The (Early) Returns of the Laremy Tunsil Trade

The Laremy Tunsil trade was, if not exactly stunning because rumors had been floating around for a while, a stunning amount of draft capital to see shipped out all at once right before the season started. And, particularly after the emotionally exhausting end to the Jadeveon Clowney saga earlier that day, it came right when I think most fans needed a pick-me-up to feel in on this season. Whether you think the trade was good or bad, I think you can agree that everybody knew that Matt Kalil was not going to be a starting left tackle for more than a few games before he was found wanting.

Because of the amount of capital shipped out, there was instantly a lot of pressure on Tunsil. Bets as bold as the one O’Brien put on him don’t come around often. What it also did was it set people on trying to figure out the deeper meaning of why the Texans gave up two first-round picks and a second-round pick for him. There is a lot of justification necessary, not only among journalists and the media, but among fans, in properly creating the narrative of why Tunsil was worth the ransom that he was worth. As someone who is more focused from an outside perspective, and saw the trade as a massive overpay the second it happened, it’s always fun to listen to the other points of view out there. Let’s go through these one-by-one, and hopefully I at least capture the spirit of the arguments if not capture them word-for-word. If you’ve got other arguments you want me to respond to, I’d love to hear them.

Laremy Tunsil is worth it because Andrew Luck retired after he got hurt, and you can’t risk your young quarterback’s health in today’s NFL.

This one seemed to be the most prevalent explanation for the overpay. Andrew Luck had just retired in the middle of the preseason, and the Texans were supposed to look at the beating that Luck took and realize that they couldn’t let their franchise quarterback take the same beating.

That argument falls apart in a few different ways, but the most important reason it falls apart is because study after study shows the two people who have the biggest say in a quarterback’s sack rate are the quarterback and the head coach. Just this week, Watson took six sacks, I would argue the offensive line played fairly well outside of Greg Mancz. It didn’t matter:

All of Watson’s sack/hit numbers are essentially within the realm of what he did last season, especially if you believe the Chargers game was an outlier caused by an overly passive defense. Houston’s adjusted sack rate of 11.9% is the second-worst in the league. Last year it was 11.6%. Watson’s quarterback hit rate has gone down only slightly, and in going down slightly it has still not come close to the 2017 numbers:

via airyards.com

The real interesting thing about Watson’s hit rate is when you compare it to Andrew Luck. See, Luck floundered about with what was perceived to be a bad line for a long time too. Then they hired Frank Reich, and Reich completely torched the system that Chuck Pagano had put in place, then made some in-house adjustments. Luck’s adjusted sack rate dropped from 7.6% in 2016 to 4.1% in 2018.

Airyards did not keep Andrew Luck in their system after he retired, so I went and counted out the hit numbers manually.

Andrew Luck’s 2016 season: 8.3 quarterback hits per start
Andrew Luck’s 2018 season: 5.3 quarterback hits per start
Andrew Luck’s last 10 games + playoff games of the 2018 season: 3.9 quarterback hits per start

The problem was: It was too late. Luck had already been broken.

We’ve seen Bill O’Brien run an offense with more concepts that keep Watson doing what he was comfortable in college in 2017. That was the year that Watson had his lowest quarterback hit rate. The head coach can have a huge impact on the quarterback hits by his scheme and the areas of the field he wants to target. O’Brien’s scheme is more conducive to getting Watson hit than Watson’s college scheme was.

Tunsil has not solved this problem because no offensive lineman could. The two people who can solve it are above his pay grade, which is a weird-but-true thing you can say about a guy who will probably get $60 million in guaranteed money at some point.

Laremy Tunsil will raise all tides along the offensive line by putting players into positions they are better equipped to play.”

I think this is the second-truest argument put out about what Tunsil has done, because all you need to do is look at what the Texans would have done without him. Matt Kalil would almost undoubtedly have led to Tytus Howard at left tackle, when Tytus Howard’s first four games have shown us uneven play at lesser positions.

That said, it hasn’t really changed a whole lot. If you look at Houston’s line as a whole, Nick Martin has been solid, but he was going to man center anyway. Zach Fulton has been … okay? But he was going to man that position anyway.

The player who has lost snaps as a result of trading for Tunsil is Roderick Johnson, who I would argue actually deserves to be starting at right tackle on pure merit. That’s no slam on Howard, he just was always going to be year-one project coming out of Alabama State. Howard definitely has higher upside.

But, I have to admit that Howard at left tackle would likely be a disaster, and Johnson and Howard outside probably gets you to mediocre-to-average at best. Tunsil has definitely put less pressure as a whole on the offensive line to perform, and that is an objectively great thing about the trade.

Laremy Tunsil will open up Houston’s deep passing game.”

There are definitely a handful of plays every game where Tunsil out-and-out locks a lineman down.

I think the best argument to make here is not that Tunsil himself is doing enough to make the Texans throw deep, but that he has given O’Brien more comfortability with longer dropbacks. In 2018, Watson took the fourth-most time to make his throws, with an average of 3.01 seconds per throw. But, Watson’s intended air yards of 8.8 was tied for eighth. He has cut that time to 2.92 seconds per throw in 2019, but with an intended air yardage that is tied for seventh at 9.8. That’s almost a full yard of increase, and that includes a game against Carolina where he often did not feel comfortable pushing the ball deep based on what he saw.

The interesting thing about the intended air yards in 2018 is that the number decreased as the season went along not because the offensive line was bad, but because the Texans didn’t have an easy deep-ball target. After Will Fuller’s injury, the Texans had a single-game average above 8.8 air yards twice: against Philadelphia in Week 16, and against the Jets in Week 15. Seven of the eight games where Watson threw less for less than eight intended air yards per attempt came after Fuller was hurt.

Obviously, we have to see where the Kenny Stills injury changes things for the Texans, but they were at 8.3 with him mostly incapacitated in Week 4. Will Fuller is still here. I think they’ll be able to go deep if they feel up to it.

It’s almost impossible to sit here as an outsider and tell you Bill O’Brien’s intent, but I believe that the Tunsil trade was about throwing it deep more than anything, and I think they’ve mostly accomplished that.

“Laremy Tunsil is a leader who will help Houston’s young offensive linemen grow.”

Uh, I guess? I don’t know a whole lot about Laremy Tunsil the person, but what I can tell you that has come out of press conferences is

1) Bill O’Brien says he “leads by example.”
2) He’s sick of talking about his own leadership:

I don’t know how to quantify the effect that having a good left tackle who has learned how to play in the league has on the young linemen. We haven’t really had any good stories leak out yet. There are no interesting anecdotes about him helping Tytus Howard fix Problem X. (At least none that I’ve seen.)

I leave this up to the reader to score, but I personally don’t believe there’s much of a leadership effect. Or, at least, not as much of one as people want to believe that there is.

Laremy Tunsil will be a dominant left tackle.”

Ehhh.

Per Sports Info Solutions, Tunsil has blown three pass blocks. That 1.7 blown block percentage is very good, but about on par with what he’d done in Miami. (Public SIS numbers are through Week 3.) Tunsil leads the team in penalties with four, all of them false starts.

Pro Football Focus has him graded as their 18th-best tackle this year, with a top-10 pass protection grade and a middling run grade. That’s a ranking I think feels pretty right. While the Texans in general have run blocked better than they did in 2018, they haven’t seen a lot of improvement at left end from Tunsil. They average 1.16 adjusted line yards to left end per Football Outsiders, and 3.49 to left tackle. Those are both bottom-eight rates in the NFL.

I will say that Brandon Thorn does this stuff for a living and believes Tunsil has played better than this snapshot sells him, putting him on the short list of honorable mentions for All-Pro.

My own evaluation of Tunsil is that he’s so physically talented that you feel like, watching him, he’s capable of doing anything he wants. On some plays, he does! He’s the guy who can get out on screens and get somebody from an awkward angle. He’s able to stymie good pass rushers out of position. He’s eventually going to be one of the best tackles in the NFL.

But I don’t think he’s played up to it just yet. I’m sure some of that comes from the sudden change, and the fact that through Acts of O’Brien, he hasn’t even played next to the same left guard for three consecutive games yet. Teamwork is important for a line and the Texans have been asked to learn it on the fly.

I’ve seen solid games, and I’ve seen good games. I feel like I’m still waiting for the dominant game.

***

Through one month, you can absolutely see why the Texans were so keen to acquire Tunsil.

But, I think the most important thing going forward isn’t Tunsil, but how O’Brien and Watson combine to fix the pressure in this passing game. That’s a nagging problem that the Texans hoped would go away just by acquiring good linemen. So far, that hasn’t borne out.

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