Bill O’Brien owes Texans fans an explanation

It’s been two weeks since DeAndre Hopkins was shockingly traded to the Arizona Cardinals for a second-round pick, running back David Johnson, and a swap of fourth-round picks. It has, admittedly, been two weeks where the coronavirus has ravaged the nation and made normal press conferences sort of taboo. But it also has been two weeks where the Houston Texans have had zero public statements about the trade from anybody on the football staff. Unless you count whatever the hell this piece, written by “Houston Texans Staff,” was.

This has, notably, not stopped other football people from talking on the record. Howie Roseman of the Eagles had to defend his team not trading for Hopkins at the price like an annoyed dad having to explain basic life concepts to his children. Sometimes, Timmy, a team really, really likes a running back they shouldn’t. And you can’t give them that running back, only someone else can. The entire Cardinals press contingent released direct quotes about the deal as soon as they could, they were that excited. Even Larry Fitzgerald got in on the deal.

The Texans have had their own press people — Drew Dougherty, John Harris, Deepi Sidhu, and Marc Vandermeer — talk about the trade in various ways and in various videos. (Though of course, mostly they have been focused on Randall Cobb and David Johnson, as you would expect them to do because Hopkins is no longer a member of the team.) Randall Cobb spoke to the media finally on Friday, but until then, there wasn’t a single media release from anyone on the Texans coaching staff or roster since the trade.

Meanwhile, it’s obviously very clear from the outside that the Texans have lost the trade and, more importantly, lost the plot with their fanbase from the trade. Every Tweet the official account makes gets ratioed and pounded with demands to fire Bill O’Brien. You might think, given how pessimistic I tend to be portrayed as, that I’m happy about this. But I’m not, I think it’s embarrassing. I want other fans to be able to be happy about the Texans, and I don’t want every hypothetical I throw out there to get pounded down with pessimism. The worst thing a writer that primarily focuses on one team can have happen to them is for the team to become irrelevant and a source of apathy — that’s what O’Brien is turning the Texans into. That anger, should the Texans do anything less than last season, will become apathy.


This is, to use the terminology of Bill O’Brien, on Bill O’Brien.

He has so much power within this organization and answers to nobody. Even in the times where he hasn’t had as much control, his press conferences have always had the potential to skew towards not answering for what he’s done. It’s on me, we’ll review the tape, and we’ll forget about this the next day. We had multiple documented instances this year alone of sideline reporters being pushed off after bad halves. He had no excuses for the outburst at a fan during the Broncos game and barely even bothered answering to it beyond blase PR apologies. He looked upset that he was even asked a question about it.

With O’Brien successfully seizing power of the Texans, he’s begun to have some little dictator tantrums. Part of that is that he hasn’t even bothered to address the trade, and that’s something that I think is going to stop the fanbase from moving on.

O’Brien may have been dumb enough to give DeAndre Hopkins away for beans, but he’s not a total idiot. He knows how the perception of the trade has hit. It’s very obvious in the way the team website has talked about it, and how it announced the trade without even saying Hopkins’ name.

But until he actually stands to the podium (or teleconference, or whatever) and gives an account of the why — no matter how dumb it is — this fanbase can’t move on. You can’t reach acceptance if you never get a real acknowledgment that something has happened and talk about why it happened. O’Brien can leak all he wants — Hopkins wanting more money (he earned it), threatening to sit out (he literally can’t by the terms of the new CBA), whatever friction they had between them (I’m of the Mike Meltser mind where Bill O’Brien isn’t a good enough head coach to have a superstar feud), and it really doesn’t matter. Texans fans need the explanation.

It is not in O’Brien’s blood to give us a real explanation. He will likely do what he always does, and say something along the lines of “in the best interests of the team.” I know it feels helpless if you’re a fan to hear that over and over again, but it will crystallize a lot if that is the case. It will tell us that even in the face of an overwhelmingly unpopular trade, O’Brien feels little need to answer to anybody for his actions. It will become the moment he has to attach that memey little cliche to the most unpopular talent-based move I can remember in recent NFL history. The little verbal ticks and dictator ideals were always bubbling under the surface here. This will be an affirmation that will be important for many fans and, later, for ownership.

This is going to be a painful process for Texans fans. Who knows when we’ll have football again in the face of COVID-19? And even when we do get there, it’s going to be weird and empty with the soul of the franchise in Arizona. And that’s assuming nothing else about the team regresses and that the defense is suddenly spicy under a new coordinator with no experience.

But by not even answering questions about it yet, O’Brien has proven a lot about who he is. He’s thrown his entire social media team under the bus. He’s spit on his the face of the fanbase of the team he runs. They can talk about long-term money woes all they want. I believe this happened because his star receiver was a better leader than he was.


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Eric Murray’s contract is pure projection

One thing that Bill O’Brien has proven over and over again as Texans general manager is that he has no idea what the market is for anybody. Randall Cobb got $18.5 million guaranteed to Danny Amendola’s $3 million. Carlos Hyde turned down a two-year, $10 million offer before a free agency session where Melvin Gordon signed for two years and $16 million. He always pays top dollar on every trade. It is very obvious that BOB’s read of the market is flawed in many, many ways.

And in that vein we’ve got the Eric Murray signing. Murray has played only a little over a full year’s worth of defensive snaps, at 1566 defensive snaps over four seasons in Kansas City and Cleveland. He’s also had knee injuries take portions of his 2019 and 2018 seasons. In 2019, Murray was traded by the Chiefs to the Browns for Emmanuel Ogbah, who had a much better injury-abbreviated year than Murray yet got paid less for it. Best I can tell, Murray’s guaranteed money has not been released yet. We only know that there’s $20.5 million in total compensation in his contract. That may not seem like a lot, but let me take a picture for you of the bottom of the NFL FA safety landscape:

via Establish The Run

That’s not the high-money deal on the list, it’s the high-money deal on the list by roughly $12 million. And some of those guys won’t give what Murray does on special teams, some of them are older and not BOB guys, etc. But it’s a ridiculous overread of a player’s market that has just become par for the course with O’Brien.

If you look at Murray’s last two years of coverage snaps, you see a player that can project as a third safety pretty easily, ala Jaleel Addae last season. The problem is that he’s a tweener. Almost all of his coverage snaps have come in the middle of the field — he’s done almost zero coverage outside of the slot. But on the few snaps I’ve seen of him trying to play tight man-coverage in that role, I didn’t really see a lot of competition:

(Yes, as several people pointed out to me, Keenan Allen is good. But that jab-out-and-inside-release isn’t exactly rocket science for most slot receivers.)

Now, I think he actually runs man pretty well from an elevated position on the field. He shows good awareness getting around his own men on attempted pick plays and screens, and he does the typical Texans zone cover read-and-react thing well, as you’d expect:

As far as him being a safety goes, I think he plays that a little awkwardly when he’s deep. I saw multiple plays where he wound up as the last guy to a side and let somebody get by him.

So what we’ve really got is a good special teams player who needs to be used within the first 20 yards of the line of scrimmage to be a solid lurk defender. Not elite speed, not going to be an impact run defender. He’s versatile but not in a way where he has multiple calling cards — he’s just solid all around.


Now, if a player like that stayed healthy, made some big plays for a good defense, you might see a bigger deal for a young player as a brand name sort of choice. But Murray hasn’t stayed healthy. His good has been accompanied by quite a bit of bad.

He’s solidly an NFL third safety, and I don’t think he’s in danger of playing his way out of Houston unless he suddenly winds up on the O’Brien Gestapo Bad Characters list, but I don’t see a lot of huge untapped upside here to move up in to a different role, and this contract pays him like he’s already there. (And overpays him for that, honestly, considering the Jeff Heath contract.)

If you’re trying to present an optimistic spin on this signing, I do think you can maybe portend that Anthony Weaver’s defense might be more interested in utilizing Murray’s short-field versatility than Romeo Crennel’s. I don’t necessarily know that this is a good thing because, as I said when they brought on Weaver, defenses that try to trick opponents with dropping players haven’t been NFL-successful in a hot minute. But it’s at least a step away from Crennel’s principles that were roundly found wanting without pass rush last year.


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Houston’s Randall Cobb signing has more than a whiff of panic

Reeling from the backlash they were receiving from pretty much every sphere of NFL media, the Texans quietly agreed to terms with long-time Packers wideout Randall Cobb late Monday night. Cobb, who is coming off an empirically solid season with the Cowboys, was targeted 83 times, caught 66% of his passes, and had a 5.5% DVOA. If you look at this move solely in the context of “the Texans traded away a great receiver and needed some sort of guarantee out of his replacement,” it has some sense to it. But if you poke at the veneer harder on any area of this signing, it starts to fall apart. Particularly at the price tag: a reported three-year, $27 million deal with $19 million in guarantees.

— Cobb’s 5.5% DVOA was 33rd among starting wideouts last year, but with the Cowboys having a dynamic offense, it clearly puts him at the bottom of their pecking order. Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup had higher receiving DVOAs. Ezekiel Elliott had a higher receiving DVOA. Blake Jarwin had a higher receiving DVOA. Jason Witten did not have a higher receiving DVOA, but he also can’t do anything but catch the ball and fall down, and his DVOA was still a perfectly average 0.0%. Cobb wasn’t adding a lot to his offense last year.

— If you look at the Next Gen Stats, Cobb was given more cushion than any other Cowboys receiver last season, at 6.2 yards on average. None of their other primary receivers even got to 6-flat.

— Cobb is no longer an elite separator like he was early in his career. He was above average on expected yards after catch, generating 6.2 against expected.5.8. But to put that in to perspective, D.K. Metcalf got that same amount over average and it took him a week to run the three-cone drill. He was also only 0.1 yards after catch over average in 2018, in a much worse offense.

— Cobb ran almost all of his routes inside the numbers, meaning that he lessens the ability of a Will Fuller to go inside and get some easier targets in 3WR situations.

— Cobb doesn’t fit the typical Texans signing of a young player they can mold. He’ll turn 30 in August. His list of PFR similar players is daunting as far as good expectations: Alfred Jenkins, Danny Abramowicz, Dwayne Bowe, Alshon Jeffery, Jeremy Maclin, Brett Perriman, Eddie Brown, Darrell Jackson, Doug Baldwin, Carl Pickens. Only one of those players had even an 800-yard season after turning 30. (Perriman wrecked shop with the 95-96 Lions after a complex career arc.) Many of them didn’t even play at age 30!

To go out and sign Cobb on the first day of tampering and give him $19 million guaranteed when a similar receiver like Danny Amendola signed for $3 million total reeks of desperation. To do it before they figure out where potential turn-around candidates or rising players like Robby Anderson or Breshad Perriman — more typical Texans-type targets — were going to go is malpractice. And if you’re looking at that sentence saying the Texans were only looking for an inside receiver type, I’ve got news for you: Fuller is never healthy and Kenny Stills missed plenty of games last year. They very well might need someone who can play outside! Keke Coutee sure as hell won’t be catching passes here next year, he doesn’t practice right!


Of Cobb’s 83 targets last year, Sports Info Solutions documented 25 of them as curls, passes to the flat, or out routes. 48 of his targets came within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. He turned exactly zero of them into 20 yards, and those passes averaged 5.8 yards per attempt. I think it’s fair to say he still has some elusiveness, but it’s not like once he evades a tackler he’s taking it to the house. He’s just not that kind of athlete at this age. He’s better at creating separation in routes, though some of his longest completions of the year were kinda horseshit in retrospect:

If you focus more intently on his 11+ yard targets, you hit the reason I think he was signed. The Cowboys ran deep cross and posts a lot last year, and because Bill O’Brien would make an honest lady out of the Yankee concept, I think he saw what Cobb could do in that sort of scenario and was rather smitten with it.

Two other big things came up to me while watching his targets. One: his drops (second in the league with 10) in a new offense — how will that translate?

Finally, the scheme and design of Dallas-motion heavy offense helped Cobb create separation. Look at how much headway he has against Micah Hyde just because of how the Cowboys ran this play:

I think the Cowboys put Cobb into a very optimal role for him last year, up to and including a tissue-soft schedule that had only two terrific pass defenses (New England and Buffalo). Unraveling how Cobb will look without the same sort of offensive design help and clearly better receivers is a bit more complex, but I definitely learn towards pessimism on it.


Now, I want to be clear that I very much like Randall Cobb as a person. I think the Aaron Rodgers State Farm ads jumped the shark the moment they took Cobb out of them, as he was actually funny. He’s had a good NFL career. He seems to be, by all accounts, a stand-up, solid guy. I’m almost positive that factored into the decision to sign him because there’s no other logic I can think of that would matter to the Texans.

It’s just such a wonky note compared to the tune that the Texans normally play that, from the outside, there’s no way I can look at it and not see the desperation. The team trades a star and immediately feels the need to sign someone old to a consequential contract right away for the first time in the O’Brien era?

I’ll be pulling for Cobb, it’s nothing personal. But I think this deal — isolated from Hopkins, just on its own — has a massive chance to blow up in Bill O’Brien’s face. I would not at all be surprised if Cobb made it just one season with the team.


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Cal McNair: Come Get Your Boy, It’s Over


I understand that it is awfully inconvenient to have things thrust in to your lap. My father, too, is deceased. I had to deal with a trailer in Wimberley, Texas. You have to deal with a professional sports franchise. These are very different things, but they’re each something we have shown little interest in beyond making sure money could be accumulated from them. I don’t begrudge you that, sports aren’t for everybody.

I hope this finds you well. Your head football man in the building has made one of the worst trades I have ever seen in my life, a trade that betrays such a lack of understanding about how the NFL works that he deserves to be fired instantaneously for it. A trade that, if it had happened in a fantasy football league, would be vetoed. Your boy just took one of the highest-profile days in NFL history — a day where absolutely nothing is happening in the middle of a pandemic except NFL free agency — and nuked it by trading Nuk. This is a trade where fan backlash is not only expected, but understandable given DeAndre Hopkins’ obvious impact in the community and as a leader.

I will walk you through this step-by-step and try not to get too footbally on you for it, since it is obvious by your actions that you don’t care all that much about the sport.

1 — Trading DeAndre Hopkins in and of itself should have brought a windfall

DeAndre Hopkins is turning 28 in June. He’s an All-Pro wide receiver and has been one of the top five receivers in the NFL for essentially every year of his career after his rookie season. He is anchored to a contract that was market value when it was signed, but is now actually a startling bargain. With three years left at around $13 million per season, almost none of it guaranteed, Hopkins essentially was making $4-5 million less on average than recently-signed top receivers like Michael Thomas and Tyreek Hill. It was a situation that was ripe to be addressed.

This was offered and leaked as an excuse by your general manager after the fact, but it was pretty obviously fair that Hopkins should be asking about more money. And it betrays a stunning lack of acumen by your general manager that he didn’t anticipate that and take care of it earlier.

Instead, your general manager leaked a bunch of poor reasons to Football Morning in America why Hopkins should be traded, then traded him for pennies on the dollar later that morning.

Hopkins’ numbers weren’t as explosive as they were last year because there were games where a large number of his targets — such as the ones in Kansas City — came as an underneath option. That didn’t make him any less good when he actually went deep. He averaged 9.5 yards per target on the typical deep throws — deep crosses, sluggos, outs, go routes — on 32 targets. He averaged 17.4 yards per post route with only three incompletions in 12 targets. (All numbers per Sports Info Solutions.) It is not really DeAndre Hopkins’ fault that his head coach did not utilize him more in those areas this past season.

Moreover, the article above speculates that the Texans could be looking at a first-round pick back. The Texans received the 40th overall pick. This is the kind of player where, if you trade him, you should be getting multiple high-round assets, just as the Texans had to do when they were trading for Laremy Tunsil. Instead, the general manager dealt a high-quality, high-character player on an affordable contract for exactly one asset that mattered. Now, yes, it’s a great draft for wide receivers, but that’s no guarantee that the Texans are going to pick the right one. That they are confident that they will is somehow even more terrifying.

2 — Your general manager traded DeAndre Hopkins because he didn’t like him

With character expert Jack Easterby on board — big thanks on that one by the way, really important to an outside source that we have to filter tape-watching through an arbitrary system of how good the player makes you feel as a football team — the Texans have begun to wildly overevaluate how much they care about the character of a player. DeAndre Hopkins, of course, was rumored to not be much of a practicer:

But in evaluating that this small section of Hopkins was not worth the full price of Hopkins, the Texans have made a complete liability out of their wideout corps. They also underrated Hopkins’ leadership and toughness, which is something that was on display both in anonymous quotes from other Texans players and when he stepped on the field in the playoffs with cracked ribs:

A good leader finds a way to meld with his employees and operate them into his system. If your head coach can’t find a way to integrate his values system around DeAndre Hopkins — the man who gives a ball to his blind mother on every touchdown — Cal, maybe your head coach’s and Jack Easterby’s value system is obtuse, idiotic, and pedantic. Have you thought about that?

3 — Your head coach is going to ask David Johnson to run zone and he’s going to be shocked when it doesn’t work

David Johnson, in 2019, ran the ball in a zone-blocking look 44 times and averaged 3.8 yards per carry. Only four of those carries gained more than 10 yards, and none of them gained more than 20. In 2018, on zone blocking looks, he averaged 3.9 yards per carry on 156 attempts. A main reason behind his success in 2016 was that Bruce Arians put him in a situation to succeed: He ran a lot of gap plays. To put that in comparison with Carlos Hyde — Hyde averaged 4.4 yards per zone run in 2019. (All numbers from Sports Info Solutions.)

Even if we were to completely isolate away the part of this trade where DeAndre Hopkins got dealt for nothing, you can only buy low on a player if he fits your scheme. Bill O’Brien’s high-zone run game is a poor fit for what David Johnson does best. I would be sitting here criticizing this move even if Hopkins hadn’t been part of the deal and the Texans absorbed his cap space for a fourth-round pick.

Johnson is also going to be 29 in December — last legs days for a running back. He’s an excellent receiver, but that’s just duplicating the ability of Duke Johnson, who was a) already on the roster and b) they traded a third-round draft pick for last offseason.

So this part of the trade demonstrates a clear lack of understanding of how the NFL works on multiple levels: old running backs are often not worthwhile, big contracts for older running backs are bad, and an inability to understand why Carlos Hyde was valuable for the Texans last season. Make no mistake that the reported two-year, $10 million offer Hyde turned down will probably be the best offer he has in about two months. Instead of understanding that and letting Hyde go out there and price himself on his own, the general manager is taking a major gamble on a player that was a healthy scratch on the Arizona roster at times last season and who has never shown he can do what the head coach wants his backs to do.

4 — The fallout

Listen, I know this is hard to believe, but your fans have lives outside of their feelings about the Texans, Cal. We’re all about to go through hell together. Even if we haven’t fully shut down everything yet, I think it’s pretty clear the direction in which social distancing is heading. The country is about to suffer for probably a good four or five months, many of your fans will come out of this impoverished (worst case) or propped up by some sort of UBI (best case). They’re going to be uneasy about crowds and they’re not going to have a lot of disposable income.

Even before that, there was always an aura of cynicism about the Texans in this crowd. We’re all sick of what we’re being told to wait for, some grand implementation of Patriots South that somehow the head coach and general manager seems to bungle every season.

So let me set aside the football aspects of the move, what Hopkins is worth, what you think you can get in the draft, the fact that we’re undoubtedly going to watch DeAndre Carter get 125 targets next year because he’s a good practice player, and let me lead with this:

This trade is like hocking a loogie in the face of every Texans fan.

It is trading one of the most-revered players in the city, someone who plays wideout like an artist, away for beans. It is impossible to tell anybody that you’re trying your hardest to win when you make a trade like this, where you give up an All-Pro wideout who you had no financial reason to get rid of.

So, even with Deshaun Watson in tow, I would not be at all surprised if come November there are a lot of empty seats at NRG. I don’t dabble in the corner of Texans Twitter that talks about how the fans need to stop showing up to send a message, as if that matters to you — this is just a projection based on what I’m seeing the country go through — but I would not at all be surprised if after the initial boost of actually having a sports event to go through, NRG showed up mostly dead later in the season.


Cal, come get your boy. He’s in over his head, everyone can see it.


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Why Yannick Ngakoue is the Most Realistic Big-Name Texans Target to me

The Texans are in a bizarre, self-imposed place where they somehow have a lot of cap space, but aren’t expected to make any moves because they have to lock up Laremy Tunsil and Deshaun Watson and that apparently means they can’t do anything else. If you listen to anything coming out of the team, including Bill O’Brien’s mouth, it sure seems like they’re only comfortable with players they know or can get to know.

Obviously they are not chasing Jadeveon Clowney, the most-impactful non-QB free agent that I think will actually hit the market. They don’t have an obvious connection to Byron Jones or Arik Armstead, though I think both of those players make a lot of sense on paper. Shaq Barrett is getting franchise tagged, and scuttlebutt around Pittsburgh and Baltimore have Bud Dupree and Matthew Judon drawing tags too. ESPN’s Rams reporter predicted that Dante Fowler Jr. would also draw a tag. The impact free agents list on defense dries up real fast after that, with most remaining players considered not much better than D.J. Reader.

However, I am not entirely willing to write them out of trading for Yannick Ngakoue, who they evaluated heavily coming into the 2016 draft. O’Brien has a long-standing relationship with Doug Marrone, they signed Tashaun Gipson last season, and Ngakoue’s youth fits into the typical O’Brien trade scheme of targeting young players at important positions. Ngakoue is clearly unhappy with the Jaguars and wants to be traded off the tag, and O’Brien has shown that he has no qualms paying above market value for what he wants.

The argument for trading for Ngakoue

It goes a little something like this: Players like this don’t hit free agency often. Players like this don’t become available at all unless your head coach and general manager massively mess up the situation, he said, reminding nobody of anything that has happened in the last calendar year.

My biggest hope for the hire of Anthony Weaver is that the Texans realize that J.J. Watt must play inside for this defense to be good. In the one game where he did a lot of that in 2019, he wrecked shop against a beleaguered Falcons unit:

If that happens, and I think it’s the easiest way to get the Texans good on defense, they’re going to need another edge rusher to complete the look. Whitney Mercilus’ contract is essentially only one guaranteed year, and neither Jacob Martin nor Charles Omenihu offer so much that the Texans need to lock them into starting roles at this time.

Ngakoue offers warp bend off the edge. He offers a year for the Texans to grow Martin and Omenihu into replacing Mercilus. More importantly, he offers a path to an above-average pass rush that the unit had in 2018. Houston finished 29th in adjusted sack rate in 2019, but were 13th in 2018 with Clowney and Watt healthy and active despite no real secondary rushers. If you get Watt inside and utilize Mercilus properly, I think it changes a lot about the defense.

Only in 2015, with a fully healthy Watt in his prime being backed by Mercilus’ breakout season, have the Texans finished with a top-5 adjusted sack rate under O’Brien. That team rebounded from 1-4 to force 23 turnovers in its last 11 games and make the playoffs despite starting Brian Hoyer. If you pair that kind of pass rush and havoc with Deshaun Watson, a lot of things become possible.

The case against trading for Ngakoue

I think the No. 1 thing to note is that good coverage has started to gain more notoriety for good defensive play than pass rush, and I think that’s a fair critique of a move to snag Ngakoue. Unfortunately, I don’t think the options the Texans have to get better at corner are wildly enticing either. Chris Harris has been a rumored target, but he’s 30 and coming off a down season. Darius Slay is 29 and coming off a down season. Byron Jones, as I brought up, is enticing but is going to get top-of-the-line market money — the Texans have shied away from that over the years, including Tyrann Mathieu last year.

The other hanging issue is that the cost of trading for Ngakoue might be lower than it cost for Dee Ford last year on account of Ngakoue’s dissatisfaction with Jacksonville — but it’s still probably going to cost a second-round pick. That’s two entire years of sitting out the first two years of the draft for Laremy Tunsil and Ngakoue.

The weirdest defense I can mount in favor of the Texans making the move anyway is that, well, it’s not like they’re using their cap anyway. They had $24 million of unused cap space in 2019, and that’s even considering vanity projects like setting millions of dollars on fire for Matt Kalil. They had $21 million of unused cap space in 2018. The only year that Houston has had less than $10 million of available cap space in since 2015 was … 2015. As the cap has grown, Houston’s budget has seemingly not budged.

I’m never going to call an NFL team “cheap,” because I think that’s a cheap shot, but the Texans have spent less than any non-Cowboys team since 2016. And somehow, remarkably, that includes the Brock Osweiler contract.

And in a world where that’s the case, a lot of the appeal of cost-controlled rookie contracts gives way to three simple factors: How good is the player, how comfortable is the contract and how long can we project him to be good? Obviously the Texans would prefer to have Ngakoue on a rookie contract — can that be found? It’s pretty unlikely. For the other two factors, I think it’s clear he’s the most impactful available player they would consider pursuing.


In a way, a lot of whether the Texans should be up for Ngakoue comes down to their thoughts on Will Fuller.

I have proceeded for a while with the idea that Fuller is so good that the Texans can’t afford to not pay him. I don’t believe the Texans believe that at this point. There have simply been too many missed games and that will be majorly held against Fuller at contract time. I think the Texans have tended to operate with a top-heavy view of their roster where they pay the cream of the crop — and what that really means is that there are only so many slots available. If Fuller is out of Houston’s long-term plans, that opens up a slot, so to speak.

Deshaun Watson, Laremy Tunsil, DeAndre Hopkins, (sigh) Nick Martin, Whitney Mercilus, Benardrick McKinney, and J.J. Watt are in the core. Zach Cunningham is probably going to join it, at which point McKinney is likely pushed out as he nears 30. Mercilus is not a long-term fixture, and Watt and Hopkins are at the point where we’re watching for signs of decline, but get to stay in the core as long as they are who they’ve been. Justin Reid, Tytus Howard, and Max Scharping are probably on core-watch at this point.

A hypothetical Fuller who had stayed healthy all last season is probably in that group. If the Texans decide he no longer needs to be there, I think that opens the door for another high-profile acquisition.

I’m not necessarily rooting for this outcome myself because I think the Texans are already spread thin and this is just going to make that potential downside comically sad, but if they’re already pot-committed, they might consider it. Deshaun Watson is already being counted on to erase many sins, what’s one more pick in the bucket?

I do think it’s the most realistic chance as far as all the dots lining up that we have of seeing a high-impact player head to Houston this offseason.


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Smart, Tough, Dependable: Football character and the Houston Texans

On Friday I stumbled upon this segment that the Texans produced on their own from the scouting combine, one where they let out a story about Tytus Howard:

I enjoyed the color, but what stood out to me more than the color was the idea that the Texans were won over in the interview. Similar anecdotes that made Deshaun Watson look good in his pre-draft visit with Bill O’Brien have percolated. If you think this is not a big deal, remember that the Texans don’t exactly let a lot out of their building on purpose.

The Texans have never been an organization that dabbled much in adding players with long rap sheets, with Bob McNair mostly keeping the organization’s image squeaky clean. There have been a few players to test that line — I think Brian Cushing’s constant suspensions were rough from an outside perspective — but for the most part the Texans have always focused on getting quality people who also happened to be star players.

This post isn’t to make fun of the Howard anecdote or necessarily make fun of this stance, but to point out that it is embedded in the organization’s culture. When we talk about which players the Texans pick to believe in, it’s hard to escape the idea that their view of a player’s football character matters deeply.


Now that general manager Bill O’Brien and head coach Bill O’Brien have solidified the power of former pastor Jack Easterby as the second-in-command, I think it’s fair to say that the Texans have developed evaluation knockout factors as far as a player’s character. There’s not really a reason from a talent perspective that Jadeveon Clowney shouldn’t have been signed to a long-term extension — people will argue with me that he didn’t get enough sacks (he did), or that he was hurt too often (he wasn’t), but on raw talent he was one of the most important players on the 2018 team. Perhaps more important than J.J. Watt.

I can’t speak to exactly where the O’Brien-Clowney relationship started spinning off its axis. I know that the microfracture surgery and slow start didn’t help. It’s been explained to me in so many words by multiple people that Clowney and D.J. Swearinger did not leave the best first impression as far as on-field motivation. But when we come back to the terms that O’Brien used to describe the situation as they tried to move on from Clowney, the “best interests of the organization,”

I think what crystallized is that Clowney didn’t fit the style of player O’Brien wanted, and I believe that O’Brien thought that Clowney could never hit his true potential as a player because he wouldn’t completely buy in to the system around him. Clowney was his own guy.

When it comes time for the Texans to make a commitment of major salary, many reporters close to the Texans have already speculated that D.J. Reader won’t be the player that gets paid. This is despite the fact that he is “smart, tough, and dependable.”

Whitney Mercilus got $28.5 million guaranteed before this offseason despite being a) 30 years old, b) not having an excellent season as Clowney’s replacement, and c) the pass rush almost completely drying up without Watt playing. It is true that, in a vacuum, you’d rather pay a pass rusher than a non-pass rusher. But Reader had shown flashes of causing the havoc that led to a lot of Mercilus’ early sacks. Where some have speculated that Reader may have done himself in here was after the loss to the Broncos, where he dropped this line:

Now, I went and conducted a wildly unscientific poll of Texans fans and got these results as far as who they’d have rather given $28.5 million guaranteed to:

It’s hard to get 1,000 people to agree on 85% of anything, let alone on the internet. I admit my audience may be more likely to have been exposed to pro-Reader content, but, still, on paper it seems like this should not have been that big of a gap. Yet, the Texans seem prepared to let Reader walk.

To be clear, this is not one of those posts where we shit all over a player who got paid a lot of money. I’m very happy Whitney Mercilus got paid, and he’s a good player and a good steward of the organization. But I don’t think there’s a way to really square his value versus Reader or Clowney in any real empirical conversation and come out with the idea that he’s the most valuable of the three. Counting the impact plays Clowney makes, he’s undoubtedly the worst run defender of the three players. Counting the pressures that Reader brought last year, I think he’s only narrowly the second-best pass rusher. And if you account for positional differences, I can see an argument for Reader over Mercilus in that area as well.

I think the difference lies in Mercilus’ buy-in. Mercilus played out of position for the entirety of 2018 and barely complained about it publicly despite being ill-cast as an underneath zone defender. He’s got high football character. He gives the media the coaching talking points. The Texans clearly valued his football character to a high degree. Mercilus is a trooper.


I’m not here to tell you that the Texans are making mistakes. Partially because I already told you I thought they were making a mistake letting Clowney go and you’re all sick of hearing that. Partially because I don’t think the Texans are in any real danger of violating the salary cap any time soon and good for Mercilus for getting his.

But I do think the fact that the Texans wound up in the spot that they did has some interesting branch-off points. Sarah Barshop listed Will Fuller as someone who could potentially be released. Fuller is smart, tough, and supremely talented. He’s just not dependable. What do we know about how O’Brien and Easterby view him as a person? Do they think he’s a hard worker? Do they think DeAndre Hopkins is a hard worker because he (reportedly) doesn’t go hard in practices? Is Keke Coutee’s benching a matter of how he’s actually played on the field, or a matter of how the small collective circle of O’Brien, O’Brien, and Easterby feel about his character?

The Chiefs just won the Super Bowl with Frank Clark as their primary edge rusher. Clark has a domestic violence conviction. Clark runs his mouth a lot, up to and including about how he knew where Deshaun Watson wanted to step up to:

O’Brien wouldn’t want that kind of information being public.

This defense continues to bleed talent, and Watt and Mercilus are going to only be another year older in 2020. The only starters under 25 last season that we know are returning are Gareon Conley and Justin Reid. If Reader is gone, the Texans pretty much only have a second-year jump from Lonnie Johnson as a true youthful shot-in-the-arm improvement. Jacob Martin and Charles Omenihu could continue to grow, but they may not be full-timers without an injury. What Anthony Weaver can provide is a great unknown. Non first-round picks are risky as hell and may not add a lot to the proceedings early.

Limiting free agency and trade discussions with the idea that you have to have someone with high football character in these circumstances is kind of a tough sale to me. I think the issue is that attrition and talent will continue to decline, and you need more of it rather than less of it to make this defense work. I would say that where the Texans are operating from is that they need someone to check all four boxes: smart, tough, dependable, good in O’Brien’s personality pecking order. Given Nick Martin’s extension before he even really played a good season, I think proving the talent on the field matters less than you might think.

Honestly, I don’t care about the approach as long as it works. It’s a lot more fun to root for a Deshaun Watson that is grateful, has good relationships with his fellow quarterbacks, and is a great leader then it would be if he had Jay Cutler’s personality. Likewise, I don’t care if the Texans are determined only to chase free agents that won’t make $10 million a season and will be great clubhouse guys as long as they also are great as football.

But as the defense looks to revolve around tough, smart, and dependable … it does kind of feel awkward that the Texans can look at Reader and say he isn’t enough, but feel that Mercilus is when he’s clearly a less valuable player from a football asset standpoint. I would urge Texans fans thinking that multiple quick fixes are going to be operated on this roster to remember how much football character matters to them, particularly in light of how a player like Aaron Colvin was quickly doghoused, as well as how Seantrel Henderson wound up on the street after starting in Week 1.

Easterby retweeted the Howard story as tweeted by the actual Houston Texans Twitter account rather than my own cribbed tape. Easterby’s account is all about the general life coach ethos of consistent buy-in, determination through adversity, and the sprinklings of God’s glory that usually come with those things in athletic circles. The second-most important person in the Texans organization is effectively akin to a life guru. Now with most life gurus, if you tune them out you’re probably minimizing a sunk cost and you’ll soon be off their e-mail list. If you do that as a Texans player, you’re putting yourself in position to get released.

If you’re looking for the Texans to commit big money to someone this offseason — and I do believe they’ll wind up with somebody — I think it’s important you understand that character matters as much as anything.


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