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.

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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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