moving over here. The Texans don’t have Dante Scarnecchia.

As I said, I get it. Kalil is not what you want to see starting on opening day. He simply hasn’t put the tape together that would suggest he’s good at this stage in his career. But the signing on its face — veteran backup, has some good attributes — is not a bad thing. The fact that Kalil might be starting in Week 1 is the indictment, not the player himself.

A.J. McCarron should not ever matter to the Texans

Adding A.J. McCarron to your roster is like picking the nicest GoFundMe color scheme you can find. Like health insurance, there’s not a compromise in the backup quarterback world. You either have a good one or you don’t.

Quarterbacks who could actually keep the Texans relevant in the event of a Deshaun Watson injury were off the board early in free agency. Tyrod Taylor has a long history of competent starter play and has the jets to run options and keep a defense off-balance. Teddy Bridgewater re-upped in New Orleans and has a history of overcoming bad offensive lines in Minnesota. Those players cost more money than McCarron, but the Texans aren’t going to use all their cap space anyway at this point.

Another way to get a relevant quarterback is to hit the draft hard and play the Jacoby Brissett game. Use a mid-round pick to try and find a long-term player who could start, targeting someone with some real upside. I happen to think West Virginia’s Will Grier falls into this category, even if your favorite mock draft isn’t putting him in the first round today.

But McCarron is no different than your Cassells or Gabberts or Weedens or Glennons. He’s a tall quarterback who can hit an open first read or a checkdown pass. McCarron got bounced out of a two-year, $10 million contract last offseason. He was bad enough that both the Bills and the Raiders got up-close looks at him and decided they wanted no part of him. So why would a team pay any premium for someone that can be replicated for the veteran minimum?

You’ve heard that McCarron started a playoff game and did not lead the Bengals completely into the abyss when he started games in 2015. These are true facts, but that Bengals team was the pinnacle of the late Marvin Lewis era. Marvin Jones, the third receiver on this team, hit free agency and immediately got $20 million guaranteed. This team had Kevin Zeitler, A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, and Andrew Whitworth in their primes. McCarron was a McCaretaker, with plus matchups all over the field and a dominant offensive line. Andy Dalton finished second in passing DVOA in 2015, and he has never come close to hitting that mark before or since.

Spot the outlier — credit

To put it into a perspective Texans fans may be more familiar with, the 2015 Bengals are Cincinnati’s version of the 2011 Texans. It was the year where everything came together, a team that should have had a shot at a championship. But both teams were prematurely felled by an injury to their starting quarterback. And, unlike the Texans, the Bengals did not get to face the Bengals when they limped into the playoffs.

When McCarron hit free agency, he wasn’t able to con a team into giving him the Mike Glennon or Brock Osweiler Memorial Contract. This is not because he isn’t tall or handsome enough to pretend he’s a starting quarterback, it’s because he has no deep ball. To jog our memory, let’s look back on a third-and-13 pass that McCarron threw in the first quarter of Cincy’s Wild Card game with the Steelers:

McCarron had great protection. Marvin Jones won handily on the post route, a good throw converts the first down. This throw was not a first down, and, in fact, hung up long enough to dry laundry on it.

Well, okay, but that was one game, right? And it’s the playoffs, Pittsburgh studied him more deeply than most teams. How about we look against the Ravens in Week 17 of that season? What if we get Rex Burkhead lined up on a linebacker and created an easy throw?

It’s a consistent problem for McCarron. Even his over the middle throws sail a bit up. Unless he’s completing a curl route or a deep comeback, the deep ball is not accurate enough to help the receiver out.

One area I haven’t even touched on yet is McCarron’s pocket awareness — in his 131 dropbacks with the Bengals in 2015, he took 12 sacks. Andy Dalton took 20 in 406 dropbacks. If you want a more recent example, in the 2018 preseason with the Bills, McCarron took five sacks in his final game alone. Yes, the one where he mopped up in the final week of the preseason to protect Josh Allen and Nathan Peterman. McCarron is more mobile than a Tom Savage, but that mobility manifests in him sacking himself more often than the tools would warrant.

Listen, I’m not going to tell you A.J. McCarron is holding back the Texans from doing something important. I’m not going to slag on the guy for getting good work, he belongs in the NFL as a backup. I’m not even going to slag you if you heard of McCarron and thought that he was considered good! The national championships sway people. The Browns nearly giving away second- and third-round picks for him is a flash point moment in peak Hue Jackson. Add that to the natural dead news zone that is “quarterback developing,” and it’s hard for a casual fan to tell how good McCarron is. What I can tell you to answer that is that he was a fifth-round pick, an undesirable free agent twice over, and has shown no signs of average NFL quarterback play. None of the facts of his NFL career are pointing to hidden potential.

McCarron’s not a good enough quarterback to warrant this kind of investment. If the difference between his $3 million contract and roster filler was the difference between suiting up Rodger Saffold in Battle Red, it was a grave mistake to me.

Boddy-Calhoun! Fells! It’s free-agent scraps time in Houston!

OK, OK, it’s a bit of a mean headline. You try getting someone to click on a Briean Boddy-Calhoun post without resorting to sarcasm.

The Texans have signed two players since I last used my keyboard. Darren Fells, a blocking tight end providing reliable second-string work, signed Monday. On Friday, Houston reeled in Briean Boddy-Calhoun, who has played both corner and safety. Boddy-Calhoun was not tendered as a restricted free agent this offseason. That was a bit of a surprise to some outside observers, given how many snaps Boddy-Calhoun had played for the Browns the last few years.

In short, they’re both good depth signings, but I don’t know that either of them changes the calculus in Houston.

Boddy-Calhoun will push Aaron Colvin in the slot

Boddy-Calhoun went undrafted out of Minnesota after picking off nine passes and deflecting 15 other passes in his final two seasons with the Golden Gophers. The combine was not as kind. Boddy-Calhoun’s 40-yard dash of 4.47 wasn’t dominant for a slight corner and his 7.16 three-cone drill time was awful. It placed him in the seventh percentile of all corners at the combine.

Signed by the Jags as an undrafted free agent, the Browns claimed Boddy-Calhoun at last cuts in 2016. Thrown immediately into the fire in 2016, given seven starts, he did not succeed. He allowed a staggering 9.9 yards per pass that season per Sports Info Solutions. Only five players with more targets than his 49 allowed worse than that.
Boddy-Calhoun’s 2018 season was one of massive usage in some games and zero usage in others. His frame made him a poor underneath zone tackler against running backs — he gave up big plays to both James Conner and Jalen Richard in the first month. He was mostly used in zone and does have good get-off when he recognizes what’s going on underneath.

Where Boddy-Calhoun struggled the last few years was in man coverage when given separation moves. Here’s an example against the Bengals where Tyler Boyd dusts him for separation within the route.

Going back to the three-cone drill time, this is the kind of short-area quickness ball that is difficult for him. A better change-of-direction player would at least get closer to it. I also watched him take an absurdly long route to Daesean Hamilton against the Broncos in Week 15 by going over a moving pick rather than under it.

Here’s Boddy-Calhoun succeeding in man, against the Raiders on fourth down:

It was a bad throw, but the route itself was well-read and defensed. This is where Boddy-Calhoun excels. When the route stays stagnant after he and the defender meet, he usually stays with it pretty well.

Then, here’s Boddy-Calhoun on Mike Evans from safety. The play was downhill, and he read it well:

In short, this is a very Texans signing. Boddy-Calhoun’s got a lot of experience in zone, he plays downhill when he diagnoses something. He does delay a bit on some routes because he would rather not get beat deep. I would say he’s a better safety than a corner, but he’s undersized for either position. He’s a worthy challenger to Colvin in the slot, but not someone who will hold up to a season’s worth of man-coverage targets.

Darren Fells: the pass-blocker the Texans didn’t know they needed

Fells came into the league undrafted, because he was a basketball player. Undrafted by the NBA out of UC-Irvine, Fells went around Europe for many different teams before getting a tryout with the Seahawks. The 6-foot-7, 280-pound frame had a lot to do with how many chances he got, signing on to the Arizona practice squad in 2014 and becoming their No. 2 tight end behind Jermaine Gresham. One year with the Lions was enough for the Browns to give him a three-year, $12 million contract. The Browns released him after one season.

Fells was Cleveland’s No. 2 tight end by snaps last year, beating out the more-acclaimed Seth DeValve.

Houston’s tight ends were abysmal at blocking last season, but I don’t know that I’d say that Fells is an answer on the ground. He doesn’t get much push and he can get clowned around by some mediocre linemen. I saw Brent Urban stack-and-shed him to get a loss on Carlos Hyde in Week 5, and I saw this from Week 4:

That’s Frostee Rucker, who has been in the NFL almost as long as the Texans have existed. Not exactly a murderer’s row. Though at the same time, those were both head-up blocks on defensive ends. That’s not exactly an easy play to make for a tight end, even if Fells does outweigh some of them. There’s truth in the idea that at least Fells was trusted to make that kind of block in the first place.

I’m more sanguine about this being an upgrade on passing downs. Fells showed some good reps in that last year:

That’s a star edge rusher getting locked down by a tight end. This wasn’t the only time I saw Fells lock someone of that caliber up, either.

Fells’ technique is pretty good as a pass blocker, he’s just a stiff mover. You want him starting from an angle or otherwise not having to chase a rusher to the edge. When Fells wins the hand battle, it’s over. He’s clearly quite powerful.

I see this signing as more of an indictment on Ryan Griffin than anyone. He’s the veteran meant to bridge the Texans to Jordan Akins’ readiness. Akins’ blocking in his first season needed a lot of work. But I maintain hope for him as a weapon in 2019, at least assuming he’s not crowded out of the targets picture. The real question becomes: Is this team going to carry four tight ends on gameday? If not, who is the main man out? Not the two 2018 rookies, right?

I think a good team develops their own Fells and never has to bring in one in free agency, but this is a good reaction signing to a position of need. I’d have rather spent the roster spot on someone a little younger, like Jacob Hollister, but we do know that Fells can block. The Texans have at least guaranteed they have someone who can do that next year, assuming health.

In failing to reel in Rodger Saffold, the Texans offseason unraveled in front of our eyes

In 2018, the Texans got in a massive bidding war with the Giants for the services of Nate Solder. They failed to get the deal done. Solder was serviceable at best in New York, but the Houston offensive line was a cataclysmic sieve for the team, altering how the offense played on multiple occasions. They were unable to generate push up front, they were unable to protect Deshaun Watson on the edges, and that pressure cascaded into some of Watson’s worst mistakes of the season. Mistakes that could have made the difference between a first-round bye and getting trounced by a hot Colts team.

Rodger Saffold wasn’t my preferred target inside — that would’ve been Matt Paradis — but reasonable minds can disagree on the value of the two players and how Nick Martin would play at guard. Here’s the calculus of the situation:

  1. The Texans had more cap space available than the Titans, the team that they were reportedly against to the end with Saffold.
  2. With Saffold signing a four-year, $44 million deal that essentially only guarantees two years of play (guaranteed $22.5 million, most structured in the first two), the Titans didn’t exactly give Saffold an unbeatable offer. For the sake of comparison, it took almost $35 million in guarantees to land Solder. In fact, the Texans could’ve given Saffold more up front if they were worried about him being a long-term liability, because they have no salary cap worries to even discuss this season. There’s no way they’re spending the entire hoard of it right now.
  3. Every incremental upgrade means a lot to the Texans right now. Saffold displacing Zach Fulton or Senio Kelemete isn’t a big deal on its own, but the cascade effects of that — players having to earn starting spots, possibly even creating depth — are huge. Especially when compared to letting one of the best guards in free agency join an AFC South opponent.
  4. The cornerback market is in shambles and the Texans wildly overpaid for Bradley Roby on a one-year deal if you’d like another place some money could have come from.

Now it’s one of the worst-kept secrets in the NFL that the Texans are going to draft an offensive tackle early in the draft. They might do it in the first round, or they might do it in the second round if a trade-down materializes. Houston is very much an “our guy” organization at tackle and isn’t necessarily going to be swayed by the consensus big board.

OK, so let’s think back to the last time the Texans drafted a tackle early with designs towards putting him on the left side. It was Duane Brown. Brown wound up being an excellent tackle in the long-term. But he was horrendous in his rookie season, blowing 10 different blocks that led to sacks. Matt Schaub was hit so much that he only started 11 games, and he managed 31 of his 190 career rushes in those 11 games. (It means he was under pressure, Matt Schaub didn’t do running.)

Drafting a new left tackle is like spinning a roulette wheel. From all accounts it seems to be a good class, but good raw talent doesn’t necessarily play well right away. Brown didn’t. Sam Baker, a much worse left tackle from a career value basis, was much better in his first season.

So that leaves us with the question: What is it that the Texans are actually doing here? Is it ensuring that the cap space available is being used to build the best team possible? I don’t know that you can say that’s true, especially when they’re increasingly likely to have cap space left. Is it protecting the most valuable person on the franchise’s payroll? The only effort they made this offseason so far was to bring back Seantrel Henderson, who has started a grand total of two games since 2015. This is coming off a year where Julien Davenport was destroyed and Martinas Rankin did nothing at tackle. Oh, and Kendall Lamm is a free agent too.

We can talk about valuing players at levels and having limits, but at the end of the day value doesn’t happen in a vacuum. To one team, Rodger Saffold is worth $44 million. To another, he’s probably worth more. With zero returning good guard play in 2018, I would argue that he should have been worth more to the Texans then barely getting beat out by the Titans, and that the millions they saved will almost certainly not have had a better marginal purpose.

The Texans could have brought in a surer thing to make their overall offensive profile less volatile. Instead, after they bring in their rookie tackle, they’ll have a grand total of zero linemen that can be counted on to be good. Maybe they’ll bring in someone else in free agency who can be serviceable. A John Miller, or a Jermey Parnell. They’re not finding a player of Saffold’s caliber without a trade. Without the sure thing, all they’ll have is projections.

And in case you didn’t notice last year, those projections don’t always turn out how they did on the scouting report.

In adding Bradley Roby, the Texans make a gamble on tools over performance

You might wanna get used to this…

As the dust on the tampering season ended, the Texans swooped in on one of the worst-kept secrets of the NFL, signing former Broncos cornerback Bradley Roby to a one-year, $10 million deal. Depending on how much you want to emphasize his 2018 season, you can go from anywhere to “this is an acceptable gamble” to “the Texans just lit $10 million on fire.”

Let’s try to do the color before we get to the depressing clips. Roby was a first-round pick out of Ohio State in 2014, and he blew up the combine with elite athleticism. He was in the 84th percentile in the 40-yard dash among all cornerbacks, and he did it at 5-foot-11, 194 pounds — he had the beef to back up that speed. He was above-average in every test for cornerbacks, with his worst being the broad jump. Scouting reports emphasized his big hits and press-man coverage. Denver essentially had him as their nickel cornerback even though he mostly played outside, and he was pushed into a bigger role in 2018 when Aqib Talib was traded to the Rams.

Roby was fairly successful in 2017 under defensive coordinator Joe Woods, but I think in context that season was a fairly easy season. Roby didn’t draw many assignments against great receivers, and he benefited from seeing very few passes against the top offenses in the NFL. In other words, Philip Rivers and Tom Brady targeted Roby 13 times in three games, while Jay Cutler and Dak Prescott had 17 in two games. Roby’s success on downfield plays in 2017 was more about the situations than the player. Roby reacts very well to “see the underneath receiver, deck the underneath receiver,” as well as against fades. He was able to trap a washed-up Dez Bryant to the sidelines and out-physical him at the point of attack most of Week 2 (2017). When he reads a curl in front of him, he can be a menace:

The problems with Roby’s game as a whole were exposed in 2018. Given harder assignments without Talib, Roby struggled to corral the NFL’s best at the line of scrimmage. I think I saw about one pass at the line of scrimmage over the last two years where he was actually able to keep a slant in check. Sammy Watkins murdered him with slants in Week 8 against the Chiefs. Amari Cooper basically laughed in his face in Week 2:

Roby was mostly used in two roles in 2017 and 2018, both of which he struggled in when not given the right routes. When he played off the line of scrimmage, he was mostly in Cover-2/Cover-4 shells where he wound up giving way too much cushion to the receiver. I’m not sure if this was a design of the defense or Roby playing too far back, as I have no direct line to their coaching staff. But it was wildly ineffective.

In Cover-3, teams took Roby to the post over and over again:

Sometimes with disastrous results:

Roby demonstrated a lot of flaws in 2018. He didn’t read routes particularly well. His reaction to the routes, when he understood them, was slow. Especially if he was moving horizontally. He’s not a recovery speed cornerback, and is not the answer to Houston’s problems with speed receivers like T.Y. Hilton. He could not defend a slant to save his life. Finally, and this is more subjective, but I think he played really poorly when rushed or out of the normal structure of the play.

So you unpack a player like that and put him in Romeo Crennel’s system. The Texans played Cover-3 as a main change-up and ran a lot of zone. I think there’s a lot of work to be done with Roby in that role. He’s going to be fine on some routes, but I think there’s a lot of combustibility in last year’s performance. If you’re an optimist, you can point to the ankle injury he sustained in Week 8 — but a lot of the damage had already been done at that point.

The Texans are gambling that they can be a better place for these raw tools to express themselves. I’ve got no problem with the gamble, and no problem with the price because Houston’s cap space horde will never get spent. The problem is that I don’t think Roby is likely to blossom as long as he is placed against the league’s best.

Tashaun Gipson is a sensible, no-frills signing to stop the bleeding

With both Tyrann Mathieu and Kareem Jackson walking away from the Texans on Monday, the Texans had to do something about depth at safety unless they were satisfied with Andre Hal as a starter.

What came together on Tuesday morning in a hurry was a deal with former Jaguars safety Tashaun Gipson. Gipson was released by the Jaguars as an antecedent to signing Nick Foles, even though the Jaguars could have just released Blake Bortles to pay for it. I … look, it’s very important that we all pay tribute to the importance that Bortles paid to Jaguars franchise history, I guess.

Gipson is not exactly the same kind of player that Tyrann Mathieu is, but I do think he has some untapped versatility that the Jaguars didn’t get to show off much. Barry Church, Jacksonville’s other safety, was a bit too limited and I think the Jaguars reacted to his failures by primarily using Gipson as the deep cover.

Where I think Gipson can be an upgrade in some ways on Mathieu is that he’s a bit better against bigger targets. Take this play against Rob Gronkowski in Week 2 of last season where Gipson was able to use his length to disrupt the route:

Against the Chiefs in Week 5, Gipson made a number of big plays, including this undercut of a Travis Kelce middle-of-the-field route:

I think where Gipson does his best work is over the middle of the field. He likes the outside leverage a lot, and he’s got good instincts and read-and-react ability. In that vein, I think he’s a good fit for a lot of what the Texans like to do with zone coverage. I don’t know that he offers quite the same amount of versatility that Mathieu does, but he’s not far off. Gipson’s broken tackle numbers were never a huge problem with the Jaguars, so he can do some box work. I’ve got four in 2016, six in 2017, and seven in 2018 per Sports Info Solutions. Think of him as a bigger, slightly slower version of Mathieu.

In looking back at his 2018, I mostly wanted to focus on games where the Jaguars went against top-notch offensive competition, and then also the games where they got completely exposed. I didn’t come away from the exposure games thinking that Gipson was a main problem for the Jags. Single-high safeties don’t often have much to do about getting bowled over for 200+ rushing yards like the Titans did to Jacksonville. In getting destroyed by Cole Beasley in Week 5, I didn’t see much that Gipson was responsible for. He did clearly blow one coverage when both he and Jalen Ramsey carried the outside receiver up, leaving Beasley open underneath. But mostly he was away from the play.

To me the weakest points of Gipson’s game are comebackers. He’s got good positioning and recovery speed, but he’d rather give those up than get beat deep. I think he’s kind of overrated as an interception-creator — he makes reads well, but a lot of the plays that got him picks in Cleveland were broken, out-of-structure issues where he happened to be in the right place at the right time and make a good play on the ball.

The real coup, of course, is the price. Gipson signed a three-year, $22 million deal. That’s about half of what Mathieu will make for the Chiefs this season, and a remarkable bit of sanity that ranks right next to the Eric Weddle contract in the sea of overpayments early in free agency. We don’t have a full dollar breakdown yet but I’d assume the Texans probably get out after two years easily if they want to.

The other part of this is that Gipson, who was released, will not count against the compensation pick formula. The Texans have racked up two big free-agent losses to zero signings that count under that formula so far. It’s not worth digging too deep into this until we’re deeper into free agency and see all the moves Houston will make, but it would not surprise me at all to see them fade the expensive part of free agency and try to capitalize on the compensation pick formula.

This signing isn’t going to excite anybody, but I think it’s a good one. In fact, I prefer it to the deal that Mathieu got. If you told me that the Texans were going to bring in a cornerback or two via trade and really push the limits of the compensation pick formula, I’d be even more into it. But the full context isn’t quite laid out for us yet.

By the way, Deshaun Watson’s first interception went straight to the arms of Gipson in a coverage disguise:

The Texans did nothing on Day 1, and that’s OK

With free agency beginning Monday afternoon, the Houston Texans did nothing.

OK, they re-signed Angelo Blackson, tendered some people and kept their exclusive right free agents. But generally, there was no splash signing. The big Tyrann Mathieu re-signing didn’t happen — he’s off to Kansas City for three years and $42 million. Kareem Jackson also fled, to Denver, as I think we mostly expected. There was no play for Trent Brown, nor did they sign a running back, any offensive lineman, or anything that would qualify as a “major upgrade.”


The first day of NFL free agency is always wildly aggressive, with players coming off at the top of their market. Additionally, the NFL doesn’t have many true difference-makers that make it to free agency. While I don’t think it’s always stupid to be in the hunt for the biggest free agents, Houston’s top two needs are on the offensive line and at cornerback, and only a couple of the best linemen came off the board on Day 1. Brown, who became the highest-paid lineman in NFL history off of one good year under Dante Scarnecchia. Mitch Morse, who signed a four-year, $44 million deal with the Bills — I don’t think the Texans were ever interested in Morse or any other center, despite my desire for them to be. Then, later in the evening, JaWaun James inked with the Broncos later in the evening, for $32 million guaranteed. The optimistic view on James is that he developed in the past couple years, but he’s had a bit of an uneven career to this point. Houston doesn’t need a Jamison Crowder or anything like that.

On a divisional level, the Titans and Jaguars both spent big and may or may not regret their moves. Nick Foles is definitely better than Blake Bortles, but is far from a sure solution and made way more than he had to because the Jaguars got involved in “leadership” or something like that.

“If they had lowballed him … he walks into the locker room and doesn’t have the same credibility.”

The Titans splashed out on Adam Humphries, a former UDFA slot receiver who scrapped his way up to a huge contract. Humphries is a solid slot, and solid slots can make a difference in today’s game if you can’t cover them — but you can find those guys in the draft if you’re smooth, and not even with an early pick. This was a guy they picked up for certainty. It’s a contract that doesn’t keep you from winning, but also doesn’t actively help you win. The Titans had money to burn, so it made some sense.

The Colts took a one-year flier on Devin Funchess. They entered with more cap space than any NFL team and will not use it all, so the fact that it’s $10 million is basically irrelevant. Funchess in a new system is an interesting gamble and I sort of like him for how Indianapolis plays if he lives up to his tools — the problem has been he doesn’t always do that.

As for the Texans signings, the only thing I’d quibble with is Ka’imi Fairbairn getting a second-round tender — he just isn’t that important in my opinion — but it amounts to an additional one million and I doubt the Texans will finish free agency stuffed to the gills on cap space. Brandon Dunn and Angelo Blackson were both serviceable run-stuff linemen, and Blackson’s contract amounts to a one-year, $4 million contract with two $4 million option years. To put that into perspective, $4 million is about two percent of the cap.

The overall effect of all this is kind of stunning only because the Texans have Deshaun Watson, a quarterback on a rookie contract. These are, we’re told, the type of contracts that are supposed to give teams the ability to be aggressive in free agency and signing their own free agents. We’re (as I post this) 12 hours into free agency, so I’m not going to pretend we know the results, but I think you can couple this with last year’s free agency and forecast the Texans as a fairly conservative team with free agents, even if they did just narrowly get outbid for Mathieu.

I understand that we’re not only, to use Scott Pianowski’s nomenclature, a “hype-hate” society now, but also a “joy-panic” society. There’s not much joy to extract out of your favorite football team looking at their pile of cap space and shrugging their shoulders, so it must be time to panic. I’m not at panic, but I also haven’t seen any questions answered how I’d like them to be just yet.

Every column like this needs some small notes for some reason

— The Texans are being linked by credible sources to Bradley Roby, who I did not cover in my defensive preview. Roby fits the big-bodied cornerback ideal, but is younger than my preferred target, Morris Claiborne. He also is coming off an incredibly disappointing season in Denver. I understand the youth is part of the appeal, and i’d dig some tape on Roby’s 2018 season before I went shouting from the hills my feelings on it. But I would think this lends credence to the idea that Brian Gaine’s Texans are tools-focused.

— I think Tyrann Mathieu’s reported $9.5 million a year offer was more than enough from Houston, and with the glut of starting safeties on the market, I have no hesitation in waving goodbye if he found a better deal. I think Mathieu’s a good player and sensed that the Texans value him even more than a good one, but I don’t think he’s someone you break the bank for.

On the other side of things, I think Earl Thomas is absolutely worth rolling up the Brinks truck for, and would have no problems paying him $12+ million a season. I don’t think Houston will go for it because they want more versatility for Romeo Crennel underneath, and I’m not sure if they view Justin Reid as a player who could come down and play underneath as effectively as someone like Mathieu. Tony Pauline linked Thomas to the Texans after the Mathieu news broke.

— One deal I did really like, and think the Texans may regret not being in on, was the move that sent Kelechi Osemele to the Jets for a pick-swap. Osemele was bad last year, yes, but he’s also got a long history of being a stellar offensive lineman, and the entire Oakland offensive line sunk under Tom Cable this season. That would have been a move with little risk for the Texans — they have money to burn and the two years and $20 million on Osemele’s deal is chump change to them.

But the Texans are never active in these sorts of things — they seem to take a view that if a team doesn’t want a player, there’s something wrong with the player. A little aggression in something like that is the difference between the team that winds up with a solid veteran to fill a hole like DeSean Jackson or Michael Bennett and a season of watching Julien Davenport get beat over and over again.

Texans Retrospectus: Kareem Jackson

Following every other name in this picture out the door?

With the news that Kareem Jackson will probably be playing for a new team next season seemingly strapped and locked in as a consensus — hard to not feel that way when the source is literally Kareem Jackson — I figured it might be interesting to take a look back at his career with Houston.

Kareem Jackson was Houston’s first-round pick in the 2010 draft. I was relatively new to intensive football writing scene at the time, but I was not a big fan of this pick. I remember campaigning for Boise State corner Kyle Wilson, who washed out of the league in five years, in place of Jackson. I believe there’s even local ABC footage of me saying so at the Texans draft party. But, mostly, I wanted the Texans to take Tennessee nose tackle Dan Williams because I was sick of them getting pushed around at the point of attack — the Rick Smith Texans never emphasized the nose tackle position. (#NTLust4Ever) Of those three players, Jackson certainly had the best career. If the Texans were to galaxy brain the entire NFL and just take the player who wound up with the most AV between their first-round pick and second-round pick, it would have been Arizona tight end Rob Gronkowski. I uh, wonder how we’d view him differently in that scenario.

2010 was a wildly different time to be doing draft scouting. We have no real cornerback metrics to go on. At the NFL Combine, Jackson ran a 4.4-second 40-yard-dash, but otherwise was a limited tester. What he did have going for him at the time was an Alabama pedigree from the Nick Saban years, and most draft reports from the time praise his great size at 5-foot-10, 196 pounds — when they praise you at that height, it means they think you’re built like a rock.

In a post-draft press conference, then-general manager Rick Smith elaborated on what put Jackson ahead of the other corners for the Texans: “It was a comprehensive evaluation; obviously a lot of things come into play. First of all he has great skill and he’s a tough guy. We talked the other day about how you continue to add toughness to our football team and we felt like he (CB Kareem Jackson) does that. He has great ball skills, great speed, played in a big time conference, was a three-year starter and was a productive player. All the things you look for really set him apart for us. Obviously we had those guys sitting there, so clearly we had him rated as our guy that we felt could best come in and help our football team. I’m really excited about this young man and what he can do for us.”

All those positive vibes immediately went out the window as Jackson was less-NFL ready than expected. Jackson was destroyed in his rookie season. One name that I will always remember from this era is the time the Texans played the San Diego Chargers in November and Jackson was torched by Seyi Ajirotutu. More than a quarter of Ajirotutu’s career yardage and 2/3rds of his career touchdowns came from blistering right past Jackson.

To Jackson’s credit, a lot of players that get torched like that in their rookie season never become anything. He regrouped and improved … eventually. His sophomore season was also pretty bad, and he was benched for journeyman Jason Allen at one point, but the Texans made the playoffs largely because of what an embarrassment the unit was in 2010, when they finished with the worst pass defense DVOA in the NFL. This forced the firing of Frank Bush, the pursuit of Wade Phillips, and the signing of All-Pro corner Johnathan Joseph. (Oh, and the Texans also spent their first-round pick on some guy named Watt.) But in 2012, when the Texans sped off to the races with an 11-1 start, Jackson was a much-improved player.

Looking back I don’t think Jackson ever was able to comfortably deal with outside receivers. He got better at knowing when he had to use the recovery speed, and reading releases in general, But he still had issues turning his head and I think a lot of his improvement was about just being in decent enough position that the quarterback had to respect his involvement in the play to begin with.

Where his instincts improved lied in getting better at reading the quarterback’s eyes to begin with. Jackson found his first career touchdown against the Titans in 2012 by reading a slant to Damien Williams and jumping it.

Jackson was able to cobble together a nice little prime of about 2012-2016 with those instincts, getting better at his positioning on harder routes downfield, and tackling that was well above-average for a cornerback.

Jackson re-signed to a four-year, $34 million contract with the Texans in the 2015 offseason. I would argue that he was probably not much of a cornerback towards the end of the deal, as his speed declined. On a team that had deeper cap problems, Jackson might have been a cut candidate in one of the last couple of years. Jackson was always a candidate to move to safety given his excellent tackling and run defense, but the Texans never took a stand on it until 2018. Then, naturally, every cornerback on the roster battled injuries to some extent and Jackson was forced into playing outside. Jackson had one of his best seasons in the NFL, but it was a little obscured by poor quarterback play, as his speed was never greatly tested in the regular season. Still, he showcased plenty as a short-area DB that should leave teams looking for a good safety or perhaps even a dime linebacker intrigued:

Against a real quarterback like Andrew Luck in the 2018 AFC Divisional Round, Jackson’s lack of speed was exposed by another journeyman Chargers wideout: Dontrelle Inman. Inman caught 4-of-4 balls for 51 yards, a touchdown, a DPI, and a holding penalty. He’s simply not an outside corner at this stage of his career, unfortunately.

Jackson’s career arc is rather complex, but I think what we can say about him for sure is that he was always a bit stretched as an outside cornerback. He was able to figure out how to deal with that more as he learned more about NFL football, but I think the importance of Johnathan Joseph taking the No. 1 role and a lot of mediocre-to-bad AFC South passing offenses helped him look a bit better than he actually was.

If a player like this were coming out of college today, I think he’d be more of a third- or fourth-round pick candidate, mostly because I think his flaws would have been more evident on tape than they were in the turn-of-the-century SEC. (Alabama pedigree definitely would have helped him regardless.) Still, with his tackling ability, the developed skill of reading the quarterback’s eyes, and his skill at breaking on his reads, Jackson was a solid NFL player for a long time. No shame in picking a player like that with a first-round pick. Almost all of the consternation about Jackson has come from asking him to do more than he knew how to handle, and he handled that like a true professional.

That time J.J. Watt kicked Drew Brees’ ass

When I was pitching things at The Athletic Houston there were very few pieces I wrote that I felt were left on the vine, so to speak. The one that I deeply remember, and I would bet was held back because the tone of the piece wound up being so negative, was looking back at the causes of Bill O’Brien’s record when winning at halftime.

O’Brien’s Texans are 32-2 when leading at halftime. Sounds like the Texans are closers, right? But really it was more an expression of the teams they played and O’Brien’s run-heavy program actually working. They’d jump on bad teams with bad quarterback play and run them out of the building. The average lead over the course of those games at halftime was 13.5 points, and the average offensive DVOA of the teams they faced in those games was 21.9th. Here are four of the five times they played an offense that was top 10 in DVOA: Week 16, 2014 against the Ravens (Joe Flacco, ninth). Week 4, 2016 against the Titans (Marcus Mariota, ninth). Wild Card round, 2016 against the Raiders (Connor Cook, so this shouldn’t actually count, ninth). Week 4, 2018, against the Colts (Andrew Luck, tenth).

The data for that article didn’t support a conclusion that was fun and happy. It supported a conclusion that the Texans bullied bad quarterbacks for their lunch money. Hell, Zach Mettenberger and Blake Bortles account for 10 of those wins all on their own!

Just some of the research I’d been doing here…

But rather than re-creating that article and skewering O’Brien, I wanted to look at the one time the Texans actually did hold down a top quarterback and how that happened. First, for context for the non-Texans fans: Houston’s record against AFC royalty quarterbacks is abysmal. They beat Tom Brady in 2010 with the “2009 playoffs” on the line in Week 17, only to have the Bengals lay down and let the Jets win since Cincinnati had nothing to play for. Brady is 7-1 against the Texans. They beat Peyton Manning twice as Colts quarterback — once when Arian Foster ran for 230 yards, and a second time when Ron Dayne ran for 150 yards. Manning went 17-3 against the Texans. Ben Roethlisberger’s Steelers are 4-1 against the Texans. Heck, if you want to expand it to Philip Rivers, he’s 3-1 against the Texans. That’s 31-6 combined between the four teams, or about as awe-inspiring a stat as O’Brien’s halftime record when winning.

But the one time in the O’Brien era that the team showed some mettle and shut down a top quarterback is in 2015, when Drew Brees’ Saints came to town in Week 11 and scored six points. Six!

An actual good quarterback was held down by the Texans, yes.

The Saints were 4-6 and still the Texans only received the customary three-point home favorite checkmark to say that they were essentially even teams. New Orleans was going through the defensive nightmare portion of their rollercoaster with Brees, this was year two of the Jairus Byrd all-in disappointment era, with Stephone Anthony at middle linebacker. The Saints were last in defensive DVOA by almost 15%, at 26.1% compared to Chicago’s 11.3%. Chicago was closer to 11th-place Pittsburgh (-3.8%) than they were to New Orleans.

But they still had a vaunted pass offense. And J.J. Watt destroyed it. The Saints had just 5.18 yards per attempt, and Watt had eight quarterback hits by himself. Brees targeted Mark Ingram seven times on dumpoffs or screens, and C.J. Spiller one additional time, just trying to slow the pass rush a little bit.

New Orleans went 2-of-6 throwing the ball deep in this game, one of them was a back-shoulder ball on Cover-4 in front of Kevin Johnson, where Brees had to freeze Watt with a pump-fake to not get the ball tipped at the line.

Down 24-6 with 13 minutes in the fourth quarter, the Saints threw downfield three straight times. Brees’ first ball went at Eddie Pleasant, not Andre Hal like my dumb face wrote on Twitter, who was just a little too late recognizing a ball that would probably have been interceptable if he’d read it

Then on the next play, Watt got payback on the Saints. He disrupted the play by beating Jahri Evans inside, forcing Brees to move out of the pocket and throw the ball away.

On second-and-10, the Texans send a blitz, Kareem Jackson jumped a post to Brandin Cooks, intercepting the ball and ending the game for all intents and purposes.

Watt has had better games statistically in his career. In fact, he had another game that same month with 10 quarterback hits, 2.5 sacks, and a forced fumble. But it was against Mettenberger. I would argue that this game was Watt at his absolute peak, and he had to be a complete monster to run with this offensive line against this quarterback and do as much as he did. Look at what Brees and the Saints had to do to get anything going downfield against him.

I would also argue that it says a lot about the quality of this defense scheme against great quarterbacks that it took this kind of game to beat one.