My 53-man/69-man roster predictions

I was asked specifically to do this by a couple of readers last year, I get that it draws a lot of attention. But I want to be clear that I am doing this with no inside information, and that I expect to be wrong about many things in light of that. A lot of what we’re doing here is reading tea leaves.

This year’s changes

Practice squads have ballooned to 16-deep after COVID-19 CBA changes, two of which can be active on gamedays (previous 2020 CBA change) if the team wishes it to be so. However, if a practice squad player is on the active roster for more than two weeks they have to be placed there permanently for the rest of the season. In other words: I don’t expect this to be used all that much. It will likely be a rotation if it is used. Anyone who is not signed to the active roster is probably not a good bet to be with the team.

Active on gamedays has a very weird clause where if you have eight active players who are offensive linemen, you can have 48 active players. If you don’t have eight offensive linemen, you can only have 47 active players. What does this mean in actuality? Pretty much every team will carry at least eight linemen on the 53-man roster.

The final major change from the COVID-19 agreement is that teams are allowed to have six players on their practice squad with no experience limit. That means you could see more than a few real vets pop down to the practice squad this year.

Because the Texans are starting from 80 players, and they’re basically cutting down to 69 (nice!), there really aren’t that many cuts that get to be made. Because teams don’t have preseason tape to grind, I expect there probably won’t be much movement as we’re used to on cut day either. The roster changes have, as a whole, made this process a little more boring.

The most important thing for the Texans will simply be: how many players are healthy on roster cuts day? I expect to not see many more than seven or eight players let go when it’s all said and done just because of injuries.

53-man roster (53):

QB (2): Deshaun Watson (24), A.J. McCarron (29)
RB (4): David Johnson (28), Duke Johnson (26), Buddy Howell (24), Cullen Gillaspia (25)
WR (5): Will Fuller (26), Brandin Cooks (26), Kenny Stills (28), Randall Cobb (30), DeAndre Carter (27)
TE (4): Darren Fells (34), Jordan Akins (28), Jordan Thomas (24), Kahale Warring (23)
OL (9): Laremy Tunsil (26), Max Scharping (24), Nick Martin (27), Tytus Howard (24), Zach Fulton (28), Roderick Johnson (24), Senio Kelemete (30), Brent Qvale (29), Charlie Heck (23)
DL (7): J.J. Watt (31), Brandon Dunn (27), Charles Omenihu (23), Ross Blacklock (22), Angelo Blackson (27), Carlos Watkins (26), P.J. Hall (25)
LB (8): Whitney Mercilus (30), Jacob Martin (24), Brennan Scarlett (27), Zach Cunningham (25), Benardrick McKinney (27), Dylan Cole (26), Peter Kalmbayi (25), Jonathan Greenard (23)
CB (7): Bradley Roby (28), Lonnie Johnson (24), Gareon Conley (25), Vernon Hargreaves (25), John Reid (24), Keion Crossen (24), Jaylen Watkins (28)
S (4): Justin Reid (23), Eric Murray (26), A.J. Moore (24), Michael Thomas (30)
Specialists (3): Bryan Anger (31), Ka’imi Fairbairn (26), Jon Weeks (34)
My last five on the roster: Jonathan Greenard, P.J. Hall, Kahale Warring, Charlie Heck, Cullen Gillaspia

I really don’t think Kahale Warring deserves this spot. But they carried him last year, they opened with five tight ends last year, and have opened with at least four tight ends every year since Rick Smith left. I think he carries much more chance of being waiver claimed on account of the fact that he was a high-ranked prospect on more than a few boards. I would see him probably as a healthy inactive for most of this year unless he out-and-out hits IR.

I don’t think Greenard or Heck has shown a whole lot this August, and Greenard has recently been sitting out a slate of practices. But they both have four-year contracts and I think that carries them on here given that nobody has really been able to out-and-out impress the Texans with play in games. I think Gillaspia just isn’t getting pushed by anybody else — Karan Higdon doesn’t offer the same special teams ability and Gillaspia did ultimately bring good blocking when asked to play last year.

Giving the final spot to Hall is a nod to two things: Anthony Weaver’s ultimate influence as a line coach and how he probably felt about Hall to go get him after he didn’t pass a physical with the Vikings. I think there’ll be more emphasis on the defensive line room this year.

The hardest cut is Tyrell Adams — I think he’s been a pretty good special teamer for the Texans but they’ve let him walk before, he’s already 28, and they filled out the special teams unit in a big way this offseason.

What about Keke Coutee?

I could see the Texans carrying him as a sixth receiver but I don’t think he has any value to them without an injury in front of him. My read of the situation is that he got sat with a minor injury to avoid ruining his trade value. I believe he’ll either be traded or released at cuts, with an outside chance he winds up on the roster or on IR. I also think that Isaiah Coulter is another factor in keeping Coutee — I definitely don’t think the Texans want to keep seven wideouts. Six feels like the max. I’m gonna go with five.

Practice Squad (16)

QB: Alex McGough (24)
RB: Karan Higdon (24), Scottie Phillips (22)
WR: Steven Mitchell (26), Isaiah Coulter (21)
TE: Dylan Stapleton (22)
OL: Greg Mancz (28), Elijah Nkansah (25)
DL: Albert Huggins (23), Auzoyah Alulohai (23)
LB: Davin Bellamy (25), Nate Hall (24), Daren Bates (29)
DB: Cornell Armstrong (24), Jonathan Owens (25)
Specialist: Anthony Kukwa (27) — long snapper

Experience or upside? The hardest thing for me as an outside observer to measure is what they think of the older players versus the younger players. The two big names in that pool are newly-signed Daren Bates and incumbent corner Phillip Gaines. Gaines has missed a lot of practice, but Gareon Conley doesn’t look right yet to me either so that might tilt you to keeping another experienced corner. I think if you read between the lines of the Bates signing that there’s a short-term opportunity for him. Maybe he’s on the roster as an early elevation guy as the team figures out Dylan Cole’s return from a torn ACL. I could also see Tyrell Adams hanging on here, though I think they don’t sign Bates if they think Adams can handle what he handles. Maybe Nate Hall goes instead, since Hall was only signed before the Bills playoff game last year.

The third relatively old player I threw down here was Greg Mancz, who I think is a solid O’Brien life preserver but probably not as versatile as Qvale.

They’re keeping a long snapper? Well, I think it’s silly too, but think about it this way: they valued having a second long-snapper enough to put it on the early wish list. Didn’t work that way for kickers or punters. I think this is some upper-level strategery but I wouldn’t be surprised if he made an expanded practice squad as Jon Weeks insurance in COVID times.

The other player I could be wrong on is Scottie Phillips — I may like him more than the coaches do and there hasn’t been much made of him gaining ground on Higdon publicly.

Last year’s practice squad and how it informs this one: Let’s take the offensive line battle between Kyle Murphy, Rick Leonard, and Elijah Nkansah — all three of them spent a lot of time on the practice squad last year. Nkansah is the only one that got elevated to the roster in Week 17. That’s the kind of tiny nod that you can pick up on without actually being in their heads. I have no idea if it matters or not, but I’ll run with that. Likewise, Nate Hall and Anthony Chesley were both on last year’s quad, but they were late additions. I have Hall just barely hanging on over Adams. I expect to be wrong about a lot of these lower-level roster battles because we have no preseason games and I don’t get to watch practices.

I followed the money with this year’s UDFAs: Since they didn’t get much of a chance to impress, unless I heard someone explicitly praised by O’Brien I’ve mostly kept it to the guys who got bigger bonuses. Their two biggest bonuses were Alufohai ($65,000) and Tyler Simmons ($75,000) — I’ll talk about Simmons in a second.

Who heads to IR? Tyler Simmons and Chad Hansen are a couple of guys who I believe might wind up there. Neither have played all that much recently. It feels weird to stash players beyond 69 of them but this is a COVID-19 season and who really knows? I think Hansen’s big training camp has been more carrot-and-stick than actual flash, but that’s just the impression I get and he’s certainly got practice squad experience. Simmons has future punt returner written all over him but just hasn’t played much this month. Duke Ejiofor is already there.

Who does that leave without a job?

By my track: Isaac Whitney, Rick Leonard, Kyle Murphy, Cordel Iwuagwu, Jerald Hawkins, Chad Hansen, Phillip Gaines, Keke Coutee, Tyrell Adams, Anthony Chesley

The headlines there are probably Coutee, Gaines, Adams, and Hansen. I wouldn’t be surprised if any of them actually did make the roster, either. We’re simply at a point where there’s so many available spots that nothing truly is surprising anymore and the injuries will matter a lot. If they put Greenard on IR that opens a door for Adams. If they’re going to keep Conley inactive early they might keep Gaines. If Coulter goes on IR, that opens up a spot for Hansen, etc. etc. etc.

It’s a situation where there’s simply a lot of ways to get down to the final amount of chairs, and the IR situation means a lot in the final calculus. Let’s enjoy the chaos and pull for all the Texans who don’t make the roster to catch on elsewhere.


I’m writing this article free of charge — this website is ad-free and non-intrusive. If you enjoy my work and want to encourage me to produce more, please feel free to leave me a PayPal tip.

What can Rex Ryan’s defenses teach us about what might change for the Texans under Anthony Weaver?

New Texans defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver made no bones about it all offseason: creativity is a key. He has a strong foundation in Rex Ryan’s theory as Ryan was one of the first head coaches he worked under in Buffalo and was an instrumental part of Weaver’s career as a player. What the Ryans are most popular for are amoeba looks. Amoeba looks, if you’re trying to visualize, are just plays where a big crowd of players head near the line together. Some rush, some drop. They try to ask the quarterback to identify the rushers and droppers, and are hoping to confuse the quarterback at the line of scrimmage.

I don’t have a lot of particular thoughts about this as a worldview. I think it’s obviously a good thing to surprise quarterbacks, but amoeba looks are only as versatile as the players you use them with. The Texans don’t really have a ton of players that qualify in this vein and barely have enough players that are good at rushing the passer to begin with. The best-case scenario is that you simulate a pressure to the point the offensive line is directed to block somewhere you aren’t coming from. This “sim pressure” look is something that — wait for it — Romeo Crennel did really well last year. Here’s an example of how it looks courtesy of Coty Alexander.

The idea of making it impossible to understand where pressure is coming from is one of the most-utilized ways of creating cheap pressure at the college level, where most of the testing happens that matters schematically in football. LSU DC and now Baylor HC Dave Aranda used it a ton last season en route to a national title.

“That’s the thing these simulated pressures do,” Aranda told X&O Lab. “You’re not overloading a protection, you’re stressing it. You’re getting the right one-on-one’s … You get the pressure with the guy that you want for the guy you want it against.”

This is something that Rex Ryan did plenty of with the Jets, and thus, something that I think the Texans really need to cling to as they try to rebuild their defense. Romeo Crennel did this last year, and it was wildly successful when he did it, but he didn’t do it very often. I think there is mounting evidence that the Texans will be implementing more of these. There is plenty of talk from the players themselves about the versatility they will employ:

And then, when I ran a big table of how the Houston defense compared to the Jets/Bills units Ryan ran, one of my big takeaways was the DB Blitz rate:

(Click through to expand.)

Whenever the Jets and Bills were having issues with pass pressure, you reliably saw that DB Blitz rate spike. The Texans were running it 9% of the time each of the last two years. Ryan ran it 15% of the time in 2015, and 22% of the time in 2012, years where the Bills and Jets couldn’t buy pressure off the edge.

Given the likelihood that the Texans will not have high-quality one-on-one play from anybody but J.J. Watt — assuming he survives the season — I think a lot of the third-down turnaround is going to revolve around Weaver creating successful sim pressures. This team simply does not have enough talent to lay back on third-and-10, which they proved by allowing a 110.5% DVOA on third-and-long last year. On talent, while they have some youth that will be served and likely get better, pretty much the entire hopes of the unit revolves around players who have not performed yet doing so. They lost Tashaun Gipson and replaced him with Eric Murray, a move I think is a clear downgrade.

Watching back some of the Texans last game against Rex Ryan, in 2015 in Buffalo, Brian Hoyer actually did a good job in that game of quick-setting the defense. Here’s what it looks like when the defense plans to make life complex for you and then you just go so fast that you don’t give them time to make threats:

I don’t know that I’m particularly encouraged by the numbers. Even if you want to throw out the 2014 Jets as a true tank job, the Ryan discipline as a whole didn’t work very well from 2012 on. His philosophy quickly destroyed a Bills defense that had been excellent under current Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.

But I also think the lack of established talent that the Texans have means that there’s really not a lot bad to shake up. My ultimate read on this is that I don’t think much of what Weaver is promising is necessarily different — it just is probably a little more dialed up than how Romeo Crennel liked to play. Both Crennel and Ryan had high numbers of three-man rushes, but Ryan has tended to prefer the big blitz when he comes.

I have a bit of faith that Weaver can transform a few elements of this defense. I believe he’ll be less passive than Romeo was on third downs and play less zone during them. (This was a big problem the Texans had against better quarterbacks in my eyes.) I believe that he’ll work the sim pressure angle in a way to get J.J. Watt more one-on-ones when Watt is on the field. Finally, I think we’ll see more defensive back blitzes and more DBs standing up near the line of scrimmage.

But ultimately I don’t think in reviewing what I have about Ryan that Weaver has a ton of schematic gotchas. I think he’ll play mostly under control. I think the Texans are very much reliant on a lot of the young members of this defense growing up real fast to improve. That means big steps forward from Lonnie Johnson, Charles Omenihu, Gareon Conley, and the rookies. A lot is going to have to grow up in a hurry if the Texans are going to do more than regression bounce to the 25th-best DVOA defense or so.


I’m writing this article free of charge — this website is ad-free and non-intrusive. If you enjoy my work and want to encourage me to produce more, please feel free to leave me a PayPal tip.

Training Camp Digest: Week 1

Training Camp Digest is a series of quick-hit observations about the Houston Texans as they make their way through training camp. These observations are mostly made from publicly-available material, as I do not have a camp pass. I do converse with reporters who have been inside the bubble, but I mostly will use this piece to opine on my own and without inside knowledge.


Two-back sets: One of the hottest topics of the first couple of days of training camp was the potential of using two RB-sets more now that David Johnson and Duke Johnson both provide versatility. I don’t want to dismiss the idea of this completely out of hand, because I do think that having three separate players that are running threats in the backfield can be, at the very least, a tendency-changer for the Texans. I do think the propaganda has gotten ahead of the likelihood that it becomes something more than a 3-5% play that they put on film to make other teams prepare for it.

Think about it this way: there are four things a player can do on any one down: pass, run, catch, or block. Duke Johnson and David Johnson are not exactly devastating blockers to deal with. Thus, when you put them in the backfield together, whatever you design is ultimately based on misdirection. The very best backfield players in the NFL can threaten to do three of those things well. I don’t think any of those players are on this Houston roster at the moment. (Maybe, maybe, Cullen Gillaspia can do that. Certainly not proven.)

But the more you condense a formation, the less horizontal space you can attack. I think opposing defensive coordinators will happily treat Duke Johnson as someone who gets countered with a safety or nickelback rather than a linebacker. At that point, you’re in a “matchup” league, as O’Brien likes to call it. Could it create some of those matchups you like to see? Sure. But short of running the single-wing I think the versatility aspect of this is perhaps a little overrated. The most likely way it plays out to me is that “two running back” formations have one of the backs out wide.


The ascension of Jordan Thomas: So much of what happens behind closed doors in training camp is essentially made unreportable by the team. So one of the things that I think should raise alarm bells for you is when a reporter asks a coach about a specific player at practice. In this case: Jordan Thomas.

I think Thomas has always had enough of the eye of the coaching staff to say that he’s earned playing time. He got buried last year because of an unfair injury situation where the team aggravated it playing him in the fourth preseason game to try to make up for lost reps. Because Jordan Akins was playing as well as he was as the second tight end, I think it was a tough situation to integrate Thomas once he came off the injured list at midseason. I do believe Thomas has NFL talent, which he showed in his rookie season, and wouldn’t be surprised at all if he had a bigger role this year.

If it does happen, I’m hopeful it is at Fells’ expense, because as much as I enjoy Fells, he is the exact kind of player that sneakily drains cap space that could be used more efficiently on better players … particularly as the Covid-19 salary cap impacts of next season seem likely to make middle-class players expendable.


Unicorn Prayer and Duke Ejiofor: Forgive me for this rant, but there is absolutely nothing cheaper in the NFL landscape than fan excitement about a player who has to overcome history to be good. For one, those players often have a collegiate record or fanbase that leans towards accentuating the positive. For another, there’s nothing risked in being optimistic. I certainly am not going to chase you down and keep you honest on your positive Gareon Conley opinion — I don’t care about it. But it’s a lot easier to be negative about someone else’s sports opinions when they aren’t overwhelmingly positive.

The truth of NFL coverage is that most people have a hard time remembering anything more than snapshots. Because our audience tends to be as big as the number of casual fans to be, it’s hard to work with more than that. Showing every player’s sacks for a season will get traction. Showing 10 plays where a run defender gets defeated is something that a) nobody watches and b) nobody talks about. I’ve tried. We are a highlights society. In that society, the most important thing in my eyes are the people who actually go through and watch all they can, bring you their consensus, and let the results speak. I can pick through five plays of anybody’s all-22 and show them, at the very worst, holding their own. You can punctuate that with something like “Cornell Armstrong can be a great off-cover defender,” and get people excited. Can does all the lifting, but the people are already convinced.

Duke Ejiofor fell to the sixth round because he had concussion issues. He got hurt again last year. Lots of players make the NFL and get hurt — it’s a big jump in athletic competition. Many players don’t come back from a torn Achilles at all. He made it back to camp, and this time has torn his ACL. He has one sack in his career on 158 defensive snaps. I’m not telling you that his NFL career is done. I’m not telling you that you’re not allowed to be excited about his 2018 snaps. But from any sort of objective, 30,000-foot view, this isn’t a guy you do more than monitor and hope for. That was the case before training camp, too. I can go along and drag out 10s of Tweets I’ve received from people amounting to “why are you ignoring Duke Ejiofor?!?” This was always a more likely scenario than him hitting it big. Obviously, I’m pulling for him. I want him to succeed. But this is the exact situation that couldn’t have been more designed in a lab for people to yell at me. Those people never take any accountability when they’re wrong. It’s astroturfed optimism.

Keep your eyes on Kahale Warring, because if he doesn’t start impressing in practice, he’s about to become the next guy I get yelled at for ignoring.


Don’t sleep on John Reid getting early playing time: When I did my breakdown of Reid earlier this offseason, I was impressed by the quality of player he was and — reading more about him — impressed by his approach to the game. Everybody continues to be quite optimistic about him, and I think the quote from Anthony Weaver says it all:

Specific praise like that catches my eye. That’s not the sort of generic “please don’t ask me about this player” template answer you get. Then when you get into the circumstances, you see the case for playing time gets a little higher. Conley and Roby are the two corners everyone seems to think will start. Lonnie Johnson is getting “moving to safety” buzz. There’s not a clear player better than Reid who is playing nickel.

Then you mix this in with the same organization that dropped Aaron Colvin from starting slot to the street after Week 1 last year, and four games in a row against objectively good teams to start the season, and I think you’ve built a situation that Reid will likely step in to sooner rather than later. Vernon Hargreaves is not a clean projection at slot corner. If Roby isn’t moving inside to bring Lonnie Johnson outside, I think a battle with the interior players on this roster could go quite favorably for Reid.



I’m for them! We know that Deshaun Watson is going to get paid. Restructures from the front office (Angelo Blackson) are likely aimed at trying to get that done in a hurry.

I think Zach Cunningham has been a pretty good middle linebacker in the Benardrick McKinney tonesetter role, last year was a breakout. He’s not the best coverage linebacker in the business despite his physical gifts and, 2,500+ snaps into his career, probably never will be. The big question will be what is a fair value for Cunningham, and I think that’s one where his agents will likely see him as someone who deserves around $13-$15 million a season with $20-25 million in guarantees. That keeps him below Bobby Wagner and C.J. Mosley, but comfortably into the tier of recent signees like Shaq Thompson, Myles Jack, Jaylon Smith, and Cory Littleton.

Is he compromising down from that? I don’t know. I think I would personally value him closer to like $10-$11 million a season and $16-$17 million guaranteed — i.e. what McKinney got. But there’s probably a comfortable middle ground there that will still work with next year’s cap.


I’m writing this article free of charge — this website is ad-free and non-intrusive. If you enjoy my work and want to encourage me to produce more, please feel free to leave me a PayPal tip.

The Texans seem likely to have their best offensive line since 2015 — how does that improve them and what does that mean?

One of the biggest sources of optimism I see around the Texans this year is centered around how good the offensive line will be. The Texans PR team is in love with throwing out the stat that the Texans were 5-1 when they had a healthy Tytus Howard. In several different videos, they have pointed out that Houston hasn’t brought back the same starting unit since 2011. 2011, of course, was probably the best and most promising year in franchise history until Matt Schaub got hurt.

I think this framework kind of ignores a few major things. But I want to explain that by leading with the optimistic: I think the Texans offensive line already broke out last season. (It’s hard not to break out when you replace Julien Davenport with Laremy Tunsil!) At this point we’re on a different question: How high can they climb?

A user’s guide to injury attrition: Don’t count on the Texans line staying healthy

The average NFL offensive line lost 14.2 games to injury in 2019 per Football Outsiders’ AGL. The Texans lost 18.6. This is the No. 1 NFL position as far as games lost for a very simple reason: More of them are starters than any other position. The Texans lost eight games of Tytus Howard, a couple more of Laremy Tunsil, and the odd game here or there for other starters or would-have-been starters. The Texans were actually remarkably healthy on offense last season. The only major injury was to Lamar Miller, who the Texans replaced fairly easily between Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson.

“If this team can just stay healthy” is one of those NFL truisms that is ubiquitous at this point. If the team is healthy, they are lucky. That’s the truth of it. The Texans would very obviously get better production from their offensive line than they did in 2019 if they started their five best guys for 16 games. The odds of that actually happening are fairly low, no matter how many Bob McNair quotes from the past you’ve read on the matter.

(And, as an aside, that’s why I was so upset about Chris Clark getting starts last season. It should always be obvious to you that you need a backup plan at tackle. If Roderick Johnson wasn’t going to be that plan, you needed to solidify it earlier! A 35-year-old Clark is the kind of guy you start only when you have no say in the matter.)

The pass blocking: It’s all on Bill O’Brien

The Texans already mostly fixed the pass protection last season. The only weak link as a starter was Tytus Howard. Per Sports Info Solutions, Howard blew 12 pass blocks in 502 snaps, which is a rate of about one per 42 snaps — roughly two every three games. His replacements were much worse. Johnson and Clark combined to blow 23 pass blocks last season in 723 snaps, or about one per 31 snaps. The other four main starters combined to allow one blown pass block every 95 snaps.

This is mostly the same sort of thing you see in the PFF grading, if you’re curious: None of Tunsil, Nick Martin, Max Scharping, or Zach Fulton had a pass block grade worse than 74.

So why was the sack count still high? To me, it’s a simple combination of Deshaun Watson’s ability to buy time to make plays and an offense that gets read way too easily. You’re not touching what Watson does because what Watson does is a) phenomenal and b) can’t be untaught. But there were five different games last regular season where Watson took four or more sacks, and he threw for more than 200 yards in exactly one of those games — the opener at New Orleans when everyone had literally just met. Watson’s average time to throw last season was 2.82 seconds. In Week 4 against the Panthers and Week 2 against the Jaguars, it was higher than that. In Week 11 against the Ravens and Week 16 against the Bucs, the Texans were pillaged by the two most aggressive defenses in the NFL and had no idea how to react to it, and Watson actually had two of his fastest time-to-throw games mostly because he had no other choice. Hot routes have been an issue with this team under O’Brien/Watson and they haven’t solved it yet in my estimation.

I think the idea that the Texans are going to improve further as a pass-blocking offense is almost entirely reliant on O’Brien and Tim Kelly. Howard has a chance to be better than he was last year, but I don’t know that either Fulton or Martin’s gains should be considered banked goods. I expect the overall pass blocking execution to be fairly close to what it was last season barring a massive health swing in one direction or the other.

The run blocking: …what is with the run blocking anyway?

The Texans were pretty much bad as a run-blocking unit no matter which numbers you used. As a team, they finished third in blown blocks on rushes behind only the Rams and Cincinnati. Pretty much every player was worse in PFF’s grading on run plays than on pass plays, which I will explain by quoting their offensive line preview:

The run blocking was not nearly as good, finishing fifth-worst at 52.2. Left guard Max Scharping and right tackle Tytus Howard finished with near-identical grades — 59.1 for Scharping, 59.4 for Howard — as both rookies struggled in the run game, ranking near the bottom of their respective positions.

Center Nick Martin profiled similarly, with a 79.8 pass-blocking grade that ranked eighth but a run-blocking grade of 58.0 that ranked 25th among centers. Right guard Zach Fulton was even worse in the run game with a 42.5 grade that tied for fourth-worst among guards, but he finished 21st with a pass-blocking grade of 73.9.

If you want to just go straight up by Football Outsiders’ empirical adjusted line yards rankings, the Texans were 21st in the NFL in run blocking. This is despite having, we should add, the No. 1 run blocking line in “Power” situations last season. I did a little Twitter look at this stat and, as you’d expect, there’s regression action here:

The Texans have never had even a good offensive line as far as Adjusted Line Yards under O’Brien, but they also — obviously — haven’t had this much talent in the same room at once. Their high since 2014 was 2016’s 15th-place finish in ALY: 4.16. Those were the Brian Hoyer Texans, if you need some placement — Duane Brown, Xavier Su’a-Filo, Ben Jones, Brandon Brooks, and Derek Newton. That’s actually a pretty good line outside of Su’a-Filo. Three of those starters are still playing at a high level for other teams and Newton probably would be at least serviceable had he not torn both his patellar tendons on the same play against the Broncos in 2016.

The fact that good talent has only received average results is probably a bit of a tell for you here, but I am also looking at O’Brien and Kelly as the ultimate gatekeepers of the run-blocking problem. it’s easy to wave your hands at this and say “rookies are rookies, they’ll get better with more time,” that doesn’t necessarily excuse the rest of the line. The major players in the Sports Info Solution blown block charting were actually not Scharping and Howard, but Fulton and Martin:

For our final twist: Darren Fells led the league in blown blocks. By a lot. He had 15 blown run blocks and six blown pass blocks, both led the NFL.

What is a blown block?

That is a question that I think is both easy to note the answer to and easy to have a different standard for. Is it just allowing any sort of penetration? Is it allowing direct penetration that impacts the play? Is it just losing ground on a block? There are many different potential interpretations of where to draw the line. Some of the charted blown blocks from SIS, which I have access to, read a little questionable to me.

Coaching design matters a ton when it comes to blown blocks. You have to consider both the quality of your player and the design of the play. If the player is being asked to reach someone two gaps over, that’s not exactly an easy ask. So the player may get a blown block charted on a play like that, but that’s one that I think more accurately could be placed on the coaching staff for making an ask. Take this play:

That’s a play where you could call the block blown, but it’s a blown block of expectations to me, not one where the player wasn’t up to snuff.

What I see

I think both Nick Martin and Zach Fulton struggled to block on the move last year — so mainly on zone plays. Of Fulton’s 15 blown run blocks, eight of them came with the Texans running inside or outside zone. With Martin, it was six of 12.

Martin was particularly tormented by the Tennessee Titans, who hung four of his 12 blown blocks on the season up. Datone Jones’ power was something that Martin struggled to hang with:

Fells also struggled to block on the move, but he often was asked to pull all the way across the formation to complete his block — jargon for this is debatable, you can call it split-zone, you can call it arc — whichever word you want to attach to it, he was essentially acting more as a fullback rather than an in-line blocker. This put him at a disadvantage because it’s hard not to “get high” on your blocks when you are 6-foot-7 and moving.

I think going forward, Fells is a poor fit for this kind of role — if the Texans want him blocking, that’s fine. But he’s got to be an in-line guy to make the most of his talents.

In general, I think the Texans’ playbook has always asked a bit much of its line. That’s a primary reason the screen passes that have been in the last five years have been so bad on a yearly basis. (And why the Texans have run so few screens in general for the last few years.)

I don’t think either Fulton or Martin struggles to run zone, but I think it’s not a strong suit for either of them and making it the primary focus of the ground game is leading to more blown blocks.


I think for the most part, people are right to be excited about the offensive line, but a lot of the improvement that seems to be penciled in seems to rely on a sudden surge of coaching acumen. I do think Howard and Scharping can grow, and perhaps even become upper-echelon linemen at their positions. But the common OL improvement trope of “they’re gonna get strong and push people around” is, well, they did that last year. They were the best Power team in the NFL. They probably won’t improve at it this year! I think it relies more on either of them getting better as they move, because that is where the Texans focus most of their energy in the run game. Better balance on the move to not get spilled one way or another, better power as they move, better burst to a spot because of familiarity with the playbook. That sort of thing.

The Texans have a good offensive line, and they might take the next step this year and become dominant. I won’t rule that out. But I think if you look at what has held them back on raw numbers and stats, it’s more likely than not that a lot of the improvement that is ascribed to them already happened in 2019. I think it’s on the coaching staff to put these guys in better positions … unless Scharping or Howard become breakout stars.


I’m writing this article free of charge — this website is ad-free and non-intrusive. If you enjoy my work and want to encourage me to produce more, please feel free to leave me a PayPal tip.

What’d I Miss?: Where do things stand with the Houston Texans as camp starts?

There’s no shame in ducking out on this offseason, theoretical reader. I, too, have found it hard to concentrate on football during this shared collective experience we Americans have had foisted on us. But I will catch you up as best as I can:

So, the Texans are playing?

As of now, there are no plans to change anything about the regular season. The Texans are set to open up against the Kansas City Chiefs in Arrowhead on September 10th. This gives them an opportunity to avenge one of the biggest depantsings in the history of Houston sports.

There will not be a preseason at all, the NFL has cancelled that. The Texans appear to have predicted that result and didn’t bring in much in the way of UDFAs this year. This mitigates the chance that someone could come out of nowhere and steal a roster spot. Instead, the spotlight will be on the in-house scrimmages. August 14th is the day Bill O’Brien said would be the first day of full pads. The rookies and any kind of off-the-roster surge are going to have to make their names from padded practices and scrimmages. O’Brien has emphasized time and time again that this will be a “tough year” for rookies. I am not expecting a lot of playing time out of anyone besides Ross Blacklock and Jon Greenard. I believe we will have to deal with only very limited training camp reports from media as far as who wins any kind of spot on the roster.

How are the Texans dealing with COVID-19?

Bill O’Brien noted on Saturday that three days of in-house testing came back with 100% negatives. Families of players may take advantage of the testing as well. This, of course, guarantees nothing because COVID-19 circumstances can change on a daily basis. But the Texans have generally been ahead of the curve on the situation and were looking for new cleanliness protocols early and often. O’Brien’s money media quote was that players could eat off the floors, buried in the middle of a deeper admission that it’s all up to the players:

The Saints are doing a mini-bubble. I think that might be the best way for NFL teams to approach this without a fullscale bubble approach by the NFL as a whole. Without a bubble, any kind of rogue actor in contact with a Texans player offsite — or any teammate who decides to not be a team player — can spark a breakout. Given how poor public testing is and how Texas’ control decisions are decimating it, any person a player interacts with off-site could have it. There’s a chance that anyone from the UberEats driver to the person who checks you out at the grocery store has COVID-19. But, for now, there’s no sign the Texans will do this. The health of the Texans rests on a cluster of people making 100% perfect decisions for the next five months. Also, on every team they play doing the same.

What are the big Actual Football stories so far?

Deshaun Watson’s upcoming extension continues to draw a lot of press. The fact that Patrick Mahomes got a big enough contract to become a part-owner of the Royals threw more pressure on it. There continues to be no real story here. The Texans are in no danger of losing Watson and Watson continues to say all the right things about re-upping in Houston. Bill O’Brien noted in his presser that they’re not going to talk about contracts in the media. Deshaun Watson said that he loved “the organization, the McNair family, the coaching staff, the coaches, the players, the city, the fanbase.”

There remains not a lot of juice to this story. The only big thing that has changed is the NFL’s salary cap will take a hit next year if the teams lose a lot of revenue. Even then, management can trim several players from Houston’s salary cap easily next season should Watson agree to an extension. But, franchise quarterbacks are kind of a big deal. Watson’s contract will continue to be a debate point regardless until the day his signature is on it. In the mean time, every other team and fanbase prays for dysfunction and the chance to land a franchise quarterback.

Gareon Conley and Dylan Cole were both placed on the PUP list. Conley is coming off ankle surgery, while Cole is recovering from a torn ACL. It would not be surprising if Cole were not ready for Week 1. Conley, who had his fifth-year option declined before the season, has every incentive to be ready when the season starts.

What did I miss after the DeAndre Hopkins trade and the immediate fallout?

The Texans traded for Brandin Cooks to fill the void at wideout. They drafted Ross Blacklock, a TCU defensive lineman, with their second-round pick. They drafted Jon Greenard, an edge player from Florida, with their third-round pick. I have detailed writeups of all three of these below:


The shorter version: I don’t like the Cooks trade because of his concussion problems. I suspect the extra speed won’t make as much difference as some would have you believe. Both Blacklock and Greenard are fine value picks at positions of need. They were available later in the draft because they are somewhat athletically limited. They are going to need to be special football players as far as raw skill goes to be stars.

I’ve heard a lot that players are opting out. Have any Texans opted out?

One: Eddie Vanderdoes, who was active for three games last year as the Texans dealt with injury problems to their defensive line. Vanderdoes was dealing with “pre-existing conditions” per O’Brien. There’s still time for Texans players to opt out, though the deadline date appears to be mostly conjecture right now. As I’m editing this on Tuesday morning, the deadline appears to be hitting on Thursday.

Most of the players that have opted out — both in MLB and NFL — are players who have already made their first big contract. They are players weighing their health against a small relative amount of money. And because players like Watson and J.J. Watt have already held press conferences, it would be surprising if any stars walked away. I could see (speculating, no inside information) players such as Kenny Stills or Darren Fells opting out on account of heavy depth charts and the fact that they’ve already got some financial security. Another scenario is that the rules seem likely to incentivize players with large guarantees in their contracts this season to opt out.

It’s hard to tell who is “ahead” of the COVID-19 game. Many players, coaches, and executives have admitted that this season is going to be as dependent on health as any we’ve ever seen. But, for now, the Texans appear to have the right of it.

Okay, (tugs collar), but they’re not going to kneel when they play, right?

Well, reader, here’s what O’Brien said recently, and I’d emphasize the part where he says they haven’t decided yet:

O’Brien has said before that he will kneel if the players decide to kneel. I think some players will be pushing to kneel. Kenny Stills and Michael Thomas have knelt before.

The Texans have generally been very social justice-forward of late. They’ve been running conversations about race with black Houstonians and former players such as Sylvester Turner and Travis Johnson on their website. I must admit I have not watched them yet as book deadline and vacation ruined me, so I can’t tell you much about the actual content. What I can recommend is Thomas’ Football Morning In America column where he substituted for Peter King. Coming out of that was this quote that is pretty much square-on:

But I don’t think any player will really believe the sentiments of the NFL if Colin Kaepernick doesn’t have a job in the league this season.

When I initially spoke with Peter King about writing this column, he wanted to know if I might propose a creative solution to make that job happen for Kap. I said no. The NFL created this problem. The NFL has to solve it. It’s not my job to do that. If the league really feels like it’s going to back the players when it comes to ending racism, Colin should have a job. That’s the only way that the Black community and the players are going to truly believe the NFL is serious about what they say. Otherwise, people will always reference what you did to your own. You have to look in the mirror and clean your own house first.

The NFL, of course, is likely going to have to deal with legal problems if they sign Kaepernick now. Obvious collusion it took to not sign him is obvious. (The waivers involved appeared to be the big reason why his NFL workout did not come to pass.) Coming up on four years since his last NFL throw, Kaepernick continues to be one of the most influential players in the NFL. He was the start of the conversation, and any attempt to have the conversation without acknowledging that is going to be phony.

If the Texans did not kneel for the anthem at some point this season it would surprise me. If that makes you squeamish, I’d urge listening more to what they are protesting about rather than letting the concept of the spectacle guide your response.

Will the Texans overcome the Hopkins trade in a way that makes them materially better than they were in 2019?

I doubt it. But this is already a short season and is now going shoehorned with an extra case of COVID-19 randomness. I will concede that 2020 has the potential to defy normal expectations.

Football Outsiders Almanac 2020, available here, has a mean projection of 7.5 wins for the Texans, a number that gives them about a 37% shot at the playoffs. FO is higher on the Colts than consensus, giving them a 58.3% chance of making the playoffs. The Titans and Texans are part of a large pool of teams vying for the final two of three (yes, three) wild card playoff spots. Those teams include Buffalo, the Chargers, the Browns, and the Jets. I expect that Jets optimism will have some wind out of the sails with C.J. Mosely opting out of the season.

The most likely scenario in a normal season would be that the Texans would take a small consolidation step backwards. They’d remain AFC South and playoff contenders without being a good team. I will focus our remaining non-news blog posts in the preseason on reasons to both believe and disbelieve some of the underlying reasons there: Anthony Weaver’s scheme changes, offensive playcalling improvement without Bill O’Brien, the offensive line and a potential step forward, and a few others. The overlying caveat in all this is that if the Texans stay healthy it may not matter. Draw a schedule that has three backup COVID quarterbacks and three secondary rooms decimated by coronavirus, and it doesn’t matter. Any team with a big boost like that is going to make the playoffs.

Will the NFL make it through the season unscathed as things are currently constructed?

Again, I doubt it. Baseball has already had two major flare-ups and that’s a sport where, for the most part, nobody makes real contact. I can’t pretend that I know exactly where COVID will take us because nobody should be certain. One thing we’ve learned throughout all this is that in a crisis you are only as strong as your leadership. Roger Goodell has not proven himself to be a clear step above Rob Manfred in the planning space over his tenure.

My belief is that if the NFL presses on with the season, you can expect to see many cancelled games as well as plenty of players with the virus. I know that there are a lot of people out there who take pessimism on this personally, as if we are passing a moral judgment on everyone. There are plenty of smart, capable people who are responsible in the NFL. I would even say that the Texans are an organization that seems so focused on chasing those mental traits that they’ll fare better than most. But viruses exploit the weakest links and basest desires, and NFL players are not perfect angels even in the best of times. As long as the plan relies on the weakest links acting benevolently, the NFL will have issues with spread.


I’m writing this article free of charge — this website is ad-free and non-intrusive. If you enjoy my work and want to encourage me to produce more, please feel free to leave me a PayPal tip.