Competition is what happens when you lack established talent and aren’t interested in creating it

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The 2015 Texans had a quarterback competition between Ryan Mallett and Brian Hoyer. The winner of the competition was every other team in the NFL, because neither player had the requisite talent to just be named a starter outright.

To be sure, this is a glib view of competition as a general ethos — not every position is as difficult as quarterback, there are many positions where a competition can produce a productive player — I get that it’s an oversimplification and that there are places where a competition can help a team. But carrying it as a cudgel rather than a natural outgrowth of accumulating young talent that deserves to play is something that, in my head, is worth sounding an alarm about.

The Texans are repeating one of their worst mistakes from last season, a lesson that they should have learned after it repeatedly smacked them in the face during an 0-4 closeout to the season. It is not much of a surprise, you see, because everyone involved in that disaster of a year closed ranks and pretended nothing bad happened. Romeo Crennel is still on the staff as a consultant. Tim Kelly is still the offensive coordinator. Jack Easterby survived with unprecedented power for a non-GM/HC. You see, if only they’d not gone 2-9 in one-score games, it would have changed everything about the perception of that season. That’s a core value they have retained, and it is something I fear will make the 2021 season unbearable.

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Do you remember anything John Reid did last season?

Reid was the Texans’ fourth-round pick. I wrote a scouting report on him because I liked him the most of the Texans draft picks last year. He sounded smart and he walked the walk as far as I could tell. He was coming into a situation where the team had very little in the way of good established corners; that’s generally something that portends playing time for young players. Reid instantly got on the field against Kansas City in the opener, though he was fairly quiet.

He didn’t have another 30-snap game until Week 16.

I don’t have a lot of ego tied up into my evaluation here. Obviously, I’m rooting for John Reid to be a great player, but if he doesn’t become an NFL starter that’s a fairly expected outcome for a fourth-round pick. The problem is that by not giving him snaps, the team has created a situation where nobody has any idea what he actually is. The upfront investment in rookies is a four-year contract, and the upside is that if they overperform their draft spot, you are gaining value over the course of that rookie deal. Sometimes they don’t work out, or they play poorly, and that’s where competition can be a good thing. But if they never get a chance to play, was it a competition, or was it just a decision?

Keke Coutee has been with the Texans for three seasons. He hasn’t had 350 snaps in a season yet. The team has had every reason to want to boost Jacob Martin as he’s the main piece they got from the Jadeveon Clowney trade. He hasn’t reached 400 snaps in a season yet. In-house radio went and fluffed Easterby’s hog for not trading Jordan Akins. Akins fell from 655 snaps in 2019 to 405 last year. Some of that is about missing three games, but even after coming back from his concussion he was never the full-time tight end. All three of those guys are going to be free agents after 2021 and nobody has any idea what kind of season they’d put up with a full snap share. They’ve each had some big individual highlights in small samples, so why have they not been given those snaps to grow?

Outside of Tytus Howard, the Texans haven’t had a first-round pick since Deshaun Watson. That’s a big part of the reason the roster is in the state that it is. But it’s hard to not see the pattern of a lack of trust in the youth that they’ve created since Easterby has been installed. It’s hard to develop players if they can’t play. If Justin Reid were drafted in 2019 instead of 2018, would he have 800 snaps yet?

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Coming off a 4-12 season, with Will Fuller and J.J. Watt gone and an expectation around the league that Deshaun Watson will not play for the team in 2021, the Texans would seem to be an ideal roster for an undrafted free agent to crack. They are the only team in the NFL with a win over/under total of less than 5 in Vegas circles.

So, of course, the Texans have signed just four undrafted free agents so far: A&M linemen Ryan McCollum and Carson Green, UCF WR Marlon Williams, and Missouri WR Damon Hazelton.

Undrafted free agents all sign three-year contracts with a restricted free agent option in 2021. While it’s obviously patently silly to bank on your team generating Arian Foster, it has happened before! Many big-name NFL stars come out of undrafted free agency, and even if you only hit on someone to “role player” or “solid,” that’s a lot of money saved over the course of the contract. As this team is widely predicted to be terrible, it should have been set up to be big players in undrafted free agency. The Texans should have been banging on Dylan Moses’ and Marvin Wilson’s phones with a huge guaranteed offer. Instead, this happened:

The team filled up 87 of its 90 roster spots, mostly early in free agency, mostly in the name of competition. Listen, I’m not going to trash the players on this roster. Live your dreams out Cole Toner, I’m pulling for you as long as you put on Steel Blue. But given that this team is widely projected to be awful the second a Watson trade goes down and it becomes inescapable reality rather than widespread belief that he won’t play for the Texans ever again, there’s not a lot of value to the Texans for Cole Toner being here. If Cole Toner wins a center job over all his other competition, and plays poorly, he won’t be playing long. If he plays well, the Texans have to immediately pay him. Bill O’Brien uttered the phrase “layers and layers of players,” during the 2020 offseason. That philosophy never existed with this organization before Easterby’s hiring. In fact, I think you can draw an interesting line to the Laremy Tunsil trade, where they were bent over a barrel, and this desire to make sure that they have multiple “answers” of depth at every position.

From a value proposition, though, 4-7 year free agency is a non-starter when compared to undrafted free agency. Particularly this year, when scouts were not allowed as much contact with players as usual and you would expect there to be more mistakes and guys who should not have made it to this point.

I haven’t brought up the idea of tanking here because a) I don’t think the Texans are trying to tank and b) I think it’s harder to tank in the NFL than you’d expect from an outside theoretical sense. But since I keep being asked: Not only do I think the Texans are not trying to tank, I think they have doubled-down so far on their own beliefs that they believe they’re going to compete. They say all of this stuff so openly and so often that it’s hard to escape the fact that they believe it matters:

The Texans don’t just have a plan to improve you as a football player, they need to “assimilate” you. You need to give yourself to them entirely. They earnestly believe that this “program” matters. To some people, it might just be football, a sport that you play. Not to these guys, who have bought in so hard on this collective attitude that if you want to get deep into the weeds you can start to wonder if what it means to be a Houston Texan is a lifestyle instead of a profession.

To them, all of that matters much, much more than just signing talented football players and letting them play. There’s a dogma that what they believe about scouting personality and character traits matters more than, say, cost-value propositions about what kind of players are valuable to team building and which aren’t. It’s why David Johnson and Mark Ingram will completely block us from ever knowing if Buddy Howell and Scottie Phillips are good enough to be NFL running backs.

As long as it persists, this team will be spinning its wheels.

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I don’t have high hopes for the 2021 Houston Texans. It — earnestly — is taking a lot of restraint to come back to pulling for the players in the face of how stupid all of this seems, because my instinct is to just bury my keyboard in the yard and never think about Texans football again until there’s another regime change. What happened last year should have been punished instead of rewarded.

I think the gap comes down to this:

My best-case expectation for the Texans is for them to spend 2021 developing as many young players as possible and seeing what happens. If that means some of them get beat in a big situation, or some of them do not embody “what it means to be a Houston Texan” when they have an extra strawberry shake on Friday or come in at 6:15 instead of 6:00, that doesn’t matter to me. You see who John Reid and Ross Blacklock and Jon Greenard and Jacob Martin and Garret Wallow and Jordan Akins and Brevin Jordan are and if they are good enough to be long-term fixtures on your roster. You start looking ahead to 2022 and have no belief that you’re going to make the playoffs until 2023, when you might have finally accumulated enough talent to make that feasible.

I have no faith the management of this team agrees with a word of that. The actions have spoken very loudly — from 2019 to now — that this team does not care about developing its young players. If it happens, they’re cool with it. They’re not going to spend a lot of snaps on it. They’d rather have a cornerback competition and let Vernon Hargreaves allow 7.5 yards per target than let Keion Crossen allow 8. They believe they can win instantly because they have the right group of player personalities and beliefs in place. They have already told you exactly what they believed in by heading to the free agency counter and signing older players by the bushel.

In short, they learned nothing from 2020. There are ways that this can play out that can be better for their long-term growth than others. Someone who wins a competition could be a trade deadline asset — quick aside to Jack Easterby’s beautiful, beautiful work in not trading Will Fuller while also managing to piss him off last season. Youth that flashes heavily in the preseason can get claimed on waivers and allowed to flourish here. But as a general rule, they have decided what the player they want thinks and acts like and what his floor is, and that’s more important than young players getting snaps, because those players might make mistakes.

It’s very easy to tune out what the Texans are trying to tell you, because on the surface there’s not a lot of distinguishing notes between Typical Vague Football Talk and the kind of amateur phrenology they’re banking on here. But in simple terms: They believe they’re smarter than the rest of the league despite how big of a flop the last two years have been and how disastrously they’ve been owned in every trade they’ve made. They earnestly believe that. They have to, to continue operating how they have.

Over the past three seasons, Deshaun Watson and the rest of the stars and solid contributors on this team have been able to mostly brush aside the dumb things that this team did and take them to the brink of contention. Those players have left or been sent away en masse. Watt, Fuller, Clowney, DeAndre Hopkins, D.J. Reader, Tyrann Mathieu, Kareem Jackson, Benardrick McKinney. Andre Johnson has basically quit his association with the team. Watson would like to.

Front and center this year, with no more star cover? This team’s poor management, from ownership to personnel to the man who has his hand in just about everything they do. They believe you can’t go wrong doing what’s right, to paraphrase our last Cal McNair public appearance with questions, but they’ve yet to do anything to build the trust that they know what’s right, let alone how to build a football team.

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The end of detention

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

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What the last few days felt like was a punishment. The Texans had to watch 66 picks go by before they selected on Friday night, and while everyone else had their shiny new toys lined up, the Texans were to face the wall and count off players on their division championship winners.

Friday itself? It was fine. Despite the fact that Nick Caserio is now running the show, it spiritually didn’t feel a lot different than the 2020 NFL Draft. I wasn’t over the moon about anyone they picked on either day, but they were fine, rational picks of players who were hanging around at about the spot they should be taken according to draftnik consensus. I can’t really fault the Texans for not moving around the board more given their lack of pick value to play with, and I sure as hell am not going to unload on them for not taking the players I’d prefer because I have enough self-reflection to tell you I’m not a draft scout.

What today meant for me, and what I hope it means for you if you’re suffering through this with your heart on your sleeve, is that it closed the book on the ill-fated Laremy Tunsil trade. We’re done having to watch every other team in the NFL pick before the Texans are up. The organization itself is not going to be incredibly sturdy until a seemingly inevitable parting with Deshaun Watson happens and they procure the tools and picks with which they can actually rebuild something.

No matter what happens in the 2021 season — and I’m prepared for the worst — the Texans will at least be able to actually pick someone early in the 2022 NFL Draft. That’s a small thing that I took for granted before these last two years. I wish I hadn’t had to find out that I took it for granted, but that can be water under the bridge. Something from these cursed ~18 months that can be fully left behind.

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Nick Caserio views his job mostly as he sees it through the processes and calculations of what he believes his job is. What I mean by that is that I wasn’t at all surprised by the fact that he didn’t offer much of an endorsement of Davis Mills as a franchise quarterback after selecting him with his first pick as a Texan. He has already engaged in seventh-dimension chess about the various ways the pick could and couldn’t work out, checkmated himself three times and you four times, and is going to tell you about it in very general terms to avoid giving away anything that he knows.

I don’t personally think Mills offers a lot of franchise quarterback upside. I think of him as a potential steady backup and someone who, hey, who knows, could surprise you. The guy who came to mind when looking at the traits list was former Browns third-rounder Cody Kessler. Kessler had his backers in the draftnik circuit, had some prowess and juice as a good decision-maker. Where Kessler failed was that he didn’t have the arm to actually cash the checks his brain could write. Davis has more upside as a downfield passer, but much, much less actionable experience. Asides, of course, from his work in Virtual Reality Football:

You’re not going to find clean prospects at 67th overall. This is, arguably, the highest upside roll the Texans can take. If Davis hits his ceiling, the quarterback situation is taken care of with a 10th-15th-best quarterback in the league-type, an Eli Manning or thereabouts. It’s not incredibly likely that he hits it, but given the season we’re all staring down, I think it’s a worthwhile risk to take.

If you put me in charge of the board in that moment I probably would have taken Indiana safety Jamar Johnson. I know that the position is fairly loaded for this season, but I have my doubts that Justin Reid and the Texans are going to see eye-to-eye about his value and think Johnson could break in with dime packages this year as a prelude to something bigger in 2021. Hey, Johnson’s still on the board! Plenty of time left.

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Then, after rumors that they might be looking to move back, Caserio actually traded back into the third round to bring in Michigan wideout Nico Collins. The move cost the Texans one of their fifth-rounders tomorrow, as well as a 2022 fourth-rounder from the Rams. This is actually a fairly significant trade-up in terms of pure draft chart value.

Me, I pretty much believe the draft ends right around pick 100, maybe a little later. The way teams rate players after the obvious physical fits gives ample space for guys to slide around. So if you assume that the Rams are going to be pretty good next year (they did just trade for Matt Stafford), and that the pick probably won’t be close to the top 100, I can squint enough to get over it. The Texans traded into the top 100 and gave up only one pick close to it. Not great value, but fair enough.

Speaking of obvious physical fits, that is what Nico Collins is.

Collins is a huge, physical receiver who profiles as the outside guy that the Texans didn’t really have on this roster. He’s not the same kind of burner that Will Fuller is, which kind of shows up in a subpar 20-yard split. When Collins gets going, he gets going, but it takes a few strides to get up to top-flight speed. A lot of his career prospects are going to come down to if his playing speed is average or solid-average. Because of how often he just kind of disappeared in drives (granted it’s Michigan and Shea Patterson was rough), I kind of see him more in the No. 2 wideout ceiling/No. 3 wideout floor range. A rough floor is that Collins becomes a quality underneath guy who moves some chains with tough catches. For a ceiling, I could imagine him playing like Marques Colston but in a bit different of a role because of the differences between the Saints tree and the Patriots tree. Most draftniks described Collins as something close to a tease — humongous highlights but not much consistency.

I am more excited about this pick than I am about the Mills pick because I think there’s a more reliable floor, but if you plugged me into this spot I probably would have gone with another defensive player. If not Johnson, then maybe Washington corner Elijah Molden. This team did just finish a full NFL season forcing less than 10 turnovers, right?

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I will spend time watching through games, interviews, and draftnik breakdowns of these two (and perhaps one other pick) in the future to flesh out my feelings about them — these are planned posts of the future — but these are my first blush, surface-level looks. I’ll do more of these tomorrow unless Caserio trades all the picks away for Jimmy Garoppolo. (I’m kidding, I think.)

I don’t think anything happened here tonight that should cause fans any extra grief unless they were holding out hope for Watson to change his mind about staying with the Texans. (When asked about it, Caserio filibustered the question.)

I’m just glad that this is the last NFL Draft we have to endure in detention.

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