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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Retrospectus: The 2014 top-of-draft debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why my Texans war room would target Andre Dillard

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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