Eric Murray’s contract is pure projection

One thing that Bill O’Brien has proven over and over again as Texans general manager is that he has no idea what the market is for anybody. Randall Cobb got $18.5 million guaranteed to Danny Amendola’s $3 million. Carlos Hyde turned down a two-year, $10 million offer before a free agency session where Melvin Gordon signed for two years and $16 million. He always pays top dollar on every trade. It is very obvious that BOB’s read of the market is flawed in many, many ways.

And in that vein we’ve got the Eric Murray signing. Murray has played only a little over a full year’s worth of defensive snaps, at 1566 defensive snaps over four seasons in Kansas City and Cleveland. He’s also had knee injuries take portions of his 2019 and 2018 seasons. In 2019, Murray was traded by the Chiefs to the Browns for Emmanuel Ogbah, who had a much better injury-abbreviated year than Murray yet got paid less for it. Best I can tell, Murray’s guaranteed money has not been released yet. We only know that there’s $20.5 million in total compensation in his contract. That may not seem like a lot, but let me take a picture for you of the bottom of the NFL FA safety landscape:

via Establish The Run

That’s not the high-money deal on the list, it’s the high-money deal on the list by roughly $12 million. And some of those guys won’t give what Murray does on special teams, some of them are older and not BOB guys, etc. But it’s a ridiculous overread of a player’s market that has just become par for the course with O’Brien.

If you look at Murray’s last two years of coverage snaps, you see a player that can project as a third safety pretty easily, ala Jaleel Addae last season. The problem is that he’s a tweener. Almost all of his coverage snaps have come in the middle of the field — he’s done almost zero coverage outside of the slot. But on the few snaps I’ve seen of him trying to play tight man-coverage in that role, I didn’t really see a lot of competition:

(Yes, as several people pointed out to me, Keenan Allen is good. But that jab-out-and-inside-release isn’t exactly rocket science for most slot receivers.)

Now, I think he actually runs man pretty well from an elevated position on the field. He shows good awareness getting around his own men on attempted pick plays and screens, and he does the typical Texans zone cover read-and-react thing well, as you’d expect:

As far as him being a safety goes, I think he plays that a little awkwardly when he’s deep. I saw multiple plays where he wound up as the last guy to a side and let somebody get by him.

So what we’ve really got is a good special teams player who needs to be used within the first 20 yards of the line of scrimmage to be a solid lurk defender. Not elite speed, not going to be an impact run defender. He’s versatile but not in a way where he has multiple calling cards — he’s just solid all around.

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Now, if a player like that stayed healthy, made some big plays for a good defense, you might see a bigger deal for a young player as a brand name sort of choice. But Murray hasn’t stayed healthy. His good has been accompanied by quite a bit of bad.

He’s solidly an NFL third safety, and I don’t think he’s in danger of playing his way out of Houston unless he suddenly winds up on the O’Brien Gestapo Bad Characters list, but I don’t see a lot of huge untapped upside here to move up in to a different role, and this contract pays him like he’s already there. (And overpays him for that, honestly, considering the Jeff Heath contract.)

If you’re trying to present an optimistic spin on this signing, I do think you can maybe portend that Anthony Weaver’s defense might be more interested in utilizing Murray’s short-field versatility than Romeo Crennel’s. I don’t necessarily know that this is a good thing because, as I said when they brought on Weaver, defenses that try to trick opponents with dropping players haven’t been NFL-successful in a hot minute. But it’s at least a step away from Crennel’s principles that were roundly found wanting without pass rush last year.

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Houston’s Randall Cobb signing has more than a whiff of panic

Reeling from the backlash they were receiving from pretty much every sphere of NFL media, the Texans quietly agreed to terms with long-time Packers wideout Randall Cobb late Monday night. Cobb, who is coming off an empirically solid season with the Cowboys, was targeted 83 times, caught 66% of his passes, and had a 5.5% DVOA. If you look at this move solely in the context of “the Texans traded away a great receiver and needed some sort of guarantee out of his replacement,” it has some sense to it. But if you poke at the veneer harder on any area of this signing, it starts to fall apart. Particularly at the price tag: a reported three-year, $27 million deal with $19 million in guarantees.

— Cobb’s 5.5% DVOA was 33rd among starting wideouts last year, but with the Cowboys having a dynamic offense, it clearly puts him at the bottom of their pecking order. Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup had higher receiving DVOAs. Ezekiel Elliott had a higher receiving DVOA. Blake Jarwin had a higher receiving DVOA. Jason Witten did not have a higher receiving DVOA, but he also can’t do anything but catch the ball and fall down, and his DVOA was still a perfectly average 0.0%. Cobb wasn’t adding a lot to his offense last year.

— If you look at the Next Gen Stats, Cobb was given more cushion than any other Cowboys receiver last season, at 6.2 yards on average. None of their other primary receivers even got to 6-flat.

— Cobb is no longer an elite separator like he was early in his career. He was above average on expected yards after catch, generating 6.2 against expected.5.8. But to put that in to perspective, D.K. Metcalf got that same amount over average and it took him a week to run the three-cone drill. He was also only 0.1 yards after catch over average in 2018, in a much worse offense.

— Cobb ran almost all of his routes inside the numbers, meaning that he lessens the ability of a Will Fuller to go inside and get some easier targets in 3WR situations.

— Cobb doesn’t fit the typical Texans signing of a young player they can mold. He’ll turn 30 in August. His list of PFR similar players is daunting as far as good expectations: Alfred Jenkins, Danny Abramowicz, Dwayne Bowe, Alshon Jeffery, Jeremy Maclin, Brett Perriman, Eddie Brown, Darrell Jackson, Doug Baldwin, Carl Pickens. Only one of those players had even an 800-yard season after turning 30. (Perriman wrecked shop with the 95-96 Lions after a complex career arc.) Many of them didn’t even play at age 30!

To go out and sign Cobb on the first day of tampering and give him $19 million guaranteed when a similar receiver like Danny Amendola signed for $3 million total reeks of desperation. To do it before they figure out where potential turn-around candidates or rising players like Robby Anderson or Breshad Perriman — more typical Texans-type targets — were going to go is malpractice. And if you’re looking at that sentence saying the Texans were only looking for an inside receiver type, I’ve got news for you: Fuller is never healthy and Kenny Stills missed plenty of games last year. They very well might need someone who can play outside! Keke Coutee sure as hell won’t be catching passes here next year, he doesn’t practice right!

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Of Cobb’s 83 targets last year, Sports Info Solutions documented 25 of them as curls, passes to the flat, or out routes. 48 of his targets came within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. He turned exactly zero of them into 20 yards, and those passes averaged 5.8 yards per attempt. I think it’s fair to say he still has some elusiveness, but it’s not like once he evades a tackler he’s taking it to the house. He’s just not that kind of athlete at this age. He’s better at creating separation in routes, though some of his longest completions of the year were kinda horseshit in retrospect:

If you focus more intently on his 11+ yard targets, you hit the reason I think he was signed. The Cowboys ran deep cross and posts a lot last year, and because Bill O’Brien would make an honest lady out of the Yankee concept, I think he saw what Cobb could do in that sort of scenario and was rather smitten with it.

Two other big things came up to me while watching his targets. One: his drops (second in the league with 10) in a new offense — how will that translate?

Finally, the scheme and design of Dallas-motion heavy offense helped Cobb create separation. Look at how much headway he has against Micah Hyde just because of how the Cowboys ran this play:

I think the Cowboys put Cobb into a very optimal role for him last year, up to and including a tissue-soft schedule that had only two terrific pass defenses (New England and Buffalo). Unraveling how Cobb will look without the same sort of offensive design help and clearly better receivers is a bit more complex, but I definitely learn towards pessimism on it.

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Now, I want to be clear that I very much like Randall Cobb as a person. I think the Aaron Rodgers State Farm ads jumped the shark the moment they took Cobb out of them, as he was actually funny. He’s had a good NFL career. He seems to be, by all accounts, a stand-up, solid guy. I’m almost positive that factored into the decision to sign him because there’s no other logic I can think of that would matter to the Texans.

It’s just such a wonky note compared to the tune that the Texans normally play that, from the outside, there’s no way I can look at it and not see the desperation. The team trades a star and immediately feels the need to sign someone old to a consequential contract right away for the first time in the O’Brien era?

I’ll be pulling for Cobb, it’s nothing personal. But I think this deal — isolated from Hopkins, just on its own — has a massive chance to blow up in Bill O’Brien’s face. I would not at all be surprised if Cobb made it just one season with the team.

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Cal McNair: Come Get Your Boy, It’s Over

Cal,

I understand that it is awfully inconvenient to have things thrust in to your lap. My father, too, is deceased. I had to deal with a trailer in Wimberley, Texas. You have to deal with a professional sports franchise. These are very different things, but they’re each something we have shown little interest in beyond making sure money could be accumulated from them. I don’t begrudge you that, sports aren’t for everybody.

I hope this finds you well. Your head football man in the building has made one of the worst trades I have ever seen in my life, a trade that betrays such a lack of understanding about how the NFL works that he deserves to be fired instantaneously for it. A trade that, if it had happened in a fantasy football league, would be vetoed. Your boy just took one of the highest-profile days in NFL history — a day where absolutely nothing is happening in the middle of a pandemic except NFL free agency — and nuked it by trading Nuk. This is a trade where fan backlash is not only expected, but understandable given DeAndre Hopkins’ obvious impact in the community and as a leader.

I will walk you through this step-by-step and try not to get too footbally on you for it, since it is obvious by your actions that you don’t care all that much about the sport.

1 — Trading DeAndre Hopkins in and of itself should have brought a windfall

DeAndre Hopkins is turning 28 in June. He’s an All-Pro wide receiver and has been one of the top five receivers in the NFL for essentially every year of his career after his rookie season. He is anchored to a contract that was market value when it was signed, but is now actually a startling bargain. With three years left at around $13 million per season, almost none of it guaranteed, Hopkins essentially was making $4-5 million less on average than recently-signed top receivers like Michael Thomas and Tyreek Hill. It was a situation that was ripe to be addressed.

This was offered and leaked as an excuse by your general manager after the fact, but it was pretty obviously fair that Hopkins should be asking about more money. And it betrays a stunning lack of acumen by your general manager that he didn’t anticipate that and take care of it earlier.

Instead, your general manager leaked a bunch of poor reasons to Football Morning in America why Hopkins should be traded, then traded him for pennies on the dollar later that morning.

Hopkins’ numbers weren’t as explosive as they were last year because there were games where a large number of his targets — such as the ones in Kansas City — came as an underneath option. That didn’t make him any less good when he actually went deep. He averaged 9.5 yards per target on the typical deep throws — deep crosses, sluggos, outs, go routes — on 32 targets. He averaged 17.4 yards per post route with only three incompletions in 12 targets. (All numbers per Sports Info Solutions.) It is not really DeAndre Hopkins’ fault that his head coach did not utilize him more in those areas this past season.

Moreover, the article above speculates that the Texans could be looking at a first-round pick back. The Texans received the 40th overall pick. This is the kind of player where, if you trade him, you should be getting multiple high-round assets, just as the Texans had to do when they were trading for Laremy Tunsil. Instead, the general manager dealt a high-quality, high-character player on an affordable contract for exactly one asset that mattered. Now, yes, it’s a great draft for wide receivers, but that’s no guarantee that the Texans are going to pick the right one. That they are confident that they will is somehow even more terrifying.

2 — Your general manager traded DeAndre Hopkins because he didn’t like him

With character expert Jack Easterby on board — big thanks on that one by the way, really important to an outside source that we have to filter tape-watching through an arbitrary system of how good the player makes you feel as a football team — the Texans have begun to wildly overevaluate how much they care about the character of a player. DeAndre Hopkins, of course, was rumored to not be much of a practicer:

But in evaluating that this small section of Hopkins was not worth the full price of Hopkins, the Texans have made a complete liability out of their wideout corps. They also underrated Hopkins’ leadership and toughness, which is something that was on display both in anonymous quotes from other Texans players and when he stepped on the field in the playoffs with cracked ribs:

A good leader finds a way to meld with his employees and operate them into his system. If your head coach can’t find a way to integrate his values system around DeAndre Hopkins — the man who gives a ball to his blind mother on every touchdown — Cal, maybe your head coach’s and Jack Easterby’s value system is obtuse, idiotic, and pedantic. Have you thought about that?

3 — Your head coach is going to ask David Johnson to run zone and he’s going to be shocked when it doesn’t work

David Johnson, in 2019, ran the ball in a zone-blocking look 44 times and averaged 3.8 yards per carry. Only four of those carries gained more than 10 yards, and none of them gained more than 20. In 2018, on zone blocking looks, he averaged 3.9 yards per carry on 156 attempts. A main reason behind his success in 2016 was that Bruce Arians put him in a situation to succeed: He ran a lot of gap plays. To put that in comparison with Carlos Hyde — Hyde averaged 4.4 yards per zone run in 2019. (All numbers from Sports Info Solutions.)

Even if we were to completely isolate away the part of this trade where DeAndre Hopkins got dealt for nothing, you can only buy low on a player if he fits your scheme. Bill O’Brien’s high-zone run game is a poor fit for what David Johnson does best. I would be sitting here criticizing this move even if Hopkins hadn’t been part of the deal and the Texans absorbed his cap space for a fourth-round pick.

Johnson is also going to be 29 in December — last legs days for a running back. He’s an excellent receiver, but that’s just duplicating the ability of Duke Johnson, who was a) already on the roster and b) they traded a third-round draft pick for last offseason.

So this part of the trade demonstrates a clear lack of understanding of how the NFL works on multiple levels: old running backs are often not worthwhile, big contracts for older running backs are bad, and an inability to understand why Carlos Hyde was valuable for the Texans last season. Make no mistake that the reported two-year, $10 million offer Hyde turned down will probably be the best offer he has in about two months. Instead of understanding that and letting Hyde go out there and price himself on his own, the general manager is taking a major gamble on a player that was a healthy scratch on the Arizona roster at times last season and who has never shown he can do what the head coach wants his backs to do.

4 — The fallout

Listen, I know this is hard to believe, but your fans have lives outside of their feelings about the Texans, Cal. We’re all about to go through hell together. Even if we haven’t fully shut down everything yet, I think it’s pretty clear the direction in which social distancing is heading. The country is about to suffer for probably a good four or five months, many of your fans will come out of this impoverished (worst case) or propped up by some sort of UBI (best case). They’re going to be uneasy about crowds and they’re not going to have a lot of disposable income.

Even before that, there was always an aura of cynicism about the Texans in this crowd. We’re all sick of what we’re being told to wait for, some grand implementation of Patriots South that somehow the head coach and general manager seems to bungle every season.

So let me set aside the football aspects of the move, what Hopkins is worth, what you think you can get in the draft, the fact that we’re undoubtedly going to watch DeAndre Carter get 125 targets next year because he’s a good practice player, and let me lead with this:

This trade is like hocking a loogie in the face of every Texans fan.

It is trading one of the most-revered players in the city, someone who plays wideout like an artist, away for beans. It is impossible to tell anybody that you’re trying your hardest to win when you make a trade like this, where you give up an All-Pro wideout who you had no financial reason to get rid of.

So, even with Deshaun Watson in tow, I would not be at all surprised if come November there are a lot of empty seats at NRG. I don’t dabble in the corner of Texans Twitter that talks about how the fans need to stop showing up to send a message, as if that matters to you — this is just a projection based on what I’m seeing the country go through — but I would not at all be surprised if after the initial boost of actually having a sports event to go through, NRG showed up mostly dead later in the season.

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Cal, come get your boy. He’s in over his head, everyone can see it.

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Why Yannick Ngakoue is the Most Realistic Big-Name Texans Target to me

The Texans are in a bizarre, self-imposed place where they somehow have a lot of cap space, but aren’t expected to make any moves because they have to lock up Laremy Tunsil and Deshaun Watson and that apparently means they can’t do anything else. If you listen to anything coming out of the team, including Bill O’Brien’s mouth, it sure seems like they’re only comfortable with players they know or can get to know.

Obviously they are not chasing Jadeveon Clowney, the most-impactful non-QB free agent that I think will actually hit the market. They don’t have an obvious connection to Byron Jones or Arik Armstead, though I think both of those players make a lot of sense on paper. Shaq Barrett is getting franchise tagged, and scuttlebutt around Pittsburgh and Baltimore have Bud Dupree and Matthew Judon drawing tags too. ESPN’s Rams reporter predicted that Dante Fowler Jr. would also draw a tag. The impact free agents list on defense dries up real fast after that, with most remaining players considered not much better than D.J. Reader.

However, I am not entirely willing to write them out of trading for Yannick Ngakoue, who they evaluated heavily coming into the 2016 draft. O’Brien has a long-standing relationship with Doug Marrone, they signed Tashaun Gipson last season, and Ngakoue’s youth fits into the typical O’Brien trade scheme of targeting young players at important positions. Ngakoue is clearly unhappy with the Jaguars and wants to be traded off the tag, and O’Brien has shown that he has no qualms paying above market value for what he wants.

The argument for trading for Ngakoue

It goes a little something like this: Players like this don’t hit free agency often. Players like this don’t become available at all unless your head coach and general manager massively mess up the situation, he said, reminding nobody of anything that has happened in the last calendar year.

My biggest hope for the hire of Anthony Weaver is that the Texans realize that J.J. Watt must play inside for this defense to be good. In the one game where he did a lot of that in 2019, he wrecked shop against a beleaguered Falcons unit:

If that happens, and I think it’s the easiest way to get the Texans good on defense, they’re going to need another edge rusher to complete the look. Whitney Mercilus’ contract is essentially only one guaranteed year, and neither Jacob Martin nor Charles Omenihu offer so much that the Texans need to lock them into starting roles at this time.

Ngakoue offers warp bend off the edge. He offers a year for the Texans to grow Martin and Omenihu into replacing Mercilus. More importantly, he offers a path to an above-average pass rush that the unit had in 2018. Houston finished 29th in adjusted sack rate in 2019, but were 13th in 2018 with Clowney and Watt healthy and active despite no real secondary rushers. If you get Watt inside and utilize Mercilus properly, I think it changes a lot about the defense.

Only in 2015, with a fully healthy Watt in his prime being backed by Mercilus’ breakout season, have the Texans finished with a top-5 adjusted sack rate under O’Brien. That team rebounded from 1-4 to force 23 turnovers in its last 11 games and make the playoffs despite starting Brian Hoyer. If you pair that kind of pass rush and havoc with Deshaun Watson, a lot of things become possible.

The case against trading for Ngakoue

I think the No. 1 thing to note is that good coverage has started to gain more notoriety for good defensive play than pass rush, and I think that’s a fair critique of a move to snag Ngakoue. Unfortunately, I don’t think the options the Texans have to get better at corner are wildly enticing either. Chris Harris has been a rumored target, but he’s 30 and coming off a down season. Darius Slay is 29 and coming off a down season. Byron Jones, as I brought up, is enticing but is going to get top-of-the-line market money — the Texans have shied away from that over the years, including Tyrann Mathieu last year.

The other hanging issue is that the cost of trading for Ngakoue might be lower than it cost for Dee Ford last year on account of Ngakoue’s dissatisfaction with Jacksonville — but it’s still probably going to cost a second-round pick. That’s two entire years of sitting out the first two years of the draft for Laremy Tunsil and Ngakoue.

The weirdest defense I can mount in favor of the Texans making the move anyway is that, well, it’s not like they’re using their cap anyway. They had $24 million of unused cap space in 2019, and that’s even considering vanity projects like setting millions of dollars on fire for Matt Kalil. They had $21 million of unused cap space in 2018. The only year that Houston has had less than $10 million of available cap space in since 2015 was … 2015. As the cap has grown, Houston’s budget has seemingly not budged.

I’m never going to call an NFL team “cheap,” because I think that’s a cheap shot, but the Texans have spent less than any non-Cowboys team since 2016. And somehow, remarkably, that includes the Brock Osweiler contract.

And in a world where that’s the case, a lot of the appeal of cost-controlled rookie contracts gives way to three simple factors: How good is the player, how comfortable is the contract and how long can we project him to be good? Obviously the Texans would prefer to have Ngakoue on a rookie contract — can that be found? It’s pretty unlikely. For the other two factors, I think it’s clear he’s the most impactful available player they would consider pursuing.

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In a way, a lot of whether the Texans should be up for Ngakoue comes down to their thoughts on Will Fuller.

I have proceeded for a while with the idea that Fuller is so good that the Texans can’t afford to not pay him. I don’t believe the Texans believe that at this point. There have simply been too many missed games and that will be majorly held against Fuller at contract time. I think the Texans have tended to operate with a top-heavy view of their roster where they pay the cream of the crop — and what that really means is that there are only so many slots available. If Fuller is out of Houston’s long-term plans, that opens up a slot, so to speak.

Deshaun Watson, Laremy Tunsil, DeAndre Hopkins, (sigh) Nick Martin, Whitney Mercilus, Benardrick McKinney, and J.J. Watt are in the core. Zach Cunningham is probably going to join it, at which point McKinney is likely pushed out as he nears 30. Mercilus is not a long-term fixture, and Watt and Hopkins are at the point where we’re watching for signs of decline, but get to stay in the core as long as they are who they’ve been. Justin Reid, Tytus Howard, and Max Scharping are probably on core-watch at this point.

A hypothetical Fuller who had stayed healthy all last season is probably in that group. If the Texans decide he no longer needs to be there, I think that opens the door for another high-profile acquisition.

I’m not necessarily rooting for this outcome myself because I think the Texans are already spread thin and this is just going to make that potential downside comically sad, but if they’re already pot-committed, they might consider it. Deshaun Watson is already being counted on to erase many sins, what’s one more pick in the bucket?

I do think it’s the most realistic chance as far as all the dots lining up that we have of seeing a high-impact player head to Houston this offseason.

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Smart, Tough, Dependable: Football character and the Houston Texans

On Friday I stumbled upon this segment that the Texans produced on their own from the scouting combine, one where they let out a story about Tytus Howard:

I enjoyed the color, but what stood out to me more than the color was the idea that the Texans were won over in the interview. Similar anecdotes that made Deshaun Watson look good in his pre-draft visit with Bill O’Brien have percolated. If you think this is not a big deal, remember that the Texans don’t exactly let a lot out of their building on purpose.

The Texans have never been an organization that dabbled much in adding players with long rap sheets, with Bob McNair mostly keeping the organization’s image squeaky clean. There have been a few players to test that line — I think Brian Cushing’s constant suspensions were rough from an outside perspective — but for the most part the Texans have always focused on getting quality people who also happened to be star players.

This post isn’t to make fun of the Howard anecdote or necessarily make fun of this stance, but to point out that it is embedded in the organization’s culture. When we talk about which players the Texans pick to believe in, it’s hard to escape the idea that their view of a player’s football character matters deeply.

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Now that general manager Bill O’Brien and head coach Bill O’Brien have solidified the power of former pastor Jack Easterby as the second-in-command, I think it’s fair to say that the Texans have developed evaluation knockout factors as far as a player’s character. There’s not really a reason from a talent perspective that Jadeveon Clowney shouldn’t have been signed to a long-term extension — people will argue with me that he didn’t get enough sacks (he did), or that he was hurt too often (he wasn’t), but on raw talent he was one of the most important players on the 2018 team. Perhaps more important than J.J. Watt.

I can’t speak to exactly where the O’Brien-Clowney relationship started spinning off its axis. I know that the microfracture surgery and slow start didn’t help. It’s been explained to me in so many words by multiple people that Clowney and D.J. Swearinger did not leave the best first impression as far as on-field motivation. But when we come back to the terms that O’Brien used to describe the situation as they tried to move on from Clowney, the “best interests of the organization,”

I think what crystallized is that Clowney didn’t fit the style of player O’Brien wanted, and I believe that O’Brien thought that Clowney could never hit his true potential as a player because he wouldn’t completely buy in to the system around him. Clowney was his own guy.

When it comes time for the Texans to make a commitment of major salary, many reporters close to the Texans have already speculated that D.J. Reader won’t be the player that gets paid. This is despite the fact that he is “smart, tough, and dependable.”

Whitney Mercilus got $28.5 million guaranteed before this offseason despite being a) 30 years old, b) not having an excellent season as Clowney’s replacement, and c) the pass rush almost completely drying up without Watt playing. It is true that, in a vacuum, you’d rather pay a pass rusher than a non-pass rusher. But Reader had shown flashes of causing the havoc that led to a lot of Mercilus’ early sacks. Where some have speculated that Reader may have done himself in here was after the loss to the Broncos, where he dropped this line:

Now, I went and conducted a wildly unscientific poll of Texans fans and got these results as far as who they’d have rather given $28.5 million guaranteed to:

It’s hard to get 1,000 people to agree on 85% of anything, let alone on the internet. I admit my audience may be more likely to have been exposed to pro-Reader content, but, still, on paper it seems like this should not have been that big of a gap. Yet, the Texans seem prepared to let Reader walk.

To be clear, this is not one of those posts where we shit all over a player who got paid a lot of money. I’m very happy Whitney Mercilus got paid, and he’s a good player and a good steward of the organization. But I don’t think there’s a way to really square his value versus Reader or Clowney in any real empirical conversation and come out with the idea that he’s the most valuable of the three. Counting the impact plays Clowney makes, he’s undoubtedly the worst run defender of the three players. Counting the pressures that Reader brought last year, I think he’s only narrowly the second-best pass rusher. And if you account for positional differences, I can see an argument for Reader over Mercilus in that area as well.

I think the difference lies in Mercilus’ buy-in. Mercilus played out of position for the entirety of 2018 and barely complained about it publicly despite being ill-cast as an underneath zone defender. He’s got high football character. He gives the media the coaching talking points. The Texans clearly valued his football character to a high degree. Mercilus is a trooper.

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I’m not here to tell you that the Texans are making mistakes. Partially because I already told you I thought they were making a mistake letting Clowney go and you’re all sick of hearing that. Partially because I don’t think the Texans are in any real danger of violating the salary cap any time soon and good for Mercilus for getting his.

But I do think the fact that the Texans wound up in the spot that they did has some interesting branch-off points. Sarah Barshop listed Will Fuller as someone who could potentially be released. Fuller is smart, tough, and supremely talented. He’s just not dependable. What do we know about how O’Brien and Easterby view him as a person? Do they think he’s a hard worker? Do they think DeAndre Hopkins is a hard worker because he (reportedly) doesn’t go hard in practices? Is Keke Coutee’s benching a matter of how he’s actually played on the field, or a matter of how the small collective circle of O’Brien, O’Brien, and Easterby feel about his character?

The Chiefs just won the Super Bowl with Frank Clark as their primary edge rusher. Clark has a domestic violence conviction. Clark runs his mouth a lot, up to and including about how he knew where Deshaun Watson wanted to step up to:

O’Brien wouldn’t want that kind of information being public.

This defense continues to bleed talent, and Watt and Mercilus are going to only be another year older in 2020. The only starters under 25 last season that we know are returning are Gareon Conley and Justin Reid. If Reader is gone, the Texans pretty much only have a second-year jump from Lonnie Johnson as a true youthful shot-in-the-arm improvement. Jacob Martin and Charles Omenihu could continue to grow, but they may not be full-timers without an injury. What Anthony Weaver can provide is a great unknown. Non first-round picks are risky as hell and may not add a lot to the proceedings early.

Limiting free agency and trade discussions with the idea that you have to have someone with high football character in these circumstances is kind of a tough sale to me. I think the issue is that attrition and talent will continue to decline, and you need more of it rather than less of it to make this defense work. I would say that where the Texans are operating from is that they need someone to check all four boxes: smart, tough, dependable, good in O’Brien’s personality pecking order. Given Nick Martin’s extension before he even really played a good season, I think proving the talent on the field matters less than you might think.

Honestly, I don’t care about the approach as long as it works. It’s a lot more fun to root for a Deshaun Watson that is grateful, has good relationships with his fellow quarterbacks, and is a great leader then it would be if he had Jay Cutler’s personality. Likewise, I don’t care if the Texans are determined only to chase free agents that won’t make $10 million a season and will be great clubhouse guys as long as they also are great as football.

But as the defense looks to revolve around tough, smart, and dependable … it does kind of feel awkward that the Texans can look at Reader and say he isn’t enough, but feel that Mercilus is when he’s clearly a less valuable player from a football asset standpoint. I would urge Texans fans thinking that multiple quick fixes are going to be operated on this roster to remember how much football character matters to them, particularly in light of how a player like Aaron Colvin was quickly doghoused, as well as how Seantrel Henderson wound up on the street after starting in Week 1.

Easterby retweeted the Howard story as tweeted by the actual Houston Texans Twitter account rather than my own cribbed tape. Easterby’s account is all about the general life coach ethos of consistent buy-in, determination through adversity, and the sprinklings of God’s glory that usually come with those things in athletic circles. The second-most important person in the Texans organization is effectively akin to a life guru. Now with most life gurus, if you tune them out you’re probably minimizing a sunk cost and you’ll soon be off their e-mail list. If you do that as a Texans player, you’re putting yourself in position to get released.

If you’re looking for the Texans to commit big money to someone this offseason — and I do believe they’ll wind up with somebody — I think it’s important you understand that character matters as much as anything.

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Takeaways: Bill O’Brien publicly gives up play-calling duties at combine presser

The biggest splash of Bill O’Brien’s rare offseason media availability was when he announced just before his press conference to a group of local reporters that Tim Kelly would be taking over play-calling.

This was actually the subject of one of the first pieces on the site — I wasn’t a big fan of the Tim Kelly hiring to begin with. At this point the Texans are handing over play-calling duties to somebody who has never done it before, and I think largely how you feel about this depends on your initial beliefs when Kelly was hired. I’m keeping an open mind about what happens here, but I think as we acknowledge that Kelly has no real background as a coach other than this step, he’s likely going to stay fairly lockstep with O’Brien.

O’Brien followed up his words about this being a big opportunity for Kelly by saying “I don’t think it changes it too much.”

Obviously, it’s basically impossible for an outsider to know how this is going to go just yet. It’s possible that Tim Kelly is the next Joe Brady and the guy who called all the best plays of last season — we wouldn’t know it, there’s no history to draw on. I’m hanging my expectations more on him just being an extension of O’Brien. I did think that O’Brien’s comments about spending more time in the actual moment of the game are a good thing, though.

O’Brien emphasized man-to-man ability on cornerbacks

It’s no secret that the Texans are lacking at the cornerback position and there’s not much settled at all there outside of Gareon Conley. Bradley Roby is a free agent, Vernon Hargreaves was released off the fifth-year option. Lonnie Johnson has to earn playing time.

But this does give us a bit of a compass as far as how the team plans to run things defensively — I think this is a turn towards the aggressive. I think the writing is on the wall that Johnathan Joseph’s time in Houston is done.

O’Brien also emphasized that new defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver would bring “a lot of different ideas and creativity to our defense.”

Watch out, Carlos Hyde

O’Brien fielded a question about running backs in the draft and didn’t even mention Carlos Hyde in the response. I think that tells you about all you need to know about how tenuous Hyde’s grasp on the job will be next year even if he does return.

S**t-eating response on Jack Easterby’s role:

“Hopefully, everybody gets to meet him some day.” 😉

You know you’re backpedaling from the start when you’re mentioning the official definition of the guy’s job. It’s hard to see any way around Easterby being a key figure in the Houston organization at this point.

Notably absent things:

The rest of O’Brien’s presser largely bounced around long-term topics like whether 17 games is good, the XFL, long-term deals for Watson and Tunsil, the CBA negotiations, etc. Here are the things I was surprised we got no questions on:

— Nothing on edge rushers at all. No talk about Jadeveon Clowney, no talk about a replacement third guy. No talk about spending an early draft pick on one. I think this team might just be content with who they have at the position.

— No talk on specific impending free agents. I’m sure O’Brien would have mostly rebuffed them, but D.J. Reader and Bradley Roby are pretty big names and I think we could have at least read into his words about whether they’re in Houston’s plans. Darren Fells and Hyde also weren’t mentioned at all.

— No talk on Will Fuller. Fuller’s health is much more important to me than the health of Tytus Howard as far as what it means to this team, and in a draft class that is stacked with wideout talent and some very public comments of frustration about Fuller’s health, I’m surprised nobody pushed on that.

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8 Things I Learned from Accidentally Becoming a Game Designer

In 2015, after being let go by Bleacher Report, I wanted to take some time and get further into a hobby. I’ve always been video-game inclined, and I had taken to watching Awesome Games Done Quick and branched out from there to watching various RPG streams and YouTubes. My favorite game growing up was Final Fantasy 4 (2 if you’ve only played the US version), and it just so happened that two weeks after my contract was up, an entry-level tournament for the game was about to start.

I finished fourth in that tournament. I immediately became hooked to the real categories, and by 2017 I had the world record in both noCreditWarp (the most popularly-run glitched category) and no64 (the most popularly-run full game category). In 2017, I got to run no64 for Harvey Relief Done Quick, and in 2018, I got to run noCW at AGDQ. I re-routed no64 to create a new, faster endgame strategy that now has all three of the top three times on the leaderboard. After GDQ was over, I figured that I’d start learning new games, content with how it had all gone.

Instead, three weeks later, I was a game designer.

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Having been really inspired by Link to the Past randomizer, around April 2017 I started blurting out a bunch of ideas into the #romhacks section of the Final Fantasy IV discord. It was kind of contentious because at the time, what I wanted didn’t exist, and I can’t code my way out of a paper bag. So I went through the trouble of writing down, in very detailed chunks, how an open-world Final Fantasy IV randomizer would go.

— There’d be key items, and those key items would be shuffled between locations where you receive a key item in vanilla FF4. So the Baron Key that you use to open Baron Castle would still be in the game, but you might find it after you defend Fabul, or after you complete the Dark Elf Cave.
— The characters would also be shuffled. Instead of Cecil, maybe you’ll start with Edward. Or Palom. And you could find new characters at the vanilla spots where you’d find characters, but of course they’d also be shuffled.
— Your ultimate goal was to find the Crystal that transforms Zeromus into his final form, which enables you to actually fight the final boss. That was a hard block on progress. You’d also need access to the moon. In the vanilla game, you get that by trading in the Darkness Crystal at Mysidia for the Big Whale. I also advocated for a re-branding of the “Pass” item from vanilla, which just takes you to a largely-useless dance area. That pass item would now take you directly to the Zeromus fight, enabling you to be able to fight Zeromus at different stages of the game.
— You would start with the airship and be able to access anything you had the proper credentials to get to. When you got an item that let you go to the underworld, you’d get to go to the underworld.

I expected nothing to come of this, particularly because the person who eventually created the randomizer typed out in the discord something to the effect of: “boy, I wouldn’t want to be the guy that created that.”

A couple of Fridays after AGDQ 2018, b0ardface launched the very first version of Free Enterprise, an open-world FF4 randomizer that congealed a lot of my ideas and also added a few novel touches which I’ll get into in a bit. Not only was the game a hit, it also created a whole new wave of interest in RPG randomizers. Since it has come out, open-world randomizers have been released for Final Fantasy 6, Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy 5, and others. I can now log on to Twitch and see someone playing a game I drew up in Google Docs almost any time I want.

By default, I assumed a role that’s sort of difficult to describe: I’m a developer, I’m a community manager who has run six separate tournaments for our game since 2018, I’m in charge of game design, I’m in charge of our YouTube channel, and I’m in charge of submitting our game to various marathons. I hate to make a comparison that sounds so dramatic, but I’m sort of the Godfather of our project — I’ve got my hands on a little bit of everything, and the buck largely stops with me.

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This has largely been trial-by-fire for me. It was never my goal to become a community manager, nor was it something I envisioned would happen when I posted some ideas in a forum. There are still times where I’d rather not stream and just play video games on my own so they can be relaxing rather than efforts at marketing myself or engaging everyone’s questions. And this shy person is “in charge” of a 3,000-person community.

Here is what I have learned along the way:

1 — It’s important that feedback and ideas have a place where they can be light-hearted, and it’s important that as a developer you engage in that conversation

There are quite a few people who stroll into our Discord’s #feedback_and_ideas forum and get pissed off about how many memes are posted in there. I have even made some curmudgeonly jokes about it. The truth is that the fact that people are comfortable sharing memes is an incredibly positive sign for our community because it means they aren’t being shamed or dismissed.

I try my damndest to be as engaged in the conversation as I am because if I am not being as open as I can with developer intent, I can’t expect people to be as earnest in their requests. And sometimes, the best requests come from that openness, or at least in reaction to that openness. There have been times where I’ve been too grumpy because it’s something that I can’t really comment on honestly without making myself look bad or otherwise creating a toxic conversation, but otherwise I try to answer every question I can in that forum.

One thing that bugs me about a lot of the conversation about games today is that I can give feedback, but that there’s not really any sense that the feedback was accepted. It goes into a Google form, or some other person agrees with you on a forum and nothing happens. There’s no conversation. It’s one-sided, and maybe if you’re lucky, your thing gets created. It was what I originally felt when I came up with the concepts for Free Enterprise: my ideas weren’t really being heard by someone who could implement them. The community I’m about is one where we answer as many questions our audience has as we can — even if those answers aren’t always what they want to hear.

2 — You must empower the correct people

Over the course of my time running the community, I have added about 10-15 different people as workshop helpers. I’ve added even more people as community testers and discord moderators. Some of these people have grown the game beyond what I could have even expected — they’ve created tournament concepts, they’ve created racing bots for the discord, they’ve created alternate color palettes for the characters. They’ve created scripts for magic damage, and they’ve created sites that log race results. They happily organize restreams for the game. We’ve got tutorials for learning how to restream, how to commentate effectively, and so on.

People who are willing to help often show it through their actions. My job is to read that, intention and give them that power. It’s very easy to get caught up in just what you want to do for the community — I largely want to make game play changes and modes, but if I hyper-focused on that, everything would get stagnant. I’d be in a communit-me instead of a community.

Another thing I want to focus on that I could not have done on my own is that we’ve created a very LGBTQ+-friendly, inclusive community. That didn’t happen because of me — it happened because I empowered people who have been excluded or shamed for this in the past, and they made it a point to integrate an inclusive lifestyle into our community. If you asked me how much inclusivity mattered to me before this, I would have told you it was important, but including gender tags on our restreams wouldn’t have been one of my ten most-important things to fix on our scene from my cis-het, game-obsessed point of view. By empowering the right people, they became a priority.

When I think back about giving people power who have actually demonstrated that they want it constructively, I have never been disappointed. It’s a big deal for the community that people like that are properly rewarded. Thus, it’s become a big part of my job to be on the lookout for people that add to this and empower them.

3 — You have to pick a lane and accept that the lane isn’t going to be everyone’s favorite

Free Enterprise is meant to appeal to racing — racing is the foundation of the randomizer. It certainly helped that the predecessor romhacks for FF4 tended to appeal more to straight-forward challenge plays than a brisk race atmosphere, in so much as it became a major differentiator for us.

But we still get plenty of ideas coming in to the feedback about ways to make the randomizer more challenging and lengthy, or ways to make the randomizer more wacky. Some of those we keep, some of them, like the concept of a Playable Golbez, become memes that I will never escape.

I’m very polite when I say no, I’ve had to learn to say no a lot since we’ve started this. I’ve also had to learn how to say “maybe later” — because there are a lot of things that are cool ideas, but not necessarily important on the development path for us in the near-future, with our one-person development team. It’s okay that you enjoy other games, and it’s certainly valid for people to want Free Enterprise to be more things to them than it currently is — but it’s also my job to keep it on the path that it’s supposed to be on.

4 — If you’re creating a new tool or approach, ask what you’re breaking and if that is a good thing

When we were very naive, b0ard and I had an idea to put text hints into the randomizer. You would talk to the NPCs, and NPCs, as video game NPCs would sometimes do in RPGs, would drop hints. On its face, when you say it like that, it’s a clever turn on traditional RPG play.

What happened when we implemented it is that the backlash was so hard that we removed them from the game within two days, convinced it would never work in original format.

What happened? We forgot that we were a racing game. When you race, you’re accustomed to actually playing the race game. The original hints were so powerful that people would spend 15 minutes reading NPC text, know exactly what to do to beat the game, and be annoyed. We had replaced the racing game with speed-reading.

I’m not going to promise we’ll never make a mistake again — I’m not even going to promise we won’t bring hints back again in a different form — but that was a context that I hadn’t thought about before we created it, and we paid the price for it.

5 — If you explain enough to newcomers to get them asking questions, then you can bring them over the rest of the way

The most important thing I ever did for the randomizer was create a newbie guide. The newbie guide has drawn some criticism over the years from some community members because it doesn’t tell people exactly what to do. In fact, there’s been clamoring for a more advanced guide for years, but nobody has ever really done it beyond small sectioned chunks for specific concepts.

Here’s the reason why the newbie guide worked: It didn’t tell anyone what to do. It gave some recommendations, and it explained how things could be different in different scenarios. It was a launching point for learning things. And that launching point got people asking questions to the community at large, and that drew people into the community. To date, our #newbies_corner is one of the most popular channels in the history of the discord. We have people who have developed videos of strats in relation to frequent discussions about things in the corner.

Most of the best runners of the game start with these questions the newbie guide sparked, and they then gradually learn more and more. Other than myself and penguin8r, most of the best runners of the game aren’t the best runners of the vanilla game. Becoming great is something akin to an accumulation of great knowledge rather than a script that you learn. If you look at the guide purely as an informative text about every scenario you can face in the game, critics are right, it’s incomplete. But if you look at the guide as something that is a gateway to learning more, it’s actually been pretty successful.

6 — Whimsy and fun matter as much — if not more — than game design

When I talk about designing the game, I talk about the actual structure of the game. The two most important things we have in the game are randomized whimsy that generate hype:

— Because Zeromus is hard to look at, we have a flag that replaces him with one of 400+ other bosses, pop culture manifestos, and so on. Maybe you’ll face Bowser, or maybe you’ll face one-winged Barkley from Barkley Shut Up And Jam: Gaiden, or maybe you’ll fight Poochie.

— Because the TwinHarp track is kind of dull, we improve it by randomizing it with one of many, many songs from other video games as played in harp form. You could get a Chrono Trigger theme! You could get the Game of Thrones theme! There are a lot of different options on the table.

Between those two things, we generate a ton of hype and excitement over otherwise benign events from a casual perspective. To that, I owe a lot of credit to b0ardface — nowhere in my original design did I even account for this idea, but it is something that unites viewers and runners alike with hype. And, of course, we both owe a lot of credit to SchalaKitty and Calmlamity for their work on making the sprite and song pools continue to grow.

I don’t know if I’ve ever written this out anywhere, but I think one of the reasons that b0ardface and I were able to create a great randomizer is that we come from entirely different perspectives and enhanced different areas of the game. It’s not my original vision. It’s our original vision. It was kind of the perfect storm of everything coming together, not something that’s easy to emulate.

7 — I’ve had to sacrifice my ego in a lot of ways for this to be where it is today

The general way Twitch works for 95% of people is something like: I’m going to stream, five people will watch it maybe, and that’ll be that. I live in a zone somewhat beyond that, because I’ve gone to some big places and done some big things. But I’ve had to really adjust my expectations on what kind of payoff I’m expecting to get from this in a few ways as well, which is an interesting concept to deal with when you created something that gives joy to a lot of other people.

— All of the Free Enterprise channel’s bits and sub money goes to our head developer, b0ardface. This is in part because if we started divvying out slim pickings, a lot of people actually have some space to claim them. There are a ton of people helping out, and the interest tends to wax and wane. Also, as much as it is my idea, b0ard does most of the work of the randomizer itself and it feels right that he gets the main reward.

My own Twitch channel, mostly through a lack of activity, has exactly one non-me subscriber. A lot of the time that I’d spend playing video games instead gets turned into me designating changes, or responding to feedback, or otherwise handling “the business” of the randomizer. That in and on itself can feel like a full-time job. It is my belief that not being able to stream more has cost me marathon appearances this year, not to mention not even applying for some places because my brain wouldn’t even go there.

— I don’t really treat the game the way I would if I were just someone who ran it. I’m not looking for tiny optimizations here or there because if I found them, I’d have to fix them. So, I’m not on the cutting edge of strategy as a general rule. I honestly think it’s best for the randomizer if I don’t win any of the leagues or tourneys it puts on, not because it’s a conflict of interest, but because I feel like if I win I didn’t teach anybody else enough about how to play the game well. As someone who is top level at the vanilla game, this is a really interesting scenario to find yourself in — you feel like chum. You feel like you’re helping other people make big names off of you.

— Other people have stepped up in the absence of that and made names for themselves, as I expected. So then I have to deal with the fact that I could get that tiny bit of recognition, and I could be the person who gets the small rewards that it brings — the respect and recognition, the bits and cheers. But instead I’m … working on adjusting prices! Spending that time answering questions! Thinking about which ideas come next! It’s not very glamorous.

So, while I appreciate the people who have recognized me with a donation or their respect — in a general sense, I might as well be completely off the map of a game that wouldn’t exist without me. It is … an interesting place to be. I can’t tell you it doesn’t make me happy to see other people having success because of what I put out there, but I also can’t tell you I’m thrilled that I don’t really share in it much. It’s a mental blockade that I struggle with a lot.

8 — People care about fairness so, so, so much

You all do. I’m sorry, you just do.

The two biggest controversies that we’ve dealt with as a community have come because of the idea of “what is fair?” In our first Highway to the Zemus Zone league, our initial tournament document dared runners to use the 64-floor glitch because b0ard had created a very clever punishment for anyone who would dare try such a thing the traditional way. Instead, a runner took the 64-floor glitch to abuse the logic of the game and skip needing one of the items to get to the final boss.

In our second league, Highway 2 The Zemus Zone, multiple players were accused of stream sniping because of suspicious plays that could, potentially, have been influenced by what they saw on the screens of others. We had no hard, concrete proof, only things we could make inferences from.

When I changed the randomizer logic to make the Earth Crystal treasury yield higher-end items, people were incredibly emotional about it.

In each case, what mattered wasn’t what happened — but whether what happened was “fair” — fairness is the word that launches a million conversations and five-paragraph discord screeds. What’s more, your definition of fairness may differ wildly from mine and my subsidiaries. There’s a reason baseball fans can’t click on a website without being inundated with Astros cheating stuff. We as people take stock of what we believe is right and just and fight vociferously when other people’s thoughts don’t match ours. That is the spirit that launched further with the relative anonymity of the internet, and as a developer, I have to plan for it. I can’t let loopholes be created because people will climb through them. Nothing can derail an otherwise hype event more than a day-long, 300-message argument about what is fair and what is not.

When people start telling you that something is unfair, you have to listen. It doesn’t mean they’re automatically right — it does mean that you have struck a real nerve somewhere and figuring out how you did that is important.

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A Statistical Look at Potential Texans Veteran Pass Rush Options

I’m going to start this with a belief: I don’t think the Texans are going to make a move for any actual pass rush in free agency. I think when they signed Whitney Mercilus they valued him as a core member of the team for the next two years, and I think the obvious solution is to draft somebody in the second or third round, then let that pick, Jacob Martin, and Charles Omenihu fight to see who takes over Mercilus’ role by 2021.

But let’s approach this from a blank slate. Here’s how our pass rush splits look for Mercilus, J.J. Watt, Martin, and Omenihu over the last three years:

If you pull up a list of free agents, it’s easy to fawn over the top guys. I don’t think the top guys are going to actually make it to real free agency and that leaves me with some tough decisions about who to feature versus who to not feature. My belief is that Shaq Barrett will be franchised and that he’s a lock to stay in Tampa Bay. My belief is that Yannick Ngakoue is going to be franchised as well, though I think that situation could get ugly enough to where Ngakoue gets traded. That’s an eye-raiser to me — Bill O’Brien has shown no interest in making his draft picks and I think he’d consider Ngakoue a building block ala Laremy Tunsil. The question is simply if the Texans are willing to pay what Ngakoue thinks his market is. I’d speculate you could probably get that done if you parted with your second-round pick, and maybe a bit more.

A-List, No. 1 guys who are probably not coming here:

We all know why Jadeveon Clowney isn’t coming back. That horse is so dead that White Walkers would have trouble re-assembling the bones to re-animate it. Barrett is 27, Clowney 27, and Ngakoue is just 25.

Fool’s Gold

These two players both worry me because I think they fall into blind spots for Bill O’Brien: First-round pick pedigree has tended to be a big deal for BOB, and each of them is coming off a career year. Lawson is the more preferable of the two options to me, but I have a lot of respect for Sean McDermott and would expect Lawson to have more trouble in Anthony Weaver’s scheme. Dupree’s defense popped off as soon as Minkah Fitzpatrick joined, and it led to a sack explosion for him. In the long view, these are both solid second banana rushers — but they’re going to be paid like No. 1 players in my view.

My favorite fits

Bold – I used his Jaguars stats instead of his full-season stats, not counting mid-season change against him

Judon is a tough evaluation. On pure numbers, he’s up there with the best of the class, but Baltimore’s heavy-pressure system also means he’s not lining up and beating his man over and over again on all of those pressures. I think it’s fairly likely he draws a tag, but I wanted to mention him just in case.

Fowler and Armstead are funny to me because Armstead stays extremely close to Fowler on a statistical level and still plays inside. Because of his ability to satisfy a 3-4 end position, I think Armstead probably bumps up a notch on the Texans own preference chart, and I think that makes him an ideal fit. Armstead was also already playing well before the 49ers defense became dominant, which I think helps forecast him to being a solid fit in Houston’s defense.

Fowler is coming off the fabled 10-sack season that Jadeveon Clowney never got, but I can’t imagine he’ll come cheap enough for that to matter to the Texans. Pass rushers get paid, and the second Mercilus inked that extension, I think it ruled the Texans out of a player like this. But I love the fit, and so he’s a favorite fit.

Old players and the Texans under Bill O’Brien

Every single player that the Texans have signed as a real-dollar free agent since 2015 (or traded for, even) has been under 30. The closest to being over 30 was Matt Kalil, who at 29 was an extremely desperate move to a position of need. Vince Wilfork happened in 2015.

I happen to think that aging players are a great way to supplement the core at edge rusher — Robert Quinn is coming off a terrific season in which he led the NFL in ESPN’s pass-rush win rate. I was quite intrigued by Bill Barnwell mentioning in his look at the NFC East that Ryan Kerrigan might be traded for — I think he’d be an a-plus get for the Texans, even coming off a season where he missed four games.

But obviously I’m not going to project the Texans to wind up with anyone in this age bracket because they haven’t gone there in five years, and there’s very little happening in the front office that should make you think they’ll suddenly be changing their ways on that.

Value players I could see the Texans taking a chance on

Vic Beasley is 27 and has 37.5 sacks in his last four seasons, including a 7.9% hurry rate and a 10.1% pressure rate. Those numbers stack up pretty well with most impact free agents, yet he’s got the stink because he wasn’t a 1A rusher in Atlanta like they drafted him to be. I think he’s a good buy-low candidate.

Jordan Jenkins is just 25, but notched 15 sacks over the last two seasons despite starting only 23 games. With a career pressure rate of 10.4% and a career hurry rate of 7.5%, he’s another guy who I think is getting a bit overlooked because he’s coming from a bad situation. He’s only a former third-round pick though, so will O’Brien even dignify his presence?

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The Carlos Hyde Conundrum

Carlos Hyde had, by all normal respects, a traditionally successful year for the Houston Texans. He rushed for 1,000 yards for the first time in in his NFL career, averaged 4.4 yards per carry despite a career-high number of carries, and played exactly 50% of the offensive snaps. He was a big part of Houston’s offensive identity in 2019, and he started off hot.

The problem was that, after the hot start, Hyde didn’t really do much to elevate the offense. He’s a stellar back with great vision, he’s got the ability to run out of arm tackles, but he doesn’t have breakaway speed and he’s not going to evade people in the open field. When he was used as part of a Deshaun Watson-focused game plan where teams had to respect Watson as a runner, he excelled. When he was asked to plod into the line with inside zone, he was usually dispelled. From the bye week on, when Hyde ran inside zone per Sports Info Solutions, he gained 3.1 yards per carry on 52 attempts. Just one of those attempts gained more than 10 yards. He also fumbled four times:

RB table courtesy Football Outsiders

Only 20 NFL running backs reached 200 carries last year, and I imagine if we were ranking them out on pure talent, Hyde going on 30 years old probably isn’t in the top 15. I’d say he’s better than Sony Michel, who has been a bust for the Patriots. I’d say he’s better than David Montgomery to this point in Montgomery’s career. You can probably give me a few other “I dunno, (Le’Veon Bell) has been slipping for a while…” players as well. But generally speaking, guys who are the focal point of your offense are supposed to be better than Carlos Hyde. You give 200 carries to Saquon Barkley or Aaron Jones. I think Hyde is a better fit as a goal-line back or in a less-impactful role than he had last year — and I’m saying this as someone who has plenty of respect for Hyde’s overall game.

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Hyde wants to come back to the Texans and the Texans shouldn’t be particularly bothered by meeting Hyde’s demands. The running back market has tanked, and the teams that are willing to pay for one aren’t going to pay for one with as much mileage as Hyde has. So, practically speaking, I think I’ve chalked this one up as a keep for the Texans. There’s not a logical reason to replace Hyde unless you can get someone clearly better, and the only player hitting free agency who I think is clearly better than Hyde in a Hyde-shaped role (early downs, goal-line, run-heavy sets) is Derrick Henry. I could see an argument for Melvin Gordon, though I think a lot of his value comes from the fact that he gets used in the passing game.

The shadow of Duke Johnson looms over Houston’s running game in an interesting way. Johnson is clearly a fantastic tackle-breaking back, the Texans have committed to him for the long-term by dealing a third-round pick for him. Johnson has been successful at every opportunity despite block-reading not being a big strength for him. But at the same time, no coaching staff so far has been comfortable letting Johnson be the lead dog of a committee. Bill O’Brien didn’t even scratch the surface of what Johnson could do in this offense in my opinion.

Therein lies the innate problem: It might not be logical to want someone better than Carlos Hyde — speaking purely on an analytical level, it would be downright idiotic to spend limited resources that the defense needs on that. But if next year’s offense comes back with no changes, one of the best ways to improve the offense is to find a player that’s more explosive than Hyde to take those carries, be it Henry, a high-round pick in an NFL draft that has devalued stud backs, or someone else. If you look at the other positions on this offense, everything is more or less locked in by money or draft position except right guard, tight end, and starting running back.

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There’s a certain part of me that believes that the Texans are so far in on Bill O’Brien that they might as well just let it all ride. And that side of me thinks that if the Texans are going to run their offense like they did last year, they might as well pony up a competitive offer to Derrick Henry. Running back is a market where a lot of teams are playing scared, so you might get a bit of a discount, and you’d also be robbing the Titans of their bread-and-butter offensive player at the same time. If you want to run into eight-man boxes, get the guy who ran into them 112 times and still averaged 4.35 yards per attempt (per SIS) rather than this guy:

As dumb and pointless as I think quite a lot of O’Brien’s early-down runs are, they become a little more understandable when you put someone like Henry in the backfield. At that point, they no longer become sustaining offense, but offer home-run elements in their own ways. Of course, I say this and Duke Johnson had a higher broken tackle rate than Henry did last year. But unless O’Brien is willing to rethink how he uses his backs, I can think of very few things that would upgrade this offense more than putting the ball in an actual elite back’s hands.

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When I think of Carlos Hyde’s 2019 season, I think of found money. He was traded over here at last cuts and performed incredibly well at times. After watching Alfred Blue play running back for five years, anybody who can read a blocking scheme is a hero in my eyes. The only negative in my eyes was taking Arian Foster’s jersey number, and that’s not something he had ultimate control over. I also want to be clear that nothing I have heard so far has made me think that the Texans don’t plan on re-signing Hyde.

But I do think if the Texans sign in to 230 more carries from Hyde next year, they’re going to regret the decision to make him a focal point of the offense. He’s just not that level of player, and he can’t handle that kind of snap count without his lack of flexibility hurting you in a meaningful way.

Ultimately, that’s more a function of how O’Brien uses his backs more than it is about Hyde. But that war is long and gone, and we have to approach this offseason with the idea that you have to build everything around O’Brien. If GM O’Brien doesn’t idiot-proof running the ball for coach O’Brien, our plural O’Brienmen might be less than pleased by the results.

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The Optimist’s Guide to Bill O’Brien

To say that Houston Texans fans have not reacted well to seeing a 24-0 lead against the Chiefs pulled out from under them would be true. It’s also to be expected. Many fans don’t believe that the Texans will advance past the divisional round as long as Bill O’Brien is the head coach. Many writers, analysts, and similar football minds have made that claim as well. The writer of this post would concede that it is highly unlikely, though perhaps not impossible.

Texans fandom on a 30,000-foot level is what happens when you crack inferiority complex (Cowboys fans everywhere) and disbelief into an omelette. There are many fans who Chicken Little the team’s problems and have wanted to fire everybody since 2015. There’s also a backlash against any negativity from our “true fans” in the community — people who are tired of the whining and want to hear that the team is going to win, even if that isn’t necessarily supported by the facts. That takes form as something like this, for example (yanked from Battle Red Blog comments section):

(Omitted name so as to not shame.)

So here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to write a post that is extremely charitable to Texans head coach Bill O’Brien. It is going to change absolutely nothing, and the whole point of writing it is to prove that it’s going to change absolutely nothing. The “true fans” have long ago decided that because I have some negative takes on O’Brien — regardless of whatever positive I have to say about him — that my opinions don’t matter and that I am a hater. The people who already saw me as a reasoned voice will continue to understand the context of the article. The people who are only following because they don’t like Bill O’Brien will argue against the piece.

My point of view is that he’s a flawed head coach. But I actually think the people arguing in favor of O’Brien don’t use the right method of thinking to elucidate what he’s good at. They want to point at division titles and wins, but neither of those things are going to hold a lot of sway to the main contention that O’Brien isn’t good enough to get the Texans over the hump. Their argument is generally one of scarcity: If O’Brien isn’t good enough, who has proven he is? (Nobody. Very few coaches have ever reached that level that become available. Bill Parcells could essentially call up anybody he wanted in his prime and go there, few coaches are even on that level.)

We spend 80% of our lives in lizard-brain mode, trying so hard to hold on to whatever we believe that we’re unwilling to change our point of view. In that way, we are actually not unlike Bill O’Brien! So, in that spirit, here’s how I’d argue that O’Brien is good if you want to take that tact:

1 — Bill O’Brien improved on fourth-down decisions this year:

O’Brien shifted his thinking on fourth downs in 2019. The Texans attempted 25 fourth-down attempts this year. In 2018, they attempted 12. In 2017, 10. Now, it’s true that the amount of fourth-down attempts in and of themselves can be influenced by other things, but I think this year O’Brien went for it on a number of aggressive fourth-downs that other coaches wouldn’t. In the Oakland game, he got Jon Gruden riled up by going for it in his own territory at the start of the third quarter:

He went for it in his own territory towards the end of the second quarter in Week 14’s pantsing against the Broncos — a move that I think he had to pull given the game situation — and that didn’t work out as well. But I think it was empirically the right call.

The Texans made clear strides towards being more aggressive as an offense this year, and that was why O’Brien was in the top 10 of EdjSports’ CCI ranking as of midseason. CCI measures out how a coach fared with his opportunities against their statistical models. While O’Brien faltered a bit down the stretch, finishing at 15 after some incredibly weird decisions in the Tampa Bay game, he improved in this area this year.

2 — Estimated Wins loves Bill O’Brien

Over his six seasons in Houston, Bill O’Brien’s Texans have not always been good. What they have usually done is wound up with a win total above the quality of their team. This year, for example, the Texans had an estimated wins total per Football Outsiders of 7.3. They won 10 games. In every season except for 2017 — where Watson and J.J. Watt got hurt — O’Brien has outperformed his team’s statistical ranking. At 12.64 wins above estimated over six seasons, O’Brien’s team essentially wins two extra games per season more than they should.

If I compare that against some of the AFC’s best, it’s pretty impressive. New England, for instance, have added just 7.1 wins over estimated in the same time frame. The Chiefs have added just 0.3 wins over estimated with Andy Reid. The other long-term fixture in the AFC, Pittsburgh, has added just 3.1.

Now, do they have a cream puff schedule in some of these years? Absolutely. But this is literally the same argument people make against the Patriots’ division championships being unimpressive.

It is undeniable that O’Brien’s teams have outperformed their raw numbers often. Sometimes to a ridiculous extent. Some of these are what I’ve termed BOB games — I have no idea how they won, but they did. (Week 15 @ Tennessee this year is a good example of a BOB game.) Some of them might be something that his coaching creates. But you have to give him credit for winning what he has.

3 — The flashes are amazing

Week 6 against the Chiefs, even with Patrick Mahomes injured, I believe the Texans are about to get slaughtered by an offense that is set to wreak havoc on their undermanned defense.

Out of nowhere, the Texans come out with a brand new read-option/run-pass option-heavy system and slaughter Steve Spagnuolo’s defense. They were down 10-0 and it didn’t matter a damn bit.

The Texans couldn’t run against anybody towards the end of 2018. O’Brien pushed Deshaun Watson into the driver’s seat to deliver a 20-3 win over the Jaguars to clinch the division crown in Week 17. Watson runs 13 times for 66 yards and a touchdown.

Whenever O’Brien actually puts his whole brain into defeating a team, he so obviously comes up with good ideas that work. That he does it so rarely is heartbreaking and, I imagine, a problem that’s hard to delegate away when you make yourself the only person in the spotlight. But it also means that you can never truly count the Texans out of any game they play in.

This is hands down the most frustrating thing about being a Texans fan to me as things are currently situated.

4 — He’s finally beating teams that are good

Last year, the Texans beat the Chiefs in Kansas City, beat the Patriots at home, and beat the Titans on the road to set up their division title. The only embarrassment by a good team on the regular season ledger was against the Ravens — they played well against the Saints and lost on a last-second field goal.

You used to be able to set your watch to O’Brien teams losing against good teams. The Colts with Luck. The Patriots. The Jaguars in 2017. The Chiefs. The Steelers. Entering 2019, O’Brien was 8-23 against quarterbacks with a 60+ QBR.

He’s finally beating teams that are good. Deshaun Watson probably has a say in this, but it is an important distinction when we are looking at how likely O’Brien is to win going forward.

5 — O’Brien at GM means Winning is the Ethos

I think Bill O’Brien has been pretty short-sighted as a general manager in that I don’t think the team should have given up multiple first-round picks for Laremy Tunsil, because Tunsil did not solve the need that the Texans had to protect Deshaun Watson. The plays are supposed to protect Watson, and I think they need to grow to enable quicker/easier hot reads.

But what you cannot argue so far is that general manager O’Brien places winning above all else. Nobody else in football would make a trade so lopsided just to keep things in line to win this year. When you look at all that went right for them, and how close they were to playing the Titans at home in the AFC Championship game, it’s important to know that as much as it sometimes feels like the Texans are fighting an uphill battle, all they need are a few breaks to go their way. The Jadeveon Clowney trade stands out in contrast to this, but I think from O’Brien’s perspective he was removing a negative locker room influence — I think that was a cultural trade in his mind, and one that was probably made with a lot of Jack Easterby influence.

Do you know how many fanbases want their team to try to win? Let me single out some teams I think have fans that justifiably complain about their current situations: Jacksonville, the Chargers, Detroit, the Jets, the Giants, Cincinnati, Miami. Now, there’s something to be said for the idea of trying to win in an idiotic way — but ultimately, 31 teams don’t win every year. All it takes is one splash of luck for an idiot to be considered a genius. The Bears and Rams probably have a lot of regrets about how things unfolded this year. We might have some regrets about how the end of the Bill O’Brien Era plays out, whenever that is.

But we can’t deny that he is willing to make risky moves to win. It means the Texans are always committed to being in the pack, even if perhaps they never do enough to be considered the leaders of the pack.

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