A Statistical Look at Potential Texans Veteran Pass Rush Options

I’m going to start this with a belief: I don’t think the Texans are going to make a move for any actual pass rush in free agency. I think when they signed Whitney Mercilus they valued him as a core member of the team for the next two years, and I think the obvious solution is to draft somebody in the second or third round, then let that pick, Jacob Martin, and Charles Omenihu fight to see who takes over Mercilus’ role by 2021.

But let’s approach this from a blank slate. Here’s how our pass rush splits look for Mercilus, J.J. Watt, Martin, and Omenihu over the last three years:

If you pull up a list of free agents, it’s easy to fawn over the top guys. I don’t think the top guys are going to actually make it to real free agency and that leaves me with some tough decisions about who to feature versus who to not feature. My belief is that Shaq Barrett will be franchised and that he’s a lock to stay in Tampa Bay. My belief is that Yannick Ngakoue is going to be franchised as well, though I think that situation could get ugly enough to where Ngakoue gets traded. That’s an eye-raiser to me — Bill O’Brien has shown no interest in making his draft picks and I think he’d consider Ngakoue a building block ala Laremy Tunsil. The question is simply if the Texans are willing to pay what Ngakoue thinks his market is. I’d speculate you could probably get that done if you parted with your second-round pick, and maybe a bit more.

A-List, No. 1 guys who are probably not coming here:

We all know why Jadeveon Clowney isn’t coming back. That horse is so dead that White Walkers would have trouble re-assembling the bones to re-animate it. Barrett is 27, Clowney 27, and Ngakoue is just 25.

Fool’s Gold

These two players both worry me because I think they fall into blind spots for Bill O’Brien: First-round pick pedigree has tended to be a big deal for BOB, and each of them is coming off a career year. Lawson is the more preferable of the two options to me, but I have a lot of respect for Sean McDermott and would expect Lawson to have more trouble in Anthony Weaver’s scheme. Dupree’s defense popped off as soon as Minkah Fitzpatrick joined, and it led to a sack explosion for him. In the long view, these are both solid second banana rushers — but they’re going to be paid like No. 1 players in my view.

My favorite fits

Bold – I used his Jaguars stats instead of his full-season stats, not counting mid-season change against him

Judon is a tough evaluation. On pure numbers, he’s up there with the best of the class, but Baltimore’s heavy-pressure system also means he’s not lining up and beating his man over and over again on all of those pressures. I think it’s fairly likely he draws a tag, but I wanted to mention him just in case.

Fowler and Armstead are funny to me because Armstead stays extremely close to Fowler on a statistical level and still plays inside. Because of his ability to satisfy a 3-4 end position, I think Armstead probably bumps up a notch on the Texans own preference chart, and I think that makes him an ideal fit. Armstead was also already playing well before the 49ers defense became dominant, which I think helps forecast him to being a solid fit in Houston’s defense.

Fowler is coming off the fabled 10-sack season that Jadeveon Clowney never got, but I can’t imagine he’ll come cheap enough for that to matter to the Texans. Pass rushers get paid, and the second Mercilus inked that extension, I think it ruled the Texans out of a player like this. But I love the fit, and so he’s a favorite fit.

Old players and the Texans under Bill O’Brien

Every single player that the Texans have signed as a real-dollar free agent since 2015 (or traded for, even) has been under 30. The closest to being over 30 was Matt Kalil, who at 29 was an extremely desperate move to a position of need. Vince Wilfork happened in 2015.

I happen to think that aging players are a great way to supplement the core at edge rusher — Robert Quinn is coming off a terrific season in which he led the NFL in ESPN’s pass-rush win rate. I was quite intrigued by Bill Barnwell mentioning in his look at the NFC East that Ryan Kerrigan might be traded for — I think he’d be an a-plus get for the Texans, even coming off a season where he missed four games.

But obviously I’m not going to project the Texans to wind up with anyone in this age bracket because they haven’t gone there in five years, and there’s very little happening in the front office that should make you think they’ll suddenly be changing their ways on that.

Value players I could see the Texans taking a chance on

Vic Beasley is 27 and has 37.5 sacks in his last four seasons, including a 7.9% hurry rate and a 10.1% pressure rate. Those numbers stack up pretty well with most impact free agents, yet he’s got the stink because he wasn’t a 1A rusher in Atlanta like they drafted him to be. I think he’s a good buy-low candidate.

Jordan Jenkins is just 25, but notched 15 sacks over the last two seasons despite starting only 23 games. With a career pressure rate of 10.4% and a career hurry rate of 7.5%, he’s another guy who I think is getting a bit overlooked because he’s coming from a bad situation. He’s only a former third-round pick though, so will O’Brien even dignify his presence?

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The Carlos Hyde Conundrum

Carlos Hyde had, by all normal respects, a traditionally successful year for the Houston Texans. He rushed for 1,000 yards for the first time in in his NFL career, averaged 4.4 yards per carry despite a career-high number of carries, and played exactly 50% of the offensive snaps. He was a big part of Houston’s offensive identity in 2019, and he started off hot.

The problem was that, after the hot start, Hyde didn’t really do much to elevate the offense. He’s a stellar back with great vision, he’s got the ability to run out of arm tackles, but he doesn’t have breakaway speed and he’s not going to evade people in the open field. When he was used as part of a Deshaun Watson-focused game plan where teams had to respect Watson as a runner, he excelled. When he was asked to plod into the line with inside zone, he was usually dispelled. From the bye week on, when Hyde ran inside zone per Sports Info Solutions, he gained 3.1 yards per carry on 52 attempts. Just one of those attempts gained more than 10 yards. He also fumbled four times:

RB table courtesy Football Outsiders

Only 20 NFL running backs reached 200 carries last year, and I imagine if we were ranking them out on pure talent, Hyde going on 30 years old probably isn’t in the top 15. I’d say he’s better than Sony Michel, who has been a bust for the Patriots. I’d say he’s better than David Montgomery to this point in Montgomery’s career. You can probably give me a few other “I dunno, (Le’Veon Bell) has been slipping for a while…” players as well. But generally speaking, guys who are the focal point of your offense are supposed to be better than Carlos Hyde. You give 200 carries to Saquon Barkley or Aaron Jones. I think Hyde is a better fit as a goal-line back or in a less-impactful role than he had last year — and I’m saying this as someone who has plenty of respect for Hyde’s overall game.

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Hyde wants to come back to the Texans and the Texans shouldn’t be particularly bothered by meeting Hyde’s demands. The running back market has tanked, and the teams that are willing to pay for one aren’t going to pay for one with as much mileage as Hyde has. So, practically speaking, I think I’ve chalked this one up as a keep for the Texans. There’s not a logical reason to replace Hyde unless you can get someone clearly better, and the only player hitting free agency who I think is clearly better than Hyde in a Hyde-shaped role (early downs, goal-line, run-heavy sets) is Derrick Henry. I could see an argument for Melvin Gordon, though I think a lot of his value comes from the fact that he gets used in the passing game.

The shadow of Duke Johnson looms over Houston’s running game in an interesting way. Johnson is clearly a fantastic tackle-breaking back, the Texans have committed to him for the long-term by dealing a third-round pick for him. Johnson has been successful at every opportunity despite block-reading not being a big strength for him. But at the same time, no coaching staff so far has been comfortable letting Johnson be the lead dog of a committee. Bill O’Brien didn’t even scratch the surface of what Johnson could do in this offense in my opinion.

Therein lies the innate problem: It might not be logical to want someone better than Carlos Hyde — speaking purely on an analytical level, it would be downright idiotic to spend limited resources that the defense needs on that. But if next year’s offense comes back with no changes, one of the best ways to improve the offense is to find a player that’s more explosive than Hyde to take those carries, be it Henry, a high-round pick in an NFL draft that has devalued stud backs, or someone else. If you look at the other positions on this offense, everything is more or less locked in by money or draft position except right guard, tight end, and starting running back.

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There’s a certain part of me that believes that the Texans are so far in on Bill O’Brien that they might as well just let it all ride. And that side of me thinks that if the Texans are going to run their offense like they did last year, they might as well pony up a competitive offer to Derrick Henry. Running back is a market where a lot of teams are playing scared, so you might get a bit of a discount, and you’d also be robbing the Titans of their bread-and-butter offensive player at the same time. If you want to run into eight-man boxes, get the guy who ran into them 112 times and still averaged 4.35 yards per attempt (per SIS) rather than this guy:

As dumb and pointless as I think quite a lot of O’Brien’s early-down runs are, they become a little more understandable when you put someone like Henry in the backfield. At that point, they no longer become sustaining offense, but offer home-run elements in their own ways. Of course, I say this and Duke Johnson had a higher broken tackle rate than Henry did last year. But unless O’Brien is willing to rethink how he uses his backs, I can think of very few things that would upgrade this offense more than putting the ball in an actual elite back’s hands.

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When I think of Carlos Hyde’s 2019 season, I think of found money. He was traded over here at last cuts and performed incredibly well at times. After watching Alfred Blue play running back for five years, anybody who can read a blocking scheme is a hero in my eyes. The only negative in my eyes was taking Arian Foster’s jersey number, and that’s not something he had ultimate control over. I also want to be clear that nothing I have heard so far has made me think that the Texans don’t plan on re-signing Hyde.

But I do think if the Texans sign in to 230 more carries from Hyde next year, they’re going to regret the decision to make him a focal point of the offense. He’s just not that level of player, and he can’t handle that kind of snap count without his lack of flexibility hurting you in a meaningful way.

Ultimately, that’s more a function of how O’Brien uses his backs more than it is about Hyde. But that war is long and gone, and we have to approach this offseason with the idea that you have to build everything around O’Brien. If GM O’Brien doesn’t idiot-proof running the ball for coach O’Brien, our plural O’Brienmen might be less than pleased by the results.

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