Five optimistic things about the Texans through five games

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The Texans are 1-4 and have one of the worst five point-differentials in the NFL. That was fairly foreseeable from the jump. How they got there, though, is a little more unexpected. They haven’t been the worst team in the NFL, nor in their own division. They nearly jumped a sleeping Patriots team on Sunday. Some of their players have played very well, and others, well, not so much.

Here’s what I’d give you as far as optimism through five weeks:

1) Roy Lopez is essentially Houston’s starting nose tackle, as a rookie, and is doing just fine

Has Roy Lopez become the best player in the NFL? No. Is he a top … let’s say, 25 defensive tackle in the NFL? No. But is he a productive player on a four-year rookie contract? He sure is. That’s all I ever wanted out of this season, from the moment that it became clear that Deshaun Watson wouldn’t wear deep steel blue. The whole point of this team should have been to create several Roy Lopez’s. And so I think it’s a great sign of where Lopez is that he was able to get deep enough into the culture membrane to actually win a starting job after Vincent Taylor was sent to IR:

He is the only Texans rookie that has played multiple good games, and he’s shown more pass-rush ability than expected. That doesn’t mean he’s going to be a star, and it doesn’t even mean he’s going to get good enough for people to whine that he’s overlooked. I’ve seen many five-game samples of players that were meaningless in the long run. But the Texans have got an honest-to-goodness chance at long-term production at a cheap price here, and as the guy who is always complaining about how this team is locked in on veterans, it’s nice to see that it can actually happen here. We’re beginning to see this happen with the conversation around Jon Greenard now too, even though Greenard hasn’t been very healthy. Lonnie Johnson finally has outlasted the Eric Murray starting experience and is making some plays on the football even if he makes things interesting. Let’s find out what these young players are good at and use them the best way they can be used.

2) Regardless of the outcome of the experiment, Davis Mills had real experience this year and the Texans won’t have to approach him as an unknown in the 2022 offseason

My line of thinking around Mills at this point is: I didn’t think he was ready to start this year, but he also showed noticeable improvement in the Patriots game. I don’t know if it’s enough to bank on him being a full-time starter in 2020 or 2021, but it’s an optimistic outcome for the pick at all that he didn’t just bleed out after being thrown to the wolves.

The first three starts for a quarterback are always a weird situation because coordinators don’t try to dial down on weaknesses that they can’t see on NFL film very often. I think it’s likely that Mills will get drawn into the grand adjustment game. Right now, I’m most concerned about how Mills will deal with blitzes. That’s not something that happened all that often against the Patriots, and when it did, he looked ghastly. Mills kept clean is a much different player than Mills hurried. I’d also feel better about his future if I saw plays like the Conley fourth-down play, but where he remains in the pocket and finds the solution rather than drifting.

Ultimately, I’m expecting him to settle in as a Kevin Kolb-type of player after the first four games of experience. That sounds negative, but it comes with a couple of caveats. Any player that can improve as much as Mills did from the Bills game to the Patriots game has to be treated seriously as a prospect because that level of improvement is rare (and that’s from someone who thinks some of Mills’ big throws in the game have the aura of flukiness to them). Finally, you might remember Kolb as a washout, but the Eagles were able to trade him for a second-round pick and a solid cornerback. There were a lot of people around the league who thought quite highly of Kolb. I don’t know if that same process plays out 10 years later because I think NFL front offices tend to be a little more wary of small samples, but there’s still plenty of time to change that.

The worst-case scenario for the Texans this year was leaving the season without any evidence on Mills one way or another, because with the Watson situation resolved in the way it has been, they desperately needed to have an opinion on Mills with actual field work before they pop up with, say, the 20th pick in the draft in a trade and are considering their options in a down quarterback class.

3) Brandin Cooks has been better than I anticipated and has earned at least a “draw” on the trade that brought him to Houston

I dial in pretty deep into my feelings on the major trades this team makes, and for the most part I’ve been proven right to be pessimistic on them. I kind of hate it! One thing people think about the guy who has “branded” this way is that it’s a conscious choice to just dig in and despise everything the team does rather than a reaction to 12-plus years covering the NFL in-depth. But when I go back and look at the record of hating the Tunsil trade, hating the Hopkins trade, hating bringing back Easterby, thinking the Whitney Mercilus re-signing was low-ceiling, hating the Eric Murray signing, and on and on … I feel pretty vindicated in the way this has played out on the field and off the field. I don’t want to be negative, I’d love if the team pilfered their own Hopkins off some sucker. They don’t do that.

The one trade I think I was a little too low on, in retrospect, was dealing a second-round pick for Brandin Cooks. Most of my feedback in this post is focused on the fact that Cooks is not DeAndre Hopkins, but you traded for him like he was.

Cooks has not suffered a major injury in his 20 games with the Texans, and has only missed a single game. I think it’s fair to note that the deep passing game for the Texans never really established him in the same way it has for other teams because Tim Kelly’s play-action scheme remains broken. The only deep shot Cooks touchdown that comes to mind off play-action was in the Week 17 Titans game last year. The rest of what he’s done has been taking short passes a long way or winning balls deep that he has to slow up for out of structure. The rationale of Cooks becoming a part of a balanced attack was always silly and he’s been the Texans primary receiver in a ridiculous way early on:

Now, I think some of you on the optimistic side are going “a draw”?!!?! Well, here’s my rationale for that: The Texans are 5-15 since acquiring Cooks, and three of those five wins are against the Jaguars. In the context of knowing that, would you rather not have had the second-round pick? It turned into Van Jefferson, but you have your choice of guys like A.J. Dillon, Justin Madubuike, Josh Jones, Kristian Fulton, Jeremy Chinn, Bryan Edwards, Antonio Gibson, Julian Blackmon, and so on. All of whom would have two more years of control on their rookie deals. I think you can debate that those are more valuable assets for a team that should be rebuilding to control.

Cooks has kept his value fairly steady — I think in a rational NFL marketplace where you’re not dealing with Bill O’Brien, you could probably get a three for him, maybe a two. But the way the Texans value his contributions to the culture, which was a concern of mine when they made the trade, I don’t know that he’s actually going to get traded. He’s literally a guaranteed caller on the Texans in-house programs on Monday reviewing the game, and his tightness with Easterby essentially makes him an extension of management. That’s all well and good while he’s performing like this. He’s also going to have a $16 million cap hit next year with two void years after that, at which point he’ll be 30. The NFL moves fast. A rational front office would be thinking about starting a trade deadline bidding war. A front office this hooked into what a player is about as a person, however, I don’t know if that’s happening…

4) Tyrod Taylor was much better than I anticipated when he was healthy

I definitely had a very low expectation of Taylor this season because his recent statistical output was not good. In his last four seasons, he’d been sacked on 10.1% of his dropbacks and averaged only 121 yards per game as he dink-and-dunked his way up the field. While I still believe that the Jaguars game amounts to a few big throws out-of-structure working out that I wouldn’t exactly call repeatable, I think the Texans did a good job of building the box around him to keep the statistical output manageable. One sack in 44 dropbacks speaks to that, including a lot of chips at Myles Garrett to keep him from becoming a factor in that game.

I do think that there’s a lot of hyperbole around “just wait until we get Tyrod back!” because there’s a) no guarantee that this version of Tyrod is coming back and b) we’re coloring that six-quarter sample with a lot of bad Jaguars pass defense. Jacksonville is dead-last in pass defense DVOA. Cleveland, even with Garrett, is 19th.

But, I must admit, the underneath accuracy and the sack-avoidance was better than I expected, and if he does come back, there are a lot of winnable games on the schedule. I know that at 1-4, the fans who have written off the Texans as “tanking” don’t want to hear that. Well, sorry. You better hope that hamstring injury is worse than reported.

5) Lovie Smith has delivered on his turnover focus promise

Houston’s defense is the only part of this team delivering on any of their promise statistically. They’re 15th in defensive DVOA and ninth in defensive pass DVOA through five games, as compared to 30th and 29th the year before. At it’s core, it all comes down to the turnovers. Houston forced a turnover on just 5.4% of their opponent’s possessions last year, which was dead last in the NFL by a lot — as you’d expect from a team with just nine total turnovers. This year they’re at 14.5% — seventh in the NFL — and they’ve forced eight turnovers in five games. They’ve also had a number of fumbles hit the ground that they have not scooped up, including five in two games against the Bills and Panthers.

To be honest, the most appalling thing about this is how simple it has been. The Texans have had a relatively easy quarterback schedule so far and probably caught a break in that Josh Allen’s start against them was in lousy weather. They’re still giving up a ton of yardage. They’re just counting on you to make mistakes in ball carriage and capitalizing against it, as was part of the explanation for letting Rhamondre Stevenson carry the ball after the two-minute warning last week.

If you have to lean a defense into one ethos for a modern NFL that feels like offenses have most of the answers, well, why wouldn’t it be turnovers? And I have to give Lovie a lot of credit for backing up his messaging on that, because it was exhausting in the preseason. It has paid off so far for a unit I would charitably say is short two good outside corners and at least one big pass rusher. They are relentless at trying to pop the ball out.

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Next week: Six pessimistic things about the Texans through six games. That’s right, we’re engaging in complementary posting.

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