Week 1 Preview: Texans @ Saints

The Texans wander into Week 1 in a highly combustible spot against the Saints. The team is adding a couple of new faces in Kenny Stills and Laremy Tunsil that project to see playing time right away. This is one of their nightmare scenario games: Bill O’Brien has historically not done well in prime time or in a big spot, they’re on the road, and they’re playing one of the best passing offenses in the NFL.

Historically speaking, the Texans have only one real win under O’Brien in such a scenario, but it was against the Saints! It took J.J. Watt having the game of his life. But J.J. Watt is still on the roster! The frogurt contains potassium benzoate.

When the Texans Have the Ball

2018 DVOA courtesy Football Outsiders

Cameron Jordan is New Orleans’ best pass rusher. Laremy Tunsil is Houston’s best pass protector. It’s very tempting to say that this is a matchup that will decide the game, except that a lot of Jordan’s snaps actually come with him over right tackle. The Texans did not trade for a right tackle, so they’ll be hoping that Seantrel Henderson can hold up and that Jordan’s new Johnny Depp look will create enough extra drag to slow Jordan down.

The mustache alone weighs 20 stone

New Orleans had the third-best rushing defense in the NFL last season by DVOA. Bill O’Brien likes to run the ball a lot, and the interior of his offensive line is, to be charitable, untested. The preseason snaps were unkind for basically every player who has a chance to start this game in the interior offensive line except for Zach Fulton, who is coming off turf toe and may not play. Even with Sheldon Rankins coming off an Achilles tear and being ruled out, I don’t think the Texans have much of a chance to run and control the clock in this game at any point. The Saints allowed 3.79 yards per carry against zone runs last season, and Demario Davis has become an expert at shooting gaps. The Saints do have some turnover on the line with Malcom Brown taking over at nose tackle and David Onyemata serving a one-game suspension. They also have a fully healthy Marcus Davenport, which could be exploitable in the run game.

Marshon Lattimore is one of the few NFL cornerbacks that gets used in shadow coverage. I would expect him on DeAndre Hopkins in this game. Lattimore had a bit of a down 2018, but is still talented enough to hold Hopkins to a draw. By that I mean I can envision a scenario where Hopkins only goes for like eight catches for 85 yards.

If the Texans come out with what is their norm under O’Brien of late — inside zone, little play-action because they’re scared of their offensive line — I think the key player in this game will be Darren Fells. Fells has earned a large percentage of snaps by virtue of being the one guy who can consistently block. He’s likely going to be chipping Jordan all game, if not outright helping on him.

I don’t see a reason to be worried about Deshaun Watson throwing the football. The Saints did noticeably improve as a pass defense after trading for Eli Apple last year, but half-season splits don’t scare me much in today’s NFL. Apple will hold and create a few first downs for the Texans via penalty — he got flagged for seven DPIs and three holds in just his 10 games in New Orleans. I would expect Keke Coutee to not play, and I would expect at least a couple of successful downfield throws for Watson. Perhaps more if the line plays well enough for him to get that far on his reads.

While this game has shootout vibes all over it, I think ultimately you have to be extremely concerned with the interior offensive line holding up their part of the bargain in making sure Watson isn’t running for his life. If Rankins was playing, he would shred this interior. As it is, the Saints are probably still going to get some pressure there.

When the Saints have the ball

2018 DVOA courtesy Football Outsiders

This is the worst time to face Drew Brees. Brees has chilled down in December of each of the last few seasons — likely because he’s older and his arm doesn’t have the same pitch count it used to — and Brees also has a noticeable effectiveness split between home and road. This is at home in Game 1 of the season.

Michael Thomas, Jared Cook, and Alvin Kamara are a nightmare for how Romeo Crennel prefers to play defense. The strength of New Orleans’ passing offense is up the middle, where the Texans are generally very zone-heavy. Thomas ran most of his routes out of the slot last season, which is going to put heavy pressure on a suddenly-in-good-graces Aaron Colvin. Brees will carve out most of the zones the Texans want to play without issues. Crennel is going to have to get creative with his pressures to get Brees off the field. There’s no more Jadeveon Clowney to move around, but you could see a lot of defensive back blitzes. That’s one of the few ways the Texans were able to get to Andrew Luck on certain downs last year:

The other man on the spot for the Texans will be Whitney Mercilus, vacating a role that he didn’t really fit to play as a true edge player again. J.J. Watt will see more double teams with Clowney gone. Mercilus on the edge will mostly be up against All-Pro Terron Armstead. It’s a matchup where he has to flash a bit or the Texans won’t get a lot of headway against Brees without manufactured plays.

I’m also sure that Sean Payton will be thrilled with whatever tape he runs that winds up with Zach Cunningham on Kamara, which is a huge mismatch in favor of the Saints and something that they can use to get six-plus yards basically on demand. Justin Reid is likely to play and his role is going to be extremely interesting here. We don’t have much of an idea of how Crennel will use him yet. Perhaps he’s going to be blitzing in place of Clowney?

As far as the run game, it’s an area of strength for both teams but the Texans had one of the ten best run defense DVOAs of the DVOA era last season while the Saints were merely an above-average unit. The Colts ran on the Texans in the playoffs, so anything can happen, but I don’t think the run is going to be a major factor outside of perhaps getting some stops while New Orleans is trying to kill clock.

Mark Ingram was replaced by Latavius Murray and Max Unger retired and looks to be being replaced by rookie Erik McCoy. Houston’s best way to get pressure on New Orleans will be to find a way to pick on him.

Special teams

2018 DVOA courtesy Football Outsiders

All four specialists for both teams remain the same from last year even though the Texans have been trying to bring in Trevor Daniel competition on a weekly basis. There doesn’t seem to be much of a difference here outside of the Texans dominating on kickoffs last season and the Saints being essentially average.

The read

This is a tough ask for any team, let alone one coming into the game with almost no cohesion on the offensive line. I don’t think the Texans are going to get completely stomped, but I do think the line is fair and I would be surprised if they won this game.

31-26 Saints is about where I wind up. I think the game feels less close than that final score.

2019 NFL Predictions

The business of predictions is inherently stupid. Yet, everybody loves reacting to them. So, let’s get you riled up:

AFC East
Patriots
Bills
Jets
Dolphins

I will eat my metaphorical hat if ____ makes the playoffs: Miami. I don’t think Buffalo or the Jets making it is particularly likely either, but they can swing a lot of wins out of the bottom of the division and you can’t completely rule out massive year two improvements from either of their starting quarterbacks.

AFC North
Ravens
Browns
Steelers
Bengals

I will eat my metaphorical hat if ____ makes the playoffs: Cincinnati. If Zac Taylor makes that offense with that offensive line look 75% as effective as the one in Los Angeles, he deserves a 10-year extension.

Yes, I’m predicting every good AFC North team to make the playoffs. The hardest projected schedule any of them has is Baltimore at 0.1% DVOA.

AFC South
Texans
Colts
Titans
Jaguars

I will eat my metaphorical hat if ____ makes the playoffs: None. I apologize to the Texans haters that believe I am one of them for this pick, I really do. I think Jacksonville being a dominant defense is probably the most likely way for the Texans to miss the playoffs. I’ll take the Colts in second because I think they’re much more well-coached than any other team in the division. I could see any team winning it. Probably a race to nine wins.

AFC West
Chiefs
Chargers
Broncos
Raiders

I will eat my metaphorical hat if ____ makes the playoffs: Oakland. Jon Gruden’s abstract art project continues.

A note on picking the Chargers to miss the playoffs: I think this division is quite tight. I am not a big fan of Anthony Lynn’s coaching. Derwin James being gone is a huge concern for me. Russell Okung starting on NFI concerns me. That offensive line is Mike Pouncey and four guys who have never played well.

If Melvin Gordon comes back my prediction does not change in the slightest.

NFC East
Eagles
Cowboys
Giants
Washington

I will eat my metaphorical hat if ____ makes the playoffs: New York or Washington. Both teams have massive talent deficits in this division. Both teams have rookie quarterbacks who I think will eventually start and make a lot of mistakes.

NFC North
Vikings
Bears
Packers
Lions

I will eat my metaphorical hat if ____ makes the playoffs: None. They’ve all got good cases to make the playoffs and this projects as a tight division. I would be most surprised if the Lions did it just because I think Matt Patricia’s offensive style is ultra-conservative and his defense isn’t good enough in my opinion to get away with that.

NFC South
Saints
Falcons
Panthers
Bucs

I will eat my metaphorical hat if ____ makes the playoffs: Tampa. I think they can take a big leap on offense, but that defense with Gerald McCoy released was too complicated to solve in one offseason.

NFC West
Seahawks
Rams
49ers
Cardinals

I will eat my metaphorical hat if ____ makes the playoffs: Arizona. It would take an amazing rookie season from Kyler Murray just to drag this team to .500 as currently constructed, and I suspect even the people who believe in Kliff Kingsbury would expect some NFL learning curve for him.

Wild Card Round
Browns over Texans
Chiefs over Steelers
Rams over Vikings
Cowboys over Seahawks

Divisional Round
Patriots over Browns
Ravens over Chiefs
Saints over Cowboys
Eagles over Rams

Championship Games
Patriots over Ravens
Eagles over Saints
Eagles over Patriots

Feel free to laugh about this post at any time, including the moment you first read it, the moment you think about it in Week 5 when one of the playoff teams I’ve projected is 1-4, the moment that the currently unsigned Antonio Brown signs with a bubble team and lifts them, or after the season when you’ve got 20-20 hindsight and I don’t. I am not going to get Mad Online at you. As I said: Predictions are inherently stupid.

5 things I learned from this Texans preseason

Most fans don’t care about the preseason, and I can’t blame them. There’s not a lot of evidence that the results matter. Most of the players that do play will not play meaningful NFL football. If you’re a Texans fan, it meant high exposure to Joe Webb at quarterback, which is something that has arguably never been a good idea for an NFL team. (Get well Joe.)

But if you’re a hardcore junkie, and you know what to watch for, I think there are a lot of small things you can take away from the preseason. I watched the first three games back a couple of times, and I took in the last preseason game with fresh eyes before we entered the Bill O’Brien Captured The News Cycle zone. If you didn’t watch the preseason, here’s what I’ve got for you:

My biggest misevaluation this offseason was in thinking that Martinas Rankin could be this team’s starting guard

Rankin struggled at tackle in 2018, but always seemed like more of a guard to me from an evaluation standpoint. When the Texans plugged him in at guard, it went passably well. I felt like perhaps this was one position the Texans could upgrade on from last year’s line.

There was almost no buzz about Rankin in training camp. While that’s not always a warning sign — nobody focuses on guards really — it was a bit of a red flag that the coaching staff wasn’t talking him up. Rankin never played with the ones, finished every game in the fourth quarter alongside guys like Rick Leonard and Malcolm Pridgeon, and was traded to the Chiefs for Carlos Hyde. Hyde fell behind both Darrell Williams (not even Damien!) and rookie Darwin Thompson in getting bounced from KC in a disappointing camp.

I’m not sure what happened to Rankin this offseason. I have to agree with the coaching staff that he looked shockingly bad in the preseason games I got to watch. I’m hoping for his sake he can put it together again in Kansas City, perhaps with some better coaching.

Buddy Howell should be taken a little more seriously as a running back than he was last year

Howell did not reinvent the wheel as a running back this preseason, but he did look much more decisive than any of his backup competition competitors. Put next to Devin Singletary at Florida Atlantic, Howell never actually got a chance to shine there either.

The Texans seemed very reticent to give Howell actual reps last season, even when injuries struck their running backs and Alfred Blue in particular looked lost. Now they’ve gone and blocked Howell with Hyde, so Howell probably won’t get a real look this year either without more fortune.

But I think Howell’s got enough juice that I’d like to see him get some snaps with the ones. He was held out of the last preseason game — something you don’t normally see from a guy who finished the fourth in another preseason game — and he offers a lot of special teams value. He might be able to have a bigger role than what Bill O’Brien has offered so far.

Tyron Johnson has the most upside of any of the bottom-of-the roster Texans receivers, but he had a ways to go

Nobody on the Texans roster bubble got as much separation and got open as quickly as former Oklahoma State receiver Tyron Johnson. Johnson got past guys deep often with Webb at quarterback, but he just couldn’t capitalize at the catch point. Much as I think Spencer Tillman is homeriffic, he made some very good points in-game about Johnson’s inability to go pluck the ball in the air. Even on the play I snagged here, the ball had to come down to him.

Johnson showed some as a kick returner as well, which is a situation the Texans would probably do well to address next to DeAndre Carter.

Overall, he’s got NFL traits, but I can understand why the Texans let him go. I think he might be a guy worth giving another year to, so he might be worth a practice squad invitation. The bottom of the Texans’ wideout depth chart got decimated with the trade for Kenny Stills. But of the guys I saw, Johnson is the one I’d be most excited about as a practice squadder. The Texans elected to go with Vyncint Smith and Steven Mitchell Jr instead, which makes some sense as they were on the actual roster at some point last year.

The offensive line was lackluster with the possible exception of Roderick Johnson

Houston’s offensive line played one good game, and that game was against the Lions who used a lot of three-man rushes and didn’t threaten the quarterback often. In preseason games 1 and 3, they were slaughtered. Trading for Laremy Tunsil is going to help the floor, but there are inconsistencies and bad reps for every other starter I can see.

— Tytus Howard was horrendous at left tackle when he was played there. Against Green Bay, he looked like he didn’t know half of his assignments. Against the Lions, at guard, he was solid. Then he sustained a finger injury and was shut down for the rest of the preseason.

— Max Scharping was the only Texans lineman who I thought looked solid against the Packers, but he had a ghastly game against Kerry Hyder and the Cowboys.

— Nick Martin only played against the Cowboys. He was bulldozed off the line several times and didn’t look like he understood how to play offensive line. Otherwise, everything was great!

— Roderick Johnson didn’t showcase all that much agility, but his ability to win hand games was a pleasant and unexpected surprise. Now that he won’t be forced to start at left tackle this season, I think that’s a big plus for him because he wasn’t ready for that kind of pressure. You could see him get some snaps at right tackle this year. I think the Texans are going to need to watch Seantrel Henderson fail at that for a little while before they get to him.

I don’t understand why the Texans don’t like Demarea Crockett more

Throughout the preseason, the Texans didn’t seem to think much of Demarea Crockett. He was often not spotlighted quite as often as Karan Higdon was. Crockett, to me, was a natural Alfred Blue replacement. He understands his reads, he’s got tackle-breaking ability, and he’s got some ability to make a guy miss in space. He struggled when asked to pass-protect, yes, but that’s not really his game.

Ultimately the Texans chose to keep Higdon over Crockett for their practice squad, and Crockett bolted to the Oakland squad. I would prefer Crockett to Hyde at this point based solely on the fact that one has upside and the other is Carlos Hyde. I don’t think the Texans are missing out on a generational talent or anything, but I wasn’t especially impressed with Higdon.

Other small notes
— Darren Fells’ blocking, I think, cemented him a big role in the early offense. The coaching staff seemed locked into using the preseason to get Jordan Thomas reps, and it almost backfired on them when it looked like Thomas got hurt in the fourth preseason game. This is a conservative head coach and he is going to like the idea of anybody being able to block well in the running game.

— The only player added on to the practice squad from a different team as of Sunday night was quarterback Alex McGough, who had a ghastly preseason with the Jaguars on a pure statistics standpoint, going 11-of-29 for 60 yards, one interception, and one sack. I made a short thread of some of his throws below:

McGough is a specimen at the position, and I think he’ll help the Texans practice well as part of the scout squad against players like Cam Newton this year. But I don’t really understand having to outbid teams for his services or giving him a premium, as Aaron Wilson reported they did. What you can say is that he very neatly fills the Joe Webb role as far as being an athletic marvel for the position. Maybe special teams are next?

— Charles Omenihu got plenty of preseason pressures, but none of them came against NFL-caliber tackles. That’s a step we never got to see him take this offseason, and while instant improvement is not out of the realm of possibility, I have low expectations for him being instant pass rush help this season. I’m at about the same place with practice-squadder Albert Huggins, who never actually had a chance to play at an elevated level this preseason. I know the people at PFF gave him a high grade, but until I see that high grade play out against non-NFL linemen, I can’t give it much of an endorsement for his future. Worth keeping, but don’t get carried away in the number.

— A.J. Hendy, thank you for this incredibly bizarre play:

The reckoning of Bill O’Brien’s power

On late Friday night and early Saturday morning, as teams were making their roster cuts, we learned exactly how Bill O’Brien feels about his job security.

The Texans, in the midst of a losing battle with Jadeveon Clowney, either could not or would not try to undo four weeks of bitterness and in-fighting that was designed to send Clowney to Miami. O’Brien surrendered and gave Clowney away to the Seahawks for Jacob Martin, Barkevious MIngo, and a third-round pick. The Texans were likely to get the pick anyway, as Clowney would have received a large free-agent contract and the Texans could have recouped a third-rounder as a compensation pick at the very least. Seattle reporters were saying that Mingo was likely to be cut. Martin, who had three sacks last year, would be an unlikely success story if he somehow came out of the wilderness.

In surrendering two first-round picks to the Dolphins, O’Brien had to come clean with his failings. Matt Kalil was never a left tackle answer, which anyone with access to five years of statistics and viewings of him could see. Tytus Howard was not an NFL-ready left tackle on Day 1, and the Texans refused to budge up some picks to get Andre Dillard, who went one pick ahead of them. While O’Brien’s role in trading Duane Brown is more unknown, he certainly didn’t raise a stink about Brown getting sent away for a second-round pick that opened up the hole in the first place. The Brown trade is, at this point, the most important turning point in franchise history. The dominant storyline of the 2018 season that the Texans never adequately replaced Brown. Regardless of whether Deshaun Watson causes more sacks empirically (true!), the tackle play was so poor last season that it exacerbated the problem. The cap space that the Texans saved by dealing Brown was not spent until the Laremy Tunsil trade was consummated.

***

You employ a general manager to prevent the Laremy Tunsil trade from happening.

First-round picks don’t get traded very often in the NFL. They almost never get traded for established players. Odell Beckham could only fetch one first-round pick. Keyshawn Johnson fetched two. Khalil Mack fetched two. Ricky Williams. Jay Cutler. Jeff George. Herschel Walker. Fredd Young. Eric Dickerson. Jim Everett. The only player on the list of people who fetched two who we don’t think of as a waste of the picks is Mack, and that’s only because we don’t know the entire story of that trade yet because it’s so young.

Teams that are trading two first-round picks are expecting either a transformational result to their team, a window for winning now that will soon close, or both. I think Tunsil is both a really good left tackle and someone who can’t possibly live up to the billing of this price tag. I don’t think Joe Thomas or Anthony Munoz in their primes could live up to this price tag. The person I feel the most for with this trade as far as how his on-field stock will suffer is Tunsil — he may have more leverage than any tackle has ever had, but he is not an entire offensive line unto himself. He won’t make Nick Martin block better. He can’t make Howard be NFL-ready on Day 1. Left tackle was the biggest part of Houston’s offensive line failures, but it was hardly the only part. He has now become a talking point in the sacks debate — he’ll be memed relentlessly any time Watson takes multiple sacks in the same series — and he doesn’t really deserve that. The expectations that are about to be thrust on him are going to define his career more than his play.

The Texans were able to trade these picks because Bill O’Brien cares about keeping his job and nobody was there to stop him. In that regard, it reminds me a lot of Hue Jackson’s Carson Palmer trade with the Raiders in the early 2010s. The power dynamic was broken and fractured around a recently deceased owner, the head coach seized control, and the head coach made a move that benefits only the head coach. It took several years for the Raiders to even become a functional franchise again. The Texans are in a better place than that, but in dealing all of their upcoming first-round picks, they have locked themselves into their roster as it stands, plus whatever they’re able to come up with in free agency.

They made this win-now move without even trying to keep Jadeveon Clowney. The franchise tag has a dark irony here, because in trading Clowney, the needs of the franchise were put below those of the head coach.

Bill O’Brien needed Jadeveon Clowney to be gone, because winning power struggles is more important than winning football games. When he went all-in on trading for Tunsil, that crystallized harder than anything else. Because if this franchise was committed to winning now, Jadeveon Clowney should have been a big part of that.

***

Let us briefly consider the nature of these moves and how they affect the stock of the 2019 Houston Texans.

With Andrew Luck retired, the Texans entered Friday afternoon with about an even shot at winning the AFC South. Some are backing the Jaguars. I would have personally picked the Titans. I don’t think the Colts are hopeless — I think they’ve got a puncher’s chance as well.

Tunsil is a true star left tackle with Pro Bowl ability. He is a massive upgrade for Watson’s blind side. Per Sports Info Solutions he finished with only 12 blown blocks allowed in 818 snaps, and allowed just two sacks. That puts him just outside of the top 20 tackles in the NFL in terms of blown blocks per snap. He did have a lot of penalties — nine of them, and 21 in the last two seasons. But otherwise, I think you could say he’s clearly one of the ten best left tackles in the league. He could play up to a top-five ranking in time.

Kenny Stills is an intriguing deep threat that the Texans didn’t have last season after Will Fuller went down. DeAndre Hopkins can win deep. Keke Coutee, when healthy, could win deep. Fuller’s health has been in consistent flux. I think the easiest way to frame this acquisition is that it is one that stabilizes the range of outcomes. Nobody knows if Coutee will be healthy except O’Brien, because they don’t talk about injuries. Nobody knows if Fuller can play a full season. Stills can be 70 percent of Fuller. Stills didn’t get a chance to use his deep speed in Adam Gase’s snoreball offense.

In losing Clowney, the Texans have committed to getting no pass-rush up the middle at all. They have committed to needing Whitney Mercilus to win on the edge. (I do think Mercilus can do this, but obviously Mercilus is not Clowney and will not play up to Clowney’s level.)

I think these moves put them a lot more firmly in the driver’s seat of the AFC South. I don’t think they make the Texans Super Bowl-bound, and I don’t think they put the Texans with much more of a chance to repeat 11 wins than they were at before. But the floor has absolutely come up a bit with real protection for Watson and less targets aimed at the lower wideout depth chart that was mostly gashed on cutdown day.

I would still not be surprised if they missed the playoffs. But this is, yes, a win-now move that has the potential to pay off for O’Brien.

***

When this went down I was trying to think about the best way to discuss what happened to the Texans in longform, and I think how I want to go about this is to bring up new Texans spiritual guru Jack Easterby. Easterby has a Twitter. He tweeted this recently, which I’ve been meditating on for a few days:

Easterby’s Twitter is very religious (don’t worry, we won’t talk about that) and very focused on the motivational. He’s got life coach vibes, and my read of the situation from the outside is that he has influenced Bill O’Brien to live his life and accept that mistakes may happen. That it’s okay if mistakes happen. That growth can come from it.

Which is a great philosophy to have as a human, particularly if you live in as consequence-free of a bubble as an NFL head coach is when he removes anyone who would challenge him. Bill O’Brien could get fired tomorrow and immediately get offers to be a college head coach somewhere. He may even have cultivated enough fans in NFL circles to get a head job. At the very least, he could absolutely walk in somewhere as an offensive coordinator. His circumstances would not change very much. If I made a terrible mistake tomorrow and found myself homeless, I have friends to talk to, I could find some temp work somewhere. I would be down, but I could recover with resilience.

Football teams are not people. Football teams are crippled by mistakes. When SMU got the death penalty, they didn’t come back as a major college program. When the Browns were shooting themselves in the foot over and over again, it didn’t matter how many draft picks they had — they couldn’t scout to save their lives. The 49ers and Raiders each spent turns being the laughingstocks of the NFL because of their leaders feeling this need to make, as Easterby says in this Tweet, a huge impact. Part of being a good leader is understanding your weaknesses and your blind spots, and employing people to help you through them.

If, after acquiring Deshaun Watson, the Texans were run solely by a Madden AI General Manager who picked and re-signed their best players, went after only the best free agents, and only drafted players who were high on consensus media draft boards, I think they would be in a better position as an organization than they were today. They would have Brown, Clowney, two first-round picks, would probably have made a real run at a left tackle in the draft or in free agency. Would probably not have let Rodger Saffold get away from them over a small sum. Continued salary cap expansion means that they’re in no real danger of losing Watson as long as he wants to play here.

The impact that O’Brien is making is one crafted out of his desire to put his stamp on this. What happened this Saturday as O’Brien realized that his stamp on this season was a failure was desperation. The Texans are in a much better spot to overcome this than most teams, because they have hit on Watson. Had they decided to try a win-now, aggressive, strategy in the first place, they probably would not have gotten fleeced as badly as they did.

O’Brien is human. O’Brien is learning. O’Brien is definitely making a big impact. It is the organization that is suffering for his mistakes, not him.

Jadeveon Clowney should be more valuable to the Texans than Bill O’Brien

The Texans have tolerated Bill O’Brien’s front office politics. They have enabled him to run the team more or less his way without any interference. Rick Smith is gone. Brian Gaine is gone. Jack Easterby is in. This is the only team in the NFL without a general manager. None of the assistant coaches outside of Mike Vrabel has ever made a vertical move in coach free agency post-Texans, and O’Brien continues to hire lifelong nepotism candidates who have no relevant experience. Rather than reeling in an offensive coordinator that could sharpen his game, O’Brien hired his own tight ends coach. Nobody else in the “circle of power” has any hands-on football experience. O’Brien has convinced the only people who currently matter, Cal and the late Bob McNair, that he is executing a brilliant plan to turn the Texans into the Patriots.

While this has always been deeply stupid, because O’Brien doesn’t appear to have a master plan beyond the sound of his own voice, it hasn’t ever deeply impacted the Texans in a way that makes them lose star players. Duane Brown was traded to the Seahawks in 2017, causing an offensive line black hole that O’Brien has never shown any interest in actually solving, but there are at least credible sources tying the trade to Brown’s rift with the team over racist comments by the elder McNair. It was, again, deeply stupid, but not in a way that easily implicated O’Brien.

But we have reached a point where nobody else can be blamed: Bill O’Brien doesn’t want to give Jadeveon Clowney a long-term contract. The list of players who have recorded 20 sacks and 50 tackles for loss over the last three years runs four deep: Aaron Donald, Chandler Jones, Cameron Jordan, and Clowney. Clowney has been to three straight Pro Bowls. He was the only reason the Texans had any interior rush last season at all, because J.J. Watt was only permitted to play outside.

When you are literally the only football guy in the room, and you have $40 million in cap space and the franchise tag number to work with, there is no excuse for not signing a superstar defender to a long-term contract in the NFL. You either think he’s a superstar or you don’t, and if you don’t, you trade him before it ever gets to this point. That O’Brien thinks Clowney isn’t a star is, I would guess, probably about his lack of availability early in his career as well as him watching Clowney come into the league as an immature 21-year-old.

Let’s take a step back and reassess Bill O’Brien’s head coaching career

The most charitable way to explain O’Brien’s career is to talk about how he commands the respect of his players and that he makes good adjustments. When Tom Savage was found lacking in early 2017 and O’Brien had to commit to Deshaun Watson, he went all-in on Watson’s positives. The offense averaged 33 points per game, led by play-action, read-option, and attacking the middle of the field with Watson. When the team desperately needed a win against the Jaguars in Week 17, he went and involved Watson in a dead running attack and rejuvenated it.

But he never pre-emptively does these things. If his adjustments are b-plus, his default game plan is ruinous. The players that he goes out of his way to sign in free agency have been woeful for the Texans. Brock Osweiler was a boondoggle. Aaron Colvin wasn’t even playing by the end of his first season. Zach Fulton and Senio Kelemete made zero impact on the offensive line. When he did hit on Tyrann Mathieu, the one-year deal made it impossible to retain him without giving him a contract that O’Brien will never hand out to a non-quarterback. You all see how Matt Kalil is working out in real-time.

A game plan well-ground out.

O’Brien’s default game plan is to run the ball and play conservative. When the conservative game script does not shake out for any reason, the Texans lose. They are 4-32 when they allow 22 or more points under O’Brien. They’re 3-15 in one-score games in which they allow 22 or more points. Two of those wins, in both cases, are overtime wins. The clock management and situational playcalling have ranged from bad to hilarious at times. He was running J.J. Watt and Vince Wilfork plays down 19-0 in a playoff game. O’Brien will challenge a spot and fail at it on a routine basis, lacking the basic understanding that those plays are nearly impossible to overturn.

Of course, O’Brien often talks about how he’s got to do some tidbit — or in some cases, the entire job — of coaching better after he gets pantsed by better coaches in playoff games or random regular season blowouts. He never puts in that time to get better. Fans get the same shoddy game management and that same utter shock that anybody would ever understand how to beat the team’s default strategy season after season. That he finds fault with Clowney, someone who actually has improved a lot, is deeply ironic. Projection, apparently, isn’t something that O’Brien only saves for offensive linemen with bodies he likes.

I would submit to you that an optimistic viewing of O’Brien’s tenure throughout the NFL would lead to him being called average. He’s got clear, glaring flaws and, given how the landscape of the NFL has changed so much in the past three years between analytics and fourth-down play calling, I think even an O’Brien booster would have to concede that he’s old-fashioned. This discrepancy is only going to get deeper as more teams hire for fresher ideas while imitating success.

The future of Jadeveon Clowney

We need to start off by saying that the future of an NFL player’s career is extremely complicated because attrition is so high. Clowney can step on a faulty field turf square tomorrow and never be the same player. He definitely has had his share of injuries, and past microfracture surgery is going to turn off a section of his potential market that is risk-hesitant.

At the same time, Clowney’s peers consider him one of the best players in the NFL. He’s been voted among the top 100 players in each of the last three years, and, as noted above, he has a rare knack for blowing up plays in the backfield. Even the arguments that would rely on how J.J. Watt draws double teams blow up a bit when you realize that Clowney spent much of last season at stand-up linebacker because Watt couldn’t be moved inside. He was the more valuable piece for the Texans last year on account of his versatility, in my view.

If Clowney were declared a legitimate free agent today, he’d definitely sign a $100 million contract. He might sign a record-breaking contract, though that depends more on whether a team fully fell in love with his personality and attitude. The last two EDGE players who got big free-agent contracts are Trey Flowers (five years, $90 million, $56 million in guarantees) in 2019 and Olivier Vernon (five years, $85 million, $52.5 million in guarantees) in 2017. Neither player has Clowney’s track record or seasonal ceiling.

Because Clowney came into the league so young, he would have hit free agency in his sixth season at just 26 years old. Considering many of the best pass rushers in the NFL today play well into their 30s, I think he profiles as mostly only an injury risk. I suppose if you want to look on the pessimistic side, players who win with power and speed rather than technique tend to age swiftly. I think Clowney has developed some good technique along the way as well, but that tends to be an eye of the beholder thing.

Mario Williams wound up in pretty much this same situation, hit free agency, scored a six-year, $96 million deal with $25 million in guarantees that he saw 2/3rds of. What’s that Secret of Mana opening scene flying into my head to tell me? Time flows like a river, and history repeats. They even both went to Carolina colleges. Williams peaked at about 14.1% of a team’s cap — if you convert that into 2019 dollars, Clowney would have a cap figure of $26.3 million. That’s more than Demarcus Lawrence, who was not a free agent, will ever have on a single year of his contract.

The Texans finally were able to get over the hump as a defense when they drafted J.J. Watt and installed Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator. People tend to disparage Williams for this, but there were no signs that he wouldn’t have been a standout in that system had he not torn his pectoral. He’d already produced five sacks in five games. He gathered 38 in three years in Buffalo before Rex Ryan got too cute for his own good in 2015. Williams’ issues with being a “winning player” were more about Houston’s reluctance to sign defensive coordinators off a non-Gary Kubiak approved list. Sound familiar?

What does the future look like for both of these two?

It is, unfortunately, impossible for Cal McNair to realize that Bill O’Brien doesn’t understand how to make this team good. What O’Brien has done is isolate McNair from anybody who would dare question O’Brien’s football knowledge. Cal McNair isn’t going to read this post. He’s already invested a four-year contract extension of trust in O’Brien. This is a bleak future to talk about. O’Brien is going to go as far as the talent takes him, and he’s never going to believe in the talent of anyone who doesn’t fit his preferred psychological mold.

If you’re a player for O’Brien and you see him isolating Clowney like this, why would you ever expect to be rewarded? Is that the kind of example you think is a good idea to impress upon your young star quarterback who has yet to be paid?

Let’s pretend there was a person in the front office who had the roles we typically associate with a general manager. Let’s call him, say, a general manager. That person would look at the value that Clowney provides any franchise, then look at the value that O’Brien is providing this franchise. This would not be a hard decision as far as who to keep, if it’s one or the other. NFL teams take on the personalities of their coaches, and the Texans under O’Brien are conservative to an extreme in an NFL landscape that is quickly becoming about calculated aggression. Clowney is one of the most talented edge players in the NFL and, even at a market value contract, is likely to return three solid years of value.

That general manager would probably understand that Clowney has more value to the franchise than O’Brien does. And that’s exactly why there is no general manager.

Will Bill O’Brien’s plan for Duke Johnson be worth the price of admission?

I’ve been an unabashed supporter of the idea of picking up a real receiving threat at running back for some time. Houston had brief flirtations with players like Andre Ellington, but never filled the role, instead having Lamar Miller as a pseudo-three-down back while Alfred Blue played a series here or there.

One of the most obvious of obvious fits here was Duke Johnson. The Texans had cap space to absorb his fairly sizable contract (for a running back), and Johnson was disgruntled with Cleveland and their move to pick up Kareem Hunt.

I’m a huge fan of the player. I’m not as huge of a fan of the price. Let’s talk about what Johnson can offer to the team first.

On a pure X’s and O’s level, Johnson gives the Texans a legitimate threat to catch the ball when they go empty with Deshaun Watson, which is one of Watson’s favorite ways to play:

Johnson has the speed and skill to emulate what Arian Foster did for the Texans in 2014 and 2015, as the only receiver to ever catch more than 2.5 balls a game under O’Brien. Johnson, I would argue, is more explosive with the ball in his hands in space than Foster is. He’s also a more natural receiver of the ball. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from how the Texans deployed Foster.

Foster had a stretch from Weeks 5-7 in 2015 where he averaged over seven receptions per game. It ended only because he tore his Achilles in a nothing play at the end of a rainy day in Miami. (I always thought it was poetic that he hurt himself there and that he played for Miami given his first coming out party was against the Dolphins in 2009.) At the time, Houston’s non-Hopkins receivers were Nate Washington, Cecil Shorts III, and Keith Mumphery. It was a target void waiting to be filled, and Foster was the easy offense.

Foster was able to exploit mismatches against slower linebackers, and it gave the Texans an edge that they couldn’t find outside or in the slot. What I think Texans fans should be excited about is that Watson’s ability to loft the ball is one of his finest skills, and I think he’ll be able to guide Duke Johnson to space fairly easily:

In a best-case world, Johnson is a difference maker for an offense that focuses on how he, DeAndre Hopkins, and Will Fuller are so difficult to completely cover at the same time. He spreads the defense out further, he’s effective running out of shotgun, and he’s got terrific tackle-breaking ability. Per Sports Info Solutions, Johnson broke 20 tackles in just 87 touches last season. Lamar Miller had 27 in more-than-double the touch amount. If the Texans commit to Johnson as more of an every-down back when the game is close and leave the ground-and-pound for running out the clock, they’ve got the makings of a dynamic offense.

But, what is a more realistic approximation of what will happen? And why was that price so high?

Let’s assume that the Texans continue to start Lamar Miller because of seniority and he is still the main back on first- and second-down as long as Houston isn’t in comeback mode. You have cut how impactful Johnson can be.

O’Brien’s offense rarely throws to running backs. It bottomed out at 67 targets last year, and has been as high as 114 in 2015 when Foster briefly ran the show. But the context of those Foster targets is that the team had no other real receiving threats. Only three Texans on the entire roster hit more than 300 receiving yards that year, and the highest non-Hopkins player was Washington at 658. What the Texans are looking at currently is Hopkins, Will Fuller, Keke Coutee (if healthy), and a burgeoning collection of young tight ends. They’ve got a lot of mouths to feed. I find it a lot harder to believe that Johnson is going to be utilized like Foster was simply because the surrounding talent should keep O’Brien from trying to solve a problem.

We also have to take into account the rest of the context of this move:
— The Texans got caught with their pants down when they released D’Onta Foreman. To have no experienced depth on hand is a sign of poor risk management. Even if they thought Foreman was a “hard worker” coming into the camp (whatever that means) and liked his personality there, they should have been concerned in advance about his Achilles recovery and made a backup back a real priority. The “need” that the Texans had for a back was caused by cascade move after cascade move of poor roster management. And I think you all know who is likely to blame for this, because this team currently has no general manager!

— I think Johnson’s a great player, but I don’t think he’s a versatile enough to deliver what O’Brien is going to want from him if they run him in base sets with Watson under center. Johnson is going to come in through most of the bonding of camp and be forced into learning a new playbook, new landmarks with new teammates, and have to deliver on the fly. What happens if he fumbles twice in his first four games? You can’t really bench Johnson, but it would make total sense that he’d be more mistake-prone early on in the season.

— You can find 70-to-80 percent of Duke Johnson’s most impressive skill on the free-agent market for pennies on the dollar. Part of the reason I advocated trading for him is that I thought the Browns would be so fed up that they’d be willing to take a lower-round pick than he was worth. Ty Montgomery was a one-year deal. Darren Sproles was hanging around all offseason. Corey Grant. Jacquizz Rodgers. Theo Riddick was available for free last week. It’s not hard to find an NFL back that can do most of what Johnson does. You use that as leverage.

Instead, the Texans gave up what will likely be a third-round pick for Johnson (it will be a fourth-rounder if he gets hurt). That’s just a mind-boggling pick request and acceptance from Bill O’Brien. No back has gone for more than that on the trade market since Trent Richardson. I’m not a Running Backs Don’t Matter guy, but you have to have your head buried in the sand to not understand that backs are devalued and that you don’t have to pay market value for them.

When expressing this opinion on internet hellscape Twitter, I was immediately assailed by Texans fans that the Texans have compensation picks and aren’t good at mid-round drafting anyway, and also they had a glaring need. Well, here are my rebuttals:

1) That doesn’t devalue the third-round pick for everyone else,
2) If your talent evaluator can’t hit a third-round pick, one of the main building blocks of an NFL roster today, why is he still employed?
3) Might be a good idea to not get mad at your backup running back and release him before you give up all of your trade leverage!

Where I’m at on this trade is that the best-case scenarios of it happen in Houston’s worst-case scenarios. If Johnson gets hurt and they get to keep the third, that’s beneficial. If other players get hurt and O’Brien has to build an offense around Johnson, I can see it being beneficial. It raises the floor of the offense, and it raises the ceiling of the offense, but both of those rely on O’Brien finding the right way to use Johnson.

Without extraordinary revamping that we rarely see from O’Brien, I would be surprised if Johnson was targeted and used enough to provide value requisite to the third-round pick.

But his best plays are going to be fun as hell to watch.

How to lose a GM in 17 months: what to make of the Brian Gaine firing?

I think the best way to sum up Brian Gaine’s tenure as general manager of the Houston Texans is that he had small ambitions and accomplished those well.

Gaine didn’t trade for Deshaun Watson. He didn’t show much urgency at the trading deadline in coming away with only Demaryius Thomas. He signed a single player this offseason to more than a one-year deal: Tashaun Gipson. (Angelo Blackson was re-signed to a three-year deal.) He didn’t trade up to get Andre Dillard. He was content to build through the draft — which he crushed in 2018, it must be said. Gaine was always going to make moves that would only benefit the team or be irrelevant in a year, because he never aimed to do more than that. The Texans took a low-risk plan and got an eleven-win season for it.

I don’t think there’s much more that can be read into Gaine’s tenure because 17 months isn’t much of a timeframe to leave your mark on a franchise. We’ll see how the draft picks pan out, of course. But otherwise this move just leaves me with many questions, which I’ll try to address one-by-one:

Who was responsible for firing Gaine?

That’s a great question. Here are your main suspects:

Bill O’Brien: Has fired numerous coaches that were “his guys,” Gaine was “his guy.” Won a bloody PR war — or I guess as bloody as anything one-sided can be given how little media is given access to the Texans front office — against Rick Smith, despite Smith’s wife having cancer. John McClain noted in his column on the situation that Gaine and O’Brien’s relationship had “eroded.”

He’s the odds-on-favorite in the clubhouse to me because he’s got a long track record of winning culture wars. Being on O’Brien’s staff is, I imagine, like living in The Toadies’ “Possum Kingdom.”

Jack Easterby: The new Texans “executive of team development” seemed to be singled out by the most well-sourced Houston football guy I know, Lance Zierlein:

McClain noted that Easterby has gained “widespread influence throughout the organization.” I know jack crap about Easterby and won’t pretend that I do, having never ever interacted with him. All I can gather from the internet paints him as a religious man — former chaplain for the Chiefs — and someone who fits the mold of a leadership coach.

Perhaps it’s possible that Easterby and Gaine didn’t agree on some things, and that O’Brien was informed of those? Possible.

Cal McNair: Now the way the stories are written point very strongly to this being new owner Cal McNair’s decision. He asserts the power in the Texans PR post about it, and most retellings involve him being the one to actually pull the trigger:

Here’s why I think that’s a bit off-base: McNair has been involved in his father’s businesses for most of his adult life. He’s also got a background as an investor in the pre-Texans days with his father’s companies. It would seem wildly out of character for McNair to do something so impulsive, particularly given Gaine’s five-year contract. This man has been patient for his entire life. He may have signed off on the order because he was convinced to, but I don’t think it’s a step he comes to on his own. And exactly what football sense does he have to make such a leap? No, no, no. None of this adds up.

Janice McNair: Nope, this ain’t it.

I think there’s two real suspects here, and I think Occam’s Razor suggests that maybe Easterby and O’Brien discovered something about Gaine they didn’t like and, using O’Brien’s supreme power in the organization, forced Gaine out.

What does the timing of the move tell us?

There are a couple of ideas I have about things that may have informed the urgency of this move:

  • Charles Robinson of Yahoo! claimed that there has been almost “zero” movement around Jadeveon Clowney’s contract. It’s possible that the Texans didn’t like that — I think it’s more likely that O’Brien doesn’t trust Clowney and didn’t really mind, but I can’t completely dismiss this as a possibility.
  • It’s possible that Easterby and O’Brien determined that Gaine was spending too much time scouting traits and not enough finding productivity. Keep in mind that almost all of Gaine’s high draft picks this year, as well as his big free-agent signings in 2018, were tools-first. Tytus Howard and Max Scharping are big and fast, Kahale Warring is The Tools Guy, and Lonnie Johnson has almost zero to recommend on play alone.

    I would dismiss this because I think that’s also O’Brien’s M.O. — remember that the main targets at quarterback that O’Brien had were Jimmy Garoppolo, Tom Savage, and Ryan Mallet. The big arm at the expense of anything else. I think that also starts with O’Brien.
  • The Texans may have gone through OTAs, looked at their roster, and realized just what their lack of impact this offseason has done. Now, I should note that from what I’ve seen as far as OTA coverage, Howard and Scharping have done fine. But remember that not every OTA is open to the media, and perhaps a lot of the in-OTA scouting the Texans did scared them. It’d scare me to defend the AFC South with this team too. Sometimes you need that crystallizing moment?

    I don’t completely buy that theory either, but it feels stronger to me than the other two.
  • They didn’t trust Gaine’s evaluation of the end-of-roster players, nor did they appreciate his tendency to bring in hurt players. Which I think is kind of interesting because I thought special teams was much improved last year, and I think most of the moves that Gaine made in that vein worked out pretty well! The end of roster wideouts didn’t do great towards the end of the season, but which UDFA rookie looks good at WR2? DeAndre Carter was an inspired waiver wire pickup in the middle of last season.

    But the injured player thing rings a bell to me. Look at Seantrel Henderson and Matt Kalil — the front office invested heavily in guys who have almost zero recent track record of staying healthy. It’s been a complaint of many in the Houston media.

What can be salvaged from a dreadful offseason?

Well, there’s my Jadeveon Clowney contract idea. That’s one way to use the cap space. They could similarly front-load a Will Fuller extension if they believe in his health. DJ Reader could be front-loaded if they want to lock into a run stuffer in 2019.

Unfortunately, there is no rewind button. Of NFL.com’s top 75 free agents, Morris Claiborne, Corey Liuget, Michael Crabtree, and Jay Ajayi are still out there. Could the team make some trades? Sure, but the positions they need the most help at are the ones that are the most unlikely to have anyone become available at. Wanna trade for like, Jason Spriggs? Make some sort of godfather offer for Laremy Tunsil? Start throwing random late-round picks around for depth guys you think have a chance ala Chris Myers way back in the day? Every NFL team needs cornerbacks and no NFL team has three good offensive tackles.

The time to be this aggressive was three months ago, not now. No matter who the next GM is, the only way he’s going to successfully use that cap space is to think so far outside of the box that he’d never be on O’Brien’s radar.

The offseason has already capped Houston’s ceiling.

Who will the Texans hire?

Well, before we get to the part where we discuss the options, let’s talk about the reputation you build when you ice a general manager 17 months into a five-year contract: Nobody good is coming, and you’re going to be used mostly as a negotiation tool by agents. Congrats to Joe Douglas!

The good news (I guess?) is that nobody who wasn’t on Bill O’Brien’s Friendster page was coming anyway. This organization had offensive coordinator open for years and couldn’t bring themselves to fill it from the outside. In interviewing people for the job last time, the organization interviewed two people — Gaine, and Jimmy Raye III, who conveniently satisfied the Rooney rule. Hey, so do Ray Farmer and Martin Mayhew! I’m sure they’ll be getting second interviews, right?

O’Brien will do one of two things: he’ll try to hire either Nick Caserio from New England or Monti Ossenfort from … New England. My guess is that if neither of them are granted permission, you’ll see Chris Olsen continue in the role while O’Brien and Easterby figure out who else O’Brien knows that might make a good general manager. I’m not going to tell you there’s zero chance the Texans hire from outside that pool, but I will be floored if it happens. I’ve seen Scott Pioli mentioned by Jason La Canfora and will start to believe that when someone with sources besides La Canfora says it’s a possibility.

A user’s guide to using Houston’s cap space to make Jadeveon Clowney happy

This offseason has been, if not universally panned, I would say at least mostly disparaged by smart people who happen to like the Houston Texans and are free to talk about it. The Texans are, as of this moment, carrying $41 million in cap space. Free agency as a construct is done. Gerald McCoy is out there as I write this on Thursday afternoon, but probably won’t be when this posts. I still think some of the running backs in free agency would upgrade Houston’s roster. But otherwise you’re looking at trying to rehabilitate the injured/washed — guys like Michael Crabtree and Eric Berry — or just finding a complete unknown.

So the Texans have $41 million in cap space, plus Clowney’s roughly $16 million cap figure. Even if you have hated the offseason they’ve had up to this point, they have a unique opportunity here, it’s something that has precedent in the NFL via both the 49ers and the Jaguars.

via Over The Cap

When re-signing franchise player Jimmy Garoppolo, the 49ers heavily front-loaded the contract. His cap figure was $37 million after the first season on account of a 2018 roster bonus of $28 million guaranteed. His cap figure in 2019 is just $19.3 million. For future years — all essentially option years for the 49ers — he’s around $26-$27 million. That might sound like a lot — remember that Matt Ryan and Ben Roethlisberger have $33 million cap hits in 2020. Aaron Rodgers is at $32.6 million in 2020. Russell Wilson is at $31 million in 2020. Being at “only” $26 million is still quite a discount from the star quarterbacks.

The Jaguars used this strategy successfully with a number of their free agents from their big cap space days. Julius Thomas, to name one player, wound up with a $10.3 million cap hit in the year that he signed, and a $7.3 million cap hit in his second season. If Thomas had actually been good, the long-term contract structure would have helped the team retain him. Instead, it made him a lot easier to get rid of.

via Over The Cap

So what the Texans could do with Clowney, instead of getting wrapped up in his long-term value, is use their available cap space in 2019 to satisfy him without getting locked into a contract that’s onerous long-term. Let’s use DeMarcus Lawrence’s contract as an example, since that seems to be the one every agent is comparing against. Lawrence makes $48 million fully guaranteed on a five-year, $105 million contract — the cap hits start at $11.1 this year, then float into the low $20 million-a-year range starting in 2020.

Let’s frontload that deal. Let’s say we make Clowney’s 2019 cap hit $33 million with a nice signing and roster bonus. Let’s say we aim to make the first three years palatable and fill the last two with unlikely to-be-earned things that could lead to a re-negotiation. That leaves us with something like this:

2019: $33 million
2020: $13 million
2021: $14 million
2022: $22 million
2023: $23 million

Those are cap figures the Texans can work around — the backend of the deal is as good as the middle of Lawrence’s deal, and the front end is beautiful for facilitating contracts like Deshaun Watson’s extension. What else are the Texans going to do with this cap space? Clearly not much. When you wipe out $33 million of the $57 million (cap space plus Clowney’s tag), the Texans still have plenty of available cap space to pursue trades or free agents if they’d like. It’s a win-win that would reward Clowney, help the Texans long-term, and do something with this cap space they’re not using now.

Quick FAQ!

Rivers, do you really think the Texans would consider this?

Haha, of course not. The Texans front office is run like a Madden simulation of a small market front office.

Rivers, do you think Clowney is worth the money?

What is anybody worth, anyway? Only what they’re willing to pay you. I think the better way to ask this question is “Would an NFL team give Clowney more money than this as a true free agent?” and the answer is “obviously.” I don’t see him work every day, and I can’t speak to why Houston might find his various dings more or less likely to reoccur. I do think it’s pretty evident from their actions that they would rather not be committed to him long-term.

Rivers, why not just trade Clowney?

Well, do you like having a good football team? I’m happy to say I think Whitney Mercilus is underutilized by this defense and that he could fill in 70% of what Clowney offers, but that doesn’t mean it’s a for-sure truth. It’s also something a smartly-run defense would be able to do without getting rid of their star edge player who happens to be able to stand up and wreck things as an interior rusher.

Do you remember trading Duane Brown for a second-round pick — more than most players fetch — and watching his cap space sit unutilized while Deshaun Watson took more sacks than any player since Jon Kitna on the Mike Martz Lions? I do. It was Not A Great Outcome. Maybe Lonnie Johnson will make us forget all about it, but I have my doubts. The traditional media and teams, in my view, underrate what above-average NFL play is worth.

Also, you know, the part where they should have traded Clowney like two months ago if they wanted anything back.

Kahale Warring could be special, but he’ll have to fight history to contribute right away

With their final premium pick in the 2019 draft, the Texans spent on another tight end: San Diego State’s Kahale Warring. Warring’s background is intriguing — he barely played football in high school and walked on for the Aztecs. He’s got basketball player attributes that many teams value highly out of the tight end position, and what I saw in watching him with the Aztecs is a player that is a lot more developed than I’d think.

Warring went to the NFL combine and ran a 4.67 40-yard dash, showing well in both jump metrics and both shuttles as well. His only poor time was in the three-cone drill, which does show somewhat when blocking. Warring isn’t great at reacting to quick moves.

As a receiver, Warring is quite polished and should be able to contribute if called upon. I like to focus my study for things that I think I see a lot on Texans tape, which is why it drew my eye that Warring was able to contribute often when the play broke down and he was making it all up:

He had another play like this against Nevada where the quarterback scrambled to the sideline, and Warring was able to dig a ball off the turf. When Deshaun Watson is your quarterback, being able to play outside of the structure of a play is important.

This play actually didn’t count, but get a look at the process that he shows:

I think he shows a lot of well-demonstrated fundamentals as a pass-catcher. He could be a little bit less obvious when he’s blocking downfield, and he could get a little bit better shaking off opponents at the line of scrimmage. SDSU moved him all around the formation, and jamming him was fairly effective.

I do think his blocking is still something in development. He was trusted to make a lot of blocks, including some I think are very common in the Houston offense:

But I felt like technically speaking, as a blocker, he was a little raw. The functional power was there, and he can definitely get his mitts on a linebacker and hold up. But quick NFL linemen are going to be able to shed him without a lot of problems as it stands. Watching these games kind of reassured me that Daniel Fells would have a big role with the Texans this year — don’t get me wrong, Warring has potential, he just might not be ready to go from Day 1.

Where I think he fits in with what the Texans do is that the Aztecs did plenty of combo blocking, and at times Warring would come off and hold a lineman on the backside. No cut blocks that I saw, which I’m guessing is something that the Texans will ask him to learn. He’s somebody that you have to beat with a real move, though. That does factor into the process.

So here’s my devil’s advocate version of why I think this was still a bad pick even though I like the player:

— The Texans literally never throw to their tight ends. Ryan Griffin was the main tight end last year, saw 743 snaps, and drew 43 targets. Jordan Thomas saw 470 snaps and drew 27 targets. Combined, they roughly got 17.3 snaps per target. Even though the target split was fairly even on a seasonal level, most of the time Houston’s No. 2 receiver is the actual target sponge. It just got hidden because of constant Will Fuller and Keke Coutee injuries.

— The only time in the O’Brien era where tight ends were actually a focal point of the offense happened with Brock Osweiler and C.J. Fiedorowicz, and that happened because Osweiler’s first reaction to pressure was to throw over the middle to anybody, no matter how covered they were.

— The Texans already had a receiving tight end they ignored last year despite good limited results: Jordan Akins. Maybe they’re out on him entirely — we can’t read all the way into it from the outside. But it does seem like a waste of resources to just freeze the guy out after one season.

— If the thing was “let’s train a better blocking tight end,” well, you can do that without spending a third-round pick. It’s true. Fells is on the roster, bring in some UDFAs and find one.

That said, look, I get the pick. I think he’s good. I just have my doubts that he can win the uphill battle of Texans offensive history, let alone the battle that most tight ends face to be relevant in their first season.

2019 should be Bill O’Brien’s last chance to get it corrected

The Houston Texans have been granted a major luxury by virtue of their standing in the AFC South throughout Bill O’Brien’s tenure. The teams in the division have often been bad. This has led to a number of easy schedules. The Texans finished with the fourth-easiest schedule in the NFL last year per Football Outsiders’ opponent DVOA numbers, and they finished with the easiest schedule in the NFL in O’Briens inaugural season. Their toughest schedule, in 2017, was 11th-hardest out of 32.

FO’s preseason projections didn’t have a lot of variance with what actually happened — the only meaningful difference in those years was that 2016’s schedule wound up slightly harder than expected. I’m privy to some of the early projections this year, and no matter where the landmark settles, the Texans look poised to have the toughest schedule of the O’Brien era. On a subjective level, I expect things to look even more rude.

I wrote earlier this offseason about the only time the Texans ever successfully corralled a game against a top quarterback under O’Brien — it took a superhuman effort from J.J. Watt, perhaps the best game of his career. This year, the Texans will play Pat Mahomes, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Andrew Luck twice, Drew Brees, Cam Newton, and Matt Ryan. The worst quarterback they’ll play is probably Joe Flacco — maybe Lamar Jackson if he doesn’t improve at all. FO’s projections are sanguine on Houston’s defense, but those projections don’t account for Houston’s enormous defensive splits depending on level of competition. There are no evident Blake Bortles or Zach Mettenbergers to beat up on this year.

So let’s start with that — the conservative ethos of O’Brien is going to be tested. Houston went 2-4 in the 2018 regular season in one-score games where they allowed 22 or more points. One of those wins occurred because Frank Reich refused to settle for a tie in Week 4, and the other came against Sam Darnold. They went 0-4 in those games in 2017, three of which actually came with Watson starting. They went 1-2 in those games in 2016, with another overtime win over the Colts. So over the past three seasons, they’re at 3-10 in close games where they allow more than 22 points, two of which were won in overtime. Want to buffer it out to O’Brien’s early career? Me too. The Texans have played 18 one-score games where they’ve allowed 22 points or more and won three of them.

This is not the only area in which conservative thinking could cost the Texans. An offseason cast in O’Brien’s mold has kept the talent from keeping up with the AFC’s big spenders. The Texans set a dollar threshold they would not pass and it took them out of the running for retaining Tyrann Mathieu (the player they really wanted). More importantly, it cost them a shot at any of the good offensive line free agents. They set a threshold on what they’d give to trade up and it priced them out of picking up a tackle prospect I think could reasonably start on Day 1 in Andre Dillard. While I think the Texans did okay in repairing the holes that free agency and retirement left, I don’t know of a single position you can point to with the confidence that they’ll definitely be better next year — it all is relying on health, jumps in player skill, or projections for non-elite rookies.

O’Brien’s moves have all spelled more than ever that he believes in making Deshaun Watson a pocket passer. Carl Smith was brought in to help Russell Wilson’s play from the pocket more — I don’t believe there’s much left to pare down of Watson’s out of structure game at this point. Watson threw just nine interceptions and had a 69.1% completion rate despite, I would argue, not being an ultra-accurate passer. Watson is not fully controllable in the way that O’Brien would prefer, but O’Brien can still exert a lot of influence as head play caller. These moves have positioned the Texans to play away from Watson’s strengths out of the structure of an offense and with his legs to force a defense to respect him as a runner.

“It’s on me,” is a pretty common O’Brien rallying cry, but never before has it been as true as it will be this year. The top-tier talent the Texans offer can still play with anybody, but this year is going to call for changes in approach away from the normal O’Brien conservative ethos. To his credit, O’Brien has been able to make some terrific in-season changes when pressed. He knew Watson wasn’t ready to run his system in 2017, and the system he created for Watson torched the NFL. He knew that the running game wasn’t playing well down the stretch last year and spent a lot of Week 17 using Watson as a designated runner to great effect.

But this is going to be a year where the ego is going to take a pounding and things aren’t going to come easy. It’s a schedule that calls for quicker adjustments than what O’Brien has done in the past. If they do what they’ve done, the Texans are going to get punched in the mouth. Playoff contention is going to involve winning a lot of close games against good quarterbacks. By the time O’Brien is ready to adjust — at least based on past history — the Texans might be so far behind in a race that it won’t matter.

As I’ve said before, the top-tier talent in Houston is as good as it is anywhere, and that will keep them in games. But I have my doubts that the Texans are going to be coached in a way that unlocks their potential. This team learned nothing from last year. It went out and got more zone cornerbacks and is going to pretend that they can instantly solve problem areas in the draft. It’s too clever by half.

And there will be no running from the blame for O’Brien, just as there wasn’t against the Colts in the playoffs. The quarterback is talented. The defensive pass rush is individually terrific, and the team has discounted cornerback because they want to get by playing zone. They had a chance to fix the offensive line and cornerback and didn’t. They stuck by their player value system and are now carrying roughly $40 million of cap space into the season. The kind of player and price intersection they are looking for is so low-risk that it can only be drafted or developed. No free agent with real options is going to sign with the Texans for what they want to offer — only the ones that have something to prove.

Narratives are an ever-evolving thing in the NFL, and few teams ever truly break out of the stratospheres they’ve been on for years. The more likely result for non-elite teams without great coaching is that they’ll bob up and down as their schedule and injuries dictate. The outside narrative might be different — look at all this talent the Texans have, there’s no way it should be missing the playoffs. Close observers have known O’Brien to be flawed and mostly one-dimensional for some time.

But if the results don’t match the talent, even the notoriously slow-to-act McNair family might have to shuffle the deck. I don’t think seven or eight wins is going to throw O’Brien in the danger window. But anything less than that and, even with three years left on the contract, the seat could get hot.

The more likely scenario is one that Texans fans will dread — a down year, no playoffs, and more excuses.