Jadeveon Clowney should be more valuable to the Texans than Bill O’Brien

The Texans have tolerated Bill O’Brien’s front office politics. They have enabled him to run the team more or less his way without any interference. Rick Smith is gone. Brian Gaine is gone. Jack Easterby is in. This is the only team in the NFL without a general manager. None of the assistant coaches outside of Mike Vrabel has ever made a vertical move in coach free agency post-Texans, and O’Brien continues to hire lifelong nepotism candidates who have no relevant experience. Rather than reeling in an offensive coordinator that could sharpen his game, O’Brien hired his own tight ends coach. Nobody else in the “circle of power” has any hands-on football experience. O’Brien has convinced the only people who currently matter, Cal and the late Bob McNair, that he is executing a brilliant plan to turn the Texans into the Patriots.

While this has always been deeply stupid, because O’Brien doesn’t appear to have a master plan beyond the sound of his own voice, it hasn’t ever deeply impacted the Texans in a way that makes them lose star players. Duane Brown was traded to the Seahawks in 2017, causing an offensive line black hole that O’Brien has never shown any interest in actually solving, but there are at least credible sources tying the trade to Brown’s rift with the team over racist comments by the elder McNair. It was, again, deeply stupid, but not in a way that easily implicated O’Brien.

But we have reached a point where nobody else can be blamed: Bill O’Brien doesn’t want to give Jadeveon Clowney a long-term contract. The list of players who have recorded 20 sacks and 50 tackles for loss over the last three years runs four deep: Aaron Donald, Chandler Jones, Cameron Jordan, and Clowney. Clowney has been to three straight Pro Bowls. He was the only reason the Texans had any interior rush last season at all, because J.J. Watt was only permitted to play outside.

When you are literally the only football guy in the room, and you have $40 million in cap space and the franchise tag number to work with, there is no excuse for not signing a superstar defender to a long-term contract in the NFL. You either think he’s a superstar or you don’t, and if you don’t, you trade him before it ever gets to this point. That O’Brien thinks Clowney isn’t a star is, I would guess, probably about his lack of availability early in his career as well as him watching Clowney come into the league as an immature 21-year-old.

Let’s take a step back and reassess Bill O’Brien’s head coaching career

The most charitable way to explain O’Brien’s career is to talk about how he commands the respect of his players and that he makes good adjustments. When Tom Savage was found lacking in early 2017 and O’Brien had to commit to Deshaun Watson, he went all-in on Watson’s positives. The offense averaged 33 points per game, led by play-action, read-option, and attacking the middle of the field with Watson. When the team desperately needed a win against the Jaguars in Week 17, he went and involved Watson in a dead running attack and rejuvenated it.

But he never pre-emptively does these things. If his adjustments are b-plus, his default game plan is ruinous. The players that he goes out of his way to sign in free agency have been woeful for the Texans. Brock Osweiler was a boondoggle. Aaron Colvin wasn’t even playing by the end of his first season. Zach Fulton and Senio Kelemete made zero impact on the offensive line. When he did hit on Tyrann Mathieu, the one-year deal made it impossible to retain him without giving him a contract that O’Brien will never hand out to a non-quarterback. You all see how Matt Kalil is working out in real-time.

A game plan well-ground out.

O’Brien’s default game plan is to run the ball and play conservative. When the conservative game script does not shake out for any reason, the Texans lose. They are 4-32 when they allow 22 or more points under O’Brien. They’re 3-15 in one-score games in which they allow 22 or more points. Two of those wins, in both cases, are overtime wins. The clock management and situational playcalling have ranged from bad to hilarious at times. He was running J.J. Watt and Vince Wilfork plays down 19-0 in a playoff game. O’Brien will challenge a spot and fail at it on a routine basis, lacking the basic understanding that those plays are nearly impossible to overturn.

Of course, O’Brien often talks about how he’s got to do some tidbit — or in some cases, the entire job — of coaching better after he gets pantsed by better coaches in playoff games or random regular season blowouts. He never puts in that time to get better. Fans get the same shoddy game management and that same utter shock that anybody would ever understand how to beat the team’s default strategy season after season. That he finds fault with Clowney, someone who actually has improved a lot, is deeply ironic. Projection, apparently, isn’t something that O’Brien only saves for offensive linemen with bodies he likes.

I would submit to you that an optimistic viewing of O’Brien’s tenure throughout the NFL would lead to him being called average. He’s got clear, glaring flaws and, given how the landscape of the NFL has changed so much in the past three years between analytics and fourth-down play calling, I think even an O’Brien booster would have to concede that he’s old-fashioned. This discrepancy is only going to get deeper as more teams hire for fresher ideas while imitating success.

The future of Jadeveon Clowney

We need to start off by saying that the future of an NFL player’s career is extremely complicated because attrition is so high. Clowney can step on a faulty field turf square tomorrow and never be the same player. He definitely has had his share of injuries, and past microfracture surgery is going to turn off a section of his potential market that is risk-hesitant.

At the same time, Clowney’s peers consider him one of the best players in the NFL. He’s been voted among the top 100 players in each of the last three years, and, as noted above, he has a rare knack for blowing up plays in the backfield. Even the arguments that would rely on how J.J. Watt draws double teams blow up a bit when you realize that Clowney spent much of last season at stand-up linebacker because Watt couldn’t be moved inside. He was the more valuable piece for the Texans last year on account of his versatility, in my view.

If Clowney were declared a legitimate free agent today, he’d definitely sign a $100 million contract. He might sign a record-breaking contract, though that depends more on whether a team fully fell in love with his personality and attitude. The last two EDGE players who got big free-agent contracts are Trey Flowers (five years, $90 million, $56 million in guarantees) in 2019 and Olivier Vernon (five years, $85 million, $52.5 million in guarantees) in 2017. Neither player has Clowney’s track record or seasonal ceiling.

Because Clowney came into the league so young, he would have hit free agency in his sixth season at just 26 years old. Considering many of the best pass rushers in the NFL today play well into their 30s, I think he profiles as mostly only an injury risk. I suppose if you want to look on the pessimistic side, players who win with power and speed rather than technique tend to age swiftly. I think Clowney has developed some good technique along the way as well, but that tends to be an eye of the beholder thing.

Mario Williams wound up in pretty much this same situation, hit free agency, scored a six-year, $96 million deal with $25 million in guarantees that he saw 2/3rds of. What’s that Secret of Mana opening scene flying into my head to tell me? Time flows like a river, and history repeats. They even both went to Carolina colleges. Williams peaked at about 14.1% of a team’s cap — if you convert that into 2019 dollars, Clowney would have a cap figure of $26.3 million. That’s more than Demarcus Lawrence, who was not a free agent, will ever have on a single year of his contract.

The Texans finally were able to get over the hump as a defense when they drafted J.J. Watt and installed Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator. People tend to disparage Williams for this, but there were no signs that he wouldn’t have been a standout in that system had he not torn his pectoral. He’d already produced five sacks in five games. He gathered 38 in three years in Buffalo before Rex Ryan got too cute for his own good in 2015. Williams’ issues with being a “winning player” were more about Houston’s reluctance to sign defensive coordinators off a non-Gary Kubiak approved list. Sound familiar?

What does the future look like for both of these two?

It is, unfortunately, impossible for Cal McNair to realize that Bill O’Brien doesn’t understand how to make this team good. What O’Brien has done is isolate McNair from anybody who would dare question O’Brien’s football knowledge. Cal McNair isn’t going to read this post. He’s already invested a four-year contract extension of trust in O’Brien. This is a bleak future to talk about. O’Brien is going to go as far as the talent takes him, and he’s never going to believe in the talent of anyone who doesn’t fit his preferred psychological mold.

If you’re a player for O’Brien and you see him isolating Clowney like this, why would you ever expect to be rewarded? Is that the kind of example you think is a good idea to impress upon your young star quarterback who has yet to be paid?

Let’s pretend there was a person in the front office who had the roles we typically associate with a general manager. Let’s call him, say, a general manager. That person would look at the value that Clowney provides any franchise, then look at the value that O’Brien is providing this franchise. This would not be a hard decision as far as who to keep, if it’s one or the other. NFL teams take on the personalities of their coaches, and the Texans under O’Brien are conservative to an extreme in an NFL landscape that is quickly becoming about calculated aggression. Clowney is one of the most talented edge players in the NFL and, even at a market value contract, is likely to return three solid years of value.

That general manager would probably understand that Clowney has more value to the franchise than O’Brien does. And that’s exactly why there is no general manager.

Will Bill O’Brien’s plan for Duke Johnson be worth the price of admission?

I’ve been an unabashed supporter of the idea of picking up a real receiving threat at running back for some time. Houston had brief flirtations with players like Andre Ellington, but never filled the role, instead having Lamar Miller as a pseudo-three-down back while Alfred Blue played a series here or there.

One of the most obvious of obvious fits here was Duke Johnson. The Texans had cap space to absorb his fairly sizable contract (for a running back), and Johnson was disgruntled with Cleveland and their move to pick up Kareem Hunt.

I’m a huge fan of the player. I’m not as huge of a fan of the price. Let’s talk about what Johnson can offer to the team first.

On a pure X’s and O’s level, Johnson gives the Texans a legitimate threat to catch the ball when they go empty with Deshaun Watson, which is one of Watson’s favorite ways to play:

Johnson has the speed and skill to emulate what Arian Foster did for the Texans in 2014 and 2015, as the only receiver to ever catch more than 2.5 balls a game under O’Brien. Johnson, I would argue, is more explosive with the ball in his hands in space than Foster is. He’s also a more natural receiver of the ball. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from how the Texans deployed Foster.

Foster had a stretch from Weeks 5-7 in 2015 where he averaged over seven receptions per game. It ended only because he tore his Achilles in a nothing play at the end of a rainy day in Miami. (I always thought it was poetic that he hurt himself there and that he played for Miami given his first coming out party was against the Dolphins in 2009.) At the time, Houston’s non-Hopkins receivers were Nate Washington, Cecil Shorts III, and Keith Mumphery. It was a target void waiting to be filled, and Foster was the easy offense.

Foster was able to exploit mismatches against slower linebackers, and it gave the Texans an edge that they couldn’t find outside or in the slot. What I think Texans fans should be excited about is that Watson’s ability to loft the ball is one of his finest skills, and I think he’ll be able to guide Duke Johnson to space fairly easily:

In a best-case world, Johnson is a difference maker for an offense that focuses on how he, DeAndre Hopkins, and Will Fuller are so difficult to completely cover at the same time. He spreads the defense out further, he’s effective running out of shotgun, and he’s got terrific tackle-breaking ability. Per Sports Info Solutions, Johnson broke 20 tackles in just 87 touches last season. Lamar Miller had 27 in more-than-double the touch amount. If the Texans commit to Johnson as more of an every-down back when the game is close and leave the ground-and-pound for running out the clock, they’ve got the makings of a dynamic offense.

But, what is a more realistic approximation of what will happen? And why was that price so high?

Let’s assume that the Texans continue to start Lamar Miller because of seniority and he is still the main back on first- and second-down as long as Houston isn’t in comeback mode. You have cut how impactful Johnson can be.

O’Brien’s offense rarely throws to running backs. It bottomed out at 67 targets last year, and has been as high as 114 in 2015 when Foster briefly ran the show. But the context of those Foster targets is that the team had no other real receiving threats. Only three Texans on the entire roster hit more than 300 receiving yards that year, and the highest non-Hopkins player was Washington at 658. What the Texans are looking at currently is Hopkins, Will Fuller, Keke Coutee (if healthy), and a burgeoning collection of young tight ends. They’ve got a lot of mouths to feed. I find it a lot harder to believe that Johnson is going to be utilized like Foster was simply because the surrounding talent should keep O’Brien from trying to solve a problem.

We also have to take into account the rest of the context of this move:
— The Texans got caught with their pants down when they released D’Onta Foreman. To have no experienced depth on hand is a sign of poor risk management. Even if they thought Foreman was a “hard worker” coming into the camp (whatever that means) and liked his personality there, they should have been concerned in advance about his Achilles recovery and made a backup back a real priority. The “need” that the Texans had for a back was caused by cascade move after cascade move of poor roster management. And I think you all know who is likely to blame for this, because this team currently has no general manager!

— I think Johnson’s a great player, but I don’t think he’s a versatile enough to deliver what O’Brien is going to want from him if they run him in base sets with Watson under center. Johnson is going to come in through most of the bonding of camp and be forced into learning a new playbook, new landmarks with new teammates, and have to deliver on the fly. What happens if he fumbles twice in his first four games? You can’t really bench Johnson, but it would make total sense that he’d be more mistake-prone early on in the season.

— You can find 70-to-80 percent of Duke Johnson’s most impressive skill on the free-agent market for pennies on the dollar. Part of the reason I advocated trading for him is that I thought the Browns would be so fed up that they’d be willing to take a lower-round pick than he was worth. Ty Montgomery was a one-year deal. Darren Sproles was hanging around all offseason. Corey Grant. Jacquizz Rodgers. Theo Riddick was available for free last week. It’s not hard to find an NFL back that can do most of what Johnson does. You use that as leverage.

Instead, the Texans gave up what will likely be a third-round pick for Johnson (it will be a fourth-rounder if he gets hurt). That’s just a mind-boggling pick request and acceptance from Bill O’Brien. No back has gone for more than that on the trade market since Trent Richardson. I’m not a Running Backs Don’t Matter guy, but you have to have your head buried in the sand to not understand that backs are devalued and that you don’t have to pay market value for them.

When expressing this opinion on internet hellscape Twitter, I was immediately assailed by Texans fans that the Texans have compensation picks and aren’t good at mid-round drafting anyway, and also they had a glaring need. Well, here are my rebuttals:

1) That doesn’t devalue the third-round pick for everyone else,
2) If your talent evaluator can’t hit a third-round pick, one of the main building blocks of an NFL roster today, why is he still employed?
3) Might be a good idea to not get mad at your backup running back and release him before you give up all of your trade leverage!

Where I’m at on this trade is that the best-case scenarios of it happen in Houston’s worst-case scenarios. If Johnson gets hurt and they get to keep the third, that’s beneficial. If other players get hurt and O’Brien has to build an offense around Johnson, I can see it being beneficial. It raises the floor of the offense, and it raises the ceiling of the offense, but both of those rely on O’Brien finding the right way to use Johnson.

Without extraordinary revamping that we rarely see from O’Brien, I would be surprised if Johnson was targeted and used enough to provide value requisite to the third-round pick.

But his best plays are going to be fun as hell to watch.