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.