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.
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