Nearly nine months later, the Laremy Tunsil trade is already beginning to paralyze the Texans

When the Laremy Tunsil trade went down, I said “I think Tunsil is both a really good left tackle and someone who can’t possibly live up to the billing of this price tag. I don’t think Joe Thomas or Anthony Munoz in their primes could live up to this price tag.” Plus or minus (mostly minus) five false starts, I think the trade went about as well as it could have for the Texans in year one: Houston won the division and Tunsil played well and stayed healthy.

The problem is that the scope of the trade was made from an area where the Texans were sacrificing so much that they had to be “expecting either a transformational result to their team, a window for winning now that will soon close, or both.” That transformational result didn’t happen, because it simply was impossible for it to happen. The window will remain open as long as Deshaun Watson is wearing deep steel blue.

The transformational result that wasn’t

Deshaun Watson’s 2019 season was the best of his career in terms of Houston’s overall offensive DVOA, his sack rate, and his hurry rate. Unfortunately, it was a) barely so and b) only the best because the 2017 Texans were weighed down with a bunch of Tom Savage starts.

Moreover, I don’t know that you can look at the circumstantial elements of some of Watson’s low-hit, low-hurry starts and point to Tunsil as the reason. Watson took no sacks and two hurries against the Chiefs in Week 6 as Bill O’Brien went to a heavy RPO-based game plan that utilized a ton of tight end drags. He took zero sacks and one hurry against the Falcons in Week 5 because Atlanta was a disaster defensively. He took one sack and two hurries against the Jaguars in London … in a game that Tunsil did not play in … because the Texans got to bleed clock almost the entirety of the game and utilized some good short-passing offense.

It is not an attack on Laremy Tunsil’s character or skill to note that he simply doesn’t have a lot to do with how the offense plays. The offense played very well in 2017 when O’Brien created a system around Watson’s strengths. It played very well at times in 2019 when he did the same thing. In this era of NFL football, offensive spacing is all about how quickly you can get initial reads open. Simply put, O’Brien has failed at this task over and over again as a playcaller — and when he actually put some effort into the area, it becomes very apparent how good the offense can be. O’Brien’s playcalling is a continual tease.

Watson will always be a high-sack player as long as he insists on trying to hit the throws he wants on every down. That is in his DNA. If O’Brien wanted to protect Watson, he’d work to make those throws easier. By committing to how O’Brien wants to do things, something that becomes very apparent every time he brings in another receiver who cooks with 4.4 speed and the heavy offensive line investments, the Texans have become a boom-bust offense. Without DeAndre Hopkins, they don’t even have a trump card for when the bust happens.

Tunsil or Hopkins?

Now, I admit this is doing a dangerous amount of reading into O’Brien’s comments and ignoring all the rumored friction, baby mommas, and so on, but let’s talk about this quote:

There were a lot of fans of the Tunsil deal as it happened — I’m not surprised by this, because the bill has not even begun to come due. But I wonder if you’d told those same fans that Hopkins would be dealt because of the Tunsil trade how much the reactions would change.

When you see these two trades as interconnected, and you realize how badly the Texans got wiped in the exchange, the idea that there’s some grand plan here is laughable. Just based on the merits of the players as they have played on the field, I wouldn’t trade Hopkins for Tunsil straight up. Yet because the Texans made a trade for Tunsil and hijacked their future cap space with it, they didn’t feel they could properly negotiate a contract for Hopkins. So, they settled for an inferior receiver, giving up (not the exact pick but) the only excess asset they got out of the Hopkins trade in the first place.

That’s straight from the GM’s mouth. There’s no speculation here.

Now, Tunsil definitely deserves to be one of the 10 highest-paid tackles on the planet. I don’t know that I would say he’s the best tackle in the NFL, nor do I know that he has the most future value remaining of any tackle. But he’s absolutely up there, and he has so much leverage that he’s obviously going to hit his goal to be the highest-paid lineman in the league.

That was something that was obvious the second the Texans traded for Tunsil. In fact, it was baffling at the time that they did the trade without having a signed contract extension in place. Left tackles tend to age fairly well, so there’s little unnecessary risk in this for the Texans. But as we enter draft week, Tunsil has changed agents this offseason, and the team and player are reportedly still not close to a deal.

I’m not worried about Tunsil leaving or anything, but it’s very clear that the trade unsettled the current order of the roster in a way that wasn’t necessarily beneficial.

“You can’t get a tackle as good as Laremy Tunsil with the pick the Texans would have had”

This is one thing I’ve seen bandied around on Twitter. It’s a hilarious re-imagining of NFL history. For one thing, Laremy Tunsil literally fell a ton in the draft because of a picture that surfaced of him with a bong on draft day. Jawaan Taylor was bandied about as a top-10 pick for most of mock draft season and fell past the Texans because they liked Tytus Howard better. The guy reported by people like Ian Rappaport to be high on the draft board for Houston, Andre Dillard, went the pick before they were up. They could have swapped into that spot if they wanted it.

Almost every year in the NFL draft we see a tackle or two fall into that late first-round pick zone. Ryan Ramczyk went 32nd to the Saints in 2017. Now, is it possible that the Texans would muff that pick? It is! But even a decent NFL player on a first-round pick contract is extremely valuable. Offensive tackle is a huge strength of this year’s draft, and even neglecting the idea that one of the four consensus top guys would have fallen (hello, Mehki Becton drug test!), the depth is there to make someone like an Ezra Cleveland an easy fit.

As much as I agree that Laremy Tunsil is very good, I don’t know that he’s good enough that I wouldn’t trade him for a rookie contract left tackle I felt good about. By far the most excess value a team can accumulate in the NFL comes from having good players on rookie contracts. It’s why you rarely see first-rounders dealt in the first place. If that player has a 20% chance of becoming Tunsil, a 30% chance of becoming Taylor Decker, a 25% chance of becoming Donovan Smith, and a 15% chance of becoming Julien Davenport … I’ll roll those odds.

Every year, multiple all-pro players make it into the 20s in the NFL Draft. Drafting just isn’t that exact a science, even data-based drafting isn’t flawless. Let me tell you about how FO’s computer models loved Kellen Clemens and Bryan Brohm in the mid-/late-aughts. To pretend that in trading for Tunsil the team gave up nothing of value because those would be later first-round picks is asinine.

Duane Brown says hello.

The core of Houston’s roster is going to be very, very slim for the next few seasons

Off the top of my head, these are the players that Houston is paying real money to where I would be surprised if they weren’t with the team for opening day 2022:

Laremy Tunsil
Deshaun Watson

That’s it, that’s the list. J.J. Watt is 31, has no guaranteed money left on his deal, and has missed major portion of three of the last four seasons. Whitney Mercilus will get almost all of his contract out of the way in two years and will be 32 in 2022. Brandin Cooks has five concussions and no guaranteed money on his deal. Will Fuller is on his fifth-year option. Randall Cobb turns 30 in August. Kenny Stills is on the last year of his deal. I’m surprised Zach Fulton hasn’t been released already. I don’t have the laugh crying emoji installed so I can’t discuss David Johnson’s core status in the terms it deserves.

None of the players that Bill O’Brien listed off on last week’s conference call as he was trying to create a benefit of the doubt are rock stars at their respective jobs.

I would say the Texans envision Nick Martin and Bradley Roby as core players, as well as perhaps Ka’imi Fairbairn, and see them on the roster for sure in 2022. I wouldn’t — I don’t think any of them have played well consistently enough to run with that claim. I’m sure that the Texans likely see Zach Cunningham as a core member, but I think if he signs, it’s probably the end of Benardrick McKinney.

Supplementing those, let’s be kind and say 5 players, the Texans have the following young players:

Justin Reid
Tytus Howard
Max Scharping
Lonnie Johnson
Gareon Conley
Jacob Martin

And then maybe someone out of the Akins/Thomas/Warring combo will be a long-term starter. Maybe some of those guys have more talent than they flashed on the field in 2019, and I’m looking forward to seeing if they can do it consistently. But outside of Reid, none of them played both well and consistently.

Most studies have shown that the NFL Draft is essentially a four-round process at best, and perhaps more accurately tends to fade after the first 100 picks:

Source: Football Perspective, pick numbers at the bottom, career AV to the left

The Texans have exactly one top-50 pick in the next two years: the one they got for DeAndre Hopkins at 40 this year. They have the 90th pick this year, and the 111th from Miami. In 2021, they’ll have a third-round pick that will likely fall inside the top 100. Otherwise, this is the roster. This is it. Not all of that is on the Laremy Tunsil trade, but the vast majority of it is.

In a league where cost-controlled talent drives wins more than anything besides coaching and quarterback play, the 2022 Texans are probably going to surround Deshaun Watson with less of it than any team in the NFL. There are players that could break out between now and then, sure. Arian Foster has happened before. There are also players in this group who could simply be lost to injury attrition.

The NFL Draft is fresh reinforcements every year. By giving up as much as they did for Tunsil, the Texans have created a scenario where they need to be right about essentially every pick they make and every player on the roster. This is a team that went into the season with Aaron Colvin as the starting nickel corner in 2019 and cut him after Week 1, to not even get into their talent evaluation on the grander scale. And as those young players grow up, there’s no guarantee that they’ll be able to afford them if they actually do ball out, or that the players will say the magic words that elevate them into O’Brien and Easterby’s character country club.

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I have to make sure I separate the player from the transaction here: Laremy Tunsil has done absolutely nothing wrong. He’s a great player at his position. This is not a post where I’m going to cherry-pick all his bad blocks of the season and laugh at him. He’s an asset to any organization, and a charismatic guy. (Though one I’ll admit I am a little surprised that BOB and Easterby are fans of.)

But trading for him didn’t alter much of Houston’s present course, and as the price begins to get conveyed on Thursday, it’s worth pointing out that the Texans need to be flawless on literally everything else they do over the next two years to make the trade pay off. O’Brien’s new buzzword may have been layers and layers of players, but layers and layers of potential quality are going to Miami instead of Houston because he wanted one guy.

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A month later, I’m still not sure why the Texans felt they needed David Johnson

It immediately became obvious in the aftermath of the DeAndre Hopkins trade that head coach Bill O’Brien, general manager Bill O’Brien, and head of interviews Jack Easterby put a high value on Cardinals running back David Johnson. The trade felt lopsided instantly. It was obviously an incredibly divisive transaction, to the point where the Texans refused to really acknowledge that it happened socially by burying it in a transactions post. (You still won’t see a single bit of the official team Twitter that acknowledges that this trade happened directly.)

So it was already obvious that O’Brien coveted Johnson, and then we get into this quote:

Source: HoustonTexans.com

Now, I’m aware it’s established fan mentality to talk up the new guy, and I certainly think David Johnson both belongs on an NFL roster and has shown flashes of being a superstar running back in the past. However, it is worth noting that there are a lot of things that are fundamentally weird about making him the centerpiece of a trade involving DeAndre Hopkins. I think the Johnson return has sort of gotten lost in the wash of the trade because of the inherent emotional hot-button that the trade instantly became.

One of them, which I touched on at the time of the trade, is that David Johnson is not a very good zone runner. In fact, he was noticeably less great at it than Carlos Hyde was last year. In 2018 and 2019, Johnson averaged 3.9 and 3.8 yards per carry, respectively, on zone runs. Hyde averaged 4.4 yards per carry on zone runs in 2019. Johnson’s zone running, memorably in my eyes, was a big reason why Matt Waldman was a little lower on him than most at the time he was drafted.

But that’s really just scratching the surface of why I think Johnson is an odd fit for the Texans. Here are several other reasons:

David Johnson’s biggest calling card over Carlos Hyde is first- and second-down versatility … but Bill O’Brien rarely incorporates running back passes

Of Deshaun Watson’s 495 passing attempts last year, Sports Info Solutions noted 71 of them were targets for Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson. 52 of them happened on first and second-down, and of those, exactly three of them happened with less than five yards to go. The Texans ran just six running back screens all season. A vast majority of the running back targets don’t come from the flow of the offense, but from Deshaun Watson checking it down.

Watson targeted running backs (Lamar Miller, Alfred Blue, Tyler Ervin, and D’Onta Foreman) just 66 times in 2018, exactly three times on first or second down and more than five yards to go. The Texans threw running back screens … six times all season.

In Watson’s rookie season — the one where O’Brien married his concepts to what Watson was using at Clemson and the offense was dominant until Watson got hurt — Watson targeted running backs 35 times in seven games, but averaged 8.8 yards per pass. Still, there were only three screens, and only three of them came with less than five yards to go on first or second down.

As I noted when the Texans acquired Duke Johnson, the only time in the Bill O’Brien era where he’s emphasized a running back in the passing game all on his own was in his initial season with Arian Foster, and once Foster got hurt, that was over.

The fact that we have such a rich and robust NFL history from O’Brien to pull from really denigrates any argument that Johnson’s first and second-down utility matters. We saw what happened last year when the Texans had a dynamic receiving back on the roster that they invested a high pick in — they refused to use him. We have a large collection of seasons with extremely similar stat lines. It’s possible that Tim Kelly’s coordination will be different than O’Brien’s, but we have no evidence that it will be or that Kelly will always call all plays. Kelly has literally not spoken publicly since being named head playcaller, and his interview sessions last year were watching-paint-dry dull. We all know who the Napoleon is here.

Speaking of Duke Johnson…

Why, exactly, is Duke Johnson going to be sharing time with David Johnson?

My major criticism of this trade the second it happened was that, while David Johnson’s receiving talent makes him a viable running back, the Texans just traded a third-round pick for a player like this last offseason. Duke Johnson and David Johnson are both top-of-the-line receiving backs.

But, uh, here’s another question: What reason is there for David Johnson to be considered a better player than Duke Johnson at this point in their respective careers?

David Johnson has logged a few more touches — though less than you’d think given how often Duke Johnson was targeted — but has a much lower yards per carry, a lower yards per target number, and about the only major statistical thing you can say he’s been better at than Duke is that he’s fumbled less per attempt. Duke Johnson is also younger than David is.

I think speaking purely from a scouting standpoint, David Johnson is maybe a hair better than Duke Johnson as a downfield receiver. They each have issues running zone — there was a reason that I thought Hyde deserved more of the early-down carries last season — but I think Duke Johnson looks more spry and has more explosion at this point. The numbers also back this up:

2016 happened, but 2016 happened a long time ago. David Johnson has had multiple major injuries since it happened. 2016 Texans starting quarterback Brock Osweiler has already retired.

If Johnson were being brought on as a complementary player — a throw-in in this trade — I think he clearly has the ability to be a part of a good NFL offense. But the context of what the Texans already had in Duke Johnson makes what he does well less important than it does for almost any other team.

Johnson’s declining explosion and his injury history likely go hand-in-hand

In 2016, Johnson broke more tackles per SIS than any back in the NFL. In the short sample of 2017 snaps we had before he dislocated his wrist, we see the same standard of tackle-breaking. But in 2018 and 2019, Johnson hasn’t been the same player. He played through ankle and back injuries in 2019, and looked so bad that he was essentially a healthy scratch for most of the second half of the season. He dealt with a quad injury in 2018 and also spent time on the injury report with that back, which reportedly has “locked up on him” at times.

The reaction to injuries are funny from an objective standpoint because so much of the messaging about them comes down to the messaging the team gives out. It’s objectively a good thing that Johnson’s legs have mostly been unscathed in the NFL. It’s possible to spin his lack of carries the last couple seasons as something that has kept the tread off his tires if you have an agenda that carries you that way. Meanwhile, Jadeveon Clowney was looked at as a major injury risk for a long-term deal … yet he’s played a hell of a lot more than David Johnson has the last three years.

Medical science and the back are not exactly best friends. I don’t think the Texans should be slaughtered for taking on a player that’s an injury risk — I generally think injury risks should be taken more often by NFL teams, but I usually think that because the player generally is more affordable due to the injury. That is … not exactly what happened here.

Running backs just aren’t worth that much money anymore

In taking David Johnson’s contract, the Texans opportunity-cost themselves chances to sign Melvin Gordon and Todd Gurley to deals well below Johnson’s salary. In other words, even if the Texans were dead-set on acquiring a good running back, there were cheaper options available.

The reported two-year, $10 million offer that Carlos Hyde had on the table that he turned down was something that was always likely to be accepted by Hyde in the long-term, but Bill O’Brien couldn’t wait. In 2020, only the Rams and Jets will be committing more dollars to running back cap space than the Texans. Moreover, 20 of the 32 NFL teams are committed to less than $10 million total on running backs. Johnson’s cap charge alone is $11.15 million.

You combine this with the fact that Johnson, again, doesn’t really appear to offer anything new to the Texans without a time hole to 2016, and it stacks up in a way that just doesn’t make any apparent sense on the field. Certainly, having a dynamic pass-catching back is good. Having versatility is good. But given the context of how O’Brien uses his running backs, this is the football equivalent of spending $30 on new stainless steel measuring cups when you already paid $25 for some plastic ones last year.

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Is Johnson still a useful NFL player? Yes. But the Occam’s Razor explanation of why the Texans traded for him is hard to unwind unless you accept at face value that they believe in their personality evaluations more than they believe in anything else.

These Houston Texans value their read of your character more than they value their read of your talent. They have to believe that Johnson’s character will lead him past his injuries to a bounceback season the likes of which we haven’t seen since 2016 for this acquisition to make any sense.

There is little evidence from the last three years to show any reasonable confidence in that.

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The Brandin Cooks trade is yet another potential disaster in the making for Bill O’Brien

I’ve been writing about football for a little over 10 years now, so I’ve been around the block enough to know that the reaction to the DeAndre Hopkins trade being largely negative was a one-time thing. It was a perfect storm of things that most fans hate:

— Bad value in return.
— Trading away an established star.
— The idea that David Johnson — who I still have not gotten to write a real piece about because the team keeps making new terrible moves — is one of the most overpaid players in the NFL.

There are fans who would be swayed towards the trade the second any of those three things was different. If Hop had gone for a 1 and a 2. If the Texans had been the ones trading a couple future 2s for, say, Yannick Ngakoue. If the Texans hadn’t taken on a bad contract to do it. The only people left who could argue for the Hopkins trade were pure homers and true O’Brien believers.

Trading a different second-round pick for Brandin Cooks is designed to appeal to the fans from the second scenario — he’s established enough to appease a fan base. He played very well in a Super Bowl. He “opens up the underneath receivers.”

The problem is that every underlying part of trading for Cooks reeks. It is hard to look past the fact that the Rams were willing to take the largest ($21.8 million) single-season cap hit in NFL history just to get rid of him. It is hard to look past the fact that they traded him despite already paying him a roster bonus. It is hard to understand how having four receivers capable of starting (five if you count Keke Coutee, Bill O’Brien doesn’t) is going to fit into Bill O’Brien’s offensive design philosophy. Most importantly…

It’s incredibly hard to see this trade as anything but an admission that Bill O’Brien’s relationship with DeAndre Hopkins was broken

If you were following the excuse-making for the Hopkins trade, friction was cited as a reason by Aaron Wilson and, more memorably, Michael Irvin:

The party line at the Texans season ticket holder conference call was that they simply couldn’t afford DeAndre on a new deal:

Bullshit. The Texans didn’t give Hopkins that money because either a) they thought he had “lost a step,” — the popularly leaked narrative, b) Bill O’Brien and Jack Easterby don’t like DeAndre Hopkins, or c) they let b inform a. It is true that the Texans will not pay any of the guaranteed money on Cooks’ contract, but it is also true that they just traded a second-round pick for him and he will still take up a significant portion of their cap space. Given what signing Hopkins to an extension would have looked like, it is incredibly unlikely that the cap hit difference would have been meaningful until 2022 or so.

The DeAndre Hopkins trade was an evaluation of Hopkins’ character, more than anything. That is what this team values, and they can’t value it properly in a context that they don’t understand. Giving balls to your blind mother in the stands isn’t enough to overcome your baby mamas.

What happened to Brandin Cooks in 2019?

Cooks had an incredibly down season where he caught just 42 balls for 583 yards. His yards per target declined to 8.1, the lowest it had been since his rookie season. He dropped four of his 72 targets per SIS data — more if you want to use other drop sources. It was a disastrous season.

More importantly, the design of Los Angeles’ offense moved entirely away from Cooks because they couldn’t run play-action once teams started defending them with a heavy box. What wound up happening was that Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp became much more valuable receivers in those circumstances. Even when we consider the two missed games Cooks had last season and give him 50 snaps for each of them, he would have been the third-most used receiver on the team. Cooks’ main gripe coming out of Oregon State was an inability to get off press coverage, and while he is not as one-dimensional as he was then, it’s obviously still an issue if that kind of offensive shift forces him to be mostly irrelevant.

Then there’s the issue of the five documented concussions. Cooks is not an injury-prone player in general, but his steep decline last year is extremely concerning in light of those concussions. Let me pull up his pro-football-reference comps:

Outside of the players who are still active (Beckham, Allen, Cooper, Diggs, Adams) these other guys show a strong trend line towards being done at Cooks’ age, which makes sense given Cooks’ sudden decline and how the career lines will change for both Cooks and the other active players as their careers go on. George Sauer’s last NFL season was played at 27. Harvin, in a bit role in Buffalo, 28. Jefferson, in a bit role in Cleveland, 29. Shanklin, 28. O.J. McDuffie made it to 31 but was essentially done as a star after his age-29 season. Cooks is 26, will be 27 in September.

Now, I don’t bring these numbers up because I think Cooks is completely toast. I don’t think it’s completely impossible to get good production out of him. I just think that the downside of this trade is very high considering the price. The Harvin comp stands out to me because it also occurred in the modern NFL and he had similar explosiveness and a similar number of concussions. When Harvin was traded to the Jets off a lost season, at a much younger age, he cost a sixth-round pick that could have upgraded to a fourth in certain circumstances. He also came with more off-field baggage, so I’m not suggesting that Cooks should be valued that lowly. But I do think the Texans have overpaid by a bunch here, especially in light of draftniks declaring this one of the better draft classes for wideouts in recent memory.

If put in to the role that Hopkins filled for this offense on most downs last year, Cooks will struggle. He got by far the least separation of any Rams full-time receiver last season per NFL Next Gen Stats, and Bill O’Brien will not scheme separation anywhere near as often as Sean McVay did:

If you are curious, the only Texans receiver in 2019 to average more than three yards of separation was Jordan Akins.

If put in to the role that Fuller filled for this offense last season, he’ll probably perform fairly well. The problem is that this relies on Fuller being healthy enough to emulate Hopkins, and also it relies on Fuller not getting traded to the Detroit Lions for a fifth-round pick. Initial fan reaction was very caught up on Cooks’ high yards per catch numbers, but it’s not like Bill O’Brien is going to run four verticals every play. By pretending that they can replace what Hopkins did with Randall Cobb and Cooks combined — at a price that will likely be worse than the rumored Hopkins extension! — they are instead going to make their offense incredibly transparent and reliant on deep balls. The value of DeAndre Hopkins was that he could do it all and teams couldn’t play him one way.

By the way, Deshaun Watson’s loft balls deep are great, but he has never had Andrew Luck-level cannon throws or anything. There’s a reason that scouts critiqued his ball speed coming out, and it does show up on some of his throws. Not enough to keep him from being a great quarterback in the aggregate, but it’s not like he’s been hitting 100% of open deep targets.

The cult grows

Every football team has a little bit of cult in them, and I think we have to accept that it’s almost necessary in some ways that whoever leads a team has some of those elements in them. Players are always asked to sacrifice for the greater good. We hear about the building of a good culture. NFL teams often hire people they are familiar with. The bubble, as they call it, is something that rules a lot of the NFL.

But I think you’d be hardpressed to find a situation where it rules it quite as much as it does in Houston.

So it is important to note that Cooks and Easterby have a fairly one-sided Twitter relationship where Cooks tweets Christian-themed motivational gruel and Easterby retweets it.

Easterby retweeted Cooks four times in about the span of a month. They have a pre-existing relationship from their New England days:

And when Aaron Wilson drops something like this:

It is hard to escape the idea that this was a move made because they value Brandin Cooks as a person more than most teams value him as an asset. I’m not going to chase the religious underpinnings here because the beliefs honestly do not matter to me, the person who only cares about how good the team is. But it is clear that the Houston Texans standard is set up for a certain type of person at this point, with this leadership. You would have to stick your head in the sand to ignore that.

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Now, in the aggregate, is trading for Brandin Cooks a good thing or a bad thing for 2020 Super Bowl hopes? Probably a good thing. It has been pointed out to me by several Twitter users who dislike my stance on this trade that it is going to be hard to get on-field practices together this year, even in optimistic COVID-19 scenarios. But, to take a construct that O’Brien, Cal McNair, and Easterby used in defending themselves earlier: You’ve got to look at the whole picture. A better way of having a team ready for 2020 would have just been keeping DeAndre Hopkins instead of trying to build a culture along the lines of the old Apple commercial.

The leadership that Cal McNair has entrusted to show off bold moves is using those bold moves to wipe the slate clean of anybody that they don’t find to match their desired playing persona. They believe that this is a novel approach that nobody has tried and failed with before. Hilariously, the culture they came from in New England was one that was almost dedicated on pouncing on talent that came out of situations similar to this.

It only makes sense that in this dumb moment of history that we are all suffering through, these two have the keys to Deshaun Watson’s career.

I will not be surprised by 1,000 yards for Brandin Cooks. I will not be surprised by 250 yards and a ton of missed games by Brandin Cooks. I will take the under on him being on the team for three years. I will take the second-round pick.

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“So that’s gonna happen every single year” — thoughts on Houston’s spending

Cal McNair, Bill O’Brien, and Jack Easterby came together Friday afternoon, being fed questions by Marc Vandermeer, to put together a brief conference call for season ticket holders. It matched a lot of what you would expect a news conference to look like from a defensive, overwhelmed organization that refuses to believe the outside world has any basis in reality. DeAndre Hopkins was mentioned by name less than five times, most of which came after Bill O’Brien rambled for about three minutes in a row. He was mentioned by Cal McNair or to Cal McNair exactly zero times.

This, in and of itself, isn’t all that newsworthy. It’s a reliving of a catharsis that should have happened a lot earlier. It’s fun to be mad at Bill O’Brien, it’s fun to note that Jack Easterby mentioned “virtual memes,” which I can only assume means he knows about “stonks.” It’s fun to hear that Cal McNair does not, by his own admission, have the IT savvy to launch a Skype or Zoom call. It doesn’t really change anything, but these are all fun notes of an internal dismantling that sure seems to be the blind leading the blind.

But the part that stuck out the most to me was Bill O’Brien’s spiel about how the team wanted to re-sign D.J. Reader, but that they simply couldn’t afford it. And that it was going to happen “every single year.”

He parlayed that into blaming DeAndre Hopkins for wanting a raise with three years left on his deal. Which, let’s be fair together, is a crock of an excuse to me. DeAndre Hopkins has zero leverage to not report to camp under the new CBA. He has every reason to be upset that he’s being underpaid in the current market. The fact that he wants a new deal may make Bill O’Brien’s fee fees get in a tangle, but it wasn’t like there was a lot that Hopkins could do about it before he was shipped off to Arizona for the dream that 2016 David Johnson is alive and beans.

But let’s talk about the glaring issue in the room here: Over the past two offseasons — the two in which O’Brien has had control with Brian Gaine as a buffer for about three months — the Texans have lost Jadeveon Clowney, DeAndre Hopkins, D.J. Reader, and Tyrann Mathieu to the fact that they all wanted more money than the Texans were willing to spend. All of them are, let’s be generous to the Texans, top 20 players at their respective positions. I’d argue higher, but I don’t need another conversation with the Jadeveon Clowney Sack Totaller who doesn’t understand why teams would want to have their doctors check out a guy’s microfracture repair before giving him money.

This is going to happen every year. What does that really mean?

Who have the Texans kept and gone after when it comes time to pay players?

Since Bill O’Brien took over the Texans, they have completed exactly one big free-agency deal: Signing Brock Osweiler. Even that contract was a little overblown: Osweiler had only a $12 million cap figure in 2016, and only left about $9 million more on the cap as part of what was reported as $37 million in guarantees. That cap figure in 2016 was 20th among quarterbacks. It felt like a bigger bust than it was because anything with quarterbacks is high-profile.

When the Texans re-signed J.J. Watt to a $100 million-dollar deal in 2014, they were negotiating with a lot of leverage. Watt got plenty of guaranteed money, but he never had the top hit of any 3-4 end. He has honestly always been a bit underpaid relative to production. Did you know, that in 2017, he made less than Muhammad Wilkerson? It’s true. If we compare Watt to actual edge rushers, the contract looks even worse. 2016 was the one year where Watt’s cap hit was actually top-5 at his position. By 2017, he was behind players like Clay Matthews, Olivier Vernon, Justin Houston, and Von Miller. In 2020, the contract is extremely generous compared to the top of the market.

When the Texans re-signed DeAndre Hopkins to a five-year, $81 million deal off of his fifth-year option, Hopkins had the No. 1 cap hit among NFL wideouts for a season. Since then, it has declined to the point where, in 2020, he won’t even be in the top 10.

via Over The Cap

Other than those two players, the Texans have been extremely reticent to sign players to top-of-the-market contracts. They’re willing to talk up Nick Martin, Kareem Jackson (while still young), Benardrick McKinney and Whitney Mercilus, and put them at or near the top 10 at their positions. They’re willing to give solid deals to role players like Angelo Blackson. But they’re very reluctant to set a market for a star player. Obviously, Laremy Tunsil and Deshaun Watson will be giant exceptions to this — they are noted in almost every presser O’Brien gives, and the Texans have almost no choice but to sign Tunsil after trading two years of first-round picks for him.

When they go shopping in free agency, the Texans tend to come away with more players like Eric Murray, Aaron Colvin, Tashaun Gipson, and Zach Fulton. Their free agency plan is mix between high projections on players who haven’t reached that space yet and one-year contracts to players who have seen their market dwindle. It’s one that, as Bill O’Brien emphasizes capital T, capital E, capital A, capital M team, really means they’re trying to get the best value that they can. And what the Texans appear to have decided with a few notable exceptions is that the best value they can get is not in re-signing players looking to be at the top of the market. I don’t agree with the stance, but that is what the actions suggest.

Now, and I want to emphasize this again: This doesn’t mean there’s any real risk that the Texans will let Laremy Tunsil or Deshaun Watson go from what I’m hearing. But when a team tells you something like this that is backed by the actions, you’ve got to listen to them. They’re not going to set markets outside of special occasions.

Emotional loading and money

Now, I want you to notice that I’ve gotten this far without throwing a word down characterizing Houston’s spending. I think it’s very easy to get in an emotional spiral about the money, and it’s wildly easy to start throwing around terms like “cheap.”

But I do want to run a comparison by you, and I want you to think about it outside of the context of how you feel about the money:

Yes, I know the Texans will be lower in cap space when everything is ratified. Aaron Wilson’s reporting is $20M, I’m just going by what’s on Over the Cap because I’m lazy

Team B’s marquee free agent lost in 2019, by the way, is Nick Vigil. Yes, that’s the Cincinnati Bengals, a team that has been accused (and has a reputation of being over the years) of being quite frugal and losing a lot of their best players. Not true in a wall-to-wall sense since 2015 or so, though they did not keep Marvin Jones, Andrew Whitworth, Kevin Zeitler, or Mohamed Sanu.

The Texans are by far bolder than the Bengals — I don’t think this is a completely fair comparison for this reason. The Bengals would absolutely let a Hopkins scenario play out in the background and tune it out, just like they’ve done with A.J. Green. The Bengals would not have traded Jadeveon Clowney, but would have let him walk in free agency. Not to even get to things like the Laremy Tunsil trade, which probably has not ever crossed Mike Brown’s mind as a possibility.

But when it comes down to spending, the teams do wind up remarkably similar. You don’t see many top of the market deals, you see good players leave despite cap space to sign them into. I also think ownership on both of these teams has had a hard time adjusting to the exploding salary cap era. As former NFL exec Joe Banner told The Ringer in 2018, “It’s the biggest untold story in football,. With the excessive amount of available cap space, close to a billion dollars—some teams can’t mentally keep up with that.”

And that’s why, after the new CBA created more money for the Bengals to spend, it was disheartening to watch Reader leave for Cincinnati for what was, on paper, essentially the same deal that the Texans signed Mercilus to.

I don’t necessarily think the Texans have no money to spend, and I don’t necessarily think they are cheap. I think the Texans strongly believe that they’re better off not spending that money and using their resources to Smart, Tough, Dependable themselves up with people they know well. It’s seven-dimensional chess that starts with always committing a huge portion of cap space on running backs.

Much like running J.J. Watt and Vince Wilfork on to the goal line offense when you’re down multiple scores in a playoff game, the plan is too cute by half. The plan is that the best people (in the eyes of Easterby and O’Brien) that can be found are going to be the best players, and that knowing the players deeper than anyone else will mean you’re getting extra out of them, and that there is inherent value in that:

I don’t agree! I also think Deshaun Watson is likely to hide whatever warts are in the plan as long as he’s here! Like, there’s not really a reason for me to pick against the Texans making the playoffs as long as he’s here, especially now that there’s a third wild-card team slated to be added.

It all just adds to feel like a gigantic wasted opportunity. If the Texans had just paid the majority of their star players over the last four years, they’d have one of the most enviable roster cores in the NFL. Instead, they’ve got a core and coaching staff that Watson will have to carry to the playoffs every single season. This was a sustained choice by Bill O’Brien, who has consolidated his power greater than it’s ever been, and the entire fate of the franchise rides on it while the fanbase continues to want blood.

No pressure.

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Bill O’Brien owes Texans fans an explanation

It’s been two weeks since DeAndre Hopkins was shockingly traded to the Arizona Cardinals for a second-round pick, running back David Johnson, and a swap of fourth-round picks. It has, admittedly, been two weeks where the coronavirus has ravaged the nation and made normal press conferences sort of taboo. But it also has been two weeks where the Houston Texans have had zero public statements about the trade from anybody on the football staff. Unless you count whatever the hell this piece, written by “Houston Texans Staff,” was.

This has, notably, not stopped other football people from talking on the record. Howie Roseman of the Eagles had to defend his team not trading for Hopkins at the price like an annoyed dad having to explain basic life concepts to his children. Sometimes, Timmy, a team really, really likes a running back they shouldn’t. And you can’t give them that running back, only someone else can. The entire Cardinals press contingent released direct quotes about the deal as soon as they could, they were that excited. Even Larry Fitzgerald got in on the deal.

The Texans have had their own press people — Drew Dougherty, John Harris, Deepi Sidhu, and Marc Vandermeer — talk about the trade in various ways and in various videos. (Though of course, mostly they have been focused on Randall Cobb and David Johnson, as you would expect them to do because Hopkins is no longer a member of the team.) Randall Cobb spoke to the media finally on Friday, but until then, there wasn’t a single media release from anyone on the Texans coaching staff or roster since the trade.

Meanwhile, it’s obviously very clear from the outside that the Texans have lost the trade and, more importantly, lost the plot with their fanbase from the trade. Every Tweet the official account makes gets ratioed and pounded with demands to fire Bill O’Brien. You might think, given how pessimistic I tend to be portrayed as, that I’m happy about this. But I’m not, I think it’s embarrassing. I want other fans to be able to be happy about the Texans, and I don’t want every hypothetical I throw out there to get pounded down with pessimism. The worst thing a writer that primarily focuses on one team can have happen to them is for the team to become irrelevant and a source of apathy — that’s what O’Brien is turning the Texans into. That anger, should the Texans do anything less than last season, will become apathy.

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This is, to use the terminology of Bill O’Brien, on Bill O’Brien.

He has so much power within this organization and answers to nobody. Even in the times where he hasn’t had as much control, his press conferences have always had the potential to skew towards not answering for what he’s done. It’s on me, we’ll review the tape, and we’ll forget about this the next day. We had multiple documented instances this year alone of sideline reporters being pushed off after bad halves. He had no excuses for the outburst at a fan during the Broncos game and barely even bothered answering to it beyond blase PR apologies. He looked upset that he was even asked a question about it.

With O’Brien successfully seizing power of the Texans, he’s begun to have some little dictator tantrums. Part of that is that he hasn’t even bothered to address the trade, and that’s something that I think is going to stop the fanbase from moving on.

O’Brien may have been dumb enough to give DeAndre Hopkins away for beans, but he’s not a total idiot. He knows how the perception of the trade has hit. It’s very obvious in the way the team website has talked about it, and how it announced the trade without even saying Hopkins’ name.

But until he actually stands to the podium (or teleconference, or whatever) and gives an account of the why — no matter how dumb it is — this fanbase can’t move on. You can’t reach acceptance if you never get a real acknowledgment that something has happened and talk about why it happened. O’Brien can leak all he wants — Hopkins wanting more money (he earned it), threatening to sit out (he literally can’t by the terms of the new CBA), whatever friction they had between them (I’m of the Mike Meltser mind where Bill O’Brien isn’t a good enough head coach to have a superstar feud), and it really doesn’t matter. Texans fans need the explanation.

It is not in O’Brien’s blood to give us a real explanation. He will likely do what he always does, and say something along the lines of “in the best interests of the team.” I know it feels helpless if you’re a fan to hear that over and over again, but it will crystallize a lot if that is the case. It will tell us that even in the face of an overwhelmingly unpopular trade, O’Brien feels little need to answer to anybody for his actions. It will become the moment he has to attach that memey little cliche to the most unpopular talent-based move I can remember in recent NFL history. The little verbal ticks and dictator ideals were always bubbling under the surface here. This will be an affirmation that will be important for many fans and, later, for ownership.

This is going to be a painful process for Texans fans. Who knows when we’ll have football again in the face of COVID-19? And even when we do get there, it’s going to be weird and empty with the soul of the franchise in Arizona. And that’s assuming nothing else about the team regresses and that the defense is suddenly spicy under a new coordinator with no experience.

But by not even answering questions about it yet, O’Brien has proven a lot about who he is. He’s thrown his entire social media team under the bus. He’s spit on his the face of the fanbase of the team he runs. They can talk about long-term money woes all they want. I believe this happened because his star receiver was a better leader than he was.

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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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