Let’s talk about Houston Texans draft grade dissonance

The Texans were largely regarded by local commentators as having had a good draft. They had just five picks, but didn’t really overreach for anybody. Some have criticized the Charlie Heck pick, but their two top picks were legitimate stabs at solving problems in the front seven, John Reid went right around where he was expected to, and Isaiah Coulter is a fifth-round dart.

This largely goes against national sentiment, which is that the Texans had a terrible draft:

So let’s talk about why this is:

Many draft grades incorporate trades, most pundits think the Texans made some terrible trades

When you deal away so many of your picks for trades, you need to win those trades robustly to win a grader’s approval. Most of the Texans trades have been maligned, and there’s more than a little residual grading of the DeAndre Hopkins trade happening here:

Source: ESPN Insider
Source: Touchdown Wire
Source: USA Today

So, that’s strike one. I know, I get it, you’re all sick of talking about the trade. Every time I bring it up indirectly on Twitter it generates hot takes from the strong I Want To Talk To Your Manager vibers out there. But that played a part. The ones who did grade the Texans well did not marry these two things together:

Source: NFL.com
Source: SB Nation

When you forget about the fact that DeAndre Hopkins was traded mostly for Ross Blacklock, it makes the Ross Blacklock pick sound a lot better, doesn’t it? I don’t think that’s a hot take. I also don’t think it’s a hot take to say that I’d rather have a third-round pick in this draft class than I’d rather have Duke Johnson, who is an excellent player that teams just refuse to give a full-time role to. That’s not a shot at Johnson’s talent, it’s a shot at the bottom line. If Johnson had been good enough that the team didn’t feel like David Johnson had to be acquired, it changes a lot about the offseason. Then there’s Brandin Cooks, Gareon Conley, Jadeveon Clowney, and Tunsil, and how those stack up against the value that could have been had in this draft. It’s really not that surprising that draft graders were not big fans, and that the worse the grade was, the more they emphasized those trades.

It can also be said that, for the picks they had, the Texans did fine. Depending on how optimistic you want to be about some of these players, I could even squint and say that they did well for themselves. They didn’t make any new mistakes this weekend. They drafted players who were mostly in the right slots, if not necessarily everyone’s favorite sleepers or whatever. They didn’t have a lot of capital, so they weren’t going to solve everything. But they did fine.

And that is where the majority of the divide in the grades is. Are you grading the weekend, or are you grading the process that created the circumstances of the weekend?

Unaddressed positions and remaining holes

When you have less draft picks and (especially) less high draft picks, you’re very limited on how many holes you can fill. Many graders think that the Texans did not address all of their holes. I want to pick on Mel Kiper’s breakdown on ESPN Insider because I think it is very pertinent:

Source: ESPN Insider

Kiper listed his top hole for the Texans at cornerback. The Texans drafted Reid, who I think is a fair stab at a slot corner, but didn’t get a top-tier outside guy like they could have in the first round.

Now, I believe the Texans actually think they’re pretty set at corner in the short term. They re-signed Bradley Roby. They traded for Conley. They drafted Lonnie Johnson in the second round. All of those guys have the physical traits to play outside. Only Roby has had much success in the NFL, but nobody can tell you that the other two don’t have the attributes they need to be good corners outside. Outside of those two, they have Vernon Hargreaves as depth — another player without much NFL success but with good physical attributes — and they have Phillip Gaines kicking around as well. Keion Crossen is around. Cornell Armstrong is around. And now John Reid is around.

So, is Kiper wrong in his assertion that the Texans have a hole at corner, or are the Texans wrong? That’s an eye of the beholder kind of thing, one that might even come down to how much faith you have in the front office and coaching staff. I personally side with Kiper on this one — I don’t have a lot of faith that the Texans are going to have three good cornerbacks next year. But … I also can’t rule it out. It could happen.

Personally, as someone who has been tasked for some of these Large National Write-Ups, 90% of the people who have gotten upset with me have had it happen over the difference of opinion between the team and outside valuations. Pittsburgh fans trash me for saying that quarterback is a need when they have Ben Roethlisberger — even when I note that it is mostly about having a real backup on hand — because they know that’s not a priority for how the team thinks. That’s fine, I’m not going to begrudge your right to yell at me even if I think it’s a dumb point. It also doesn’t change the fact that their backup quarterbacks were ass last year.

Let’s talk about athleticism

One of the hottest trends in NFL analysis right now is what kind of athlete you are as put together by your measurables. It has a lot of influence on how teams (and computer models) see pass rushers. It has a lot of influence on your perceived upside after late-round picks like Danielle Hunter have popped.

The Texans did not grab many top athletes:

Source: Rotoworld

SPARQ score is a measurable number of Speed, Power, Agility, Reaction, and Quickness. The full list of inputs: height, weight, arm length, forty-yard dash, ten-yard split, short shuttle, 3-cone drill, bench press, vertical jump, and broad jump. Rotoworld made SPARQ bend to positions and rated it out of 100. So the Texans drafted exactly one player with an above-average SPARQ score: Reid.

Here’s how this looks if we take it into chart form for Jon Greenard:

Source: MockDraftable, comparing against one-gap EDGE rushers

Now, I don’t necessarily think that Greenard is destined to be a bust because he’s not an athletic marvel. But I do think it’s fair to say that if he shows athletic deficiencies on the field, and those same deficiencies are tested, it’s kind of a flag about just how high his upside can be. In this case, something that I’ve read about a lot (Greenard’s inability to bend the edge) gets compared against that 40-yard dash time (4.87) and you can add the two together and deduce that it could be an issue.

I don’t look at Houston’s draft class and see bad selections. I see a lot of players that don’t have much athletic upside. And I think that did get taken out on them a bit in the draft grades as well, regardless of how much I think Greenard can be a good starter that can set the edge outside, or how much I think Blacklock’s slippery nature at the line of scrimmage could make him very effective.


We’re entering a pretty sensitive period for Texans fans. The tribalism that briefly waned as the Hopkins trade shattered everybody has been replaced with the promise of a new season and putting it all behind us. I understand it, even though what it really means is that any critical thought gets pilloried.

But I honestly think that when you understand how the draft grade sausage is produced, I can totally get how the Texans got some very negative grades. I think the type of player they targeted had a role in that. O’Brien said it himself:

He focused his draft on these interviews. He wanted to pick leaders. I don’t believe if you look back on things Bill O’Brien has noted in public interviews of late, you’ll find a ton of stuff about how much raw athleticism matters to him beyond speed for receivers. My read is that he wants to pick guys that beat the odds.

And that’s his right. Just as it is a critic’s right to look at his draft class and wonder if it’s got much upside.


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Notebook: Day 1 of the draft (for the Texans) was mostly on script

The Texans entered the second day of the draft with two picks, and left with two new front seven players and a gigantic new extension for Pro Bowl left tackle Laremy Tunsil. I was somewhat struck by how overwhelmingly positive the reaction was to a day that mostly seemed fairly paint-by-numbers and, well, I guess that’s where this fanbase is at.

Just staying put and doing normal football team things is better than what we’ve seen for the last two months. And I’m sure the COVID-19 situation helped want us to steer into the normalcy, so … welcome, Texans, thank you for being a football team that does some logical things.

I haven’t done a ton of pre-tapework for the prospects this year because, if I’m being honest, it’s not very exciting to not have a first-round pick. So I am mostly going to defer to broad descriptions of people I trust to talk about the draft and discuss the alternatives that were there at the time for each pick. I’ll circle around later with more detailed watchings of Ross Blacklock and Jon Greenard, as I have a feeling we won’t have a lot more to talk about after this draft for a long time.

Laremy Tunsil’s contract is enormous — good for Laremy Tunsil, a fait accompli for Houston

Tunsil signed a three-year extension off of the fifth-year option that has the highest average value ($22M per season, besting Lane Johnson’s $18M) and gives Tunsil the highest guaranteed value ($57M) of any offensive lineman in the NFL. It is worth noting that Over The Cap appeared to reduce the guaranteed value to $50 million in their valuation, but either way, Tunsil is essentially the highest-paid lineman in the NFL from 2021-2023, and hits free agency at 29 in 2024.

This was a function of the decision to bring Tunsil over without a contract extension, which Bill O’Brien made a point to defend in his post-draft day presser:

So O’Brien’s point was basically that no matter how it happened Tunsil was going to get paid. Which, yes, he was, but there’s a big distinction in the leverage that he seems to not be fully grasping the nuances of. What he said was in no way an actual statement that the Dolphins said no, and if they did say no, well, if you’re giving up two first-round picks and a second-round pick, you kinda have some leverage to come back at them and say “we’re not doing this without an extension.”

Once that trade was done without an extension, it was so, so obvious that Tunsil would be the highest-paid lineman in the NFL. There was no way that O’Brien could afford to let him walk without becoming a laughingstock.

Ultimately this is small-time negligence as opposed to the real issues with value O’Brien has had in roughly every trade since he became the solo general manager, but I absolutely find it hilarious given how D.J. Reader and, supposedly, DeAndre Hopkins had to be let go over money. One way to find some money? Getting an extension as part of this trade! Just saying! I wrote about Tunsil one year in earlier this week and a Twitter layup line emerged of people who literally never read the piece who decided I think Tunsil sucks, so go ahead and read that if you want to join the line.

Personality and interviews ruled the roost

I’m not saying the Texans made bad picks, because I think there were talent evaluators who had both Blacklock and Greenard rated at or above the spots they were selected, but it became very clear that the meetings the Texans had with both players mattered a lot:

While I don’t presently have audio of this, Jack Easterby did a post-draft sitdown with 610 and echoed the thoughts about Blacklock’s interview:

This is really not a surprise to anyone who has been following the Texans of late. The O’Brien/Easterby duopoly has seemed to only lean further into personal evaluations over personnel evaluations, but I say it now because with the final day of the draft ahead of us, I think it’s important to understand that any kind of late-round guy you’re a fan of has to go through the O’Brien/Easterby personality exam test and pass it. So, while I personally have some guys I’m a fan of for Day 3 that are still out there, I’m not holding out a lot of hope that they’ll become Texans.

BOB got upset on national television

It sure would be nice if Bill “you suck too, motherf*cker” O’Brien could keep the mask on long enough to just present himself as normal on national television in the only sports-related event anyone in America will get for at least four months, but that apparently was too much to ask. Even with only two picks.

The furious he-said, he-said of a failed trade talk engulfed the nation as John McClain reported that they had a deal to trade down with the Lions, and Detroit reporters reported that no, they didn’t:

That seemed to mostly be corroborated by Jack Easterby in the 610 interview when he said that there wasn’t much trade talk:

But don’t worry, O’Brien addressed this with a very convincing story in his presser:

I, too, often storm off loudly after talking to my friends on Zoom while my kid meekly looks on as if he sees me yelling about things all the time.

Does Ross Blacklock offer enough as a pass rusher to be worth a premium pick?

That’s the main question I have about Houston’s first selection. Blacklock missed his 2018 season due to an Achilles tear, but came back and provided three sacks and a bushel of hurries. A lot of those hurries came off twists and stunts, so you can understand why the Texans gravitated towards that as that’s a main emphasis of their pass rush scheme. But Blacklock also showed a ton of agility at the point of attack:

It is nice to have addressed a position that has been mostly J.J. Watt and some other guys for the majority of Watt’s career, and if it does anything to free up Watt to move around, that sounds interesting. My first blush of the highlights is that he’s got the weight to hold up at the point of attack in the NFL game, and the quickness to cause some TFLs and hurries.

Still, we are talking about a guy with 5.5 sacks to his name in college, with guys like A.J. Epenesa and Zack Baun still on the board and potentially more impactful in the passing game, which is the thing I am most concerned about as I don’t believe Whitney Mercilus is an impact EDGE at this point and Watt’s health has not trended in a great direction. The Texans addressed this with their third-round pick, but with less of a sure thing in my opinion. Blacklock’s combine was fairly disappointing as well, as he failed to get above the 40th percentile among defensive linemen on anything but 40-yard dash (4.9) and weight (290 pounds). This is not a freak athlete, merely a stellar one.

The most interesting thing about Blacklock’s interview in my opinion was actually some insight into Anthony Weaver’s scheme:

Gary Patterson is one of the best in the business as far as defense goes in the NCAA, and it is kind of a “from the mouths of babes” thing to me that Blacklock called Houston’s defense easier to play. We haven’t had many peeks in at Anthony Weaver, who I believe has not done a single presser yet since being named defensive coordinator.

Despite my reservations from a grander roster theory standpoint, I’m mostly on board with this pick. The only thing that I would stand on the table about doing differently is a trade down just because this feels like a deep draft and the Texans could use some more capital after the Tunsil trade, but it’s impossible to know what the offers were like from the outside.

Was Jon Greenard a one-year wonder?

Greenard posted 10.0 sacks and 16 tackles for loss at Florida in his final season, impressing at the Senior Bowl. He played very well against the run and there are some good highlights of him showing some impressive in-game intuition:

Greenard was most commonly dinged for a lack of edge bend and for playing worse against better tackles — that’s something I’ll have to look at in a more detailed film piece. Greenard’s explosion index was not high in Football Outsiders’ SackSEER projections, which really weighed down his projection. (Epenesa suffered from the same thing, but had much more production.) I would probably have preferred Boise State’s Curtis Weaver myself at this spot purely on the outside stats and traits, though I am happy that the Texans at least made a real stab at fixing the problem.

As I said when I was talking about the Tytus Howard selection last year, I really have a bias towards prospects who are ballers from Day 1 in college. That’s why I was sort of down on the Howard pick as compared to the other options, and Greenard is a guy who falls into that category as well coming off a lost 2018 season to a wrist injury. He transferred to stick with Florida DC Todd Grantham after starting out at Lousiville. Greenard posted some sacks in 2017, but the wisdom is that he was a much more complete player in 2019.

My belief from the initial research is that I think Greenard has the traits to be a long-time NFL starter, but I would group him more in the secondary rusher tier than as a guy who is going to put up 10 sacks a season.


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Nearly nine months later, the Laremy Tunsil trade is already beginning to paralyze the Texans

When the Laremy Tunsil trade went down, I said “I think Tunsil is both a really good left tackle and someone who can’t possibly live up to the billing of this price tag. I don’t think Joe Thomas or Anthony Munoz in their primes could live up to this price tag.” Plus or minus (mostly minus) five false starts, I think the trade went about as well as it could have for the Texans in year one: Houston won the division and Tunsil played well and stayed healthy.

The problem is that the scope of the trade was made from an area where the Texans were sacrificing so much that they had to be “expecting either a transformational result to their team, a window for winning now that will soon close, or both.” That transformational result didn’t happen, because it simply was impossible for it to happen. The window will remain open as long as Deshaun Watson is wearing deep steel blue.

The transformational result that wasn’t

Deshaun Watson’s 2019 season was the best of his career in terms of Houston’s overall offensive DVOA, his sack rate, and his hurry rate. Unfortunately, it was a) barely so and b) only the best because the 2017 Texans were weighed down with a bunch of Tom Savage starts.

Moreover, I don’t know that you can look at the circumstantial elements of some of Watson’s low-hit, low-hurry starts and point to Tunsil as the reason. Watson took no sacks and two hurries against the Chiefs in Week 6 as Bill O’Brien went to a heavy RPO-based game plan that utilized a ton of tight end drags. He took zero sacks and one hurry against the Falcons in Week 5 because Atlanta was a disaster defensively. He took one sack and two hurries against the Jaguars in London … in a game that Tunsil did not play in … because the Texans got to bleed clock almost the entirety of the game and utilized some good short-passing offense.

It is not an attack on Laremy Tunsil’s character or skill to note that he simply doesn’t have a lot to do with how the offense plays. The offense played very well in 2017 when O’Brien created a system around Watson’s strengths. It played very well at times in 2019 when he did the same thing. In this era of NFL football, offensive spacing is all about how quickly you can get initial reads open. Simply put, O’Brien has failed at this task over and over again as a playcaller — and when he actually put some effort into the area, it becomes very apparent how good the offense can be. O’Brien’s playcalling is a continual tease.

Watson will always be a high-sack player as long as he insists on trying to hit the throws he wants on every down. That is in his DNA. If O’Brien wanted to protect Watson, he’d work to make those throws easier. By committing to how O’Brien wants to do things, something that becomes very apparent every time he brings in another receiver who cooks with 4.4 speed and the heavy offensive line investments, the Texans have become a boom-bust offense. Without DeAndre Hopkins, they don’t even have a trump card for when the bust happens.

Tunsil or Hopkins?

Now, I admit this is doing a dangerous amount of reading into O’Brien’s comments and ignoring all the rumored friction, baby mommas, and so on, but let’s talk about this quote:

There were a lot of fans of the Tunsil deal as it happened — I’m not surprised by this, because the bill has not even begun to come due. But I wonder if you’d told those same fans that Hopkins would be dealt because of the Tunsil trade how much the reactions would change.

When you see these two trades as interconnected, and you realize how badly the Texans got wiped in the exchange, the idea that there’s some grand plan here is laughable. Just based on the merits of the players as they have played on the field, I wouldn’t trade Hopkins for Tunsil straight up. Yet because the Texans made a trade for Tunsil and hijacked their future cap space with it, they didn’t feel they could properly negotiate a contract for Hopkins. So, they settled for an inferior receiver, giving up (not the exact pick but) the only excess asset they got out of the Hopkins trade in the first place.

That’s straight from the GM’s mouth. There’s no speculation here.

Now, Tunsil definitely deserves to be one of the 10 highest-paid tackles on the planet. I don’t know that I would say he’s the best tackle in the NFL, nor do I know that he has the most future value remaining of any tackle. But he’s absolutely up there, and he has so much leverage that he’s obviously going to hit his goal to be the highest-paid lineman in the league.

That was something that was obvious the second the Texans traded for Tunsil. In fact, it was baffling at the time that they did the trade without having a signed contract extension in place. Left tackles tend to age fairly well, so there’s little unnecessary risk in this for the Texans. But as we enter draft week, Tunsil has changed agents this offseason, and the team and player are reportedly still not close to a deal.

I’m not worried about Tunsil leaving or anything, but it’s very clear that the trade unsettled the current order of the roster in a way that wasn’t necessarily beneficial.

“You can’t get a tackle as good as Laremy Tunsil with the pick the Texans would have had”

This is one thing I’ve seen bandied around on Twitter. It’s a hilarious re-imagining of NFL history. For one thing, Laremy Tunsil literally fell a ton in the draft because of a picture that surfaced of him with a bong on draft day. Jawaan Taylor was bandied about as a top-10 pick for most of mock draft season and fell past the Texans because they liked Tytus Howard better. The guy reported by people like Ian Rappaport to be high on the draft board for Houston, Andre Dillard, went the pick before they were up. They could have swapped into that spot if they wanted it.

Almost every year in the NFL draft we see a tackle or two fall into that late first-round pick zone. Ryan Ramczyk went 32nd to the Saints in 2017. Now, is it possible that the Texans would muff that pick? It is! But even a decent NFL player on a first-round pick contract is extremely valuable. Offensive tackle is a huge strength of this year’s draft, and even neglecting the idea that one of the four consensus top guys would have fallen (hello, Mehki Becton drug test!), the depth is there to make someone like an Ezra Cleveland an easy fit.

As much as I agree that Laremy Tunsil is very good, I don’t know that he’s good enough that I wouldn’t trade him for a rookie contract left tackle I felt good about. By far the most excess value a team can accumulate in the NFL comes from having good players on rookie contracts. It’s why you rarely see first-rounders dealt in the first place. If that player has a 20% chance of becoming Tunsil, a 30% chance of becoming Taylor Decker, a 25% chance of becoming Donovan Smith, and a 15% chance of becoming Julien Davenport … I’ll roll those odds.

Every year, multiple all-pro players make it into the 20s in the NFL Draft. Drafting just isn’t that exact a science, even data-based drafting isn’t flawless. Let me tell you about how FO’s computer models loved Kellen Clemens and Bryan Brohm in the mid-/late-aughts. To pretend that in trading for Tunsil the team gave up nothing of value because those would be later first-round picks is asinine.

Duane Brown says hello.

The core of Houston’s roster is going to be very, very slim for the next few seasons

Off the top of my head, these are the players that Houston is paying real money to where I would be surprised if they weren’t with the team for opening day 2022:

Laremy Tunsil
Deshaun Watson

That’s it, that’s the list. J.J. Watt is 31, has no guaranteed money left on his deal, and has missed major portion of three of the last four seasons. Whitney Mercilus will get almost all of his contract out of the way in two years and will be 32 in 2022. Brandin Cooks has five concussions and no guaranteed money on his deal. Will Fuller is on his fifth-year option. Randall Cobb turns 30 in August. Kenny Stills is on the last year of his deal. I’m surprised Zach Fulton hasn’t been released already. I don’t have the laugh crying emoji installed so I can’t discuss David Johnson’s core status in the terms it deserves.

None of the players that Bill O’Brien listed off on last week’s conference call as he was trying to create a benefit of the doubt are rock stars at their respective jobs.

I would say the Texans envision Nick Martin and Bradley Roby as core players, as well as perhaps Ka’imi Fairbairn, and see them on the roster for sure in 2022. I wouldn’t — I don’t think any of them have played well consistently enough to run with that claim. I’m sure that the Texans likely see Zach Cunningham as a core member, but I think if he signs, it’s probably the end of Benardrick McKinney.

Supplementing those, let’s be kind and say 5 players, the Texans have the following young players:

Justin Reid
Tytus Howard
Max Scharping
Lonnie Johnson
Gareon Conley
Jacob Martin

And then maybe someone out of the Akins/Thomas/Warring combo will be a long-term starter. Maybe some of those guys have more talent than they flashed on the field in 2019, and I’m looking forward to seeing if they can do it consistently. But outside of Reid, none of them played both well and consistently.

Most studies have shown that the NFL Draft is essentially a four-round process at best, and perhaps more accurately tends to fade after the first 100 picks:

Source: Football Perspective, pick numbers at the bottom, career AV to the left

The Texans have exactly one top-50 pick in the next two years: the one they got for DeAndre Hopkins at 40 this year. They have the 90th pick this year, and the 111th from Miami. In 2021, they’ll have a third-round pick that will likely fall inside the top 100. Otherwise, this is the roster. This is it. Not all of that is on the Laremy Tunsil trade, but the vast majority of it is.

In a league where cost-controlled talent drives wins more than anything besides coaching and quarterback play, the 2022 Texans are probably going to surround Deshaun Watson with less of it than any team in the NFL. There are players that could break out between now and then, sure. Arian Foster has happened before. There are also players in this group who could simply be lost to injury attrition.

The NFL Draft is fresh reinforcements every year. By giving up as much as they did for Tunsil, the Texans have created a scenario where they need to be right about essentially every pick they make and every player on the roster. This is a team that went into the season with Aaron Colvin as the starting nickel corner in 2019 and cut him after Week 1, to not even get into their talent evaluation on the grander scale. And as those young players grow up, there’s no guarantee that they’ll be able to afford them if they actually do ball out, or that the players will say the magic words that elevate them into O’Brien and Easterby’s character country club.


I have to make sure I separate the player from the transaction here: Laremy Tunsil has done absolutely nothing wrong. He’s a great player at his position. This is not a post where I’m going to cherry-pick all his bad blocks of the season and laugh at him. He’s an asset to any organization, and a charismatic guy. (Though one I’ll admit I am a little surprised that BOB and Easterby are fans of.)

But trading for him didn’t alter much of Houston’s present course, and as the price begins to get conveyed on Thursday, it’s worth pointing out that the Texans need to be flawless on literally everything else they do over the next two years to make the trade pay off. O’Brien’s new buzzword may have been layers and layers of players, but layers and layers of potential quality are going to Miami instead of Houston because he wanted one guy.


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A month later, I’m still not sure why the Texans felt they needed David Johnson

It immediately became obvious in the aftermath of the DeAndre Hopkins trade that head coach Bill O’Brien, general manager Bill O’Brien, and head of interviews Jack Easterby put a high value on Cardinals running back David Johnson. The trade felt lopsided instantly. It was obviously an incredibly divisive transaction, to the point where the Texans refused to really acknowledge that it happened socially by burying it in a transactions post. (You still won’t see a single bit of the official team Twitter that acknowledges that this trade happened directly.)

So it was already obvious that O’Brien coveted Johnson, and then we get into this quote:

Source: HoustonTexans.com

Now, I’m aware it’s established fan mentality to talk up the new guy, and I certainly think David Johnson both belongs on an NFL roster and has shown flashes of being a superstar running back in the past. However, it is worth noting that there are a lot of things that are fundamentally weird about making him the centerpiece of a trade involving DeAndre Hopkins. I think the Johnson return has sort of gotten lost in the wash of the trade because of the inherent emotional hot-button that the trade instantly became.

One of them, which I touched on at the time of the trade, is that David Johnson is not a very good zone runner. In fact, he was noticeably less great at it than Carlos Hyde was last year. In 2018 and 2019, Johnson averaged 3.9 and 3.8 yards per carry, respectively, on zone runs. Hyde averaged 4.4 yards per carry on zone runs in 2019. Johnson’s zone running, memorably in my eyes, was a big reason why Matt Waldman was a little lower on him than most at the time he was drafted.

But that’s really just scratching the surface of why I think Johnson is an odd fit for the Texans. Here are several other reasons:

David Johnson’s biggest calling card over Carlos Hyde is first- and second-down versatility … but Bill O’Brien rarely incorporates running back passes

Of Deshaun Watson’s 495 passing attempts last year, Sports Info Solutions noted 71 of them were targets for Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson. 52 of them happened on first and second-down, and of those, exactly three of them happened with less than five yards to go. The Texans ran just six running back screens all season. A vast majority of the running back targets don’t come from the flow of the offense, but from Deshaun Watson checking it down.

Watson targeted running backs (Lamar Miller, Alfred Blue, Tyler Ervin, and D’Onta Foreman) just 66 times in 2018, exactly three times on first or second down and more than five yards to go. The Texans threw running back screens … six times all season.

In Watson’s rookie season — the one where O’Brien married his concepts to what Watson was using at Clemson and the offense was dominant until Watson got hurt — Watson targeted running backs 35 times in seven games, but averaged 8.8 yards per pass. Still, there were only three screens, and only three of them came with less than five yards to go on first or second down.

As I noted when the Texans acquired Duke Johnson, the only time in the Bill O’Brien era where he’s emphasized a running back in the passing game all on his own was in his initial season with Arian Foster, and once Foster got hurt, that was over.

The fact that we have such a rich and robust NFL history from O’Brien to pull from really denigrates any argument that Johnson’s first and second-down utility matters. We saw what happened last year when the Texans had a dynamic receiving back on the roster that they invested a high pick in — they refused to use him. We have a large collection of seasons with extremely similar stat lines. It’s possible that Tim Kelly’s coordination will be different than O’Brien’s, but we have no evidence that it will be or that Kelly will always call all plays. Kelly has literally not spoken publicly since being named head playcaller, and his interview sessions last year were watching-paint-dry dull. We all know who the Napoleon is here.

Speaking of Duke Johnson…

Why, exactly, is Duke Johnson going to be sharing time with David Johnson?

My major criticism of this trade the second it happened was that, while David Johnson’s receiving talent makes him a viable running back, the Texans just traded a third-round pick for a player like this last offseason. Duke Johnson and David Johnson are both top-of-the-line receiving backs.

But, uh, here’s another question: What reason is there for David Johnson to be considered a better player than Duke Johnson at this point in their respective careers?

David Johnson has logged a few more touches — though less than you’d think given how often Duke Johnson was targeted — but has a much lower yards per carry, a lower yards per target number, and about the only major statistical thing you can say he’s been better at than Duke is that he’s fumbled less per attempt. Duke Johnson is also younger than David is.

I think speaking purely from a scouting standpoint, David Johnson is maybe a hair better than Duke Johnson as a downfield receiver. They each have issues running zone — there was a reason that I thought Hyde deserved more of the early-down carries last season — but I think Duke Johnson looks more spry and has more explosion at this point. The numbers also back this up:

2016 happened, but 2016 happened a long time ago. David Johnson has had multiple major injuries since it happened. 2016 Texans starting quarterback Brock Osweiler has already retired.

If Johnson were being brought on as a complementary player — a throw-in in this trade — I think he clearly has the ability to be a part of a good NFL offense. But the context of what the Texans already had in Duke Johnson makes what he does well less important than it does for almost any other team.

Johnson’s declining explosion and his injury history likely go hand-in-hand

In 2016, Johnson broke more tackles per SIS than any back in the NFL. In the short sample of 2017 snaps we had before he dislocated his wrist, we see the same standard of tackle-breaking. But in 2018 and 2019, Johnson hasn’t been the same player. He played through ankle and back injuries in 2019, and looked so bad that he was essentially a healthy scratch for most of the second half of the season. He dealt with a quad injury in 2018 and also spent time on the injury report with that back, which reportedly has “locked up on him” at times.

The reaction to injuries are funny from an objective standpoint because so much of the messaging about them comes down to the messaging the team gives out. It’s objectively a good thing that Johnson’s legs have mostly been unscathed in the NFL. It’s possible to spin his lack of carries the last couple seasons as something that has kept the tread off his tires if you have an agenda that carries you that way. Meanwhile, Jadeveon Clowney was looked at as a major injury risk for a long-term deal … yet he’s played a hell of a lot more than David Johnson has the last three years.

Medical science and the back are not exactly best friends. I don’t think the Texans should be slaughtered for taking on a player that’s an injury risk — I generally think injury risks should be taken more often by NFL teams, but I usually think that because the player generally is more affordable due to the injury. That is … not exactly what happened here.

Running backs just aren’t worth that much money anymore

In taking David Johnson’s contract, the Texans opportunity-cost themselves chances to sign Melvin Gordon and Todd Gurley to deals well below Johnson’s salary. In other words, even if the Texans were dead-set on acquiring a good running back, there were cheaper options available.

The reported two-year, $10 million offer that Carlos Hyde had on the table that he turned down was something that was always likely to be accepted by Hyde in the long-term, but Bill O’Brien couldn’t wait. In 2020, only the Rams and Jets will be committing more dollars to running back cap space than the Texans. Moreover, 20 of the 32 NFL teams are committed to less than $10 million total on running backs. Johnson’s cap charge alone is $11.15 million.

You combine this with the fact that Johnson, again, doesn’t really appear to offer anything new to the Texans without a time hole to 2016, and it stacks up in a way that just doesn’t make any apparent sense on the field. Certainly, having a dynamic pass-catching back is good. Having versatility is good. But given the context of how O’Brien uses his running backs, this is the football equivalent of spending $30 on new stainless steel measuring cups when you already paid $25 for some plastic ones last year.


Is Johnson still a useful NFL player? Yes. But the Occam’s Razor explanation of why the Texans traded for him is hard to unwind unless you accept at face value that they believe in their personality evaluations more than they believe in anything else.

These Houston Texans value their read of your character more than they value their read of your talent. They have to believe that Johnson’s character will lead him past his injuries to a bounceback season the likes of which we haven’t seen since 2016 for this acquisition to make any sense.

There is little evidence from the last three years to show any reasonable confidence in that.


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The Brandin Cooks trade is yet another potential disaster in the making for Bill O’Brien

I’ve been writing about football for a little over 10 years now, so I’ve been around the block enough to know that the reaction to the DeAndre Hopkins trade being largely negative was a one-time thing. It was a perfect storm of things that most fans hate:

— Bad value in return.
— Trading away an established star.
— The idea that David Johnson — who I still have not gotten to write a real piece about because the team keeps making new terrible moves — is one of the most overpaid players in the NFL.

There are fans who would be swayed towards the trade the second any of those three things was different. If Hop had gone for a 1 and a 2. If the Texans had been the ones trading a couple future 2s for, say, Yannick Ngakoue. If the Texans hadn’t taken on a bad contract to do it. The only people left who could argue for the Hopkins trade were pure homers and true O’Brien believers.

Trading a different second-round pick for Brandin Cooks is designed to appeal to the fans from the second scenario — he’s established enough to appease a fan base. He played very well in a Super Bowl. He “opens up the underneath receivers.”

The problem is that every underlying part of trading for Cooks reeks. It is hard to look past the fact that the Rams were willing to take the largest ($21.8 million) single-season cap hit in NFL history just to get rid of him. It is hard to look past the fact that they traded him despite already paying him a roster bonus. It is hard to understand how having four receivers capable of starting (five if you count Keke Coutee, Bill O’Brien doesn’t) is going to fit into Bill O’Brien’s offensive design philosophy. Most importantly…

It’s incredibly hard to see this trade as anything but an admission that Bill O’Brien’s relationship with DeAndre Hopkins was broken

If you were following the excuse-making for the Hopkins trade, friction was cited as a reason by Aaron Wilson and, more memorably, Michael Irvin:

The party line at the Texans season ticket holder conference call was that they simply couldn’t afford DeAndre on a new deal:

Bullshit. The Texans didn’t give Hopkins that money because either a) they thought he had “lost a step,” — the popularly leaked narrative, b) Bill O’Brien and Jack Easterby don’t like DeAndre Hopkins, or c) they let b inform a. It is true that the Texans will not pay any of the guaranteed money on Cooks’ contract, but it is also true that they just traded a second-round pick for him and he will still take up a significant portion of their cap space. Given what signing Hopkins to an extension would have looked like, it is incredibly unlikely that the cap hit difference would have been meaningful until 2022 or so.

The DeAndre Hopkins trade was an evaluation of Hopkins’ character, more than anything. That is what this team values, and they can’t value it properly in a context that they don’t understand. Giving balls to your blind mother in the stands isn’t enough to overcome your baby mamas.

What happened to Brandin Cooks in 2019?

Cooks had an incredibly down season where he caught just 42 balls for 583 yards. His yards per target declined to 8.1, the lowest it had been since his rookie season. He dropped four of his 72 targets per SIS data — more if you want to use other drop sources. It was a disastrous season.

More importantly, the design of Los Angeles’ offense moved entirely away from Cooks because they couldn’t run play-action once teams started defending them with a heavy box. What wound up happening was that Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp became much more valuable receivers in those circumstances. Even when we consider the two missed games Cooks had last season and give him 50 snaps for each of them, he would have been the third-most used receiver on the team. Cooks’ main gripe coming out of Oregon State was an inability to get off press coverage, and while he is not as one-dimensional as he was then, it’s obviously still an issue if that kind of offensive shift forces him to be mostly irrelevant.

Then there’s the issue of the five documented concussions. Cooks is not an injury-prone player in general, but his steep decline last year is extremely concerning in light of those concussions. Let me pull up his pro-football-reference comps:

Outside of the players who are still active (Beckham, Allen, Cooper, Diggs, Adams) these other guys show a strong trend line towards being done at Cooks’ age, which makes sense given Cooks’ sudden decline and how the career lines will change for both Cooks and the other active players as their careers go on. George Sauer’s last NFL season was played at 27. Harvin, in a bit role in Buffalo, 28. Jefferson, in a bit role in Cleveland, 29. Shanklin, 28. O.J. McDuffie made it to 31 but was essentially done as a star after his age-29 season. Cooks is 26, will be 27 in September.

Now, I don’t bring these numbers up because I think Cooks is completely toast. I don’t think it’s completely impossible to get good production out of him. I just think that the downside of this trade is very high considering the price. The Harvin comp stands out to me because it also occurred in the modern NFL and he had similar explosiveness and a similar number of concussions. When Harvin was traded to the Jets off a lost season, at a much younger age, he cost a sixth-round pick that could have upgraded to a fourth in certain circumstances. He also came with more off-field baggage, so I’m not suggesting that Cooks should be valued that lowly. But I do think the Texans have overpaid by a bunch here, especially in light of draftniks declaring this one of the better draft classes for wideouts in recent memory.

If put in to the role that Hopkins filled for this offense on most downs last year, Cooks will struggle. He got by far the least separation of any Rams full-time receiver last season per NFL Next Gen Stats, and Bill O’Brien will not scheme separation anywhere near as often as Sean McVay did:

If you are curious, the only Texans receiver in 2019 to average more than three yards of separation was Jordan Akins.

If put in to the role that Fuller filled for this offense last season, he’ll probably perform fairly well. The problem is that this relies on Fuller being healthy enough to emulate Hopkins, and also it relies on Fuller not getting traded to the Detroit Lions for a fifth-round pick. Initial fan reaction was very caught up on Cooks’ high yards per catch numbers, but it’s not like Bill O’Brien is going to run four verticals every play. By pretending that they can replace what Hopkins did with Randall Cobb and Cooks combined — at a price that will likely be worse than the rumored Hopkins extension! — they are instead going to make their offense incredibly transparent and reliant on deep balls. The value of DeAndre Hopkins was that he could do it all and teams couldn’t play him one way.

By the way, Deshaun Watson’s loft balls deep are great, but he has never had Andrew Luck-level cannon throws or anything. There’s a reason that scouts critiqued his ball speed coming out, and it does show up on some of his throws. Not enough to keep him from being a great quarterback in the aggregate, but it’s not like he’s been hitting 100% of open deep targets.

The cult grows

Every football team has a little bit of cult in them, and I think we have to accept that it’s almost necessary in some ways that whoever leads a team has some of those elements in them. Players are always asked to sacrifice for the greater good. We hear about the building of a good culture. NFL teams often hire people they are familiar with. The bubble, as they call it, is something that rules a lot of the NFL.

But I think you’d be hardpressed to find a situation where it rules it quite as much as it does in Houston.

So it is important to note that Cooks and Easterby have a fairly one-sided Twitter relationship where Cooks tweets Christian-themed motivational gruel and Easterby retweets it.

Easterby retweeted Cooks four times in about the span of a month. They have a pre-existing relationship from their New England days:

And when Aaron Wilson drops something like this:

It is hard to escape the idea that this was a move made because they value Brandin Cooks as a person more than most teams value him as an asset. I’m not going to chase the religious underpinnings here because the beliefs honestly do not matter to me, the person who only cares about how good the team is. But it is clear that the Houston Texans standard is set up for a certain type of person at this point, with this leadership. You would have to stick your head in the sand to ignore that.


Now, in the aggregate, is trading for Brandin Cooks a good thing or a bad thing for 2020 Super Bowl hopes? Probably a good thing. It has been pointed out to me by several Twitter users who dislike my stance on this trade that it is going to be hard to get on-field practices together this year, even in optimistic COVID-19 scenarios. But, to take a construct that O’Brien, Cal McNair, and Easterby used in defending themselves earlier: You’ve got to look at the whole picture. A better way of having a team ready for 2020 would have just been keeping DeAndre Hopkins instead of trying to build a culture along the lines of the old Apple commercial.

The leadership that Cal McNair has entrusted to show off bold moves is using those bold moves to wipe the slate clean of anybody that they don’t find to match their desired playing persona. They believe that this is a novel approach that nobody has tried and failed with before. Hilariously, the culture they came from in New England was one that was almost dedicated on pouncing on talent that came out of situations similar to this.

It only makes sense that in this dumb moment of history that we are all suffering through, these two have the keys to Deshaun Watson’s career.

I will not be surprised by 1,000 yards for Brandin Cooks. I will not be surprised by 250 yards and a ton of missed games by Brandin Cooks. I will take the under on him being on the team for three years. I will take the second-round pick.


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“So that’s gonna happen every single year” — thoughts on Houston’s spending

Cal McNair, Bill O’Brien, and Jack Easterby came together Friday afternoon, being fed questions by Marc Vandermeer, to put together a brief conference call for season ticket holders. It matched a lot of what you would expect a news conference to look like from a defensive, overwhelmed organization that refuses to believe the outside world has any basis in reality. DeAndre Hopkins was mentioned by name less than five times, most of which came after Bill O’Brien rambled for about three minutes in a row. He was mentioned by Cal McNair or to Cal McNair exactly zero times.

This, in and of itself, isn’t all that newsworthy. It’s a reliving of a catharsis that should have happened a lot earlier. It’s fun to be mad at Bill O’Brien, it’s fun to note that Jack Easterby mentioned “virtual memes,” which I can only assume means he knows about “stonks.” It’s fun to hear that Cal McNair does not, by his own admission, have the IT savvy to launch a Skype or Zoom call. It doesn’t really change anything, but these are all fun notes of an internal dismantling that sure seems to be the blind leading the blind.

But the part that stuck out the most to me was Bill O’Brien’s spiel about how the team wanted to re-sign D.J. Reader, but that they simply couldn’t afford it. And that it was going to happen “every single year.”

He parlayed that into blaming DeAndre Hopkins for wanting a raise with three years left on his deal. Which, let’s be fair together, is a crock of an excuse to me. DeAndre Hopkins has zero leverage to not report to camp under the new CBA. He has every reason to be upset that he’s being underpaid in the current market. The fact that he wants a new deal may make Bill O’Brien’s fee fees get in a tangle, but it wasn’t like there was a lot that Hopkins could do about it before he was shipped off to Arizona for the dream that 2016 David Johnson is alive and beans.

But let’s talk about the glaring issue in the room here: Over the past two offseasons — the two in which O’Brien has had control with Brian Gaine as a buffer for about three months — the Texans have lost Jadeveon Clowney, DeAndre Hopkins, D.J. Reader, and Tyrann Mathieu to the fact that they all wanted more money than the Texans were willing to spend. All of them are, let’s be generous to the Texans, top 20 players at their respective positions. I’d argue higher, but I don’t need another conversation with the Jadeveon Clowney Sack Totaller who doesn’t understand why teams would want to have their doctors check out a guy’s microfracture repair before giving him money.

This is going to happen every year. What does that really mean?

Who have the Texans kept and gone after when it comes time to pay players?

Since Bill O’Brien took over the Texans, they have completed exactly one big free-agency deal: Signing Brock Osweiler. Even that contract was a little overblown: Osweiler had only a $12 million cap figure in 2016, and only left about $9 million more on the cap as part of what was reported as $37 million in guarantees. That cap figure in 2016 was 20th among quarterbacks. It felt like a bigger bust than it was because anything with quarterbacks is high-profile.

When the Texans re-signed J.J. Watt to a $100 million-dollar deal in 2014, they were negotiating with a lot of leverage. Watt got plenty of guaranteed money, but he never had the top hit of any 3-4 end. He has honestly always been a bit underpaid relative to production. Did you know, that in 2017, he made less than Muhammad Wilkerson? It’s true. If we compare Watt to actual edge rushers, the contract looks even worse. 2016 was the one year where Watt’s cap hit was actually top-5 at his position. By 2017, he was behind players like Clay Matthews, Olivier Vernon, Justin Houston, and Von Miller. In 2020, the contract is extremely generous compared to the top of the market.

When the Texans re-signed DeAndre Hopkins to a five-year, $81 million deal off of his fifth-year option, Hopkins had the No. 1 cap hit among NFL wideouts for a season. Since then, it has declined to the point where, in 2020, he won’t even be in the top 10.

via Over The Cap

Other than those two players, the Texans have been extremely reticent to sign players to top-of-the-market contracts. They’re willing to talk up Nick Martin, Kareem Jackson (while still young), Benardrick McKinney and Whitney Mercilus, and put them at or near the top 10 at their positions. They’re willing to give solid deals to role players like Angelo Blackson. But they’re very reluctant to set a market for a star player. Obviously, Laremy Tunsil and Deshaun Watson will be giant exceptions to this — they are noted in almost every presser O’Brien gives, and the Texans have almost no choice but to sign Tunsil after trading two years of first-round picks for him.

When they go shopping in free agency, the Texans tend to come away with more players like Eric Murray, Aaron Colvin, Tashaun Gipson, and Zach Fulton. Their free agency plan is mix between high projections on players who haven’t reached that space yet and one-year contracts to players who have seen their market dwindle. It’s one that, as Bill O’Brien emphasizes capital T, capital E, capital A, capital M team, really means they’re trying to get the best value that they can. And what the Texans appear to have decided with a few notable exceptions is that the best value they can get is not in re-signing players looking to be at the top of the market. I don’t agree with the stance, but that is what the actions suggest.

Now, and I want to emphasize this again: This doesn’t mean there’s any real risk that the Texans will let Laremy Tunsil or Deshaun Watson go from what I’m hearing. But when a team tells you something like this that is backed by the actions, you’ve got to listen to them. They’re not going to set markets outside of special occasions.

Emotional loading and money

Now, I want you to notice that I’ve gotten this far without throwing a word down characterizing Houston’s spending. I think it’s very easy to get in an emotional spiral about the money, and it’s wildly easy to start throwing around terms like “cheap.”

But I do want to run a comparison by you, and I want you to think about it outside of the context of how you feel about the money:

Yes, I know the Texans will be lower in cap space when everything is ratified. Aaron Wilson’s reporting is $20M, I’m just going by what’s on Over the Cap because I’m lazy

Team B’s marquee free agent lost in 2019, by the way, is Nick Vigil. Yes, that’s the Cincinnati Bengals, a team that has been accused (and has a reputation of being over the years) of being quite frugal and losing a lot of their best players. Not true in a wall-to-wall sense since 2015 or so, though they did not keep Marvin Jones, Andrew Whitworth, Kevin Zeitler, or Mohamed Sanu.

The Texans are by far bolder than the Bengals — I don’t think this is a completely fair comparison for this reason. The Bengals would absolutely let a Hopkins scenario play out in the background and tune it out, just like they’ve done with A.J. Green. The Bengals would not have traded Jadeveon Clowney, but would have let him walk in free agency. Not to even get to things like the Laremy Tunsil trade, which probably has not ever crossed Mike Brown’s mind as a possibility.

But when it comes down to spending, the teams do wind up remarkably similar. You don’t see many top of the market deals, you see good players leave despite cap space to sign them into. I also think ownership on both of these teams has had a hard time adjusting to the exploding salary cap era. As former NFL exec Joe Banner told The Ringer in 2018, “It’s the biggest untold story in football,. With the excessive amount of available cap space, close to a billion dollars—some teams can’t mentally keep up with that.”

And that’s why, after the new CBA created more money for the Bengals to spend, it was disheartening to watch Reader leave for Cincinnati for what was, on paper, essentially the same deal that the Texans signed Mercilus to.

I don’t necessarily think the Texans have no money to spend, and I don’t necessarily think they are cheap. I think the Texans strongly believe that they’re better off not spending that money and using their resources to Smart, Tough, Dependable themselves up with people they know well. It’s seven-dimensional chess that starts with always committing a huge portion of cap space on running backs.

Much like running J.J. Watt and Vince Wilfork on to the goal line offense when you’re down multiple scores in a playoff game, the plan is too cute by half. The plan is that the best people (in the eyes of Easterby and O’Brien) that can be found are going to be the best players, and that knowing the players deeper than anyone else will mean you’re getting extra out of them, and that there is inherent value in that:

I don’t agree! I also think Deshaun Watson is likely to hide whatever warts are in the plan as long as he’s here! Like, there’s not really a reason for me to pick against the Texans making the playoffs as long as he’s here, especially now that there’s a third wild-card team slated to be added.

It all just adds to feel like a gigantic wasted opportunity. If the Texans had just paid the majority of their star players over the last four years, they’d have one of the most enviable roster cores in the NFL. Instead, they’ve got a core and coaching staff that Watson will have to carry to the playoffs every single season. This was a sustained choice by Bill O’Brien, who has consolidated his power greater than it’s ever been, and the entire fate of the franchise rides on it while the fanbase continues to want blood.

No pressure.


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