In failing to reel in Rodger Saffold, the Texans offseason unraveled in front of our eyes

In 2018, the Texans got in a massive bidding war with the Giants for the services of Nate Solder. They failed to get the deal done. Solder was serviceable at best in New York, but the Houston offensive line was a cataclysmic sieve for the team, altering how the offense played on multiple occasions. They were unable to generate push up front, they were unable to protect Deshaun Watson on the edges, and that pressure cascaded into some of Watson’s worst mistakes of the season. Mistakes that could have made the difference between a first-round bye and getting trounced by a hot Colts team.

Rodger Saffold wasn’t my preferred target inside — that would’ve been Matt Paradis — but reasonable minds can disagree on the value of the two players and how Nick Martin would play at guard. Here’s the calculus of the situation:

  1. The Texans had more cap space available than the Titans, the team that they were reportedly against to the end with Saffold.
  2. With Saffold signing a four-year, $44 million deal that essentially only guarantees two years of play (guaranteed $22.5 million, most structured in the first two), the Titans didn’t exactly give Saffold an unbeatable offer. For the sake of comparison, it took almost $35 million in guarantees to land Solder. In fact, the Texans could’ve given Saffold more up front if they were worried about him being a long-term liability, because they have no salary cap worries to even discuss this season. There’s no way they’re spending the entire hoard of it right now.
  3. Every incremental upgrade means a lot to the Texans right now. Saffold displacing Zach Fulton or Senio Kelemete isn’t a big deal on its own, but the cascade effects of that — players having to earn starting spots, possibly even creating depth — are huge. Especially when compared to letting one of the best guards in free agency join an AFC South opponent.
  4. The cornerback market is in shambles and the Texans wildly overpaid for Bradley Roby on a one-year deal if you’d like another place some money could have come from.

Now it’s one of the worst-kept secrets in the NFL that the Texans are going to draft an offensive tackle early in the draft. They might do it in the first round, or they might do it in the second round if a trade-down materializes. Houston is very much an “our guy” organization at tackle and isn’t necessarily going to be swayed by the consensus big board.

OK, so let’s think back to the last time the Texans drafted a tackle early with designs towards putting him on the left side. It was Duane Brown. Brown wound up being an excellent tackle in the long-term. But he was horrendous in his rookie season, blowing 10 different blocks that led to sacks. Matt Schaub was hit so much that he only started 11 games, and he managed 31 of his 190 career rushes in those 11 games. (It means he was under pressure, Matt Schaub didn’t do running.)

Drafting a new left tackle is like spinning a roulette wheel. From all accounts it seems to be a good class, but good raw talent doesn’t necessarily play well right away. Brown didn’t. Sam Baker, a much worse left tackle from a career value basis, was much better in his first season.

So that leaves us with the question: What is it that the Texans are actually doing here? Is it ensuring that the cap space available is being used to build the best team possible? I don’t know that you can say that’s true, especially when they’re increasingly likely to have cap space left. Is it protecting the most valuable person on the franchise’s payroll? The only effort they made this offseason so far was to bring back Seantrel Henderson, who has started a grand total of two games since 2015. This is coming off a year where Julien Davenport was destroyed and Martinas Rankin did nothing at tackle. Oh, and Kendall Lamm is a free agent too.

We can talk about valuing players at levels and having limits, but at the end of the day value doesn’t happen in a vacuum. To one team, Rodger Saffold is worth $44 million. To another, he’s probably worth more. With zero returning good guard play in 2018, I would argue that he should have been worth more to the Texans then barely getting beat out by the Titans, and that the millions they saved will almost certainly not have had a better marginal purpose.

The Texans could have brought in a surer thing to make their overall offensive profile less volatile. Instead, after they bring in their rookie tackle, they’ll have a grand total of zero linemen that can be counted on to be good. Maybe they’ll bring in someone else in free agency who can be serviceable. A John Miller, or a Jermey Parnell. They’re not finding a player of Saffold’s caliber without a trade. Without the sure thing, all they’ll have is projections.

And in case you didn’t notice last year, those projections don’t always turn out how they did on the scouting report.

In adding Bradley Roby, the Texans make a gamble on tools over performance

You might wanna get used to this…

As the dust on the tampering season ended, the Texans swooped in on one of the worst-kept secrets of the NFL, signing former Broncos cornerback Bradley Roby to a one-year, $10 million deal. Depending on how much you want to emphasize his 2018 season, you can go from anywhere to “this is an acceptable gamble” to “the Texans just lit $10 million on fire.”

Let’s try to do the color before we get to the depressing clips. Roby was a first-round pick out of Ohio State in 2014, and he blew up the combine with elite athleticism. He was in the 84th percentile in the 40-yard dash among all cornerbacks, and he did it at 5-foot-11, 194 pounds — he had the beef to back up that speed. He was above-average in every test for cornerbacks, with his worst being the broad jump. Scouting reports emphasized his big hits and press-man coverage. Denver essentially had him as their nickel cornerback even though he mostly played outside, and he was pushed into a bigger role in 2018 when Aqib Talib was traded to the Rams.

Roby was fairly successful in 2017 under defensive coordinator Joe Woods, but I think in context that season was a fairly easy season. Roby didn’t draw many assignments against great receivers, and he benefited from seeing very few passes against the top offenses in the NFL. In other words, Philip Rivers and Tom Brady targeted Roby 13 times in three games, while Jay Cutler and Dak Prescott had 17 in two games. Roby’s success on downfield plays in 2017 was more about the situations than the player. Roby reacts very well to “see the underneath receiver, deck the underneath receiver,” as well as against fades. He was able to trap a washed-up Dez Bryant to the sidelines and out-physical him at the point of attack most of Week 2 (2017). When he reads a curl in front of him, he can be a menace:

The problems with Roby’s game as a whole were exposed in 2018. Given harder assignments without Talib, Roby struggled to corral the NFL’s best at the line of scrimmage. I think I saw about one pass at the line of scrimmage over the last two years where he was actually able to keep a slant in check. Sammy Watkins murdered him with slants in Week 8 against the Chiefs. Amari Cooper basically laughed in his face in Week 2:

Roby was mostly used in two roles in 2017 and 2018, both of which he struggled in when not given the right routes. When he played off the line of scrimmage, he was mostly in Cover-2/Cover-4 shells where he wound up giving way too much cushion to the receiver. I’m not sure if this was a design of the defense or Roby playing too far back, as I have no direct line to their coaching staff. But it was wildly ineffective.

In Cover-3, teams took Roby to the post over and over again:


Sometimes with disastrous results:

Roby demonstrated a lot of flaws in 2018. He didn’t read routes particularly well. His reaction to the routes, when he understood them, was slow. Especially if he was moving horizontally. He’s not a recovery speed cornerback, and is not the answer to Houston’s problems with speed receivers like T.Y. Hilton. He could not defend a slant to save his life. Finally, and this is more subjective, but I think he played really poorly when rushed or out of the normal structure of the play.

So you unpack a player like that and put him in Romeo Crennel’s system. The Texans played Cover-3 as a main change-up and ran a lot of zone. I think there’s a lot of work to be done with Roby in that role. He’s going to be fine on some routes, but I think there’s a lot of combustibility in last year’s performance. If you’re an optimist, you can point to the ankle injury he sustained in Week 8 — but a lot of the damage had already been done at that point.

The Texans are gambling that they can be a better place for these raw tools to express themselves. I’ve got no problem with the gamble, and no problem with the price because Houston’s cap space horde will never get spent. The problem is that I don’t think Roby is likely to blossom as long as he is placed against the league’s best.

Tashaun Gipson is a sensible, no-frills signing to stop the bleeding

With both Tyrann Mathieu and Kareem Jackson walking away from the Texans on Monday, the Texans had to do something about depth at safety unless they were satisfied with Andre Hal as a starter.

What came together on Tuesday morning in a hurry was a deal with former Jaguars safety Tashaun Gipson. Gipson was released by the Jaguars as an antecedent to signing Nick Foles, even though the Jaguars could have just released Blake Bortles to pay for it. I … look, it’s very important that we all pay tribute to the importance that Bortles paid to Jaguars franchise history, I guess.

Gipson is not exactly the same kind of player that Tyrann Mathieu is, but I do think he has some untapped versatility that the Jaguars didn’t get to show off much. Barry Church, Jacksonville’s other safety, was a bit too limited and I think the Jaguars reacted to his failures by primarily using Gipson as the deep cover.

Where I think Gipson can be an upgrade in some ways on Mathieu is that he’s a bit better against bigger targets. Take this play against Rob Gronkowski in Week 2 of last season where Gipson was able to use his length to disrupt the route:

Against the Chiefs in Week 5, Gipson made a number of big plays, including this undercut of a Travis Kelce middle-of-the-field route:

I think where Gipson does his best work is over the middle of the field. He likes the outside leverage a lot, and he’s got good instincts and read-and-react ability. In that vein, I think he’s a good fit for a lot of what the Texans like to do with zone coverage. I don’t know that he offers quite the same amount of versatility that Mathieu does, but he’s not far off. Gipson’s broken tackle numbers were never a huge problem with the Jaguars, so he can do some box work. I’ve got four in 2016, six in 2017, and seven in 2018 per Sports Info Solutions. Think of him as a bigger, slightly slower version of Mathieu.

In looking back at his 2018, I mostly wanted to focus on games where the Jaguars went against top-notch offensive competition, and then also the games where they got completely exposed. I didn’t come away from the exposure games thinking that Gipson was a main problem for the Jags. Single-high safeties don’t often have much to do about getting bowled over for 200+ rushing yards like the Titans did to Jacksonville. In getting destroyed by Cole Beasley in Week 5, I didn’t see much that Gipson was responsible for. He did clearly blow one coverage when both he and Jalen Ramsey carried the outside receiver up, leaving Beasley open underneath. But mostly he was away from the play.

To me the weakest points of Gipson’s game are comebackers. He’s got good positioning and recovery speed, but he’d rather give those up than get beat deep. I think he’s kind of overrated as an interception-creator — he makes reads well, but a lot of the plays that got him picks in Cleveland were broken, out-of-structure issues where he happened to be in the right place at the right time and make a good play on the ball.

The real coup, of course, is the price. Gipson signed a three-year, $22 million deal. That’s about half of what Mathieu will make for the Chiefs this season, and a remarkable bit of sanity that ranks right next to the Eric Weddle contract in the sea of overpayments early in free agency. We don’t have a full dollar breakdown yet but I’d assume the Texans probably get out after two years easily if they want to.

The other part of this is that Gipson, who was released, will not count against the compensation pick formula. The Texans have racked up two big free-agent losses to zero signings that count under that formula so far. It’s not worth digging too deep into this until we’re deeper into free agency and see all the moves Houston will make, but it would not surprise me at all to see them fade the expensive part of free agency and try to capitalize on the compensation pick formula.

This signing isn’t going to excite anybody, but I think it’s a good one. In fact, I prefer it to the deal that Mathieu got. If you told me that the Texans were going to bring in a cornerback or two via trade and really push the limits of the compensation pick formula, I’d be even more into it. But the full context isn’t quite laid out for us yet.

By the way, Deshaun Watson’s first interception went straight to the arms of Gipson in a coverage disguise:

The Texans did nothing on Day 1, and that’s OK

With free agency beginning Monday afternoon, the Houston Texans did nothing.

OK, they re-signed Angelo Blackson, tendered some people and kept their exclusive right free agents. But generally, there was no splash signing. The big Tyrann Mathieu re-signing didn’t happen — he’s off to Kansas City for three years and $42 million. Kareem Jackson also fled, to Denver, as I think we mostly expected. There was no play for Trent Brown, nor did they sign a running back, any offensive lineman, or anything that would qualify as a “major upgrade.”

Good.

The first day of NFL free agency is always wildly aggressive, with players coming off at the top of their market. Additionally, the NFL doesn’t have many true difference-makers that make it to free agency. While I don’t think it’s always stupid to be in the hunt for the biggest free agents, Houston’s top two needs are on the offensive line and at cornerback, and only a couple of the best linemen came off the board on Day 1. Brown, who became the highest-paid lineman in NFL history off of one good year under Dante Scarnecchia. Mitch Morse, who signed a four-year, $44 million deal with the Bills — I don’t think the Texans were ever interested in Morse or any other center, despite my desire for them to be. Then, later in the evening, JaWaun James inked with the Broncos later in the evening, for $32 million guaranteed. The optimistic view on James is that he developed in the past couple years, but he’s had a bit of an uneven career to this point. Houston doesn’t need a Jamison Crowder or anything like that.

On a divisional level, the Titans and Jaguars both spent big and may or may not regret their moves. Nick Foles is definitely better than Blake Bortles, but is far from a sure solution and made way more than he had to because the Jaguars got involved in “leadership” or something like that.

“If they had lowballed him … he walks into the locker room and doesn’t have the same credibility.”

The Titans splashed out on Adam Humphries, a former UDFA slot receiver who scrapped his way up to a huge contract. Humphries is a solid slot, and solid slots can make a difference in today’s game if you can’t cover them — but you can find those guys in the draft if you’re smooth, and not even with an early pick. This was a guy they picked up for certainty. It’s a contract that doesn’t keep you from winning, but also doesn’t actively help you win. The Titans had money to burn, so it made some sense.

The Colts took a one-year flier on Devin Funchess. They entered with more cap space than any NFL team and will not use it all, so the fact that it’s $10 million is basically irrelevant. Funchess in a new system is an interesting gamble and I sort of like him for how Indianapolis plays if he lives up to his tools — the problem has been he doesn’t always do that.

As for the Texans signings, the only thing I’d quibble with is Ka’imi Fairbairn getting a second-round tender — he just isn’t that important in my opinion — but it amounts to an additional one million and I doubt the Texans will finish free agency stuffed to the gills on cap space. Brandon Dunn and Angelo Blackson were both serviceable run-stuff linemen, and Blackson’s contract amounts to a one-year, $4 million contract with two $4 million option years. To put that into perspective, $4 million is about two percent of the cap.

The overall effect of all this is kind of stunning only because the Texans have Deshaun Watson, a quarterback on a rookie contract. These are, we’re told, the type of contracts that are supposed to give teams the ability to be aggressive in free agency and signing their own free agents. We’re (as I post this) 12 hours into free agency, so I’m not going to pretend we know the results, but I think you can couple this with last year’s free agency and forecast the Texans as a fairly conservative team with free agents, even if they did just narrowly get outbid for Mathieu.

I understand that we’re not only, to use Scott Pianowski’s nomenclature, a “hype-hate” society now, but also a “joy-panic” society. There’s not much joy to extract out of your favorite football team looking at their pile of cap space and shrugging their shoulders, so it must be time to panic. I’m not at panic, but I also haven’t seen any questions answered how I’d like them to be just yet.

Every column like this needs some small notes for some reason

— The Texans are being linked by credible sources to Bradley Roby, who I did not cover in my defensive preview. Roby fits the big-bodied cornerback ideal, but is younger than my preferred target, Morris Claiborne. He also is coming off an incredibly disappointing season in Denver. I understand the youth is part of the appeal, and i’d dig some tape on Roby’s 2018 season before I went shouting from the hills my feelings on it. But I would think this lends credence to the idea that Brian Gaine’s Texans are tools-focused.

— I think Tyrann Mathieu’s reported $9.5 million a year offer was more than enough from Houston, and with the glut of starting safeties on the market, I have no hesitation in waving goodbye if he found a better deal. I think Mathieu’s a good player and sensed that the Texans value him even more than a good one, but I don’t think he’s someone you break the bank for.

On the other side of things, I think Earl Thomas is absolutely worth rolling up the Brinks truck for, and would have no problems paying him $12+ million a season. I don’t think Houston will go for it because they want more versatility for Romeo Crennel underneath, and I’m not sure if they view Justin Reid as a player who could come down and play underneath as effectively as someone like Mathieu. Tony Pauline linked Thomas to the Texans after the Mathieu news broke.

— One deal I did really like, and think the Texans may regret not being in on, was the move that sent Kelechi Osemele to the Jets for a pick-swap. Osemele was bad last year, yes, but he’s also got a long history of being a stellar offensive lineman, and the entire Oakland offensive line sunk under Tom Cable this season. That would have been a move with little risk for the Texans — they have money to burn and the two years and $20 million on Osemele’s deal is chump change to them.

But the Texans are never active in these sorts of things — they seem to take a view that if a team doesn’t want a player, there’s something wrong with the player. A little aggression in something like that is the difference between the team that winds up with a solid veteran to fill a hole like DeSean Jackson or Michael Bennett and a season of watching Julien Davenport get beat over and over again.

Texans Retrospectus: Kareem Jackson

Following every other name in this picture out the door?

With the news that Kareem Jackson will probably be playing for a new team next season seemingly strapped and locked in as a consensus — hard to not feel that way when the source is literally Kareem Jackson — I figured it might be interesting to take a look back at his career with Houston.

Kareem Jackson was Houston’s first-round pick in the 2010 draft. I was relatively new to intensive football writing scene at the time, but I was not a big fan of this pick. I remember campaigning for Boise State corner Kyle Wilson, who washed out of the league in five years, in place of Jackson. I believe there’s even local ABC footage of me saying so at the Texans draft party. But, mostly, I wanted the Texans to take Tennessee nose tackle Dan Williams because I was sick of them getting pushed around at the point of attack — the Rick Smith Texans never emphasized the nose tackle position. (#NTLust4Ever) Of those three players, Jackson certainly had the best career. If the Texans were to galaxy brain the entire NFL and just take the player who wound up with the most AV between their first-round pick and second-round pick, it would have been Arizona tight end Rob Gronkowski. I uh, wonder how we’d view him differently in that scenario.

2010 was a wildly different time to be doing draft scouting. We have no real cornerback metrics to go on. At the NFL Combine, Jackson ran a 4.4-second 40-yard-dash, but otherwise was a limited tester. What he did have going for him at the time was an Alabama pedigree from the Nick Saban years, and most draft reports from the time praise his great size at 5-foot-10, 196 pounds — when they praise you at that height, it means they think you’re built like a rock.

In a post-draft press conference, then-general manager Rick Smith elaborated on what put Jackson ahead of the other corners for the Texans: “It was a comprehensive evaluation; obviously a lot of things come into play. First of all he has great skill and he’s a tough guy. We talked the other day about how you continue to add toughness to our football team and we felt like he (CB Kareem Jackson) does that. He has great ball skills, great speed, played in a big time conference, was a three-year starter and was a productive player. All the things you look for really set him apart for us. Obviously we had those guys sitting there, so clearly we had him rated as our guy that we felt could best come in and help our football team. I’m really excited about this young man and what he can do for us.”

All those positive vibes immediately went out the window as Jackson was less-NFL ready than expected. Jackson was destroyed in his rookie season. One name that I will always remember from this era is the time the Texans played the San Diego Chargers in November and Jackson was torched by Seyi Ajirotutu. More than a quarter of Ajirotutu’s career yardage and 2/3rds of his career touchdowns came from blistering right past Jackson.

To Jackson’s credit, a lot of players that get torched like that in their rookie season never become anything. He regrouped and improved … eventually. His sophomore season was also pretty bad, and he was benched for journeyman Jason Allen at one point, but the Texans made the playoffs largely because of what an embarrassment the unit was in 2010, when they finished with the worst pass defense DVOA in the NFL. This forced the firing of Frank Bush, the pursuit of Wade Phillips, and the signing of All-Pro corner Johnathan Joseph. (Oh, and the Texans also spent their first-round pick on some guy named Watt.) But in 2012, when the Texans sped off to the races with an 11-1 start, Jackson was a much-improved player.

Looking back I don’t think Jackson ever was able to comfortably deal with outside receivers. He got better at knowing when he had to use the recovery speed, and reading releases in general, But he still had issues turning his head and I think a lot of his improvement was about just being in decent enough position that the quarterback had to respect his involvement in the play to begin with.

Where his instincts improved lied in getting better at reading the quarterback’s eyes to begin with. Jackson found his first career touchdown against the Titans in 2012 by reading a slant to Damien Williams and jumping it.

Jackson was able to cobble together a nice little prime of about 2012-2016 with those instincts, getting better at his positioning on harder routes downfield, and tackling that was well above-average for a cornerback.

Jackson re-signed to a four-year, $34 million contract with the Texans in the 2015 offseason. I would argue that he was probably not much of a cornerback towards the end of the deal, as his speed declined. On a team that had deeper cap problems, Jackson might have been a cut candidate in one of the last couple of years. Jackson was always a candidate to move to safety given his excellent tackling and run defense, but the Texans never took a stand on it until 2018. Then, naturally, every cornerback on the roster battled injuries to some extent and Jackson was forced into playing outside. Jackson had one of his best seasons in the NFL, but it was a little obscured by poor quarterback play, as his speed was never greatly tested in the regular season. Still, he showcased plenty as a short-area DB that should leave teams looking for a good safety or perhaps even a dime linebacker intrigued:

Against a real quarterback like Andrew Luck in the 2018 AFC Divisional Round, Jackson’s lack of speed was exposed by another journeyman Chargers wideout: Dontrelle Inman. Inman caught 4-of-4 balls for 51 yards, a touchdown, a DPI, and a holding penalty. He’s simply not an outside corner at this stage of his career, unfortunately.

Jackson’s career arc is rather complex, but I think what we can say about him for sure is that he was always a bit stretched as an outside cornerback. He was able to figure out how to deal with that more as he learned more about NFL football, but I think the importance of Johnathan Joseph taking the No. 1 role and a lot of mediocre-to-bad AFC South passing offenses helped him look a bit better than he actually was.

If a player like this were coming out of college today, I think he’d be more of a third- or fourth-round pick candidate, mostly because I think his flaws would have been more evident on tape than they were in the turn-of-the-century SEC. (Alabama pedigree definitely would have helped him regardless.) Still, with his tackling ability, the developed skill of reading the quarterback’s eyes, and his skill at breaking on his reads, Jackson was a solid NFL player for a long time. No shame in picking a player like that with a first-round pick. Almost all of the consternation about Jackson has come from asking him to do more than he knew how to handle, and he handled that like a true professional.

That time J.J. Watt kicked Drew Brees’ ass

When I was pitching things at The Athletic Houston there were very few pieces I wrote that I felt were left on the vine, so to speak. The one that I deeply remember, and I would bet was held back because the tone of the piece wound up being so negative, was looking back at the causes of Bill O’Brien’s record when winning at halftime.

O’Brien’s Texans are 32-2 when leading at halftime. Sounds like the Texans are closers, right? But really it was more an expression of the teams they played and O’Brien’s run-heavy program actually working. They’d jump on bad teams with bad quarterback play and run them out of the building. The average lead over the course of those games at halftime was 13.5 points, and the average offensive DVOA of the teams they faced in those games was 21.9th. Here are four of the five times they played an offense that was top 10 in DVOA: Week 16, 2014 against the Ravens (Joe Flacco, ninth). Week 4, 2016 against the Titans (Marcus Mariota, ninth). Wild Card round, 2016 against the Raiders (Connor Cook, so this shouldn’t actually count, ninth). Week 4, 2018, against the Colts (Andrew Luck, tenth).

The data for that article didn’t support a conclusion that was fun and happy. It supported a conclusion that the Texans bullied bad quarterbacks for their lunch money. Hell, Zach Mettenberger and Blake Bortles account for 10 of those wins all on their own!

Just some of the research I’d been doing here…

But rather than re-creating that article and skewering O’Brien, I wanted to look at the one time the Texans actually did hold down a top quarterback and how that happened. First, for context for the non-Texans fans: Houston’s record against AFC royalty quarterbacks is abysmal. They beat Tom Brady in 2010 with the “2009 playoffs” on the line in Week 17, only to have the Bengals lay down and let the Jets win since Cincinnati had nothing to play for. Brady is 7-1 against the Texans. They beat Peyton Manning twice as Colts quarterback — once when Arian Foster ran for 230 yards, and a second time when Ron Dayne ran for 150 yards. Manning went 17-3 against the Texans. Ben Roethlisberger’s Steelers are 4-1 against the Texans. Heck, if you want to expand it to Philip Rivers, he’s 3-1 against the Texans. That’s 31-6 combined between the four teams, or about as awe-inspiring a stat as O’Brien’s halftime record when winning.

But the one time in the O’Brien era that the team showed some mettle and shut down a top quarterback is in 2015, when Drew Brees’ Saints came to town in Week 11 and scored six points. Six!

An actual good quarterback was held down by the Texans, yes.

The Saints were 4-6 and still the Texans only received the customary three-point home favorite checkmark to say that they were essentially even teams. New Orleans was going through the defensive nightmare portion of their rollercoaster with Brees, this was year two of the Jairus Byrd all-in disappointment era, with Stephone Anthony at middle linebacker. The Saints were last in defensive DVOA by almost 15%, at 26.1% compared to Chicago’s 11.3%. Chicago was closer to 11th-place Pittsburgh (-3.8%) than they were to New Orleans.

But they still had a vaunted pass offense. And J.J. Watt destroyed it. The Saints had just 5.18 yards per attempt, and Watt had eight quarterback hits by himself. Brees targeted Mark Ingram seven times on dumpoffs or screens, and C.J. Spiller one additional time, just trying to slow the pass rush a little bit.

New Orleans went 2-of-6 throwing the ball deep in this game, one of them was a back-shoulder ball on Cover-4 in front of Kevin Johnson, where Brees had to freeze Watt with a pump-fake to not get the ball tipped at the line.

Down 24-6 with 13 minutes in the fourth quarter, the Saints threw downfield three straight times. Brees’ first ball went at Eddie Pleasant, not Andre Hal like my dumb face wrote on Twitter, who was just a little too late recognizing a ball that would probably have been interceptable if he’d read it

Then on the next play, Watt got payback on the Saints. He disrupted the play by beating Jahri Evans inside, forcing Brees to move out of the pocket and throw the ball away.

On second-and-10, the Texans send a blitz, Kareem Jackson jumped a post to Brandin Cooks, intercepting the ball and ending the game for all intents and purposes.

Watt has had better games statistically in his career. In fact, he had another game that same month with 10 quarterback hits, 2.5 sacks, and a forced fumble. But it was against Mettenberger. I would argue that this game was Watt at his absolute peak, and he had to be a complete monster to run with this offensive line against this quarterback and do as much as he did. Look at what Brees and the Saints had to do to get anything going downfield against him.

I would also argue that it says a lot about the quality of this defense scheme against great quarterbacks that it took this kind of game to beat one.

The gap between teams and fans in 2019

As I was watching Bill O’Brien talk to the media at the NFL Combine — we’re definitely in triple digits for how many times total I’ve watched him talk over the last five years — it occurred to me that there’s little to be done at this point.

I don’t mean that to sound dramatic, as if O’Brien is steering the Texans into an iceberg or something. I just mean that we’ve largely reached the point where his coaching style and influence is a known thing that we’ll have no deep surprises with. O’Brien is going to talk about how it’s important that he improves, but he’s not actually going to change anything stylistically unless things are completely wrecked, and nobody above him is going to hold him accountable on those words. If the players are good enough to play him into better situations, so be it. If not, well, the Texans will probably struggle at some point. Nothing I write is changing this, and nothing you as a fan can say — yes, even the people who leave Periscope comments about how O’Brien sucks because he won’t trade for John Ross — matters.

There’s a powerful sense of helplessness around being a fan today that I think has grown and festered as we’ve moved into the 2000s and 2010s. What I keep coming back to is that sports teams are, in a sense, no different than O’Brien. They don’t have anybody to answer to.

Impartial commissioners as a model that would try to do what is best for the game have been replaced by “Yes sir” commissioners who serve only the interest of the owners. Sports teams have become such big content providers, and rocking the boat in sports journalism so discouraged, that a team can essentially hold any combative local media hostage by their press pass if they want to. National media? If you work somewhere that broadcasts the games, prepare to get tattled on the minute you cross the line. Finally, home fans are completely irrelevant to today’s sports experience. Someone has paid for the TV rights, advertisers have given even more knowing that sports is essentially the only game in town that still is watched live. The Chargers can play in a shoebox and make money. The Raiders can take eight years to build a stadium in Las Vegas and be profitable. Any fans that show up are a bonus.

As a Houstonian, I see a lot of anger directed at sports fans for not showing up on time. “Fans as empty seats” at the start of a Rockets game is practically a trope. Texans games are dead until 15 minutes to kickoff. The Astros won a World Series recently so they’re exempt for a bit, but in the early 2010s that stadium was a mausoleum. The passion of the fans is always critiqued, but not necessarily the role of teams in how they make fans feel.

When you think of the purely transactional nature that these businesses — yes, not teams, businesses — take now, is that actually a surprise? There was never a logical reason to be a fan of the local sports team. They never actually represented you or your city. When you pull back the curtain on this entire industry as some teams have done over the past decade in just shamelessly accumulating money and giving unlimited time for “the process” to play out, and you just roll a d20 to decide which non-answer you’ll give to the press, why should fans be engaged?

Because you’ve partnered with Fast Food Joint A to McChicken us if someone hits a home run in the right inning? Because some of your players did some charity things and you taped it? Because you salute the armed forces? Neat, that makes you just like everybody else with a platform and a focus group. The reason those Texans fans are outside instead of waiting for the game to kickoff is because the tailgate is more of a bonding point than the sport itself. There are real people to talk to and discover out there instead of rotating Instagram selfies on a board. (And to be clear, I think the Texans social media do a good job of creating videos that engage fans! But they can only do so much.)

It takes a special amount of humanity to engage people in 2019. You’ve gotta have Steve Kerr as your head coach talking about racial relations. You need your star players taking an interest in struggles that people can actually relate to. Sure, some teams have a transcendent superstar that is just so fun to watch it doesn’t matter. But most teams are not blessed with that.

If you can’t do humanity by association, you need to at least do humanity by storyline. “We messed this up, so we’re changing it like this,” or at the very least “this team is rebuilding/this team is ready to contend/this team is contending.” If you stay stuck in the same storyline for too long, you become irrelevant. Hell, with how quickly storylines are expected to change these days, teams get criticized just for being in the same section of the story too long. Nobody identifies with “The Process Is Happening” for five years. Most of us have tried to fix something in our lives on our own at some point, be it learning how to get better at a skill, overcoming a personal barrier, or something like that. That doesn’t last for five years.

When you come at sports from a purely transactional place, where the games are just a business, you’re never going to see the humanity.

And I guess that’s what drives me nuts about every O’Brien press conference. This isn’t about how objectively smart what he says is or what motives he has to share actual information. I feel like he’s telling you, in the most direct way that he knows how, that he is not here to talk you out of your apathy.

He is here to induce it. He understands football in his way and, other than an infusion of talent too good to ignore, that way will play itself out in a pretty inevitable way unless fortune is heavily for or against him.

As teams have gotten more and more inured to outside criticism and accountability, they just continue to drift farther away from having a coherent storyline. The Texans are hardly the only team to do this — I spent 6,000 words in Football Outsiders Almanac 2018 talking about the Jets, Dolphins, and Bills. They’re all the same way. If you run a football team like the CEO of a corporation, you can’t be surprised when your fanbase starts skeptically applying the same value calculation to you, wondering what exactly they’re supposed to be getting out of this.

My 2019 Houston Texans Offseason Plan: Defense

So once again, let me talk about my misgivings with the coaching staff plan before I get into exact position-by-position specifics. That way I can better showcase the difference between what I’d recommend and what I think Houston will do.

In 2018, I thought this unit had matchup issues against a certain type of team: They were called the Indianapolis Colts. (Rimshot.) But, no, it could just as easily have been the Chiefs had the Texans advanced further in the playoffs. Houston was primarily a zone-coverage team, and they refused to take advantage of their depth in pass rushers to really create havoc because Crennel decided to get ubercute with Whitney Mercilus. As I detailed for The Athletic, Mercilus was relegated to this sort of awkward chess piece role — it was kind of like putting a bishop on the board and pretending it was a knight.

Mercilus had to play zone coverage. He had to play outside on standard downs against two tight-end or two-back sets. He sometimes spied the quarterback. The easiest solution to all of Houston’s problems was putting Mercilus, Watt, and Clowney on the line of scrimmage and saying “stop it.” But they rarely did. My guess — purely an informed guess, not anything I’ve heard from a source — is that the Texans and J.J. Watt wanted Watt to play only on the outside to keep his back healthier. While Clowney sometimes stood over the interior line, it wasn’t an every down look. Houston could have put Watt inside, where he has been at his best throughout his career, and put Mercilus and Clowney outside. They never really did. That means something.

The ripple effects of this decision are going to run clear throughout this piece, so let’s get it on the board early.

EDGE: J.J. Watt (star contract minus salary cap growth), Jadeveon Clowney (free agent — will be tagged), Whitney Mercilus (midscale contract), Duke Ejiofor (rookie deal), FA/Draft

This is an offseason where I expect the Texans to move on from one of Whitney Mercilus or Jadeveon Clowney. Clowney with a franchise tag would probably command more in the trade market if a team decided to believe in him. Mercilus would be less messy to jettison, though, and with a year left on his contract and coming off a bad statistical season, might be the kind of player a bargain-hunting team would come for. (Yes, he’s going to be a Patriot, that’s what I’m saying.)

I would keep them both. You can never have enough pass rushers in today’s NFL and I think the pieces fit better together than the Texans used them last year. But at the end of the day I expect one of them will be gone. If I had to guess, it would be Clowney. But again, I want to be clear I have no source on that. Clowney, to me, is worthy of getting of a five-year, $100 million dollar deal in the near-Khalil Mack range. His interior play as a pass rusher was the most consistent trick Houston had all season to generate pressure.

J.J. Watt had a fabulous season and should have won Comeback Player of The Year in my opinion. But it is what it is. He’s the boringest great player in the NFL, and even his press clippings are so sweet and kind that they just fade into the background of our consciousness. We had a full season of content at The Athletic Houston between two writers and barely even touched on how great he is. It’s expected. He’s become the player where it’s only a story if he’s not dominant. With three years left on his deal, he’s not a priority re-negotiation and I think well worth his contract as long as he’s repeating 2018. I am worried about the potential of a weakened Watt heading into the last two years of that deal, because this city and this team rightfully loves him and I think he’ll get whatever he wants. I’m never going to bet against Watt, but long-term back injuries are not a great investment. I’d want to keep him on this deal as long as I could, maybe with some token guaranteed money added as necessary ala Julio Jones last offseason.

Duke Ejiofor showed enough in his limited looks that I would be happy to have him as a developmental pass rusher going forward. If the Texans do move one of Clowney or Mercilus I imagine he will not be playing the full Mercilus role from last season, but he’s shown well and has enough of a draftnik profile that he was on the radar of the Top Prospects lists I do for ESPN/FO. If one of Mercilus or Clowney gets moved, I expect pass rusher to be in play for a Day 2 pick. Again, take this with a grain of salt because I’m not sure where NFL consensus will end up, but I am personally a big fan of Louisana Tech’s Jaylon Ferguson and could see him make it to the second round.

Interior linemen: D.J. Reader (final year of rookie contract), FA/Draft, Brandon Dunn (FA), Carlos Watkins, Joel Heath

One thing that I could see getting interesting this offseason is how the Texans value D.J. Reader. The nose tackle has been the key to one of the best run defenses in the NFL — the No. 1 run defense in the NFL statistically last season — over the past couple years. Nose tackles are limited in the scope of their value, but Reader contributes more as a pass rusher than most of them. The two contracts he’ll be looking at (as of now) are Damon Harrison’s $24 million in guarantees and Star Lotuleilei’s $25 million in guarantees. Something like a 5-year, $50 million deal with $28 million in guarantees could be in play over a three-year guaranteed term. I think I’d pass on that price and try to recreate Reader in the draft while I had bargain help in free agency afterwards. I think the Texans might sign up for that deal, especially if they trade Clowney. Personally, love to have my defensive tackles actually kick ass instead of being Jeff Zgonina

Here for my brothers in the #NTLust sphere is the one free photo I could find of Jeff Zgonina’s existence with the Texans

The interior is one of the most free-agency heavy areas of the team, with Christian Covington, Angelo Blackson, and Brandon Dunn all up for new deals. My personal opinion is that Heath and Watkins have flashed enough in those roles that I’d be comfortable letting the market terms dictate who comes back. I think Covington will catch on elsewhere as someone else will believe in his pass rush numbers. Dunn and Blackson I could see coming back on short-term deals. Maybe something like $8 total million over two years with one-year guarantees would be about where I’d stick in the mud for either of them. I expect the Texans will prioritize bringing back Blackson.

I could see a drafted player at this position as well, but it won’t be a priority fix so I won’t even pretend to know a fifth-round target. Perhaps the Texans will just try to recreate Dunn and Blackson, whom they found cheap in free agency. That would also be a smart play. 

Off-ball Linebacker: Bernardrick McKinney (star contract), Zach Cunningham (rookie contract), Dylan Cole (UDFA rookie contract), Brennan Scarlett (RFA), Peter Kalambayi (rookie contract)

This position seems pretty straight-forward to me. Bernardrick McKinney is your tacklebacker who has the speed to cover but not necessarily the instincts. Zach Cunningham is your speed linebacker who plays good zone coverage but isn’t who you want to see man-to-man on Darren Sproles outside. Dylan Cole makes great reads but isn’t as athletic as Cunningham and thus will likely only retain spot work. Only Cole’s contract is up before 2020, and Cole will be an RFA at that point. I expect this rotation to mostly hold until Cunningham becomes a free agent. I will note that long-term I’m not sold on Cunningham because I don’t trust his instincts in man coverage, but I also don’t think he can’t improve on that with another year to develop.

Brennan Scarlett was quite impressive for the Texans last year as a core special teamer and bit player on defense. He showed a lot of versatility in coverage, in run defense, and on the line of scrimmage. I wouldn’t call him a must-keep as an RFA, but I think he’s worth a tender and possibly even a match on a cheaper deal. Scarlett is never going to overwhelm with physicality, but is smart, instinctive, and plays the system well. If you keep him, I think you close the door on Brian Peters, because Peter Kalambayi played well enough to also retain a core special teams role next season. As an incredibly experienced veteran, Peters simply will cost more on the veteran minimum than most rookies. Hopefully for his sake the Texans keep him, because I don’t think there’s anything wrong with his play. The way these things tend to play out with special teamers is either they get signed instantly or they bum around waiting for injuries. You could see either outcome with Peters.

Cornerback: FA/draft, FA/draft, Johnathan Joseph (cheapie contract), Kevin Johnson (fifth-year option), Aaron Colvin (star slot contract), Deante Burton (UDFA rookie contract)

Let’s talk about what to do at the position that was slagged the most last season. I think the easy way to go about this is to acknowledge that the answer of rookie addition or free-agent addition is simply “yes.”

In free agency, my unquestioned No. 1 cornerback would be Ronald Darby, however, he’s so far ahead of the other cornerbacks that even coming off an ACL tear I expect him to get a contract way over where I’d put his actual value. He’s not a No. 1 cornerback to me. If for some reason he’s available for less than $25 million in guaranteed money and less than a three-year commitment, that’s probably worth pursuing.

The two free agents I like the most in this class are Jason Verrett and Morris Claiborne. Verrett is always hurt — that’s why he’s made it to free agency — but he’s been empirically impressive in pretty much every season he survives. He’s sort of the Tyler Eifert of cornerbacks at this point. He’s off a Torn Achilles and a torn ACL in 2016. Obviously he’s not a good bet to stay healthy and be healthy on Day 1, but I like the idea of a team with a lot of one-year cap space just offering him a contract and seeing how training camp goes.

Claiborne has been a reliable journeyman corner for a few seasons. I don’t think of him as any great shakes, but he’s got the size and speed to deal with players that Johnathan Joseph can’t, and he’ll give some buffer room for the development that I think is inherent with rookie corners. 

Joseph comes into 2019 as a zone-heavy corner who could be platooned in serious cases. That means rookies and Deante Burton could both get called upon for more serious work against the fastest of the fast in certain packages. I expect the Texans will just let him keep his spot on seniority, and fair enough, but it’s going to cost them some big plays.

This early on in the draft process it doesn’t mean much, but for my money, Deandre Baker of Georgia is a perfect fit of player and team with the Texans. I’ve seen him mocked around the middle of the first round all the way to the end of the first, and the only thing he’s really missing is size. I have a thing for players who play bigger than their actual size, and I think Baker fits that bill. Otherwise, look, pretty much every cornerback in the draft will be linked to the Texans at some point.

Aaron Colvin remains on the roster after a 2018 debacle of a free-agency season solely because the Texans can’t clear money by releasing him. I think he deserves a fresh start this year at slot corner, and he’s not terrible in that role historically. He’s not going to earn the contract money, but that doesn’t mean he can’t dunk on his 2018 form. The Texans can regroup on that deal after 2019.

I have no idea what the ruling actually is on Kevin Johnson being able to be cut given he finished the year on IR. If he can be cut, I expect him to be cut. I think Johnson’s salary will pretty much dictate whether the Texans keep one of Kareem Jackson and Tyrann Mathieu or both.

Safety: Kareem Jackson (FA), Justin Reid (rookie contract), Andre Hal (cheapie contract), A.J. Moore (UDFA rookie contract), Mike Tyson (UDFA rookie contract)

Speaking of Jackson versus Mathieu, let’s talk about that right now. How many teams do you know that carry a fourth safety as good as Andre Hal? The Texans sort of got away with it this year because Jackson immediately moved to corner and because Hal was coming off a lymphoma. Here’s a take that goes beyond the statistics that are colored by playing bad quarterbacks: He’s still slow enough at this stage of his career that he needs to be a safety. The Texans will be making a grave mistake if they evaluate last year’s tape and decide he can stick outside in 2019.

Mathieu is a tough subject for me. I think he’s a good player, but the way that safeties have been valued on the free agent market over the past couple of seasons make me feel a bit weird about giving him $10 million a season. Mathieu’s size makes it easy for him to get bullied by bigger tight ends. His football acumen and approach? No questions there for me. I won’t be sad if he’s one of Houston’s safeties in 2019. But I wouldn’t want to be handing him a huge contract given how easily pieced together most safety units are and the fact that Hal is already a more-than reliable third safety. I would choose between Mathieu and Jackson in favor of Jackson because I think he’s just a little more physical up front and I suspect the Texans will be able to pay a bit less to keep him. They’re both good players to me though, so no tears if they’re both back.

Justin Reid‘s rookie season was somehow impressive and yet not quite as good as I think his DROY backer fans took it in 2018. Reid’s tackling and range has him in a good spot to continue to develop into that player, but the Texans got a little burnt over the second half of the season and I attribute that mostly to learning experiences by the rookie.

Depth is good at this position. A.J. Moore was a core special teamer all season, and Mike Tyson played adequately after coming over as a waiver claim. I don’t think this team needs to draft a safety, though I wouldn’t be surprised if they targeted another bargain safety ala Mathieu if the market makes that the play.

The Promise of Will Fuller

Texans wide receiver Will Fuller played in seven games last season and he seemed healthy for maybe three of them.

Fuller, 25 in April, is a breed of player that I would argue has become more and more rare as teams have gotten deeper into sports science and nutrition. The team has every incentive to keep him on the field, but they can’t.

His ACL tear against the Dolphins in Week 8 was unfortunate, but even outside of the ACL, there were 33 separate Rotoworld updates on the status of his hip and hamstring over the first eight weeks of 2018. Fuller had knee surgery after the 2017 season, a season in which he also missed time due to cracked ribs and a broken collarbone suffered in training camp. The leg and hamstring problems also bothered Fuller in his rookie season, forcing him to miss a couple games. As much as I’ve joked in the past about how the NFL seems to overworry about how a player’s body looks from a scouting perspective, Fuller was heavily dinged for his skinny build coming out of Notre Dame. Not just his overall build, but his legs in particular. So far, those concerns have been realized.

Last year, Fuller took a massive step forward on the field. I would argue, in fact, that his numbers even underrate how good he was because he essentially played decoy while his hamstring was bothering him. Fuller led all non-qualified receivers in Football Outsiders’ DYAR in 2018, and his DVOA in 2017 ranked him 17th in the NFL despite playing several of those games with Tom Savage. In six starts with Savage after Watson tore his ACL in 2017, Fuller managed just 144 total receiving yards.

Nearly a third of Fuller’s targets in 2018 came on Curl or Comeback routes, per Sports Info Solutions charting. He builds enough respect with his speed that this should be a staple play of the offense. Here’s one example of it in Week 3 against the Giants:

I don’t think Fuller gets enough credit for how few drops he’s committed over the past couple of years. He only had two in 2017 per Sports Info Solutions. Last year? Zero. Now that’s not to say that he’s not ever going to drop a pass again, but it’s a lot less of a weakness than I thought it’d be in 2016. This particular catch against the Giants showcased a nice ability to make a play on a short ball. Here’s another catch that Fuller’s speed manufactured against the Colts in Week 4

The Colts come out with a quarters look, but transfer over to Cover-3. Fuller sells his deep speed so well on this play that the corner gets completely turned around respecting Fuller’s deep speed. The only question on this corner route was if Watson was going to be able to sneak it in before Fuller went out of bounds.

Here’s a complete list of every post-merger NFL receiver to have 11 touchdowns in his second and third season in the NFL while playing 17 or fewer games: Will Fuller, Kenny Britt. If you expand that list to 24 games (giving a player a half-season off), here’s how that expands:

Chris Henry AND Kenny Britt? What a list.

When I create a list like this I play around with a lot of splits to try to find what I think is the right control group of players — the hard thing about comparing Fuller to most of these receivers is the lack of receptions. The comparison that actually wound up ringing the most true to me, both stylistically and statistically, was Marvin Jones. Jones wound up with 51 receptions in his second season alone — even despite being surrounded with A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, Mohammed Sanu, and Jermaine Gresham. Jones then missed his entire third season to ankle and foot issues. Players like Britt and Chris Henry hit on off-field scenarios that Fuller isn’t dealing with. Players like Julio Jones and Watkins, I would argue, had better pedigree and delivered more immediately.

Houston’s passing game going forward is one that has a lot of no-brainer situations to me. Deshaun Watson deserves to have the Brinks truck backed up in front of his house. DeAndre Hopkins is going to be a star as long as he stays healthy. Keke Coutee is going to be, at worst, a good slot receiver. The offensive tackle position needs to be sledgehammered and rebuilt. These are all positions that, give or take a grade of effectiveness, I think most rational people can agree on. Fuller is the element of this passing game that is entirely volatile.

From a contractual standpoint, Fuller is intriguing because he’s up against a lot of things the NFL typically values highly. He’s not healthy. He hasn’t been consistent from game-to-game. At the same time, he has so much going on from a scouting perspective that offers value — the speed, the ability to take safeties with him, the effortless way he changes gears. Jadeveon Clowney’s franchise tag situation has been interesting to watch and project on to Fuller, because I’d argue they had a similar beginning to their careers even if imagining them as the same is kind of funny because of the body disparity. They both make things look incredibly easy when they’re on. When they win big it’s a splash play that can change the entire game. But the injuries and inconsistencies are real.

If Fuller plays a healthy 16-game season in 2019, I think we might be talking about a top-10 NFL receiver. What’s it worth to have two of those on the same team at the same time, and what’s it worth if you can’t count on one of them to stay there? The fifth-year option debate with Fuller is going to be pretty easy — the second-contract one is going to inform a lot about the Texans cap situation and offense going forward, and it may be a significant risk for them no matter how good Fuller is.

My 2019 Offseason Houston Texans Plan: Offense

The wideouts will carry this offense in 2019.

I’m separating this into a few posts because I don’t want to drop 5,000 words on one piece.

There is nothing I can do about my beefs with how this team is coached so I’m not going to run through that disclaimer on every position, but obviously it is a shadow that looms over the ceiling of the entire organization. Ultimately I have players I like that would not be used exactly in the way I’d prescribe. So I’ll also be trying to add people I think are good fits for what the coaching staff wants as well, even if they are not the exact players I’d go after.

QB: Deshaun Watson (rookie deal), FA signing, FA signing

I’ve got nothing against Brandon Weeden but I have serious doubts that he could manage the team well through a multi-week Deshaun Watson injury. He’s 35, 36 in October, and hasn’t started a game since 2015. To me, Weeden being a primary backup when your quarterback takes as many dings as Watson takes with his playmaking style is a bad fit.

So, who to chase then? I think Tyrod Taylor might allow the Texans to keep most of the offense they run normally with Watson, as well as give them enough juice as a runner to creatively manage through some games. I don’t know what Taylor’s market is like but the Bills ran him out of town and the Browns didn’t even give him a month as a starter — I think he might have to settle for being a backup. The Texans don’t figure to be cap-strapped and could give Taylor a decent one-year deal in the $4-$5 million range without it changing anything. (Alternately I like Colin Kaepernick but I have my doubts the Texans would actually be interested for reasons that are incredibly obvious.)

Most of the other quarterbacks are unproven, because the generic backup quarterbacks that hit the market have only proven to be mediocre in a best-case scenario. I want more upside. A player I’ve always been enamored with that is still young-ish and has shown something in his NFL starts is David Fales. Fales had a nice start with the Dolphins at the end of the 2017 season, and while he doesn’t have a deep ball, he can manage a short game pretty well. I’d also be sniffing around AAF youngsters Luis Garcia and John Wolford. I’d be willing to take a chance on Brett Hundley, who I think will be way too inconsistent to win you a game on his own but has more upside than a lot of the backups that are hitting the pool. Hundley’s another guy you can use in the run game, and he’s got enough arm talent to burn someone if a defense plays his receivers too tightly. He may not actually hit the throw … but he could. If the Texans were willing to take a chance on someone who has had actual off-field issues, Chad Kelly looked pretty solid for the Broncos last preseason as well.

Running backs: FA, FA/Draft, D’Onta Foreman (rookie deal), Gregory Howell (UDFA/ST)

A major emphasis for me would be finding a running back who could contribute as a receiver out of the backfield. So, my No. 1 target would actually not be a free agent at all. The Browns just signed up Kareem Hunt, giving themselves a three-headed backfield with Nick Chubb, Hunt, and Duke Johnson. I think Johnson has been underutilized by his staff, and with Hunt in tow, perhaps you can invest a late-day trade or pick swap to acquire a running back who can be the main head of a committee in a best-case scenario and, worst-case, is a terrific third-down back. That’s what this team has needed for years. I’d actually prefer to trade for him because I don’t want to get involved with RFA compensation if I can avoid it. The Patriots are able to bilk lots of extra draft picks in this way. The Browns would assume the guaranteed parts of Johnson’s contract, the Texans would give up, say, a fourth- or fifth-rounder. That’s a win-win to me. Ty Montgomery could fit that role as a pure free agent, as could Darren Sproles if he decides not to retire.

I expect the Texans to just roll with the last year of Lamar Miller’s contract. That’s fine. I think the team could get marginally more efficient play by releasing him, but he’s a solid zone scheme back. I expect they’ll also probably wind up with Alfred Blue as part of the platoon again because the coaching staff seems to love him. I think Blue’s play has not merited him getting the looks that he has already. Running back is a position where, if you’re not going after Le’Veon Bell, you’re not going to have to pay big premiums anyway. Might as well shop at the top of the market. I’d like to see Jay Ajayi as a Blue replacement — he’s always run powerfully and I think he makes a lot of sense as the between-the-tackles back in a platoon. Spencer Ware also seems like a good fit for the role, although he has been pretty prone to injury.

With D’Onta Foreman‘s torn Achilles one year further in the past, this is pretty much a make-or-break year for him as far as his NFL future. If the Texans don’t trade for a back, I think drafting one in the middle rounds is clearly on the table. It’s hard to forecast who exactly will be on the table this far from the draft, as we don’t get much clarity from inside the bubble until post-Combine, but to throw a name on the table I think Memphis’ Darrell Henderson is a good fit for how O’Brien calls plays and when the Texans will be able to justify spending a pick.

Wide Receivers: DeAndre Hopkins (star contract), Will Fuller (rookie deal), Keke Coutee (rookie deal), DeAndre Carter (ERFA), Vyncint Smith (UDFA), Steven Mitchell (UDFA)

Not much to be done here in my opinion. I understand fans are going to hand-wring about bringing back the same lineup because Will Fuller and Keke Coutee both dealt with long-term injuries, but they’re so good when they’re healthy that I don’t have a problem with it. Give them some real time to actually play themselves on or off the field. I’d actually be open to extending Fuller right now, as we enter the final year of his rookie deal, but I’ll write about that more at a later date.

I thought DeAndre Carter was reasonably effective after being claimed off waivers. Fumbles a bit much for my taste in the punt return game but he can fly and he can make people miss — in my viewpoint he’s a solid No. 4 receiver and worthy of the tender.

I doubt this is an area the Texans target in free agency or in the draft unless a screaming value comes at them. You could see some roster churn between Smith and Mitchell if they find someone who offers them more on special teams than those two did last year.

Tight ends: Jordan Akins (rookie deal), Jordan Thomas (rookie deal), FA/draft

I thought Jordan Akins had a fantastic rookie season and was puzzled by how little he was utilized, particularly when the team ran out of wide receivers towards the end of the season. Akins is not a blocker, but he’s a move tight end with reliable hands and the size to win the ball in traffic. He took some big shots and held on to the ball fairly well last season.

Meanwhile, Jordan Thomas fit into the same basic mold but was a little further ahead on the depth chart because the coaches thought higher of him as a blocker. Thomas, a former college wideout, has soft hands and should be an ideal No. 2 tight end for at least the duration of his rookie deal.

I’m out on Ryan Griffin — but, like Miller, he’s in the last year of his contract and I expect the Texans to keep him because he makes almost no impact on the bottom line. Griffin was a net negative in run blocking and, even though his most memorable incomplete passes included a lot of Watson’s lowlight reel, I don’t think he adds a lot as a receiver either. I’d be trying to find a more reliable blocker — someone like Nick Boyle out of this free agent class — who can do the catch-and-fall-down thing as well. Tyler Kroft is another name that fits. Just someone who can actually complement Los Jordans.

I have a special interest in Tyler Eifert because he’s a true difference-maker at the position and he’s so injury-prone that he won’t command any real money. That’s a gamble I’ll take to training camp, especially with the team having as much cap space as they do. If it works out, great. If it doesn’t, oh well.

Offensive Line: Zach Fulton (midscale contract), Seantrel Henderson (small contract), Nick Martin (rookie deal), Julie’n Davenport (rookie deal), Martinas Rankin (rookie deal), FA/rookie, FA/rookie, FA/rookie

Alright, here’s the big mess to clean up on this side of the ball. Kendall Lamm would be on my callback list, but he wouldn’t be a priority re-sign. I expect the Texans feel about the same by their decision to re-sign Seantrel Henderson. I would go ahead and release Senio Kelemete and Greg Mancz for cap space ($3.15 million). They both struggled this season in some ways. I expect in reality the Texans will actually keep Mancz. Kelemete, I could see it going either way.

I’d make Rankin a full-time guard, thought he showed decently in that area towards the end of last season when given a chance. Here’s the order of free agency/trade operations for me: in order, I’d pursue Matt Paradis, Darryl Williams, and Ty Neskhe. If the team was able to land Paradis, who I expect to be one of the biggest free-agent prizes in the league despite coming off a fractured fibula, I’d move Nick Martin to guard. I’d be willing to give Paradis something north of what Ryan Jensen got last offseason, a four-year, $42 million contract with $22 million in guarantees — a contract that essentially amounts to a two-year contract with options. I think Martin will play better at guard where he can focus on less pre-snap, and I think Paradis is an elite center that will help run blocking and pass protection. You can sub in Rodger Saffold if you like him better in this plan — Paradis is younger and I would want any good play I got from Martin to be a bonus, rather than something I’d rely on. I think you come into the season with Zach Fulton on hand, ready to replace Martin wherever. I expect the Texans will not do any of this and instead will let Mancz spell Fulton, Martin, and Rankin up the middle.

Nsekhe is my sleeper option to fill left tackle — I think he gets overlooked because he was stuck on Washington behind Trent Williams for his entire career. But every time he’s gotten on the field, he’s played solid-to-well. He’s already 33, so he’s not going to command a huge long-term deal. But that’s a play I think you make when Juli’en Davenport is your penciled in left tackle.

I like Williams as a low-cost gamble at right tackle. Williams disappointed for the early portion of his rookie contract in Carolina, but was second-team All-Pro in 2017 before missing most of 2018 to a torn MCL and a dislocated kneecap. I don’t think he’s who you want manning left tackle because I don’t think he has the speed for it, but he’s only 27 and the injury should depress his market a bit. If he were coming off the 2017 season now he’d figure to get $30 million in guarantees. As is, I bet he still does well for himself. But this is the one guy in this tackle class who I think is talented enough to actually get into a bid war for.

I’d offer some trade options but I think it largely is a draft-only thing when it comes to tackles. Teams don’t trade star tackles very often. I wonder why that is and if Deshaun Watson has any thoughts on that. 🤔

This year’s draft pool at tackle is deep and has multiple potential options that could make it to Houston’s first-round pick, but it does seem to be a class where evaluations vary wildly. Having not dived into tape and thoughts on the subject as often as I’m comfortable with, I’m going to mostly abstain from the discussion for now. Jonah Williams seems to be bandied about as the safest pick, if not necessarily a true top-10 left tackle for everybody. My “I’ve watched some college games but not intently studied this” opinion is that Andre Dillard and Greg Little make up the second tier of potential left tackles.

I expect the Texans to just sit back and take the best offensive tackle on their board when they select, unless they have a high enough grade on someone to trade up for them. My gut feeling is: three weeks into free agency any fan who was riled up about the offensive line last season will probably continue to be baffled by the lack of investment. If that doesn’t come to pass, I think the team will have grievously over-evaluated a tackle like Trent Brown.