Texans Training Camp Notebook — Week One: The Start Up

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

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As I said on Twitter the day it looked like it was all coming to a head, it was a 99th percentile outcome for the Randall Cobb signing to have someone else come in and offer anything of value for that contract after the first year. The Texans were able to take advantage of the Aaron Rodgers situation to the extent of a sixth-round pick. There’s not a whole lot of value in the pick itself, but the freeing up of snaps for someone who could presumably be a long-term factor for the Texans in and of itself is a win. Cobb’s still a solid slot receiver, but no game-changer at this stage of his career.

I’ve read a few Invented Enemy Tweets that gravitate around the general idea that trading for Anthony Miller in the context of the Cobb trade is a win. (For what it’s worth, Nick Caserio denied that the trades were related when directly asked by Seth Payne and Sean Pendergast.) I don’t know that I see it that way so much as I see it as a non-loss. A fifth-round pick doesn’t have a metric ton of value, but the Texans were able to use one to “pilfer” Brevin Jordan last draft, and a seventh-rounder is a big dropoff. Miller is, like most players on this team, on the final year of his contract, coming off a season where he was mostly invisible. Miller was targeted just eight times in Chicago’s last four games of the year., and finished precisely four games all season with more than 50 receiving yards. He’s got some good traits to build on despite this — he was a very popular sleeper pick of Matt Harmon’s in 2019, and Harmon knows receiving talent — and I could absolutely see him as a major target hog in this offense, perhaps taking a step forward from his 2019 production.

He’s also turning 27 in October — he’s one year younger than Brandin Cooks despite being drafted four years later — and the Texans are going to have to immediately pay him if he’s good or he’s gone. Could it work out? Sure! Is a fifth-round pick a staggering ransom? Not really! Does it really change life from how things would have been with Keke Coutee in the slot? I can’t say I see it. But the team has its preferences, and it acts on them, and hopefully they’re right that Miller is a better bet than Coutee.

The Cobb signing was every bit the disaster the national media predicted it would be. When I covered it here I noted that it had more than a whiff of panic. While I think Cobb performed pretty well relative to the expectations (other than getting hurt) the team should have had for him last year, the contract was well outsized in comparison to those expectations and the team didn’t have enough slot wideout targets to go around. Comforting to know that Jack Easterby, a main cog behind getting rid of DeAndre Hopkins and replacing him with Cobb at this price, still has a lot of power and influence in the organization!

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The most interesting thing about the Cobb trade was the post-mortem as offered by Cobb:

Cobb coyly walked back the initial comments with some positivity at the end, but “see[ing] the other side” and using :ThinkingFace: at the comparison to prison was certainly not what you’d like to hear as a Texans fan. The most interesting part of it to me was the choice of words as a “start-up” because that is also exactly the comparison Nick Caserio gave at the Sloan conference this year.

I think that’s a wildly interesting choice of words for both of these guys to land on. Start-ups tend to be almost lionized by veterans of the dot com boom and they get wrapped in that same sort of entrepreneurial spirit blanket that makes their mistakes worth overlooking. Of course, you know, 90% of start-ups fail. Many of those that don’t fail, like Uber, are privately subsidized because the real cost of doing business is so high that there’s no way they can be profitable without becoming a monopoly. Then you have to think about what makes the Texans different from other football teams — what is the thing that they’re disrupting?

If you think about the Texans philosophically, they don’t really have a deep and acknowledged analytics department. They have two former Belichick Patriots in the front office — a thing many people do or have done. I would argue that they have put Nick Caserio front-and-center as general manager in a way that other teams don’t — I can remember years going by where we’d hear from Rick Smith less than five times total all season. Caserio was the first interview at training camp and between 610 and Texans Radio, he might hit five appearances before we’re done with the second week of camp.

David Culley isn’t in the same position of power that Caserio is. Remember haughty Bill O’Brien? Haughty Bill O’Brien would have loved the Deshaun Watson situation in this camp, and would have come to play every day with any reporter who asked about it. Haughty O’Brien would have told you that he only has to release so much information, and he would have done it with a defiant look on his face. David Culley? Company line guy. Who makes the company line if not David Culley? Why is 610 promoting it as Camp Caserio rather than Camp Culley? The power dynamics are pretty clear.

But the idea of someone having more power than someone else in a roster-building/coaching dynamic? Not new. What is new about this team?

That, I’m pretty sure, is the real answer here. The premium on player personality and drive. It squares with Caserio’s years of experiences interviewing prospects on the road. It squares with Jack Easterby’s real in towards a major job despite no experience in the area — and his reported desire to have certain players trailed — because Easterby’s sale is that he is a connector. This major focus on competition (in theory) brings out the best in this select group of individuals, but not everyone. This isn’t to say that player personality isn’t important, by the way. But if you try to envision this as a start-up company, the personality and the culture is what the Texans are doing that makes them different.

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One major epihphany hit me while I was listening to Sean and Seth’s interview with Caserio on Thursday morning. Here’s the clip that jogged me:

That answer, in and of itself, wasn’t particularly noteworthy. Caserio has held his cards towards his vest, and he has a few verbal tics that he goes to over and over again when he doesn’t really want to answer a question. (The guy who knows which reporter compared him to Dodgeball and singles her out on a call is obviously tuned in enough to not be dismissed as an idiot, right? Right.) But that got me to thinking about the short-termness of all of this, reminded me of Caserio not being willing to comment on Justin Reid as a foundational piece, reminded me that a core mantra for this team has become “we’re trying to get better one day at a time.”

When I hit this team with my critiques about its lack of long-term planning, its inability to put rookies or young players in major roles to succeed, and so on — I am thinking about tomorrow. I am thinking about the 2023 Texans, who are as important to me as the 2021 Texans already because I have little belief the 2021 Texans are going anywhere. (And so do they, in my opinion, if they’re trading Randall Cobb for a sixth-round pick before a game is played?) This team has been a treasure trove of reactionary thinking with their roster, and has invented a churn that is so all-encompassing that trying to remember every last transaction they’ve done over the past eight months will be an undefeated Sporcle in three years.

So the question that leaves me with is: What is the churn accomplishing? it’s not accumulating great contracts for the team. It’s not accumulating youth. On the surface there’s not a real difference between Ryan Finley and Jeff Driskel — you don’t want either of them to start and neither of them are young. But when you talk about “getting better one day at a time” and view it from a fit and personality standpoint, suddenly I think you’re getting somewhere interesting. They bring in these guys, get to see them up close and see if they live up to the personality profile they’ve idealized, and let them go if they don’t. They’re invested in this thought for this year, but they aren’t approaching it in a way where they’re locked into the thought. I know it sounds silly to say this out loud — it sounds like a Secret Base video that plays out in Football Manager or OOTP — but maybe this is a science experiment about just how far the value of Desired Off-Field Traits and Habits can go.

That’s how far I have to go to try to attach a sense of logic to the constant roster moves. Yup.

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That backdrop is important when we discuss what’s actually happening at training camp. What is happening at training camp that actually matters? Per Culley, not much:

(via Texans.com Transcripts)

So when we talk about who is starting where in certain areas of camp, not only are we fighting against the fact that there’s a lot of depth on this team, we’re also fighting against the fact that the thing that the coaching staff feels is most important — padded practices — hasn’t happened yet. And the way these things have tended to change quickly, I’m not all that invested in who starts where, because that might not last all that long.

So, sure, Justin McCray is starting right now with both Lane Taylor and Marcus Cannon on the sideline. Does that mean a lot? For his chances of making the team, sure. For his chances of starting? Probably not. I’m coming at this anticipating the Texans are going to make a lot of changes in the next few weeks, as they have tended to do. Austin Reiter could agree to terms here and everything could change tomorrow. You have to measure that in to the prognostications of how much “having a spot” matters right now.

Does Davis Mills struggling in the red zone in practice against air matter? Maybe a bit, but it’s not something I’m going to breathlessly remember in a few years. It’s easy to think of examples like Russell Wilson taking control of the Seahawks job during his rookie season, and you’d certainly rather have that happening than not. But, you know, Aaron Rodgers didn’t light it up either in his early training camps.

Likewise, does the defense being better in early camp matter a lot? Probably not. I think we’re all anticipating a bump of some sort from him as compared to last year’s awful defense. I’m very happy to read about Justin Reid flying around, to see Ross Blacklock seem to be catching eyes. But both Lovie Smith and Romeo Crennel never had problems dealing with pedestrian quarterbacks, guys with real flaws, and the Texans don’t have a quarterback who’d give them problems in a seven-on-seven situation. To be clear: If there’s one area to be optimistic about, it’s the defense as compared to last year’s defense. But, you know, no pads, Deshaun Watson isn’t throwing on them, I’m more wait-and-see than crown-em after four training camp days.

I’m also going to be curious to see how Laremy Tunsil’s words here hold up. He is not the first person to mention Kelly’s return as a step towards last year — David Johnson did in an interview with Drew Dougherty in April. There’s an assumption of rational coaching over the past few months that tends to say that the Texans are going to do some Ravens run game stuff because of Culley, Mark Ingram, and Andy Bischoff. What if they aren’t? It’s unpadded practices and all, but we don’t exactly get a lot of read-option talk from anything that the team reporters post.

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Deshaun Watson is here, though spiritually absent. He’s protecting his money, and after four days of training camp has mostly been uninvolved with anything happening beyond the workouts. He’s withdrawn, hasn’t spoken to media, and whatever the Texans currently have worked out with him, they aren’t talking about it publicly and deflecting any attempt to have it out in the open.

Caserio’s definition of his responsibility is a short-sighted one in my opinion, and one that further fuels the fire. A clear plan laid out to media with expectations would have made what happened less of a spectacle because the raw video of one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL playing scout team safety is a rubbernecker. But it fueled the fire for a few days, and three days later the questions about Watson seem to have mostly dissipated. The attention span comes and goes rather quickly these days for most people, and stories require some motion. If Watson isn’t going to work out on a day with an excused Tyrod Taylor absence, he probably isn’t going to be involved deeply in anything the Texans do for the entirety of camp.

I found Lance Zierlein’s take on this fascinating and something that I would’ve thought might be more appealing to the team more when I wrote about Watson a few weeks ago. Despite my very real misgivings about the front office right now, they have tended to accede to player wishes and that is honorable in its own way, even as the Texans sit here with a departed J.J. Watt and no draft pick compensation.

Watson has been steadfast that he won’t play for the Texans again. The Texans literally can’t trade him for good value until the legal process plays out. Even if the Texans wanted to trade him before the season, nobody has any idea how that would be perceived by the Arbitrary Punishment d20 that the NFL keeps under lock and key.

I guess if I had to handicap this today, I still think there’s more of a chance of Watson playing with the Texans in 2021 than playing elsewhere just because of the firestorm that a bad Watson trade would create with a franchise that is already falling out of the minds of everyone gearing up for another Astros playoff run. The other players certainly seem to have his back, as Brandon Scott chronicled. If this were 1995, I don’t think you’d hear that kind of reaction to the quarterback holding out for a trade.

Watson blinked by showing up. As I laid out in the piece I wrote a few weeks ago and linked above, there’s not much actual downside to him playing, and the checks can either clear or disappear. And hey, with Carson Wentz down for a bit, who is to say he couldn’t torch the rest of the league for not being willing to part with a real asking price? Why couldn’t he lead the Texans on a surprise run that flips the script on all that negative energy this franchise has been subjected to since the Hopkins trade was consummated? I don’t personally ascribe a “revenge” narrative to this sort of thing because I don’t pretend I know what happened between Watson and his accusers. But I have to think if I’m in his shoes, and believe I did nothing wrong and I’m being punished for it, it’s not a narrative that I would have to reach far for. The AFC South is not a hard division to win games in with a star quarterback.

What I’m more curious about at this point, and what I think is more of an open question given what they’ve done with him so far, is: Do the Texans want that future to happen? Is it in the best interests of their organization to let a maligned quarterback win games for them? That’s a deep question, and one that we’re not privy to any real public thoughts on beyond the two company lines: They’ll do what’s in the best interest of the team, and they’ll take it one day at a time.


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The Lost Generation of 2018

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Do the emotions in Deshaun Watson’s holdout outweigh the incentives?

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

***

What was supposed to be a standoff this offseason between Deshaun Watson and Texans management instead was quickly drowned by several lawsuits alleging assault by Watson. At first it appeared that the Texans would dig in and pretend that Watson was going to be a part of the club long-term.

Not only were the Texans saying stuff like this publicly, but they flat-out refused to engage any of the trade talk that hit them from other teams.

Later, as the reverberations of Watson’s many lawsuits began to compile, the Texans backpedaled pretty fiercely on this stance. The Houston Chronicle’s John McClain has put out there to all who are willing to listen that Watson’s request will be granted when a real return can be had, and would have been moved by the draft if that was plausible. Cal McNair put out a lengthy statement on the Watson situation:

It is evident that both sides are tired of each other to some extent. Watson’s been done with the Texans mentally since the hiring of Nick Caserio, and the Texans now treat every inquiry about the status of Watson like saying his name out loud is illegal:

However, what I’m here to do today is posit an idea around this obvious mess: The incentives speak louder than the emotions of the situation. I’m not saying I’ve cracked the code, and I’m in no way reporting that Watson is showing up. However, if you explore the situation a little more thoroughly, it becomes clear that the two sides might need each other more than they have let on. Let’s start by laying out the situation as a whole:

As long as the lawsuits remain unsettled, Watson will not be traded for what he is worth

This sounds obvious, mostly because it is obvious. The Texans can trade Watson today for a bad return, but that is going to be an extremely poor look for a front office that has been deservedly pillaged the last few offseasons. If they get ripped off for one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, this team may not ever recover. Watson is the only real chip this team has at the moment to buy into a better future, one way or another.

And yes, I know that typing this is just a free license to get a bunch of “hurr hurr have you seen their last few trades,” yeah, I get it. I’m not saying there’s no chance. But this is so high-profile that the scrutiny on the Texans if they bungled a return on this trade would be unbearable and might be the breaking point between the fans and the organization.

The lawsuits themselves seem unlikely to settle any time soon

The court systems are backed up even worse than they usually would be because of COVID, the date we have right now is February. A June posting from Tony Buzbee posited that there will be no settlement any time soon. Rusty Hardin, Watson’s attorney, has downplayed the possibility of a settlement from the start. They seem very intent on proving Watson’s innocence in the court of law unless there are certain public provisions provided in a settlement that paint Watson in a good light.

Barring a major change of heart from either side, it seems almost impossible that this will be cleared up this offseason. If you consider how easily court dates can get thrown further down the docket, and how long these things can drag out, that February date in no way seems to lay out a clean path to Watson’s legal status getting cleared next offseason. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t, maybe it will clear up just enough to make teams feel more comfortable with the public perception of trading for him. I’m not a fortune teller. What we can glean from right now, though, is that it’s unlikely that any movement will happen before February.

Watson going on a commissioner-exempt list or getting suspended might be a good way for the sides to not have to deal with each other, but it’s not good for Watson’s legacy

Try to remember the old Deshaun Watson, the one we knew before these lawsuits took over all public perception of him. He spoke willingly and freely about the greatness that he was trying to pursue, from talking about bringing championships to Houston to improving every day on the football field.

This Watson is going to have to carry whatever happens to him as part of his legacy forever. Does he have time to re-write the perceptions that come out of this? Assuming that what turns up isn’t just sadistic, probably. America loves a good redemption story and — let’s be honest — hasn’t met a wildly successful person who they won’t downplay allegations against. But losing this season, losing the statistical compilation, losing the money … none of those things are good for him. His whole brand up until this offseason was clean. Being placed on a list and codifying that he did something bad isn’t something that he’ll look back on and be happy about either.

Because the truth about these lists in the NFL’s arbitrary justice system is that they’re not easy to get off of. They move just as glacially slow as the court system. As of June 20th, they hadn’t even interviewed Watson. That was more than three months after the actual allegations started to surface. A major tenor of the Watson coverage has been about how the NFL has done a disservice to the Texans by not tipping their hand on how this will play out, and it’s one I would mostly agree with. But at the same time, do we really expect anything different from the NFL at this point? This has been an issue time and time again. It was an issue during Ray Rice’s case. The NFL also can’t just magically understand the facts of the situation without due process. When they pretend to assume they can, bad things usually happen.

The Texans may not have a lot of kind words to say about the situation Watson has created, but without him they are entirely pointless in 2021

They don’t have many young players. They don’t have many stars without Watson. I wrote about how bad the situation is for season tickets and how little faith this team’s fanbase has with it. They are not favored to win a single one of their games by Vegas. This is obviously anecdotal — and the people who do this do not cover themselves in glory in my experience — but Watson gets defended a lot harder by fans than the leadership of this team does.

Let’s imagine a scenario where Watson plays 17 games for the Texans in 2021. It sounds incredibly unlikely, but follow me for a second. The Colts are anchored to Carson Wentz. The Jaguars were worse than the Texans in 2020. The Titans spent a lot to try to overhaul their bad defense and have put a ton of tread on Derrick Henry’s tires over the past two years. You can absolutely make an argument that a better defense than the Texans played in 2021 and Watson gives them a puncher’s chance at a playoff spot. The media perception appears to be that the Titans are the easy No. 1 team in the division — and maybe that winds up being true, I’m not totally off-board on that — but there are seven playoff spots. Just having the 2020 version of Deshaun Watson is a big enough step towards one that it doesn’t matter how bad the rest of the roster is.

And this team desperately needs that kind of goodwill right now. You think if they don’t go 9-8 there won’t be some spillover benefits for the McNair/Easterby/Caserio club? Think again. There will absolutely be people willing to re-write Caserio’s offseason as something along the lines of “we knew we had Deshaun all along.” Fans will show up for games with playoff odds and all of the sudden there will be truthers coming out of the woodwork to yell at people for being “reactionary” or “negative” for assuming the worst of the team after last year. That is the great cycle of fandom. There’ll be some people who are out on the Texans for associating with somebody who allegedly did what Watson did, but a) allegedly does not mean “it happened” and b) they very much do not speak for the rank and file.

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Now, is this me saying or reporting that Watson is coming to training camp? Again, and in bold because I don’t want to read a bunch of aggregator accounts telling me what I’m reporting: No.

I can’t tell you that I believe that’s happening. But if you examine not what the sides actually want but the situation that has been dealt to both of them, I think there’s a certain method to the madness of the two of them coming to an uneasy compromise. The Texans would probably like to trade Watson, and Watson would like to leave. But until the cases are settled or resolved, he has no trade value. In talking to people to put together an idea for how bad the return would have to be for him to get dealt now, I think we might be talking about a single first-round pick, or maybe a 1 and a 2. That’s a non-starter for the Texans.

So would Watson playing for the Texans this year be weird? Would it be awkward in pressers and as he rolled his eyes at David Culley? Would it be awkward for him to be interviewed? Probably a little bit. But this entire year is going to be forcibly awkward either way. Watson’s only direct way of raising his trade value is by balling out, and while it may not logically matter, the recency bias of him rolling over some defenses would be a welcome emotional change to the current news cycle around him. I think he absolutely has the bigger emotional block here, and to be fair I would understand and not blame him if he didn’t show up. But, simply put, I think you look at this situation from a 30,000-foot view, there’s more upside in him playing than him sitting. Statistics, money, trade value potentially intersecting with emotion. Maybe he gets suspended and maybe he doesn’t — really hard to say how the d20 from the NFL Arbitrary Punishment Council will go — but either way it would seem he has more to gain than to lose. If he gets hurt, barring something catastrophic, it’s really no different than sitting out the year anyway. Dak Prescott just got a massive contract following a devastating injury, and Watson is in that stratosphere of player.

For the Texans, any sort of trade to a place Watson would actually want to go before camp would create a situation where those draft picks would automatically become less valuable by virtue of that team having Watson. They could try to sell Watson on their culture face-to-face, which is something they’ve wanted since January anyway. And, well, would their draft picks become less valuable with Watson games? Sure. Does that matter to them? I don’t think so. The emphasis they’ve put on youth on the roster is non-existent. I think they’d be thrilled to not have to think about that.

Emotions overrule logic often in today’s world. The language that reports of Watson’s thinking have showcased — him not ever wanting to set foot in the building again, etc. — is extremely emotionally charged. But the way the stasis has settled in, his options at this point may be to lose a year of his career or play nice until the circumstances resolve. Maybe the distrust of Easterby and McNair is simply too deep to be overcome, and again, there is no judgment from me if that’s the case. But assuming nothing is changing on the settlement front, and if it was Watson would probably know it before we would, it would be idiotic for the Texans to trade him right now and no amount of rabble-rousing, leaks, or holdout is going to change that.

In the absence of the viability of a trade, what’s the best lemonade that can be made out of the situation that Watson has created? That’s the question that the Texans and Watson’s camp have to be asking themselves. And I think there’s a pretty strong argument for both sides that the answer is to patch this up, maybe with a good-faith guarantee that Watson will be traded once all this is over if he still wants to be traded, and get back to the table in 2022 after Watson’s legal status is on solid ground.

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You can go wrong doing what’s right

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If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

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“We believe you can’t go wrong doing what’s right, and ask our fans to trust we know what’s right,” were Cal McNair’s words to the fanbase when given the podium without a question to introduce Nick Caserio. In the nearly six months since that presser, the only thing that has crystallized is how little trust the fans have for the leadership of this organization.

There will always be a section of the Texans fanbase that is raucously pro-team regardless of the circumstances that they are going through, and I respect the commitment to the bit that they have. I tend to write about the Texans in a way that irks that segment of the fanbase, because I try to traffic in reality as I see it and reality as I see it isn’t always a happy, smile-smile sunshine place. Trades can go wrong, signings can be bad in advance, draft picks can be low-upside, it can be a problem to keep someone who doesn’t know anything about running a football team in a major position of power with said football team. But as much as there’s a clash inherent in our points of view, I don’t begrudge people like this their optimism.

Even as someone who has been, broadly speaking, “right,” about how the last two years have gone, I don’t try to rub it in anybody’s face. I don’t get the same right extended to me, because a blue checkmark is a target, and being negative about a team gets psychologically compared to insulting the fan themselves. Fair enough. But I try not to go diving for old optimistic Tweets about Gareon Conley or whatever else to pile drive some 400-follower fan named Texans4Eva23. I don’t want this optimism to always be wrong! I would love it if TexansThoughts’ massive Jacob Martin stanning led somewhere.

But as someone who understands the various bubbles in the world and tries to deal with how people are thinking, it’s kind of undeniable that there is a large slice of the fanbase that doesn’t comment on the internet much at all, doesn’t call into radio stations — I’d call them low-engagement fans. That group doesn’t care about the negative/positive hoopla around the team, and just decides how things are going based on their own read of the situation. That group is also pretty hard to lose, because those are the kinds of fans that will believe, say, that Whitney Mercilus is a star because they watched him get two sacks in a game once. These are the people who teams have lured to the park by signing big-name free agents for the better part of a century. Those are the fans that know J.J. Watt is the best player on the planet and don’t think about his age or injuries, because he’s very handsome and, of course, why wouldn’t he just still be the best?

When you start losing those kinds of fans, it’s undeniable that there’s a problem. And that’s right about where the Texans are right now.

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Basically every NFL team sells the majority of its tickets for next season in free agency and at the draft. This is a graph of search interest in the Texans since Jack Easterby took over. Note the massive crash after the Kansas City Chiefs playoff game. Note that there are small bumps in March and April each year. The Texans actually spiked in interest this offseason simply on the sheer spectacle of the amount of free agents signed. But since then, they’ve settled into a very comfortable rut.

If you go to the Texans’ PSL marketplace, there are (as of Tuesday morning when I’m typing this) 3,633 seats available. That’s just what we officially see — there are ways around this if you’re clever. For the club level seats, which actually cost a decent chunk of change to renew, you can get a Texans PSL for under $75 easily. There are people who paid, at the time, thousands and thousands of dollars to secure that PSL. They are practically giving them away. If you’ve ever wanted to buy on to tickets with real money, this might be the best opportunity you’ve ever had … unless things just get worse from here.

The Texans have never had to really try to get season tickets renewed. Selling football in Texas is like pulling an ice cream truck up to the community pool. The banner they’re currently running that leaks out to this form showcases a lot of desperation. There are countless stories that have run or been mentioned on radio of the team straight-out depleting the season ticket waiting list, though perhaps the most famous one is Jerome Solomon’s. My wife had been on the waiting list since 2012, and never cracked the top 10,000 until 2020. Obviously, she hasn’t bought, but even if she’d wanted to, she’s a good enough researcher to figure out what’s going on here.

They are having David Culley drop in on new season ticket holders. They are running family packs. 610 advertises the benefits of company luxury box tickets often. To use a Gary Kubiak-ism since he’ll be brought up again in a little bit: They’re battling out there.

There is not a single game, viewing the SeatGeek listings for the Texans, that you can’t get into for less than $50. Those prices will likely fall further before we’re all said and done. Fans from other teams are going to use these Texans home games as affordable get-togethers. And to people who do want to renew tickets but have concerns about the environment, the Texans have not exactly been welcoming:

Any team that loses the kind of star power that the Texans have lost over the years would have problems selling tickets if they didn’t replace the stars. And to be fair, COVID has made this world a lot less certain for many people who might be on the fence about this sort of purchase. But the fact that you can get into season tickets for about the cost of an Applebee’s dinner for four says a lot about how desirable those tickets are in the first place. These are the seats that low-engagement fans have been dying to get for years! And, well, there’s still plenty of them available. I don’t judge you in the slightest for picking them up, and in fact am kind of hoping you do. A little-known secret that the people who like to say “clickbait” and such don’t know about is that writing about a team is more widely-read when the team is good and fans are engaged. But if you buy, it’s pretty inarguable that you know what you’re getting into at this point.

More importantly, it says a lot about something that we haven’t really touched on much over the past few months: How poor of a job the Texans have done at actually resonating with fans in the post-Amy Palcic era. It is hard to work on public relations when you don’t really want to publicly relate with the present.

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Please don’t blame the social media employees that this team has for what they’re being asked to post. But yes, it is embarrassing that unless the team has a message that is basically impossible to not mess up (wishing someone a happy birthday, donating to a charity), they get swiftly ratioed with anywhere from 8-30 comments of GIFs of them getting flipped off and pleas to fire Easterby.

Internal team PR has been given an almost impossible task. When they have to talk about today’s team, they absolutely can’t give any useful football information. Trying to be optimistic about this year’s roster amounts to useless buzz phrases like “I’m really interested to see how this backfield shakes out” or, the standby that I’ve heard a lot, “We don’t really know how it will turn out yet, it’s all pretty much brand new!” Trying to talk about them in 2016 brandspeak, where Laremy Tunsil runs out of a tunnel and we talk about how it is the weekend, just tries to pretend that fans are engaged with the team positively when they aren’t.

The only exciting player on the roster is Deshaun Watson, who a) doesn’t want to be here and b) can’t be talked about in any real terms right now because of pending litigations. Instead of segments about the players that this team has — most of which haven’t even been put on a podium yet — the Texans PR team has mostly taken to trying to groom the history of the franchise. Yes, the history of a franchise that started in 2002.

Now, for someone like me, who dug the 2011 Texans a lot, talking to Gary Kubiak holds some small amount of interest. But in the end the fact that it’s being pushed tells you a lot about the state of this franchise’s history and present. This team has done deep film dives into Cecil Shorts throwing a touchdown pass in 2015, Justin Forsett’s five-yard run that turned into a touchdown due to official error on Thanksgiving 2012, and Jonathan Joseph pick-sixing Nathan Peterman in 2018. That’s the level of history we’re working with here.

I have diligently listened to the Texans’ in-house radio bits all offseason. These guys can’t talk about anything, which means they talk about nothing. They’ve talked about the Friends reunion. They’ve talked about Sam Houston State’s championship. They’ve talked about the 1996 NBA Draft. And when I say these things, I don’t mean they’re asides late in the show or something — they literally talk about this stuff in the first segment, lead off the show with it, and eventually get to actually begrudgingly talking about the Texans. The last show the Texans did before the July 4 weekend led off with Marc Vandermeer and John Harris talking about Boston and Los Angeles fans for 10 minutes. There’s not a lot positive to say in the first place, and even if they wanted to say something positive, they have to run it through the Nick Caserio algorithm to see if they’re allowed to actually say it without creating a massive competitive advantage for all the NFL teams that monitor this stuff. (I would bet that there’s not a single non-Texans NFL team employee that listens to Texans All-Access regularly.)

Most NFL teams have put together a pretty cool insider video reel of what’s going on inside at this point. The Jaguars have “The Hunt,” the Colts have “With The Next Pick,” the Cardinals have “Flight Plan,” these are, you know, 12+ minute shows that are well-produced with a lot of internal content talking about draft prospects, OTAs, showing their players and so on. The Texans got through five “Building the Texans” episodes this offseason that don’t tell you anything about who is building the Texans, why they’re building the Texans that way, or do anything but provide empty David Culley smiles into the void. You can watch those episodes and — outside of the draft picks — not learn about a single player that plays for the Texans. They are attempts to sell the organization. Nobody’s buying.

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McNair’s riff about the fans trusting that this team knows what right was probably the most important public statement the team gave all offseason. It has also been answered. The fans have voted with their wallets. The team leadership is going to tune that out to the extent that they are able to — with the same internal righteous indignation that has been an Easterby trademark — but it seems increasingly likely that a team that basically had unprecedented levels of fan support no matter what it did wrong is going to run into some empty seat problems this year. Once that happens, it won’t get any easier to fill those seats. I’m a believer in NFL turnarounds being possible much faster than people expect them to be, but from where this roster is today, I have a hard time understanding how this team will be good before 2024. If they remain devoted to the plan in the building instead of having a firing spree and real culture change, I’d take the over.

This is going to get called a shitty football town again, and to be fair, even when the Texans were solid the last few years there were still plenty of tailgaters who weren’t in seats before kickoff. But that in and of itself just speaks to the lack of collective belief this town had in this organization after it clung to an antagonistic and nihilistic Bill O’Brien long past his expiration date. That should have led to a real regime change rather than running back Easterby. When the optimists carp up with something like “they’ll be good again, and you’ll be back,” well yeah, but … when? That’s the major question. This isn’t some sort of Astros-esque intentional tanking program — that would actually be a rational plan. This is one of the oldest rosters in the NFL built in service of maintaining egos and nothing else. Fans show up when winning happens, but they don’t usually come back overnight the minute the team hits 3-1. The lack of fan support is going to put a lot of spotlight on Houston for not supporting the team, but a lot of that should be directed at the people who created this I Can’t Believe It’s Not A Football Roster product and keep talking about David Johnson’s last two games as a reason for excitement.

I don’t feel like I am as down on this team as I could be. I’m pulling for the individual players to win their bet on themselves and get something out of it next season. I think they could get three or four wins. They have the parts for a great special teams unit. If they run into some good turnover luck they should be a mediocre enough offense with a positive game script to hold a random 10-point lead here or there. I’m not out here yelling 0-17 from the rooftops. But what young players am I supposed to be pulling for to get better that we know are starting? Tytus Howard at right guard, Lonnie Johnson at safety, and maybe Jon Greenard or Ross Blacklock? Who is this team getting to six or seven wins good for? And there’s almost no upside of this team in the playoffs unless David Culley is literally 17 games of Danny O’Shea’s best.

When I talk to people about the Texans these days, we talk about them like I would talk about my mother when she was in a medically-induced coma after her stroke. I try to remember the happy times, I say it’s a shame that she couldn’t give up cigarettes, that she couldn’t reach out to her father with the truth of how bad her health was sooner. That she never told me she had bladder cancer in those words. But, you know, she was stubborn! She sort of gambled on herself in that way, and she never thought she would die until the day before she did.

It’s a shame that the Texans couldn’t just let Deshaun Watson get the culture change he wanted, and it’s a shame that even if they’d done that, we’d all still be drowning in the sexual assault allegations and what that all means for when he can play again. It’s a shame the other two best players on the 2019 Texans are Arizona Cardinals for reasons nobody in the organization can actually explain logically without outright saying that Jack Easterby is in charge and he drove them away. It’s a shame that the entire vibe of the franchise is now hooked into nostalgia-holing the 2011 Texans, and that even if someone in PR wanted to get the fans excited about this team, they can’t say anything. The extremely successful Patriots Veil Of Secrecy is now up and John McClain has to complain to even get roster numbers.

The difference is that when someone dies, the funeral is usually something people attend.

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Seven Takeaways from Texans OTAs

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

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If you’re feeling left out to dry on the posts — sorry. The summer is pretty much Football Outsiders Almanac season for me and I’ve got the entire AFC South and the top prospects chapter. So I’ve put in a good 10,000 words this past week, just not a lot in the service of the Texans that you can read in this moment.

So the Texans put minicamp to bed and decided that OTAs are enough, we got a solid month of players in town working out and a slew of interviews with the coaching staff. Here are my takeaways:

1) It sure seems like the Texans want us to believe they’ll play Tytus Howard at guard

During our huge outpouring of assistant coach pressers last week, James Campen was asked about Tytus Howard and Marcus Cannon competing at right tackle:

Since that came out, in-house media has also repeatedly hinted at surprise changes on the line, and John McClain came on their radio show and out-and-out said he thinks Howard will play guard.

I’m of two different minds of this. One is that the Texans were playing around with the idea of Howard at guard in his rookie season, even giving him a start there in the second game of the season, so maybe they just don’t think he’s developing quickly enough at tackle. I actually think that Campen came off as extremely insightful in his deeper interview with John Harris and Marc Vandermeer, particularly when compared to the uh, genius that was Mike Devlin:

The second part of this is: Why is a team that has almost no good young players yanking around another young player to a new spot to accommodate a 33-year-old right tackle who didn’t play last year and has a real cap charge? It continues what I’ve banged on before about this team’s troubling inability to understand that the youth on the roster has to be served for the Texans to go anywhere.

I wasn’t really a huge fan of the Cannon trade to begin with — not because he’s bad but because he’s old. But if he’s so valued that he’s moving the only Texans-selected first-round pick on the roster not named Deshaun Watson off of his spot, that makes me even more skeptical of the move. To be clear, we don’t know if this move is actually going to happen. But it sure seems to fit what we know about how this team operates.

2) Deshaun Watson was never a Texan, we have always been at war with Deshaun Watson

Listen, I’m aware that you can’t say anything about Deshaun Watson’s legal cases. Nobody’s asking for that. But what the patented Caserio Veil of Secrecy has created here is a case where we just outright deny that the guy exists because there’s nothing they can say about him.

The lack of transparency about the situation isn’t making it any less of a distraction. It’s very obviously a distraction from what the Texans are trying to do. Having a coherent statement to give out about where the organization stands on Watson would, at this point, be a welcome change. The more optimistic Texans fans are tired of hearing the questions about it — and I totally get that — but as long as it remains an unanswered question, the question is going to continue to be asked in a few different forms.

It came out that the Texans were on the phone with Kellen Mond when he was picked by the Vikings and they pivoted to Davis Mills. I find it extremely hard to believe that they just happened to decide that both quarterbacks were at the top of their board without some emphasis on the position. We know what that means the front office has decided.

At this point it feels fated that the Watson situation will play out the way that Watson wants it to play out, the only questions left are when the court cases and NFL attention go away enough to make other teams comfortable pulling the trigger, and how badly the Texans will get short-changed for his services. (And I don’t mean that I think the Texans are getting a second-rounder, I mean that when I hear “three first-round picks,” that’s not enough for the guy I saw play in 2020.)

3) r/cosplay football coaches

OK, is it unfair to make fun of how involved Caserio is on the field at OTAs? Probably a little bit. He’s the general manager and it stands to reason that he’d be there. Same with his superior, Jack Easterby:

But at the same time, they clearly have a lot of power, I have pulled no less than one Easterby photo out of every photo gallery the Texans have posted. It’s very clear where the power in this organization is.

Texans in-house media has at times tried to play off Caserio throwing at camp as a positive thing — like versatility but for general managers — and even talks about him throwing at Pro Days in the past. When you look at how hands-on the churn has been — to the point where there is almost a roster move per week — and how close to the action these two get, it’s impossible for me to not come away thinking that they have a lot more power over this situation than David Culley has. That’s all. Just recognizing the power dynamic as we see it created in person.

4) The fantasy of running the ball a lot more is alive

It was never not going to be an area of emphasis, but what struck me about this comment was not that Texans OC Tim Kelly said they’d run the ball more, but that they thought they’d improved schematically and with personnel already. The Caserio Veil of Secrecy Texans have not spent a lot of time actually communicating an offensive ethos, leading to a widespread speculation train of the Texans taking Baltimore’s run game from Culley/Mark Ingram/Andy Bischoff and running it.

I think the closest thing to honest we got out of these offensive coaches was what Pep Hamilton said:

They don’t really know what that means because, well, it’s hard to win games in the NFL with an easy-to-spot run game. If you run read-option with Tyrod Taylor and Phillip Lindsay — the best-case scenario in my opinion that this team has — defenses are going to stack the box. Then you’re asking this receiver and tight end group to win one-on-one balls or the play-action game to be much, much better than it was last year.

Ultimately, unless there’s a huge improvement on the defense, this team isn’t going to be able to run much anyway. While the team was empirically bad at rushing last year as well, a lot of people looked at the problem as if it was simply “they don’t run very much,” when it’s hard to run when your defense is getting lit up badly enough for Jake Luton to have a chance at a game-winning drive, and for Brandon Allen to carve it up for 380 passing yards.

5) The EDGE rusher conundrum

On the defensive side of OTAs, we got a lot of optimism about players like Jacob Martin, Charles Omenihu, and Whitney Mercilus:

I think what slips a lot of minds when we discuss these things is how bad the run defense was in 2020, where it was an open sieve. Jon Greenard spoke to that some in his presser:

And yeah, I get using that as fuel. But how about an actual address of the situation? The only interior lineman the Texans added who has an actual history as a good run defender is Vincent Taylor, who was pretty bad at it in a small sample last year. Ross Blacklock might have some bounce-back ability because he was clearly unable to hold two gaps last year. But add that might on top of Greenard/Omenihu/Martin/Mercilus re-weighting to get to 4-3 status and not having much history of being positive run defenders (Greenard was fine in a small snap size). Shaq Lawson is more of a pass rusher. Zach Cunningham was horrific reading gaps last year and I don’t know that the Texans have added the linebacker that’s going to make him as comfortable as he was with Benardrick McKinney in 2019.

The defensive talk has focused on three things: getting turnovers, getting turnovers again, and how the system will let them play faster. Greg Jackson, the safeties coach, gave some content during his interview that I found actually somewhat insightful rather than vague:

By far, the Lovie Smith defense in a role where he’s able to focus entirely on it is the most optimistic thing the Texans have going for them right now. It’s a solid secondary of potential bounce-back players and not a ton of weak links on paper assuming Vernon Hargreaves doesn’t con his way into a starting spot yet again. If you want optimism, the idea of some designer Lovie blitzes and/or coverage disguises that maybe he wouldn’t get to implement with the head coach workload is very tempting.

But to get to those passing downs, they’re going to need to be much more stout as a defense, and I think that might be the No. 1 most pressing question as far as the difference between a team angling for the first pick in the draft and a team that can steal a few wins here or there. Run defense might be about finishing and want, but there’s not a lot of established want on that defensive line.

6) I feel for the players, this situation is impossible

Texans players have mostly been pretty quiet about the situation unfolding within the team, encouraged to either outright ignore it or dance around it, but we got a small window into it with this Phillip Lindsay interview.

When I think about this team coming together, and try to think about how I can sell people on following and rooting for them this year, I think a lot about the movie Major League. Most people are sick of the bumbling ownership and front office. But Major League wasn’t about that dynamic so much as it used that dynamic to drive together a bunch of “has-beens and never-weres” into a team that cared for each other. I realize I can’t get a lot of you guys in on the ground floor of rooting for good things to come to the higher-ups. I realize I can’t excite you by citing Tyrod Taylor’s rushing stats. I wrote that article and nobody cared.

But if you’re in some kind of conflict about how you can cheer for this team, the answer is to pull for the players:

Listen, I can promise you that Tyrod Taylor doesn’t care about any Easterby or whatever. A lot of players on this roster are on this roster looking to get another year in the bigs, trying to catch the eye of someone on a better team or someone who will open up the pocketbook for them with a good year. That in and of itself, is impossible to root against. We’re pulling for these guys to show that they belong, and for them to have, as Jake Taylor would call it, “one final trip around the sun.”

7) Jesus, etc.

One last thing about the state of fandom around this team right now is that Kamu Grugier-Hill’s comments about bible study got a lot more traction than they might have otherwise got:

Now, I’m not going to go out of my way to defend Easterby — but keying in on this quote in the way that some did was a little disingenuous and I want to show you why. I was digging into a lot of recent AFC South stuff for writing my chapters. Here’s something I pulled from the Colts self-documentary:

Imagine if that happened on a Texans media station. Everyone would be hooting and hollering for days. That’s a choice that the Texans have made for themselves, but probably one that doesn’t need to be as emphasized by some of the fanbase as it is. Let’s focus on how Easterby’s management has shackled the Texans rather than turn every mention of Christianity into an r/atheism thread. There are many Christian NFL players. I was much more intrigued/curious about this Grugier-Hill quote:

To say what he said here, unprompted as far as the question itself, was an extremely odd public stand to take. To the point where it almost could be read as sucking up in public. Nobody really followed up on that, but THAT was something that spoke quite loudly to me.

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Davis Mills shows some advanced concepts, it’s a blank slate on whether he’ll perform to that consistently

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

***

I need to start out this breakdown with a little bit of a rant about the optics because a very effective bit of PR-speak that the Texans have put out there is that Mills “could have been a first-round pick in 2021.” Well, here’s why that works well for them:

– it’s optimistic
– it’s completely unprovable, because we’ll never get a chance to see how that would have played out
– Mills has started so few games that it creates a vacuum of uncertainty about what he’ll become, so leaning into that idea works in the same way that this is the year that Kahale Warring will finally show us what he can do. Anybody with an NFL-level body can do the things it takes to be an NFL starter. The subset of those who do is small, and the subset of those who do without demonstrating it loudly in college is smaller.

The problem is that, well, if he went back to school, he could also have bombed and gone undrafted. It’s not hard to see the physical tools and pedigree that got the Texans interested in Mills. It’s not hard to see the splashes of advanced play that you want from your quarterback. What Mills lacks on his game-by-game resume — the top-strength arm throws that would wow scouts — isn’t really something that Stanford’s offense creates. They didn’t create many of them for Andrew Luck either. But the opportunities that he’s had to hit those throws have been less hit and more hit-or-miss.

Projecting Mills to be a first-round pick in 2022 would have relied on a lot of growth over this next college football season. He was inconsistent when he played, and he didn’t have many starts in college. His process was great on some downs and sloppy on others. His seam throws were good sometimes and poor on others. The highlights, more than anything, make a quarterback prospect sizzle to the scouts and there are a few really nice ones on Mills’ reel. But on a down-by-down basis, I don’t think there’s a lot of dispute that Mills left plenty on the bone last year. He will need to improve from what he is coming out to be an NFL starter.

And he can do that. In no way should we rule that out. But let’s be honest about what he’s starting from.

Where this prospect comes from

Mills came out as an Elite 11 quarterback with offers to basically any school he wanted out of Atlanta. Alabama, Georgia, Miami, Michigan, Michigan State, Ole Miss, USC, UCLA, Wisconsin were among the schools that made offers. He settled on Stanford. He was 61st on ESPN’s 300 in 2017. Here’s the scouting report on him from that time:

AREAS OF IMPROVEMENT: Lean and will need to fill out his frame. Lacks the cannon arm to make all the throws. Does not have the speed to be a true dual threat. Mechanics are less than ideal, but he gets the job done. … BOTTOM LINE: Mills is a very polished passer at this stage. If he can add some more bulk, he has a chance to get on the field sooner rather than later at the next level.

Mills was only 198 pounds coming out of high school and he obviously made good on the bulking up bit.

Physically Mills hits a lot of the traditional benchmarks to become an NFL quarterback. The one that stands out to me after watching him play is that his hand size of 9 1/2-inches is just barely in that traditional checkmark box. There are throws where Mills seems to have a good idea of where the ball should go but the ball just comes out a little bit awkward and I’m wondering if that is a hand size issue or not.

As a runner, the Cardinal used Mills as a part of their read-option package and he carried the ball fine. He has solid enough speed but not a lot of change of pace on the go. I didn’t see anything that would keep him from being a part of a package, and he has the size to take a solid NFL-style hit. Sometimes he comes up with plays that surprise you as a physical specimen because he seems a little underwhelming and then all of the sudden this happens under pressure:

Mills did not play against Oregon in Stanford’s season opener of a COVID-impacted short schedule, but he played enough to lead the Cardinal in expected points added. The Stanford pass offense was slightly above-average, but their defense had a down season in 2021 and that kept them at 4-2.

Stanford played a regular schedule in 2019 and Mills split time with K.J. Costello. Stanford’s defense got blasted, allowing 29.8 points per game and allowing six separate teams to drop at least 30 points on them, including Washington State and Arizona. Mills handily out-played Costello in completion rate, yards per completion, yards per attempt, and was about even on yards per carry. Costello transferred. The Stanford offense tended to play ball control and were interested in staying on schedule, so they weren’t very explosive. They did wind up running a fairly low amount in both 2019 and 2020 because of the defense. The Cardinals wound up 67th in 2019 passing S&P+ and 31st in 2020 total S&P+. (Sorry about not having a passing split, Bill Connelly went behind the paywall.)

As a “pro-style” quarterback, whatever that actually means in 2021, Mills relies on his intuition and reads. He wanted to go to a team that would let him do that. I’ll get to the eval on that in a bit, but that was the one interesting thing I heard from his Pro Day presser. I think he knows that he is going as far as his mind will take him.

Mills decided to come out this year in part because of how badly COVID wrecked Stanford’s season, to the point where they couldn’t play home games — and obviously there was a late start factored in to that. David Shaw explained a little further on In The Loop a few weeks ago:

And so that’s how he became available for the draft, how his college team fared, and the circumstances that created him. Let’s talk about how he actually played.

The eval

Texans fans are obviously a bit spoiled from the past couple of seasons as far as how Deshaun Watson performed off-script. You can’t reasonably expect Mills to provide that level of play in those scenarios, because Watson’s ability on off-script plays are part of what makes him a franchise quarterback to begin with. But I was pleasantly surprised that Mills showed some good improvisation skills. I take this next video bit from The QB School — aka J.T. O’Sullivan, former NFL quarterback — who has done four different videos on Mills that I think are a good watch as far as what to expect.

Mills shows some really good intuition on this rep. Reads the play well, goes through his progressions, knows enough to know that his back would get one-on-one, and this is not a wildly easy throw on the run with a man in his face. If you think about the major factors you’d want in an NFL quarterback, outside of the cannon arm, I think Mills displayed all of them at some point in his career at Stanford. He gets deep into his reads, he shows some ability to win outside of the structure of the play, he shows plus-plus anticipation, he can place balls really well on the seams and outside, he is willing to step into throw. Look at this ball in the face of this pressure:

That’s stupendous placement with a free runner, the kind of jaw-dropper that they make highlight reels out of. That’s not the only time I’ve seen him drop a throw like that into a rusher either, so he’s comfortable with the hits. That’s humongous for my own personal evaluation of his worthiness because there’s nothing I can’t stand more after (under breath) watching certain quarterbacks who have been employed here (/under breath) take crumplesacks.

So, the thing with Mills is that he’ll show you that, and he’ll also show you a lot of process where you’re wondering what exactly he’s seeing. I’ll go back to the QB School tapes for a clip that just simply has to be a throwaway while I note that I don’t think much of Stanford’s play-action game worked well so it should be a smooth transition to Tim Kelly’s offense…

Finally, I think this play from the 2019 USC game exemplifies a lot about Mills’ downside as a prospect:

They have the play they want. Check. The receiver wins on the double move. Check. Mills sells it with a terrific pump fake. Check. Process all good. The throw’s not even in the receiver’s basic area.

That’s the play I kept coming back to with Mills’ lowlights. He shows a lot of technical prowess as a player. He sees what he has created fairly well. But then it’s time to throw the ball and, well, sometimes this happens:

Walking away from about 7-8 of Mills’ games watched and slowed down, I think there’s a lot of upside to him as a player and I can see what the hype is about. It’s just also kind of obvious that, well, if he hits the throws he creates, he’d be a first-round prospect. He didn’t, and so he’s here in the third round. That’s the rub. That’s why “he would have been a first-round prospect” has become the saying around the hub, because projecting improvement in a football player is victimless and we all do it for the guys we are rooting for.

How he fits the Texans

Well, nobody cares about the Stanford Virtual Reality System stats, Davis. Sorry, I think you’re in for some learning on the bench and I think that would have been the case on a good team or a bad team. Nick Caserio basically gave a 300-word “no comment” when asked about Mills’ franchise quarterback status:

I totally understand the pick. If you hit on Davis Mills then you either a) find yourself not needing a quarterback or b) find yourself in a spot where you might be able to pick a quarterback and trade a Mills who maybe showed some real steps forward in 2021 before the 2022 draft. It’s the highest-upside swing this team could make and they desperately need high-upside swings. Zero complaints about the pick. I preferred Mills over Kellen Mond and Kyle Trask in that tier.

I do want to leave you, though, with this thought. The Texans under Brian Gaine successfully insta-started Justin Reid, created roles for Jordan Akins, Jordan Thomas and Keke Coutee. They did that without a first- or second-round pick. Since that draft, when was the last time you can remember someone the Texans had starting right away and being legitimately good? As a rider, who on the roster do you think has developed appreciably well under Jack Easterby’s tutelage? I think I could sit here today and write that Reid’s best season was 2018. I don’t know that Tytus Howard and Max Scharping — handicapped as they were by Mike Devlin — took a major step forward in 2020. Thomas got cut. Akins and Coutee have seen roles seized from them by free agents. Lonnie Johnson probably had the best season of any of the 2019 picks and he had to move to safety mid-season. Charles Omenihu is absolutely the best success story since Easterby came on and I don’t think I’ve seen enough to leave me convinced he can handle being a run downs player as a base 4-3 end.

So Mills has appreciable upside, but he’s now a Texan. Is that a death knell? No. But am I a little skeptical that this group will grow him well? You better believe it. I hope Caserio brings a new influence into “the program.” But they also just signed 39 veteran free-agents. So. You know. What is development anyway?

In an ideal world, Mills fixes the too-frequent process errors and too-frequent errant throws and becomes Matt Ryan’s heir. I believe he can hit that kind of upside, because there’s not a lot he hasn’t shown he can do as a quarterback. That arm strength is going to keep him off the top-top-tier of quarterbacks as far as scouting rankings, but I think he’s got plenty of arm to play in the league and hit the throws he’ll need to hit. His anticipation as a thrower is so good that if he continues to develop mentally as a quarterback — understanding everything and batting. 900 on pre-snap diagnosis instead of .500-.700 — he’ll be very good.

His floor to me is, well, he’s a competent Cody Kessler-esque backup who you ask to hit easy passes and keep the offense moving. Given that this team set $7 million on fire over the last two years by letting A.J. McCarron do that but with worse pocket presence, that’s not too shabby. As I said, I like the pick. Wait, nevermind, there’s Jeff Driskel.

There’s a lot riding on how good of a player Mills is for the future of this franchise, and I do think he’s an honest attempt at a quarterback answer despite some rumored medical red flags from other teams. You’d really hope that he’d get a chance to start no matter wha–

Ah, well, nevertheless.

***

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Competition is what happens when you lack established talent and aren’t interested in creating it

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

***

The 2015 Texans had a quarterback competition between Ryan Mallett and Brian Hoyer. The winner of the competition was every other team in the NFL, because neither player had the requisite talent to just be named a starter outright.

To be sure, this is a glib view of competition as a general ethos — not every position is as difficult as quarterback, there are many positions where a competition can produce a productive player — I get that it’s an oversimplification and that there are places where a competition can help a team. But carrying it as a cudgel rather than a natural outgrowth of accumulating young talent that deserves to play is something that, in my head, is worth sounding an alarm about.

The Texans are repeating one of their worst mistakes from last season, a lesson that they should have learned after it repeatedly smacked them in the face during an 0-4 closeout to the season. It is not much of a surprise, you see, because everyone involved in that disaster of a year closed ranks and pretended nothing bad happened. Romeo Crennel is still on the staff as a consultant. Tim Kelly is still the offensive coordinator. Jack Easterby survived with unprecedented power for a non-GM/HC. You see, if only they’d not gone 2-9 in one-score games, it would have changed everything about the perception of that season. That’s a core value they have retained, and it is something I fear will make the 2021 season unbearable.

***

Do you remember anything John Reid did last season?

Reid was the Texans’ fourth-round pick. I wrote a scouting report on him because I liked him the most of the Texans draft picks last year. He sounded smart and he walked the walk as far as I could tell. He was coming into a situation where the team had very little in the way of good established corners; that’s generally something that portends playing time for young players. Reid instantly got on the field against Kansas City in the opener, though he was fairly quiet.

He didn’t have another 30-snap game until Week 16.

I don’t have a lot of ego tied up into my evaluation here. Obviously, I’m rooting for John Reid to be a great player, but if he doesn’t become an NFL starter that’s a fairly expected outcome for a fourth-round pick. The problem is that by not giving him snaps, the team has created a situation where nobody has any idea what he actually is. The upfront investment in rookies is a four-year contract, and the upside is that if they overperform their draft spot, you are gaining value over the course of that rookie deal. Sometimes they don’t work out, or they play poorly, and that’s where competition can be a good thing. But if they never get a chance to play, was it a competition, or was it just a decision?

Keke Coutee has been with the Texans for three seasons. He hasn’t had 350 snaps in a season yet. The team has had every reason to want to boost Jacob Martin as he’s the main piece they got from the Jadeveon Clowney trade. He hasn’t reached 400 snaps in a season yet. In-house radio went and fluffed Easterby’s hog for not trading Jordan Akins. Akins fell from 655 snaps in 2019 to 405 last year. Some of that is about missing three games, but even after coming back from his concussion he was never the full-time tight end. All three of those guys are going to be free agents after 2021 and nobody has any idea what kind of season they’d put up with a full snap share. They’ve each had some big individual highlights in small samples, so why have they not been given those snaps to grow?

Outside of Tytus Howard, the Texans haven’t had a first-round pick since Deshaun Watson. That’s a big part of the reason the roster is in the state that it is. But it’s hard to not see the pattern of a lack of trust in the youth that they’ve created since Easterby has been installed. It’s hard to develop players if they can’t play. If Justin Reid were drafted in 2019 instead of 2018, would he have 800 snaps yet?

***

Coming off a 4-12 season, with Will Fuller and J.J. Watt gone and an expectation around the league that Deshaun Watson will not play for the team in 2021, the Texans would seem to be an ideal roster for an undrafted free agent to crack. They are the only team in the NFL with a win over/under total of less than 5 in Vegas circles.

So, of course, the Texans have signed just four undrafted free agents so far: A&M linemen Ryan McCollum and Carson Green, UCF WR Marlon Williams, and Missouri WR Damon Hazelton.

Undrafted free agents all sign three-year contracts with a restricted free agent option in 2021. While it’s obviously patently silly to bank on your team generating Arian Foster, it has happened before! Many big-name NFL stars come out of undrafted free agency, and even if you only hit on someone to “role player” or “solid,” that’s a lot of money saved over the course of the contract. As this team is widely predicted to be terrible, it should have been set up to be big players in undrafted free agency. The Texans should have been banging on Dylan Moses’ and Marvin Wilson’s phones with a huge guaranteed offer. Instead, this happened:

The team filled up 87 of its 90 roster spots, mostly early in free agency, mostly in the name of competition. Listen, I’m not going to trash the players on this roster. Live your dreams out Cole Toner, I’m pulling for you as long as you put on Steel Blue. But given that this team is widely projected to be awful the second a Watson trade goes down and it becomes inescapable reality rather than widespread belief that he won’t play for the Texans ever again, there’s not a lot of value to the Texans for Cole Toner being here. If Cole Toner wins a center job over all his other competition, and plays poorly, he won’t be playing long. If he plays well, the Texans have to immediately pay him. Bill O’Brien uttered the phrase “layers and layers of players,” during the 2020 offseason. That philosophy never existed with this organization before Easterby’s hiring. In fact, I think you can draw an interesting line to the Laremy Tunsil trade, where they were bent over a barrel, and this desire to make sure that they have multiple “answers” of depth at every position.

From a value proposition, though, 4-7 year free agency is a non-starter when compared to undrafted free agency. Particularly this year, when scouts were not allowed as much contact with players as usual and you would expect there to be more mistakes and guys who should not have made it to this point.

I haven’t brought up the idea of tanking here because a) I don’t think the Texans are trying to tank and b) I think it’s harder to tank in the NFL than you’d expect from an outside theoretical sense. But since I keep being asked: Not only do I think the Texans are not trying to tank, I think they have doubled-down so far on their own beliefs that they believe they’re going to compete. They say all of this stuff so openly and so often that it’s hard to escape the fact that they believe it matters:

The Texans don’t just have a plan to improve you as a football player, they need to “assimilate” you. You need to give yourself to them entirely. They earnestly believe that this “program” matters. To some people, it might just be football, a sport that you play. Not to these guys, who have bought in so hard on this collective attitude that if you want to get deep into the weeds you can start to wonder if what it means to be a Houston Texan is a lifestyle instead of a profession.

To them, all of that matters much, much more than just signing talented football players and letting them play. There’s a dogma that what they believe about scouting personality and character traits matters more than, say, cost-value propositions about what kind of players are valuable to team building and which aren’t. It’s why David Johnson and Mark Ingram will completely block us from ever knowing if Buddy Howell and Scottie Phillips are good enough to be NFL running backs.

As long as it persists, this team will be spinning its wheels.

***

I don’t have high hopes for the 2021 Houston Texans. It — earnestly — is taking a lot of restraint to come back to pulling for the players in the face of how stupid all of this seems, because my instinct is to just bury my keyboard in the yard and never think about Texans football again until there’s another regime change. What happened last year should have been punished instead of rewarded.

I think the gap comes down to this:

My best-case expectation for the Texans is for them to spend 2021 developing as many young players as possible and seeing what happens. If that means some of them get beat in a big situation, or some of them do not embody “what it means to be a Houston Texan” when they have an extra strawberry shake on Friday or come in at 6:15 instead of 6:00, that doesn’t matter to me. You see who John Reid and Ross Blacklock and Jon Greenard and Jacob Martin and Garret Wallow and Jordan Akins and Brevin Jordan are and if they are good enough to be long-term fixtures on your roster. You start looking ahead to 2022 and have no belief that you’re going to make the playoffs until 2023, when you might have finally accumulated enough talent to make that feasible.

I have no faith the management of this team agrees with a word of that. The actions have spoken very loudly — from 2019 to now — that this team does not care about developing its young players. If it happens, they’re cool with it. They’re not going to spend a lot of snaps on it. They’d rather have a cornerback competition and let Vernon Hargreaves allow 7.5 yards per target than let Keion Crossen allow 8. They believe they can win instantly because they have the right group of player personalities and beliefs in place. They have already told you exactly what they believed in by heading to the free agency counter and signing older players by the bushel.

In short, they learned nothing from 2020. There are ways that this can play out that can be better for their long-term growth than others. Someone who wins a competition could be a trade deadline asset — quick aside to Jack Easterby’s beautiful, beautiful work in not trading Will Fuller while also managing to piss him off last season. Youth that flashes heavily in the preseason can get claimed on waivers and allowed to flourish here. But as a general rule, they have decided what the player they want thinks and acts like and what his floor is, and that’s more important than young players getting snaps, because those players might make mistakes.

It’s very easy to tune out what the Texans are trying to tell you, because on the surface there’s not a lot of distinguishing notes between Typical Vague Football Talk and the kind of amateur phrenology they’re banking on here. But in simple terms: They believe they’re smarter than the rest of the league despite how big of a flop the last two years have been and how disastrously they’ve been owned in every trade they’ve made. They earnestly believe that. They have to, to continue operating how they have.

Over the past three seasons, Deshaun Watson and the rest of the stars and solid contributors on this team have been able to mostly brush aside the dumb things that this team did and take them to the brink of contention. Those players have left or been sent away en masse. Watt, Fuller, Clowney, DeAndre Hopkins, D.J. Reader, Tyrann Mathieu, Kareem Jackson, Benardrick McKinney. Andre Johnson has basically quit his association with the team. Watson would like to.

Front and center this year, with no more star cover? This team’s poor management, from ownership to personnel to the man who has his hand in just about everything they do. They believe you can’t go wrong doing what’s right, to paraphrase our last Cal McNair public appearance with questions, but they’ve yet to do anything to build the trust that they know what’s right, let alone how to build a football team.

***

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The end of detention

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

***

What the last few days felt like was a punishment. The Texans had to watch 66 picks go by before they selected on Friday night, and while everyone else had their shiny new toys lined up, the Texans were to face the wall and count off players on their division championship winners.

Friday itself? It was fine. Despite the fact that Nick Caserio is now running the show, it spiritually didn’t feel a lot different than the 2020 NFL Draft. I wasn’t over the moon about anyone they picked on either day, but they were fine, rational picks of players who were hanging around at about the spot they should be taken according to draftnik consensus. I can’t really fault the Texans for not moving around the board more given their lack of pick value to play with, and I sure as hell am not going to unload on them for not taking the players I’d prefer because I have enough self-reflection to tell you I’m not a draft scout.

What today meant for me, and what I hope it means for you if you’re suffering through this with your heart on your sleeve, is that it closed the book on the ill-fated Laremy Tunsil trade. We’re done having to watch every other team in the NFL pick before the Texans are up. The organization itself is not going to be incredibly sturdy until a seemingly inevitable parting with Deshaun Watson happens and they procure the tools and picks with which they can actually rebuild something.

No matter what happens in the 2021 season — and I’m prepared for the worst — the Texans will at least be able to actually pick someone early in the 2022 NFL Draft. That’s a small thing that I took for granted before these last two years. I wish I hadn’t had to find out that I took it for granted, but that can be water under the bridge. Something from these cursed ~18 months that can be fully left behind.

***

Nick Caserio views his job mostly as he sees it through the processes and calculations of what he believes his job is. What I mean by that is that I wasn’t at all surprised by the fact that he didn’t offer much of an endorsement of Davis Mills as a franchise quarterback after selecting him with his first pick as a Texan. He has already engaged in seventh-dimension chess about the various ways the pick could and couldn’t work out, checkmated himself three times and you four times, and is going to tell you about it in very general terms to avoid giving away anything that he knows.

I don’t personally think Mills offers a lot of franchise quarterback upside. I think of him as a potential steady backup and someone who, hey, who knows, could surprise you. The guy who came to mind when looking at the traits list was former Browns third-rounder Cody Kessler. Kessler had his backers in the draftnik circuit, had some prowess and juice as a good decision-maker. Where Kessler failed was that he didn’t have the arm to actually cash the checks his brain could write. Davis has more upside as a downfield passer, but much, much less actionable experience. Asides, of course, from his work in Virtual Reality Football:

You’re not going to find clean prospects at 67th overall. This is, arguably, the highest upside roll the Texans can take. If Davis hits his ceiling, the quarterback situation is taken care of with a 10th-15th-best quarterback in the league-type, an Eli Manning or thereabouts. It’s not incredibly likely that he hits it, but given the season we’re all staring down, I think it’s a worthwhile risk to take.

If you put me in charge of the board in that moment I probably would have taken Indiana safety Jamar Johnson. I know that the position is fairly loaded for this season, but I have my doubts that Justin Reid and the Texans are going to see eye-to-eye about his value and think Johnson could break in with dime packages this year as a prelude to something bigger in 2021. Hey, Johnson’s still on the board! Plenty of time left.

***

Then, after rumors that they might be looking to move back, Caserio actually traded back into the third round to bring in Michigan wideout Nico Collins. The move cost the Texans one of their fifth-rounders tomorrow, as well as a 2022 fourth-rounder from the Rams. This is actually a fairly significant trade-up in terms of pure draft chart value.

Me, I pretty much believe the draft ends right around pick 100, maybe a little later. The way teams rate players after the obvious physical fits gives ample space for guys to slide around. So if you assume that the Rams are going to be pretty good next year (they did just trade for Matt Stafford), and that the pick probably won’t be close to the top 100, I can squint enough to get over it. The Texans traded into the top 100 and gave up only one pick close to it. Not great value, but fair enough.

Speaking of obvious physical fits, that is what Nico Collins is.

Collins is a huge, physical receiver who profiles as the outside guy that the Texans didn’t really have on this roster. He’s not the same kind of burner that Will Fuller is, which kind of shows up in a subpar 20-yard split. When Collins gets going, he gets going, but it takes a few strides to get up to top-flight speed. A lot of his career prospects are going to come down to if his playing speed is average or solid-average. Because of how often he just kind of disappeared in drives (granted it’s Michigan and Shea Patterson was rough), I kind of see him more in the No. 2 wideout ceiling/No. 3 wideout floor range. A rough floor is that Collins becomes a quality underneath guy who moves some chains with tough catches. For a ceiling, I could imagine him playing like Marques Colston but in a bit different of a role because of the differences between the Saints tree and the Patriots tree. Most draftniks described Collins as something close to a tease — humongous highlights but not much consistency.

I am more excited about this pick than I am about the Mills pick because I think there’s a more reliable floor, but if you plugged me into this spot I probably would have gone with another defensive player. If not Johnson, then maybe Washington corner Elijah Molden. This team did just finish a full NFL season forcing less than 10 turnovers, right?

***

I will spend time watching through games, interviews, and draftnik breakdowns of these two (and perhaps one other pick) in the future to flesh out my feelings about them — these are planned posts of the future — but these are my first blush, surface-level looks. I’ll do more of these tomorrow unless Caserio trades all the picks away for Jimmy Garoppolo. (I’m kidding, I think.)

I don’t think anything happened here tonight that should cause fans any extra grief unless they were holding out hope for Watson to change his mind about staying with the Texans. (When asked about it, Caserio filibustered the question.)

I’m just glad that this is the last NFL Draft we have to endure in detention.

***

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Welcome to the Dead Sea

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

***

There’s a very thematically interesting dungeon in the ill-fated Chrono Trigger sequel Chrono Cross called The Dead Sea. The concept is that it’s a collection of timelines that didn’t happen for one reason or another — the Chrono Trigger universe that was supposed to be destroyed, for example, is one of many scenes from dead universes. Or, to quote directly from the game text: “A future denied of all existence because of a change in the past… A future that was destroyed even before it was born rests here… condensed into the Dead Sea.” These snapshots become ruins that are stagnant, frozen in time, and ghosts rummage around the place. It’s such a cool concept for a dungeon that the game hooked into … and then immediately could not keep up with on any real level.

This is the most exciting time of the NFL calendar year for most teams, because they are thinking about creating their future. Fans get to squabble over who the best player in the draft is, get to think about the future of the franchise and how it could change with one correct pick. Guess right and you get DeAndre Hopkins. Guess wrong and you get Cordarrelle Patterson. Even teams with low first-round picks can look forward to that kind of debate. But that future, like many for the Texans, is consigned to the Dead Sea.

The future where Deshaun Watson was traded before his many lawsuits made it implausible. The future where the team kept Brian Gaine and never decided to listen to Jack Easterby. The future where the organization didn’t lose the plot in the eyes of their franchise quarterback. The Texans still exist in so much as they are a real entity, but as a franchise they have become a team of what could have been rather than what is.

***

I think it might be a little overstated the extent that Watson’s trade value has declined or to say that his market is dead; it only takes one team. But there’s likely little to be done about moving Watson right now as his crisis continues to escalate, for sure. We have seen players with haunting off-field issues like this move after things are done — Astros fans may remember Roberto Osuna — but to make a move for someone as an investigation is being undertaken by the NFL and as a lawsuit begins to form would create a PR vortex for the acquiring team that would be hard to swallow. When these lawsuits do eventually resolve, the offers that would have been on the board for him before the draft may not reappear. It could potentially get to the point where the Texans decide it’s not worth moving him for the quoted prices, and they carry the most valuable asset in the NFL that has no interest in playing for the team. Perhaps on the suspended list for a bit.

There are fans who are trying hard to believe that this team has improved, and maybe they have in some small ways on special teams and with depth. But those moves don’t make up for losing two of the four best players on a 4-12 team to free agency and a request to be released, then watching the Watson situation go from denial to bargaining to no acceptance. This team doesn’t pick until the third round of the draft. The only player they’ll have in the first two rounds from either of the 2020 and 2021 drafts barring a trade up is Ross Blacklock, who had an abysmal rookie season while getting yanked around into roles he wasn’t fit for. Outside of Shaq Lawson, Desmond King, and Phillip Lindsay, this team didn’t add much in the way of established starter-level talent in their prime either.

I’m at the point where I’m trying to imagine writing about this team in September. I’m trying to imagine putting together a gamer after a, let’s say, 23-10 loss to the Titans. The run game got some yards with Tyrod Taylor. Here are some passes he couldn’t connect on for one reason or another. He said he had to hit those throws and he didn’t. David Culley said he wanted to dial up some plays early to get him comfortable but they couldn’t find a rhythm. Special teams blocked a field-goal attempt. The defense held on in the red zone pretty well, but gave up a back-breaking run to Derrick Henry in the third quarter. And this offense can’t play from behind and that was that. There’s one bullet point about how (Lawson, Tytus Howard, Justin Reid, etc.) played well and how that’s cool and might be something to build on. This is the optimistic side of me trying to match them against good teams.

This team has been consigned, folks. This team is in the Dead Sea. When I write about them as a football unit, you vote with your eyes about how little you believe in them. Me trying to craft a realistic optimistic upside to the offense was roundly ignored. I can’t blame you, because I can’t defend anything that’s happened here. All that’s left is what happens with Deshaun Watson.

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Watson’s status deteriorated rapidly after the public testimony from Ashley Solis and the written testimony of Jennifer Baxley hit two Wednesdays ago. He was hardly in a great place before that, with the Texans issuing a letter to season ticket holders in which Cal McNair said the team was “deeply troubled by any form of abuse and we condemn this type of behavior.” But after that public testimony entered the record, Watson was dropped by sponsors and dropped out of almost all of the in-house Texans TV video introductions purposely. Innocent before proven guilty does not apply to optics. I don’t consider this a prelude to a trade, I consider it a play where an unpopular figure is minimized.

The court of public opinion on sexual assault has become a much tougher environment for a defense to win in, and while I’m not sitting here telling you I know that these cases are going to prove that Watson is guilty, I definitely think Tony Buzbee understands the positives of pressing knowledge to the public. Watson’s lawyer, Rusty Hardin, has spent the last three weeks digging up 18 masseuses that would testify to Watson’s character and trying to get defendants publicly named. Listen, if there are 40 masseuses willing to testify to Watson’s character one way or another, and 22 of them are willing to accuse him of something untoward, that’s not exactly a batting average I would want to be trumpeting.

To me, not a lot has changed since Watson’s first statement with the defense: The defense is that none of this happened and that they’ll prove it in a trial. I would love to believe that world where he is cleared exists, but just from the outside? This looks really, really bad. The number of people involved in the lawsuits and how specific the details are in a few key areas that repeat are not great signs. This could get him an NFL suspension and it already has Watson’s public image getting destroyed daily. Whether or not his desire to get traded elsewhere is happening or not is almost a non-event right now. Now that this has become a public relations firestorm rather than a small civil suit, this has become an issue where it has been bad enough for long enough that it has become easy human heuristics to assume the worst. By that I mean: Nobody with a majorly-sourced public platform that I can see is talking about this in a way that suggests the Texans will make out well.

Something Pro Football Talk brought up last week was that the Watson camp was willing to pay some money at some point: “[I] wanted to check in on this to see if Ms. Solis wanted to either help us understand the rationale behind the $100k demand or come back with a different figure,” Scott Gaffield wrote on Watson’s behalf. “As I said to [attorney] Cornelia [Brandfield-Harvey] last week, we don’t believe that the alleged facts show that Deshaun did anything wrong with regards to Ms. Solis, but we are nevertheless happy to continue the conversation around a reasonable settlement figure because we believe he can learn a lesson about having put himself in this situation.” That’s been repeated in reporting by the Washington Post, that there have been a couple different settlement windows that the defense has not taken.

I am not a lawyer, nor do I know the details of these cases front and back. But I think we’ve given the Watson team about a month since these allegations first started popping up and they have floundered themselves in the court of public opinion. I have to think if they had an easy way to protect Watson’s image — reminder, he is losing millions because of these endorsements being cancelled — they’d have gone to it. The best they have so far is that Watson engaged in consensual sex with some of these women. And, well, that’s not what you’re hearing from 22 women. The thing is, until or unless the Watson campaign has a tact beyond denial and attacking the character of the accusers, it’s kind of hard to hit on an effective defense — in the court of public opinion — that exists in 2021.

That’s about it until they actually get to a courtroom or a settlement table, Buzbee has proven that he is going to continue to effectively use the media to push out what is best for his clients, which has repercussions for Watson that are already mattering now.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to see how much changes as things stand today. There’s more hearings to be done, and more listening for us all, as we see just how far into the Dead Sea Watson’s career will go. Even a settlement may not assuage the commissioner’s office.

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When Bill O’Brien was fired, there was a sense of relief from Texans fans that finally the Texans could coalesce around their young star quarterback and build something new. As I wrote at the time, it was an opportunity that they needed to ace. There were many potential positive futures for this team that they themselves sabotaged by holding on to Easterby. The Watson situation could not have been anticipated — the generally accepted company line I’ve heard is that they knew about a one-woman lawsuit but did not see it blowing up and becoming this — but they chose to put their heads in the sand about moving him because it did not fit the narrative they wanted to craft. In doing so, they may have consigned the future where this team had a highly drafted quarterback this year into the Dead Sea. And then, cherry on the shit sundae, Watson’s ongoing litigation has a potential ending of him throwing the best version of who he could have been in there as well.

All there is right now is a team that cannot find a ceiling to the number of positive situations they can self-sabotage. And it’s sad and dumb and heartbreaking to just understand how the team that was up 24-0 on the soon-to-be Super Bowl Champion Chiefs could not possibly believe any harder that they are on the right track. Because what has been created here is a situation not unlike the Hue Jackson Browns or post-Jim Harbaugh 49ers or Dennis Allen Raiders. The talent level is so depleted and the reputation so bad that it may take three or four years to finally reload it to contender status … except those teams I mentioned were actually willing to make big changes. Crap on Jed York all you want, but he didn’t hold on to Chip Kelly for a second season. This Texans team ardently seems to believe that it knows what it is doing. In fact, in the above VOD, Cal McNair asks fans to “trust that they know what’s right,” but nothing they’ve shown since Easterby joined the front office deserves that trust. That’s the most dangerous part.

Twice in three months, Nick Caserio has been forced into the “there’s a lot bigger problems in society” than the Texans rhetorical device. He’s right about that. But the fact that he even has to say it belies a lot about the state of this franchise now. It may be the worst-run major sports franchise in major American sports, maybe neck-and-neck with the Rockies and maybe the Sabres depending on the eye of the beholder.

As Steph Stradley would say, this is the time to put your feelings in escrow. This situation has been bleak for so long that it’s only natural to believe that surely things can only get better from here. I’m trying to hold on to the little scraps of hope and faith I see along the way — hopefully the third-round pick is a steal, and the UDFA class is terrific and a lot of these vets that got signed are beaten out and catch on somewhere else. Hopefully the Watson allegations are resolved in a way that is a positive outcome for the women involved and in a way where Watson can rehabilitate his status in a way that jives with the character he’s displayed in the past.

But it’s hard to think of this team as anything but an aftermath right now. What could have been is gone. What remains is a team of players who don’t deserve the rancor they’re going to get because they’ve been asked to do the impossible: make this look good.

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Optimism Prospectus: Texans Offense

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

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I am pretty much incapable of optimism as an operating system when it comes to these Houston Texans. I don’t trust the leadership of the team. I don’t believe the David Culley CEO head coach plan is a good one, much as I am pulling for him to make it work. I don’t believe that any organization that would dig in around a failed culture because the owner is a big fan of the culture leader has a bright future.

But I want to express what I believe is a rational optimistic viewpoint for this team as a thought exercise. Not because I believe any of it will happen, but because the fanbase gets a little whiny if I don’t throw in a little sunshine every now and then. Well, these are my beliefs of how much things can change.

The offense
2020 DVOA: 13th (8th pass, 32nd run, second-easiest schedule in the NFL, 15.5 adjusted games lost — third-lowest)

If Deshaun Watson, for whatever reason, comes back, the ceiling of this offense is high enough to make the team a playoff contender and a tough out in the playoffs. He is simply that good. I don’t know that this is in anyway feasible at this point, and I am not trying to get anyone’s hopes up or handwave the allegations he’s dealing with away. He made an ascension into a top-five quarterback last season that nobody saw, despite playing in an offense that absolutely could not run the ball and, at times, playing with almost no receiver help. Because I don’t see him coming back, I’m going to leave this paragraph hanging here and move on. But because it would change literally everything about this team, the caveat has to come first.

Tyrod Taylor’s best years were spent with the Buffalo Bills, leading a run-first offense with a Hall of Very Good back to three consecutive above-average seasons. The 2015-2017 Bills finished fourth, first, and then 20th in run offense DVOA in a year that got Greg Roman fired mid-season. The pass offense DVOA declined precipitously after a ninth-place finish in 2015. Since moving on from Buffalo, he’s been a place-holder for young quarterbacks, keeping the Browns warm for Baker Mayfield and the Chargers job to mentor Justin Herbert for a few games.

The two major knocks against Taylor as a passer are his lack of deep strikes and his sack rate. Taylor threw 25% of his passes as “deep” or “bombs” per FO charting with the Bills in his first season, but fell to 22% in 2016 and a ghastly 16% in 2017. To be fair, that 2017 Bills team had no receivers of note — Kelvin Benjamin was just about done with his time in the league and their leading receiver by targets was rookie Zay Jones. (Note that this is not slandering Taylor’s deep ball so much as noting he doesn’t uncork it often.) The Bills had a decent-to-good offensive line over those three years led by Eric Wood, Cordy Glenn (and then Dion Dawkins), and Richie Incognito. Taylor never threw more than 436 attempts in a season and was sacked at least 36 times in all three years. He took two sacks in his one start last year and 13 in three starts with the Browns. He’s going to take sacks.

What you want to get from Taylor is value in the running game — the read-option doesn’t quite have the same veneer of newness today as it did in 2012 or 2015 when Roman began using it extensively, but teams still generate a lot of value from it. Taylor had only three designed rushes with the Chargers last year and they generated a total of one yard, and he had only 22 yards on six designed runs with the Browns in 2018. Taylor is still a good athlete for a quarterback and it wouldn’t surprise me if the Texans took a page out of the Ravens notebook, however we’ve heard little from the players or the staff that would confirm that they’re doing this. At his best, Taylor was providing roughly 90 carries of 5.4 YPC to the offense every year in Buffalo. That is his major upside, provided he hasn’t lost a step.

Ryan Finley realistically needed to hit the ground running in his chances without Andy Dalton in Cincinnati and didn’t. He’s been a disaster in his 119 NFL pass attempts so far. No reason to wishcast a bunch of improvement on him or pretend he’s the quarterback of the future. He could be an adequate backup, but the list of quarterbacks drafted outside the top two rounds who go to a new place and suddenly thrive is short.

The Texans don’t have a Shady McCoy in their backfield rotation. I think the majority of David Johnson’s “breakout” at the end of last season was a fluke. His two biggest catches came on busted plays with Watson creating late in the down, his biggest runs were big holes caused by the re-insertion of Roderick Johnson.

If there’s a spot to be optimistic with Johnson it’s that the offense last year didn’t really provide him much space as a pass-catcher and there’s nobody in the backfield currently who should threaten his role there. But it’s not like Tim Kelly got him involved suddenly after O’Brien was deposed, and that’s a little bit of a concern to me. Dumpoffs are a more reasonable request for him, and I think that’s something that quarterbacks both control and that Taylor has a lot of history with. McCoy got 50 targets a year and led the team in targets in 2017. I could see a rise for Johnson along those same lines if he keeps the job.

If we’re being optimistic, I think the best-case scenario for the Texans is that Phillip Lindsay takes control of the job at some point in the first four weeks of the season. He’s the back with the most recent success — back-to-back 1000 yard seasons to start his career before a down 2020 as Melvin Gordon’s backup. I think the ideal distribution of roles is probably something like Johnson third-down back, Ingram goal-line back, Lindsay lead back. Well, I am actually not sure if Ingram has the juice to do goal-line stuff anymore, but I assume he’s going to get carries somewhere.

Brandin Cooks rebounded from his down 2019 in 2020 and then demanded to stay, so the Texans re-worked his deal. It still wasn’t quite the dominant aerial show of 2016-2018, but I think a lot of that was locked away by the offense being terrible at play-action. Only 26% of Cooks’ targets in 2020 qualified as “deep” or “bomb.” In 2018, it was 32%, and in 2017, it was 43%(!). However, going from Watson to Taylor probably hurts his chances of getting deep looks in a vacuum. One of the sneaky secrets of last year’s Texans offense is that there wasn’t much to “but they weren’t healthy!” about and Cooks playing 15 games certainly qualifies. Cooks was targeted 120 times last year and the most common route was a curl — but he was only targeted eleven times in the red zone, and four of those were against the Titans in the Week 17 finale. Cooks lacks the physicality to be a plus-plus player there or to handle the RPOs that went to Will Fuller last season. To me, he’s a good No. 2 receiver who will be stretched as a No. 1.

Unfortunately, without Hopkins, that tough interior player may not be on the Texans roster right now. Chris Conley was signed in free agency to give a bigger body and may wind up starting outside, but he had just six red zone targets all of last season and only one of them was completed for positive yards. He also had just eight red zone targets in 2019 — and six of them happened after Week 15 with the Jaguars basically eliminated. He did at least show a little more physicality inside on slants, catching six of the eight of them for four first downs in 2020 — that just wasn’t part of the package in the red zone for the Jaguars.

Randall Cobb and Keke Coutee sort of replicate each other as inside receivers. Five of Cobb’s 48 targets came as an outside receiver. Four of Coutee’s 40 targets came as an outside receiver. Coutee has the juice that I think Cobb has lost at this point, but Cobb has the surer hands and is less disaster-prone. It’s hard to tell the guy you signed to a big money contract last year that he’s not good enough to start, but I think a Coutee breakout is probably one of the only real chances this team has to improve on last year. Cobb is going to give you 50-70 catch-and-fall-downs.

At tight end, the Texans enter the last season of Jordan Akins’ rookie deal with no real idea of what he can be. Akins is 29 already, and Jack Easterby was lauded by John McClain for not trading him at the deadline for … some reason?

Akins has demonstrated the ability to be a No. 1 move tight end for a few years now, but seems to always get hurt or otherwise left behind whenever that chance should be occurring. After Will Fuller got suspended prior to Week 13, it was my supposition that Akins would grow into an enhanced target role. Instead he got just three total targets in Week 13, and wound up with just 21 total targets over the last six weeks of the season. To put that in perspective, Chad Hansen had 14 combined targets in Weeks 13 and 14 alone. I’m a big fan of the ability that Akins has, but it seems like the offense has a hard time getting to him as a read. Regardless, along with Coutee, this is one player who has a chance to breakout.

Pharaoh Brown was the best Texans tight end last year and, frankly, the only one who had any prayer at blocking anybody. I can see a lot of 12-personnel in this offense’s future given their likely reliance on running the ball. I don’t think there’s like, untapped potential here. What they saw last year was a jolt and they should be hoping they get to see it again this year. Kahale Warring is on the roster but the list of guys who come from doing almost nothing their first two seasons to being a major contributor in year three is so small that I can barely take his presence seriously. I also wouldn’t be surprised if he was cut, because he’s going up against Not My Guys! syndrome from Nick Caserio.

The offensive line is one area where the Texans should definitely improve next year after their firing of the disastrous Mike Devlin, who often seemed to be speaking a different language when interviewed. The media hasn’t gotten a real chance to speak to James Campen yet, but this is an addition-by-subtraction move to me.

The interior line did not play well last year. Zach Fulton and Nick Martin are gone, while Max Scharping will no longer be carrot-and-sticked by idiots.

The biggest thing this offense can do is to create a line that is worthy of the investment that has been spent here — Laremy Tunsil’s huge amount of picks, the first on Tytus Howard, the second on Scharping, and additionally now a trade for Marcus Cannon and his big cap hit. I don’t know exactly how the Texans will suss it out, but my best guess is that they will put Cannon at right guard. Outside of Tunsil, nobody on this line has played a lights-out 16 games yet — and even Tunsil has had a rough game or two. We’ve seen plenty of flashes from Howard. But this unit needs consistency in a big way in 2021, and Howard’s pass protection is going to be even more amplified in terms of importance with Taylor in the pocket.

Summing it up

Obviously without Watson (or some sort of trade that looks more unlikely by the day) there’s no way this pass offense is going to crack the top 10 in DVOA again. I think it would be overly optimistic to believe it will crack the top 20. I’d be more down at about 22-23 myself as an optimist’s point of view. Taylor is limited, the receiving corps has red zone limitations, and Will Fuller is a bigger loss than people are giving him credit for. I think the best-case scenario is, kind of like Bill O’Brien’s rookie season as head coach, the team is able to grind enough yards on the ground to make that irrelevant. Maybe not a top five season because of the lack of tackle-breaking talent and elusiveness involved, but I could see a read-option and offensive line-influenced, I dunno, 3% DVOA? Something along those lines. Something near the bottom of the top 10 that runs a lot of clock.

I know the roster isn’t full yet, I know the rookies haven’t been drafted yet. I think there’s some hope inherent to that that I’m pricing in (better receiver, more dynamic back, highly-drafted center). But it’s hard to see an optimistic upside for this offense, as currently constructed, as more than a top-20 unit without Watson. I think that relies heavily on Taylor being up to the task of 16 games started with his 20s athleticism, as well, which I’m not at all about to bank on. It’s a really old unit on paper and if their defensive schedule gets harder that’s also not great news.

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