The Lost Generation of 2018

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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From 2019-2021, the Texans selected one player in the first round and three players in the second round. Of those high picks, we don’t know where Tytus Howard will be playing in 2021, Lonnie Johnson already moved from cornerback to safety, Ross Blacklock’s first year was essentially a write-off, and we have no idea if Max Scharping will ever emerge from the scrapheap he was placed under in 2020. The team’s commitment to its youth and, I’ll even take this a step further, its plan for developing that youth, seems like it is made up on the spot every day.

Howard was supposedly drafted to be the long-term left tackle, then they played him at guard during training camp and traded for Laremy Tunsil, then they decided he was a right tackle during the third game of the season. Now they don’t know if he’s playing right tackle or if Marcus Cannon is. Since Jack Easterby became part of the organization in 2019, this team has consistently preached the virtues of versatility and delivered on that by never actually taking a stand on what they believe in with their young players. It’ll all get settled on the field, except who gets the opportunity to be on the field is in and of itself a value judgement. And the second there’s a weakness or something a young player needs to work on, he’s expelled from the conversation in favor of the veteran.

The 2018 NFL Draft, the last one the Texans had in the Bill O’Brien era with a real general manager in the building, was a little bit different. Brian Gaine snagged Justin Reid, Martinas Rankin, and Jordan Akins in the third round, along with Keke Coutee in the fourth round, then Jordan Thomas, Duke Ejiofor, and Peter Kalambayi in the sixth round. Every single one of the players picked in the first four rounds were instantly brought into the fold. Reid was a Day 1 player who was a 100% starter when healthy by Week 6. Rankin started three of his first four games as the Texans looked (desperately) for tackle solutions in a post-Duane Brown world. Akins was a rotational receiver right away. Coutee was playing in the slot as soon as he was healthy. Thomas actually played more in the middle of the season than Akins did. Ejiofor flashed some promise until he got on the injury train. Kalambayi was a decent special teams player. Note that not only did these players have instant roles on the team, but that they were not all instant successes, and that the team continued to use them in spite of that.

As we continue to assess blame for the downturn of the team, It catches my eye that O’Brien was able to conduct plans with all these rookies when there was a competent general manager in the building.

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I ran a poll on the Twitter about a month ago about this class, and it was an utter vote of non-confidence for the non-Justin Reid 2018 class:

While I can understand that, I think both Akins and Coutee can be part of a good team. Akins has plenty of great snags over the past few years, and he can cut a rug in the open field that few tight ends can. Coutee has had big fumbles and mistakes but creates separation underneath in a way that is unique among current Texans receivers — the way that Randall Cobb would have five years ago. When I think about these two players, I think of them as guys who could be option 3 or option 4 in a good passing game by emphasizing their best attributes.

But the story of these two players is the story of an organization that didn’t believe in them, so I can’t blame the fans for not believing in them. Akins was buried behind Darren Fells and Pharaoh Brown because he’s not a blocker, limiting his snap counts. (Of course, Fells was also a terrible blocker the way the Texans used him.) They never managed to integrate Akins into the offense in an organic way on passing downs, even towards the end of last season when he was probably the best non-Cooks receiving threat on the active roster. They lost Thomas on waivers for no real reason. This is a position that, based on the 2018 promise, you could argue was on pace to be settled in 2020. Instead — listen, I’m rooting for these guys as I rooted for Fells — but you have to call them journeymen. We’re hoping that Brevin Jordan is up to becoming something, but if Kahale Warring becomes something he’s bucking immense odds to do so. The rest of the non-Akins players on this depth chart are journeymen. That’s what they are.

Coutee was buried behind DeAndre Carter because, according to coaches, the latter practiced better. That sounds just as idiotic now as it did then. And I get that Coutee’s been dinged up, and I get that he hasn’t always presented himself in the way that O’Brien would have wished in public, but the carrot-and-sticking he received was eternally stupid. Then to sign Cobb — one of the most underrated free-agent boondoggles in Texans history — to push Coutee out of even making something out of his career. It’s just bad business.

Were these guys ever going to be franchise stars? I kind of doubt it for one reason or another. But the conversation around them could be much more different if the team had just emphasized youth on the roster instead of all this tough, smart, dependable Easterbese nonsense. Good teams create value from their draft picks and realize that the job is to work with what those players can do and try to develop them further. They get the ball to Akins and avoid his blocking being an issue schematically. Bad teams do what the Texans did and pigeonhole them without really giving them a chance to blossom.

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Justin Reid is in a fascinating place as he heads into the final year of his rookie deal. He’s been dinged up in the last two seasons and played through his injuries as long as the team’s been in contention. The Texans moved him to more of an in-the-box safety role in 2020 and it resulted in a pretty uneven year. He finished with 16 broken tackles per Sports Info Solutions, a number that tied him for the eleventh-most in the NFL. Frankly, it seemed like a waste to not use his coverage ability as a deep safety, but you have to admit that when they used Reid as a blitzer it worked pretty well.

I think of Reid as a third-round success story. At the same time, even though he’s gotten nearly 100% of the snaps for the last two years as long as he’s been healthy, you have to think that as someone who is clearly cerebral and was here for the 2018 Texans, he understands the difference in the culture then versus the culture now. He’s been moved around a bit. He’s seen what has happened from the inside.

If I’m Justin Reid, knowing what I know about this organization, there is no home-town discount. At the same time, because he’s been so dinged up, that might create a little opportunity for a deal because there’s a very real downside to Reid hitting the market as the guy who has been injured three years in a row. That kind of guy gets a prove-it deal. I largely expect that it doesn’t make sense for the Texans to offer that kind of deal though, because a healthy Justin Reid season probably doesn’t move the bottom line much for where they are right now. This team as things stand right now simply has much bigger problems than whether their safety play is good or mediocre.

Now, Tyrann Mathieu started a trend with his exodus from Houston where he reeled in $14 million a year. I think Reid probably comes in closer to $9-12 million a season, with something like $13-$25 million guaranteed, if he has a healthy, good year and hits free agency. Youth is very much on Reid’s side as he entered the NFL at 21 and will be a free agent at 25. And I think you also will have teams that say that the poor numbers last year were reflective of the Texans not using him properly and the fact that the 2020 scheme was disastrous. John Johnson got three years, $33.7 million, and $20 million in guarantees in a year where the salary cap lowered. I would consider Reid and Johnson to be fairly close in talent if not results.

It would certainly be a welcome sign of good faith for the Texans to lock up a good player early or try to give Reid so much guaranteed that he couldn’t gamble on himself this year, but my read of the situation is that it doesn’t make a lot of sense for either side to take care of this early. Reid knows he can increase his value, and the Texans know that one more injury will radically change the perception of Reid around the league.

In a year that doesn’t seem to have a lot at stake for the Texans, their players, or their fans, Reid might be a storyline we keep coming back to because there’s a lot on the line for him.

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The 2018 draft was the last draft I can remember feeling good about from a value perspective halfway through the season. But I think more importantly than that, the players that have carved out a non-trivial career tell a story about the Texans that they would not want broadcasted.

Because Coutee and Akins should have always been a bigger part of the offense, and that means that there was never a need to sign Randall Cobb. Thomas and Kalambayi were pushed off the roster by veteran special teamer types, but they’re both hanging around the league still. If you count Eric Murray as a 2020 starter, Reid has played with a different presumed starter at safety in every single year of his career.

It’s probably not fair to say the 2018 class were canaries in the coal mine for the dysfunction of the Texans, but that’s mostly because the air raid sirens were already blaring on that the second Gaine was fired. What I take away from them — and a big reason I think Easterby has more power than some people would like to give him credit for — is that the 2018 class is unique in recent Texans history because there was a plan for them.

And then, without a general manager, suddenly there wasn’t.

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