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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