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.

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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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