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.

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