On Max Scharping, a Texans prospect I actually think is NFL-ready

Again, it was somewhat unsurprising that the Texans would focus on offensive linemen even after getting a tackle in the first round. With their second pick of the second round, the Texans went back to the line in drafting Northern Illinois’ Max Scharping.

Asked to describe the draft class in one word, Brian Gaine told Texan TV’s Drew Dougherty that word is “bigger.” Scharping is definitely bigger. Gaine emphasized Scharping’s body hitting their internal parameters, as well as Scharping’s versatility.

Scharping went to the combine and, like fellow second-round pick Lonnie Johnson, put up a pretty good set of scores given his size. Scharping came in at 327 pounds, but finished average-to-above-average in just about every combine metric he did. Most impressive to me was the 4.69 20-yard shuttle time given how big a part of the tackle skill set that is.

Scharping as a pick hits a few genres I am much more comfortable with than first-round pick Tytus Howard. For one, he’s a four-year starter with an excellent track record. Pro Football Focus’ stat pack has him allowing just five sacks in his NCAA career — that’s in almost 4000 snaps. Their grades are as nice as you’d expect given that, and he tuned down his amount of penalties in his last two seasons, splitting from 8 in the first two to 4 in the second two.

I appreciate how active he is in the run game from the two games I was able to consume. Scharping has the power to set an edge, and there are more videos of him absolutely planting D1 competition than, say, Andre Dillard:

Scharping had a good array of corner blocks and turns to where I don’t think that clip is an unreasonable display of his power. He has a nice anchor when he locks on to his target. Here’s one of him stonewalling one-on-one in the passing game:

Scharping struggled in the games I watched dealing with spin moves and stunts. He’s the kind of lineman that tries to win early in the down by getting his hands on you, and if you can win the hand game against him early, that gives you a good chance. Here’s him getting engulfed by a spin move:

But you look at what he can offer — smart play, terrific anchor, has some hustle to the edge — I think he can be a solid starting right tackle from Day 1. He has the potential to be more than that, and I wouldn’t even necessarily rule him out as a left tackle even though he’d be slow to the edge. It depends on how many reps he’s going to be able to win mentally.

Also, even though I don’t think this specific play is replicable in the pros, I like that he’s got his head on a swivel enough to keep finding people to block:

Scharping is my favorite of Houston’s first three picks and the only one I’m entirely sold on contributing in a positive way in his rookie year. His track record is strong, his athleticism is quite solid for his weight, and he’s got a good mind for the game. The question will ultimately be how far the upside is. Lance Zierlein’s comp was Ricky Wagner, which would be kind of a mid-tier result. He does still have plenty to polish — the hands being too low in his stance is something I noted that concurs with Zierlein’s report — but I don’t think he needs an entire mindset change.

I’d have rather picked him at 26 than Tytus Howard.

Lonnie Johnson’s athleticism is terrific — his cornerback play still needs work

The worst-kept secret in the world was that the Texans were bereft of talent at tackle and cornerback coming into the offseason, then did little to help that in free agency. That essentially forced their hands in the draft, and so when the Texans came to their second-round picks with a tackle already selected, it made a lot of sense that a cornerback was coming off the board.

General manager Brian Gaine described Johnson as an “Outside cornerback with excellent height, weight, speed. Six-foot-one and change, 210 pounds, 4.40 (40-yard dash), played very well in the Senior Bowl and matched up versus some very good competition. Played very well in the Bowl game. Very aggressive in run support. He can play perimeter press coverage, can play man coverage.” Sometimes the PR world is funny because of the way it selectively omits things. The Texans used some Pro Football Focus stats in the article I’m quoting from to boost their other second-round pick, Max Scharping. They did not use any for Johnson.

Johnson’s athleticism is quite good for his size. He had a solid combine, with impressive percentiles among cornerbacks in jumps (90th in vertical, 72nd in horizontal), and pretty much held even across the rest of the board. Considering how big he is compared to most cornerbacks, again, that’s not a bad thing.

But Johnson’s college production wasn’t great — PFF has him allowing three touchdowns last season, with five missed tackles. For his college career, the passer rating against was 109.5. He only played big snaps in two seasons, and had zero career snaps before that. He was, despite Gaine’s words, a little tentative in run support.

One of those touchdowns allowed came against Vanderbilt, and showed that Johnson has some work to do with his strength in fighting for the ball at the catch point:

Another of them came against Texas A&M on the goal line, where I thought Johnson had pretty good coverage on an island but the throw was enough to beat it.

What I think the Texans liked about Johnson — and something I’m beginning to think is the No. 1 thing Houston coaches look for — is his ability to read-and-react on short balls. Check out what he did at the Senior Bowl:

Here’s a similar play that happened in-season, against Florida:

Every time I deep-dive a Texans CB acquisition, there’s at least some evidence of them reading in short zones and coming downhill aggressively to put a lick on someone. That’s a core trait for them, and Johnson fits that.

As for Johnson’s run support, well, I think his run fits are a little over-aggressive sometimes. He was taken advantage of numerous times by Georgia. I think his tackling form is a little finesse-based right now, and he’s got some poor tape. Basically, don’t expect him to replace Kareem Jackson in the run game right away:

I’ve got more video clips on Twitter of Johnson, but I don’t like when writers put out huge video pieces where you’re going back-and-forth from watching to reading. So, I lead with what I thought were big deals and you guys can comb through extra clips at your leisure.

Johnson also had some struggles pressing at the line of scrimmage, both against Georgia and against Penn State in the bowl game. (I do agree with Gaine that he played better in the bowl, though.) I thought he had problems with late movement. One of my least favorite plays, and one that makes me worry about his instant NFL fit, came against the Bulldogs. They motioned someone to bring Johnson across the line of scrimmage pre-snap, and ran one receiver in front of Johnson as a natural pick. Johnson actually curved so far around the receiver that there was about five yards of space. Johnson actually put a big lick on the receiver on this play, but that much free space in the NFL will get you crushed.

It’s hard to say exactly what Johnson will become because, for the most part, every rookie NFL cornerback is going to get whipped early. The ones that don’t are a) exceptions to the rule and b) usually top-20 draft picks. I wasn’t expecting an instant impact either way, but the more I dug into what I could find of Johnson, the more I think he won’t be more than a 500-snap player in 2019. He’s just got a lot of growth to find as a player to live up to what his body is able to do. I probably would have found someone a little bit more pro-ready if it were my board, but you can certainly understand why the Texans were tempted.

All three of Gaine’s top two rounds of choices were at the Senior Bowl, which is interesting to me. Maybe the Texans think seeing these players up close in a professional environment, and how they respond to coaching, is a big factor. Maybe they even think players that can take coaching easily are an inefficiency.

I am not going to tell you I think Johnson is a sure bust just because his college tape is inconsistent-to-poor. I think the Texans have a hypothesis worth disproving, and that the price for a player with this kind of body is about what the price will always be. Let’s hope it comes together. Let’s just also remember that Lance Zierlein’s NFL comp on Johnson was Tharold Simon, who started five games in his second season and never made it back into an NFL rotation after toe injuries wrecked his third season. Simon was regarded as somewhat of a disappointment compared to his raw tools.

Tytus Howard is a solid tackle prospect, but he may not help right away

With their first-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, the Texans watched as two teams maneuvered in front of them. The final one, Philadelphia, took the player the Texans coveted, Washington State left tackle Andre Dillard, with the 22nd overall pick. It was frankly incredible that the Texans got as close to nabbing Dillard as they did, as I think he probably deserved to go about nine picks earlier. I believe Texans fans will, long-term, have a reason to lament that non-move. At the cost of a couple of lower-round picks, the Texans could have secured an opportunity that doesn’t come around very often: a played they needed at a price that was lower than expected. It doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence that GM Brian Gaine no-commented on the trade-up situation.

With the 23rd overall pick, the Texans settled on Alabama State’s Tytus Howard, a small-school prospect who went to the Senior Bowl. I will be up front and tell you that this is a harder pick for someone like me to vet because Alabama State game film isn’t falling out of my ears.

Let’s start with the athletic profile. Howard went to the combine and ran a 5.05 40-yard-dash, which is in the 89th percentile among all NFL tackles at the event. However, his 8.49-second three-cone drill time was disastrous — in the sixth percentile of all NFL tackles. His arm length would not sway you to draft him if that was something you were focused on, and outside of the jump, the rest of his combine results were a little mediocre.

I think the athletic profile undersells his game speed. Howard has a real nice initial kick and set, and he can cover ground in a hurry with wide, sweeping strides. He’s got the body to be an NFL left tackle, though I don’t think he’s in Dillard’s class as an overall athlete and believe his athletic profile might falter against the true freaks of the NFL edge rusher corps.

Howard has shown the power to bury SEC linemen on running plays, and from what I saw has enough hustle to get to the second level on an NFL pull or combo block.

It is, as it is for Julien Davenport, an issue of technique. When Howard’s hands are right, he looks incredible:

When Howard’s hands are not good, he gets walked back pretty easily:

I don’t think that’s something extraordinary to point out — I just compare to Dillard who I thought had superhuman recovery ability. Howard really doesn’t have that. In fact, when Howard gets beat, he has a tendency to grab. What I watched of him against Auburn left me thinking he could have been flagged for holding or false starts another two or three times. Here’s the one he was actually called for:

Again, I’m not reinventing the wheel by pointing out that a HBCU tackle might need some work on his technique to become a good NFL player. Lance Zierlein said Howard reminded him of Duane Brown. I think Brown was a cut above Howard as an athlete, but there is definitely upside to grow into.

With Howard it’s going to be about wrangling all those parts to work together, something that was evident even on the small bits that I was able to watch. Even people who do have more reps than me would tell you that they don’t have much. Howard had just 115 college snaps before his senior season.

If the Duane Brown comp excited you, remember that Duane Brown was not good in his first season. In fact, he split time with Ephraim Salaam and often was overmatched.

***

Don’t necessarily use my skepticism of how the Texans played this draft as a crippling indicator that Howard, himself, is a bad player. I do think Howard is a solid left tackle prospect. But the problem is that the situation the Texans had screamed for them to move up and get the more elite prospect. They’re in a situation where the current linemen are so bad that anybody they picked was destined to see the field early. Dillard is more or less plug-and-play as a pass blocker. I am less sanguine that Howard will be that way. I am open to the idea — mostly because, again, I don’t have a lot of video of him to study. But what I do see leads me to believe he’s not going to come in and be great right away. I think the timeline on Howard being a good NFL player starts in 2020, not 2019.

If Howard is forced into action at left tackle this year, I think Texans fans will lament the situation. I don’t think he’s a finished product. If you want to be super cynical, you can look at the lack of development the Texans have had from their offensive linemen and wonder if this is the kind of player they should be taking a chance on. Nick Martin, Martinas Rankin to this point, Davenport, Xavier Su’a-Filo … it’s not been pretty.

Howard has a chance to be a starting NFL left tackle. My expectations for 2019 are low.

Retrospectus: The 2014 top-of-draft debate

It’s May 2014, the Texans have the No. 1 overall pick, and last year’s starting quarterback, Matt Schaub, was about a month away from being traded. Bill O’Brien was entering his rookie season as a head coach. What should they do?

That was the conceit of what Steph Stradley asked assorted smart football brains in May 2014, in a piece titled “Houston Texans 2014 first draft pick time capsule.” I was also asked to contribute, so I joined along.

There were four basic camps at the time of this draft that we can sum up the positions on like so:

— The Texans have to draft a quarterback — there were about four legitimate answers in this subset between Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel, Blake Bortles, and Derek Carr. The Manziel crowd was much more vocal than the other crowds, which made some sense because he was a divisive prospect and nobody on the outside knew the extent of his off-field issues.
— The Texans have to take the best player available, which in this case is Jadeveon Clowney, a generational pass rushing prospect on pure athleticism.
— The Texans have to take the best player available, but Khalil Mack is better than Jadeveon Clowney because Clowney’s last year in college wasn’t very productive.
— Trade down (which I am going to gloss over because it was impossible for them to trade down for real value without a legitimate No. 1 quarterback prospect enticing a trade up — and you know they were taking that player if he existed in this draft.)

I was of the opinion that the Texans had to come out of the draft with either Bridgewater or Manziel. Here’s my full capsule from the time:

I was stronger on Bridgewater, but I think the relentless Manziel hype got to me a bit at the time — mostly because I recognize that quarterbacks who can make plays outside of the structure of an offense have a real place in today’s NFL. I thought Manziel could hit that and develop in a structured game, but I think we can safely say at this point that he wasted his opportunities to become that kind of player. I was completely out on Bortles because I didn’t think he was consistent enough with his accuracy. I was out on Carr because I thought his play in the pocket when pressured was horrendous.

So the cut-and-dried analysis of the No. 1 pick, in retrospect, looks like this:
— Jadeveon Clowney was a good No. 1 overall pick.
— Khalil Mack has been the better player, though mostly because of Clowney’s health in my opinion. Mack’s just a smidge better.
— Aaron Donald was probably the best actual player in the draft — he went 13th overall to the Rams because he was short and that matters to scouts … because reasons.
— Picking a quarterback No. 1 overall would have been a bad investment in retrospect.

However, go back and read what I wrote at the time — most of that actually did come true. The more nuanced view is that not picking up a quarterback did blow up on Houston.

The Texans quadrupled their win total in 2014, going from two wins to nine wins. They had no way to address quarterback. Quarterbacks went 1-2 in the 2015 NFL Draft and there wasn’t another one picked until the third round — the most successful quarterback in the class after Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota was probably Trevor Siemian. The Texans selected Kevin Johnson at 16th overall, signed Brian Hoyer, and still weren’t a real contender. (Notably, the Chiefs came into NRG and destroyed them.) In 2016, they signed Brock Osweiler to a contract that was so bad they needed to trade a second-round pick to get rid of it. In 2017, they traded up to select Deshaun Watson. It cost this team $26.03 million in paid salary, two first-round picks, and a second-round pick to pass on quarterback in 2014. And, along the way, yes, it wasted the end of Andre Johnson’s prime. It wasted some of DeAndre Hopkins’ prime, some of J.J. Watt’s prime — and that’s just to name off the actual Hall of Fame candidates.

Bridgewater didn’t wind up being a good pick, but that’s because he was felled by a catastrophic non-contact knee injury. In his two years as a starter, he varied between competent and promising, depending on what you wanted to emphasize and how much credit you wanted to give him for the trash offensive line the Vikings put in front of him. Bridgewater only had one season of healthy Stefon Diggs — Diggs’ rookie year. He also threw for nearly 3,000 yards in 12 starts in his rookie season despite his top five receivers (by targets) being a 31-year-old Greg Jennings, second-year Cordarrelle Patterson, Matt Asiata, Jarius Wright, and Charles Johnson.

This was a clear scenario where, given a choice between two outcomes, the answer should have been “yes and yes.” The Texans should have selected Clowney, then traded up for Bridgewater rather than using the 33rd overall pick on a guard.

I’m a big fan of the aesthetic idea of futures that will never happen. (I was a big Chrono Cross fan, loved The Dead Sea, even though the game itself was lacking in some areas.) So that timeline would have been fascinating to live through. It was always weird to me that the Texans would stick their noses up at a good quarterback prospect because of size and arm strength. Remember that Watson didn’t exactly check all those boxes either, and frankly, I think they were obscenely lucky to wind up with Watson in 2017. There are trade-ups for quarterbacks in that range (think Blaine Gabbert) that crippled franchises for years.

It’s interesting to me to look back on this because even as I look at what Houston has done this offseason and haven’t been a huge fan of it, I can’t tell you that they won’t compete in 2019. They have top-end talent in their prime at so many important positions that the building blocks can overcome a lot of bad play if put in the right circumstances. I don’t necessarily believe they will against a tougher schedule, but I can’t discount it either.

And the main reason I can’t discount it? The quarterback is good.

When I come back to my thoughts in 2014, I don’t think they were off. I don’t think they would have been better off in 2019 if they’d taken Bridgewater over Clowney, but they certainly passed on a chance to get a real quarterback prospect. And they paid for it, over and over again.

Why my Texans war room would target Andre Dillard

There are five NFL positions I think have more sway on a down-to-down basis than the others: quarterback, wideout, pass rusher, cornerback, and offensive lineman. Quarterback is obvious — I don’t think I need to waste words convincing anybody of that one.

The other four positions work hand-and-hand with the environment of a passing play — passing plays being the predominant value play in the current NFL. Each of those positions have more responsibility as far as what happens than the others. If a pass rusher creates a pressure, the throw is hurried and more likely to be bad. The easier time a receiver has getting open, the more space and time a quarterback has to get it to him. If a cornerback locks up a receiver in man coverage, the ball will take longer to get out. (If a cornerback is Darrelle Revis or Richard Sherman-esque, it effectively condenses the field.) Finally, if an offensive line is able to win decisively, a quarterback will have more time to diagnose and find the correct play. If an offensive line is incredibly bad, it changes the entire way an offense can play.

The Texans are weak at two of these positions: offensive line and cornerback. I would argue that none of the cornerbacks in this class have the potential to be Jalen Ramsey or the Kansas City version of Marcus Peters. They may do very well in the context of their play, but they won’t be shutting down a side of the field by themselves.

I’ve written numerous times about how untenable the offensive line situation is this offseason. Julien Davenport shouldn’t be relied on to get better. Matt Kalil shouldn’t be relied on at all. Seantrel Henderson has started two games in three years. While there is some reason to believe in the talent in the interior of the line, there is no rational reason to look at those three tackles and believe any of them will be good next year. Davenport could be good, but that’s asking a lot.

So if there were an offensive lineman I grade as an elite pass protector in this class, I think that player is worth paying a premium for. The wreckage of the Duane Brown trade has left the Texans with an extra second-round draft pick, and it may be time to turn that chip in.

Thankfully, there is one, and his name is Andre Dillard.

***

What are the things you look for as far as projecting a college athlete to the NFL level? For me, it’s a combination of the following things: athleticism, talent, ability to stay on the field, intangibles, and college production. Let’s run down the checklist.

Athleticism: At the NFL Combine, Dillard ran in the 89th or better percentile among tackles in every combine agility drill except the vertical jump. Athleticism in an offensive lineman is a key trait for NFL opportunity, especially at tackle. Dillard passed with flying colors.

College production: Dillard lead all offensive linemen in pass reps per Pro Football Focus, and dominated at it per their charting.

Not only were Dillard’s pass blocking grades obscene — they’ve been obscene for three seasons in a row. He’s got three straight seasons of a 90-plus pass blocking grade in PFF’s charting. Jonah Williams has zero. Given Dillard’s experience blocking in the Air Raid, I weight his production even higher because true Air Raid attacks have faltered in the NFL the second a defense discovers a weak lineman. (Think back to the Mike Martz Lions that fell apart with Jon Kitna.) I don’t think PFF’s charting is the end-all-be-all of college football analysis or anything, but it is telling when they find an outlier this wide.

Health: Dillard has played 985 or more college snaps in each of his last three seasons. We can’t really project what will happen on an NFL level injury-wise, because NFL punishment is much different than NCAA punishment. But we can say that there’s nothing concerning about his past history.

Intangibles: This is something we have little access to outside of public media scouting reports and quotes from anonymous scouts. Lance Zierlein noted that Dillard is “intelligent with high character,” in his scouting report. Dillard’s combine interview appeared well-spoken to me and he would fit in well with Houston’s media culture:

I particularly like that he says he’s hard on himself, but that’s just like, my opinion man.

Talent: Now here’s the part where people get to wildly disagree! Most of the conversation from Dillard’s detractors is about his lack of run-blocking acumen. It was something he brought up in his own combine interview, and it’s obviously not a big part of Washington State’s game plan. The Cougars ran draws where Dillard would fake-set and try to take his guy out of the play without really engaging him. They also ran a lot of misdirection and stayed away from one-on-one drive blocking.

I do think there are some elements of how Dillard played in the running game that are great fits for the Texans. The Texans mainly ran zone last year, and I think the athleticism of Dillard is a great fit. In the games I watched of Dillard’s, his pulling was exceptional and often led to Washington State’s best results. (Remember, Lamar Miller’s 97-yard touchdown run last year came because Davenport pulled up the middle.)

Fans of good zone-blocking will also appreciate this against Washington, where Dillard settled a combo block, then went up and got another man:

I think Dillard’s power is somewhat underrated because he makes it look so easy. Maybe they call this play holding, maybe they don’t see it, but look at how easily he turns his defender on this play against Wyoming:

These are plays that I’ve picked because I think they show off both his athletic upside and poke some holes in the idea that he can’t run block. I do think his run block technique could use some work — it gets very two-handed shove heavy at times — but I think the natural power is there.

Then there’s the pass blocking, I picked this one because it shows off a) his motor and b) his ability to deal with a stunt:

One thing that became evident from watching Dillard play a few games is that he’s got an insane ability to recover from poor-looking positions. Even though his technique wasn’t always flawless, he was usually able to take contact to his upper body and re-direct it without even getting walked back. When he was beat to the outside by a step or so, he found a way to cut it off. When Davenport gets beat by a half step, he usually winds up helping the quarterback up.

How much you’re willing to project his run blocking talent based on what we do have — admittedly not much — is the key issue. I think people make a bit much out of the idea that he hasn’t Quenton Nelson-style pancaked anybody. Those are a) videos that people love to watch, b) videos that offensive line disciples love to promote because of their dominant rarity, and c) things that are much less likely to happen at the NFL level. I’m more of a consistency charter — I’m looking for nuances, ebbs, and flows. In a way, the Nelson piledrivers were no different than valuing Josh Allen’s arm because of a few laser touchdown passes. Great! How often are those likely to happen in the NFL? But people pick up on things they don’t see much of in their viewings — they leave a great first impression.

I think there’s plenty of functional strength in Dillard’s game and agility that would be a boon in a zone-blocking scheme. My interpretation of the facts — emphasizing that I do not have anyone’s character profile for him in front of me — is that a little technique clean-up would go a long way and that he’s going to make some early mistakes while he learns what his athleticism can and can’t do at the NFL level. If he learns those lessons, he’s going to be a load for defensive linemen to deal with.

***

I say all this, and I say that I think Dillard could struggle some in his first season. But I believe he will eventually be a top-tier NFL left tackle, and that is what you’re paying for here. The ability for the Texans to fix left tackle with someone who was guaranteed to be solid or good right away was never on the table. Every time they’ve tried to do that in free agency, they’ve been outbid handily. This is about making sure that the wound doesn’t fester.

So, this is the flag I’m planting. I would trade up for Andre Dillard if I had to. I think he’s the only premium left tackle prospect in this draft, and I think the need is so glaring that the Texans should put a premium on addressing it quickly.

I know it’s unusual for teams to trade up for offensive linemen — I think he’s worth it.

Is Julien Davenport a project worth fixing?

When the Texans traded Duane Brown and Duane Brown’s Very Important Unfilled Cap hit to the Seahawks, the hope was that Julien Davenport would be able to fill his shoes at left tackle. In his first full season starting, Davenport was an unmitigated disaster. He lead the NFL in blown blocks per Sports Info Solutions and was the main cog of a bad line that dragged down Deshaun Watson and Houston’s passing game.

But what I want to show you today is why an NFL coaching staff will look at what Davenport did last year and see that as teachable. I don’t agree. But I also don’t have the intimate knowledge of the player that they’d have from seeing him, day in and day out, and talking to him about every play. Remember that a lot of football coaches approach their job with the idea that they can “teach this kid to play” and he’s good. That factors into this as well.

Davenport’s background is imperative to understand in evaluating him, because he’s a small-school player with big tools. The 40-yard-dash at the NFL Combine was a 5.35, but that undersells how quick Davenport moved his feet. The 7.57 three-cone drill time pointed to a player who, at nearly 320 pounds, had the agility to play tackle at the NFL level. He was decent enough on tape — but on tape at Bucknell — where, well, who cares? You better be dominant at Bucknell. I actually didn’t care for his college play on tape because he seemed like he spent an awful lot of time standing around while a play was still happening, but you can judge for yourself:

While Davenport got beat a lot in 2018, it wasn’t because he was physically unable to play. Yes, he got bullied around by the Patriots in Week 1 after he moved to the right side of the line mid-game. But, parked at left tackle, I thought he anchored well most of the time when he got there.

Otherwise, I don’t think he was problematic from a physical standpoint. Yes, there’s a highlight you can find where he dead sprints out of his stance against the Titans because he was not respecting the edge enough. And yes, there are more false starts than you can shake a stick at — I even found a pressure in one of these games where he stayed on the line an extra beat:

But the majority of the problems I see in Davenport come from his punch and his hand technique in general. He gets beat after contact more than anywhere else. Let’s start with a game against the Bills in Week 6, his second game back at left tackle after the Texans removed Martinas Rankin from the starting lineup. He’s matched against Jerry Hughes on this play, because this is now a Jerry Hughes blog for some reason:

I want you to focus on the outside hand. I want to be clear that I am no offensive line expert and the knowledge I have tried to cobble together is on the shoulders of giants. My dad is not an offensive line coach like Lance Zierlein’s. But one thing I’ve heard from watching his old RSP Film Room is that for a tackle, you want the inside hand to be the “guide” hand. You want that to lead first. Davenport’s hurries and sacks allowed are often lowlights of him completely ignoring this advice. He’s often engaging the defender only with his outside hand. Here, against, Hughes, he only gets the outside hand on him.

Hughes rips into his upper chest to get Davenport off-balance. This happened against the Titans as well in Week 2, where Derrick Morgan did the same thing to him. When you are trying to catch someone one-handed for a punch in this retreat position, you open yourself up to whiffing completely at the point of attack. That’s where Davenport got played on more than a few blown blocks.

Here’s another one where leading with that outside hand hurt, in Week 7 against Yannick Ngakoue and the Jaguars:

You can see that Davenport is in fine position to make this block at the point of attack. But because he’s coming with only his outside hand, Ngakoue is able to rip past him at the point of attack. It’s an easy quarterback hit. When you give Davenport an easy, bull-rush target to anchor on, he generally does pretty well with it. Bend the edge and have a good hand game? He was toast.

Even his good results show room for technical improvement. Take this block against Bradley Chubb in Week 9:

You’re seeing Davenport leaning into this block — the back is hunched over. This is where a more technically-sound rusher would use that momentum against him and get past him if he could get out of Davenport’s punch.

When I watch Davenport, I don’t see a player who can’t play at the NFL level physically. I see a player who didn’t understand the subtle nuances you need to play at a high level, and I see a player with poor technique in a few notable areas. I would feel more comfortable with him at right tackle than left tackle long-term, but I don’t think he’s out of the water at left tackle. He won’t have the speed to shut down the best in the game to the outside.

The mental errors, the hand positioning, the technique picking up stunts — hoo boy did the Broncos almost kill Deshaun Watson on those. The Texans have a tackle who doesn’t know how to play tackle yet. Many NFL teams have players like that starting at right tackle on a permanent basis because it’s cheap and sometimes everything clicks for them. Houston watched Derek Newton develop into a good player after years of him getting slaughtered on the outside — same deal. Newton always had the physical gifts.

The uncomfortable point here is that the O’Brien era Texans just haven’t had the same culture of development with linemen. Xavier Su’a-Filo stagnated. Nick Martin is on his way there. Do you trust Davenport to take a step forward with this coaching staff? That’s the question that ties up a lot of questions about the draft with it.

Matt Kalil has better technique at this point, but it’s an open question if he can live up to Davenport’s body. Remember, Kalil has played 18 games in three years, and in 2017 his backpedal looked like a crossover dribble.

Don’t start Matt Kalil in 2019, please

He’s a fine swing tackle, but if Kalil is a starter, the Texans will be in trouble

There is nothing wrong with adding Matt Kalil to a football team. He has a wealth of starting NFL experience, and the Texans don’t have much of that.

Where adding Kalil goes wrong is in the expectations of Matt Kalil. Kalil is not the franchise left tackle the Vikings drafted him to be. Every season after his first season in the NFL has been a tremendous disappointment. You don’t need me to tell you that Kalil isn’t a star left tackle at this point. You can use the fact that he was released and the years of slagging he’s taken on the internet as context clues. The Panthers were mocked off planet football analytics for giving him $31 million guaranteed in 2016. Another of Dave Gettleman’s cringe moves.

The question is if he can be a useful starter. The factual record we have looks like this: Kalil has played one full season in the last three years. He blew a top-20 amount of blocks among left tackles in 2017, his full year, per Sports Info Solutions. He was terrible in 2015 as well. I don’t think there’s any way you can spin putting Kalil at left tackle as a good thing in 2019. Kalil’s at a stage of his career where a good offensive line coach or a change to guard is something to talk about. Perhaps he’s even just someone who is on the bench as a swing tackle. But, on a pure utilitarian standpoint, is he one of the best 96 tackles in the NFL today? Probably! So I won’t dig in on this move too hard.

Minnesota drafted Kalil third overall, and so he can “ride the ride” as far as baseline physical attributes. 306 pounds, ran a 4.99 40-yard dash at the NFL combine. Plenty tall. This is becoming a Houston Texans lineman starter kit. Every lineman they’ve drafted under O’Brien, be it Xavier Su’a-Filo, Nick Martin, or Julian Davenport, is physically gifted. Kalil’s issues are all about technique. When he has good reps, he looks great. When he technically messes up something, he looks bad. I want to dig up something that Brandon Thorn, a writer who focuses on linemen, posted on Kalil a bit ago:

You can see that Kalil’s punch is impressive — we’re talking about rocking back one of the best pass rushers in the NFL in Cam Jordan. But the technique is poor, and Kalil loses later in the down. This happens a lot from the video I’ve watched.

Here’s one from Week 2 of 2017 — The Bills and Jerry Hughes in particular pillaged Kalil in this game. Kalil shuffles back and tries to punch Hughes out of the play:

Hughes has gotten so far past Kalil that he winds up with only Hughes’ back shoulder as part of the punch. At this point, throwing the punch has put Kalil off-base, and Hughes easily bends the corner to finish the sack. Here’s a second sack Hughes got off Kalil:

Kalil tries to speed up his punch and get it out very early in this play, but his arms are way overextended. Hughes spins him, the sack is easy — this sack actually put Cam Newton out of the game. One thing that comes up over and over again in Kalil’s lowlights is losing the initial punch, either by losing the hand game or overextending himself.

The other thing that becomes clear to me about Kalil is that his lateral speed in 2017 was shot. To be fair to Kalil, he has dealt with a ton of injuries in his NFL career. But his get-off gait is very awkward, almost like he’s pushing himself off the turf instead of sliding. It takes him some extra time to regain his footing off of these push-offs. Let me show you a rep he had last year versus a rep in his rookie season:

Notice how smooth the slide of Carolina’s right tackle is compared to its left tackle. Compare Kalil against himself when he was younger and less banged up. I’m not sure if injuries changed this or what — I’m not a doctor and I’m not a head coach — but Kalil’s initial off-the-snap set was ugly in 2017. It forced him into awkward positions. A lot of his allowed pressures and sacks were like Hughes’ second sack — he overcompensated so deep outside that the spin lanes were open.

Given how Houston’s young offensive linemen have developed under Bill O’Brien and Mike Devlin, I wouldn’t bank on a major improvement from Kalil moving over here. The Texans don’t have Dante Scarnecchia.

As I said, I get it. Kalil is not what you want to see starting on opening day. He simply hasn’t put the tape together that would suggest he’s good at this stage in his career. But the signing on its face — veteran backup, has some good attributes — is not a bad thing. The fact that Kalil might be starting in Week 1 is the indictment, not the player himself.

A.J. McCarron should not ever matter to the Texans

Adding A.J. McCarron to your roster is like picking the nicest GoFundMe color scheme you can find. Like health insurance, there’s not a compromise in the backup quarterback world. You either have a good one or you don’t.

Quarterbacks who could actually keep the Texans relevant in the event of a Deshaun Watson injury were off the board early in free agency. Tyrod Taylor has a long history of competent starter play and has the jets to run options and keep a defense off-balance. Teddy Bridgewater re-upped in New Orleans and has a history of overcoming bad offensive lines in Minnesota. Those players cost more money than McCarron, but the Texans aren’t going to use all their cap space anyway at this point.

Another way to get a relevant quarterback is to hit the draft hard and play the Jacoby Brissett game. Use a mid-round pick to try and find a long-term player who could start, targeting someone with some real upside. I happen to think West Virginia’s Will Grier falls into this category, even if your favorite mock draft isn’t putting him in the first round today.

But McCarron is no different than your Cassells or Gabberts or Weedens or Glennons. He’s a tall quarterback who can hit an open first read or a checkdown pass. McCarron got bounced out of a two-year, $10 million contract last offseason. He was bad enough that both the Bills and the Raiders got up-close looks at him and decided they wanted no part of him. So why would a team pay any premium for someone that can be replicated for the veteran minimum?

You’ve heard that McCarron started a playoff game and did not lead the Bengals completely into the abyss when he started games in 2015. These are true facts, but that Bengals team was the pinnacle of the late Marvin Lewis era. Marvin Jones, the third receiver on this team, hit free agency and immediately got $20 million guaranteed. This team had Kevin Zeitler, A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, and Andrew Whitworth in their primes. McCarron was a McCaretaker, with plus matchups all over the field and a dominant offensive line. Andy Dalton finished second in passing DVOA in 2015, and he has never come close to hitting that mark before or since.

Spot the outlier — credit footballoutsiders.com

To put it into a perspective Texans fans may be more familiar with, the 2015 Bengals are Cincinnati’s version of the 2011 Texans. It was the year where everything came together, a team that should have had a shot at a championship. But both teams were prematurely felled by an injury to their starting quarterback. And, unlike the Texans, the Bengals did not get to face the Bengals when they limped into the playoffs.

When McCarron hit free agency, he wasn’t able to con a team into giving him the Mike Glennon or Brock Osweiler Memorial Contract. This is not because he isn’t tall or handsome enough to pretend he’s a starting quarterback, it’s because he has no deep ball. To jog our memory, let’s look back on a third-and-13 pass that McCarron threw in the first quarter of Cincy’s Wild Card game with the Steelers:

McCarron had great protection. Marvin Jones won handily on the post route, a good throw converts the first down. This throw was not a first down, and, in fact, hung up long enough to dry laundry on it.

Well, okay, but that was one game, right? And it’s the playoffs, Pittsburgh studied him more deeply than most teams. How about we look against the Ravens in Week 17 of that season? What if we get Rex Burkhead lined up on a linebacker and created an easy throw?

It’s a consistent problem for McCarron. Even his over the middle throws sail a bit up. Unless he’s completing a curl route or a deep comeback, the deep ball is not accurate enough to help the receiver out.

One area I haven’t even touched on yet is McCarron’s pocket awareness — in his 131 dropbacks with the Bengals in 2015, he took 12 sacks. Andy Dalton took 20 in 406 dropbacks. If you want a more recent example, in the 2018 preseason with the Bills, McCarron took five sacks in his final game alone. Yes, the one where he mopped up in the final week of the preseason to protect Josh Allen and Nathan Peterman. McCarron is more mobile than a Tom Savage, but that mobility manifests in him sacking himself more often than the tools would warrant.

Listen, I’m not going to tell you A.J. McCarron is holding back the Texans from doing something important. I’m not going to slag on the guy for getting good work, he belongs in the NFL as a backup. I’m not even going to slag you if you heard of McCarron and thought that he was considered good! The national championships sway people. The Browns nearly giving away second- and third-round picks for him is a flash point moment in peak Hue Jackson. Add that to the natural dead news zone that is “quarterback developing,” and it’s hard for a casual fan to tell how good McCarron is. What I can tell you to answer that is that he was a fifth-round pick, an undesirable free agent twice over, and has shown no signs of average NFL quarterback play. None of the facts of his NFL career are pointing to hidden potential.

McCarron’s not a good enough quarterback to warrant this kind of investment. If the difference between his $3 million contract and roster filler was the difference between suiting up Rodger Saffold in Battle Red, it was a grave mistake to me.

Boddy-Calhoun! Fells! It’s free-agent scraps time in Houston!

OK, OK, it’s a bit of a mean headline. You try getting someone to click on a Briean Boddy-Calhoun post without resorting to sarcasm.

The Texans have signed two players since I last used my keyboard. Darren Fells, a blocking tight end providing reliable second-string work, signed Monday. On Friday, Houston reeled in Briean Boddy-Calhoun, who has played both corner and safety. Boddy-Calhoun was not tendered as a restricted free agent this offseason. That was a bit of a surprise to some outside observers, given how many snaps Boddy-Calhoun had played for the Browns the last few years.

In short, they’re both good depth signings, but I don’t know that either of them changes the calculus in Houston.

Boddy-Calhoun will push Aaron Colvin in the slot

Boddy-Calhoun went undrafted out of Minnesota after picking off nine passes and deflecting 15 other passes in his final two seasons with the Golden Gophers. The combine was not as kind. Boddy-Calhoun’s 40-yard dash of 4.47 wasn’t dominant for a slight corner and his 7.16 three-cone drill time was awful. It placed him in the seventh percentile of all corners at the combine.

Signed by the Jags as an undrafted free agent, the Browns claimed Boddy-Calhoun at last cuts in 2016. Thrown immediately into the fire in 2016, given seven starts, he did not succeed. He allowed a staggering 9.9 yards per pass that season per Sports Info Solutions. Only five players with more targets than his 49 allowed worse than that.
Boddy-Calhoun’s 2018 season was one of massive usage in some games and zero usage in others. His frame made him a poor underneath zone tackler against running backs — he gave up big plays to both James Conner and Jalen Richard in the first month. He was mostly used in zone and does have good get-off when he recognizes what’s going on underneath.

Where Boddy-Calhoun struggled the last few years was in man coverage when given separation moves. Here’s an example against the Bengals where Tyler Boyd dusts him for separation within the route.


Going back to the three-cone drill time, this is the kind of short-area quickness ball that is difficult for him. A better change-of-direction player would at least get closer to it. I also watched him take an absurdly long route to Daesean Hamilton against the Broncos in Week 15 by going over a moving pick rather than under it.

Here’s Boddy-Calhoun succeeding in man, against the Raiders on fourth down:

It was a bad throw, but the route itself was well-read and defensed. This is where Boddy-Calhoun excels. When the route stays stagnant after he and the defender meet, he usually stays with it pretty well.

Then, here’s Boddy-Calhoun on Mike Evans from safety. The play was downhill, and he read it well:

In short, this is a very Texans signing. Boddy-Calhoun’s got a lot of experience in zone, he plays downhill when he diagnoses something. He does delay a bit on some routes because he would rather not get beat deep. I would say he’s a better safety than a corner, but he’s undersized for either position. He’s a worthy challenger to Colvin in the slot, but not someone who will hold up to a season’s worth of man-coverage targets.

Darren Fells: the pass-blocker the Texans didn’t know they needed

Fells came into the league undrafted, because he was a basketball player. Undrafted by the NBA out of UC-Irvine, Fells went around Europe for many different teams before getting a tryout with the Seahawks. The 6-foot-7, 280-pound frame had a lot to do with how many chances he got, signing on to the Arizona practice squad in 2014 and becoming their No. 2 tight end behind Jermaine Gresham. One year with the Lions was enough for the Browns to give him a three-year, $12 million contract. The Browns released him after one season.

Fells was Cleveland’s No. 2 tight end by snaps last year, beating out the more-acclaimed Seth DeValve.

Houston’s tight ends were abysmal at blocking last season, but I don’t know that I’d say that Fells is an answer on the ground. He doesn’t get much push and he can get clowned around by some mediocre linemen. I saw Brent Urban stack-and-shed him to get a loss on Carlos Hyde in Week 5, and I saw this from Week 4:

That’s Frostee Rucker, who has been in the NFL almost as long as the Texans have existed. Not exactly a murderer’s row. Though at the same time, those were both head-up blocks on defensive ends. That’s not exactly an easy play to make for a tight end, even if Fells does outweigh some of them. There’s truth in the idea that at least Fells was trusted to make that kind of block in the first place.

I’m more sanguine about this being an upgrade on passing downs. Fells showed some good reps in that last year:

That’s a star edge rusher getting locked down by a tight end. This wasn’t the only time I saw Fells lock someone of that caliber up, either.

Fells’ technique is pretty good as a pass blocker, he’s just a stiff mover. You want him starting from an angle or otherwise not having to chase a rusher to the edge. When Fells wins the hand battle, it’s over. He’s clearly quite powerful.

I see this signing as more of an indictment on Ryan Griffin than anyone. He’s the veteran meant to bridge the Texans to Jordan Akins’ readiness. Akins’ blocking in his first season needed a lot of work. But I maintain hope for him as a weapon in 2019, at least assuming he’s not crowded out of the targets picture. The real question becomes: Is this team going to carry four tight ends on gameday? If not, who is the main man out? Not the two 2018 rookies, right?

I think a good team develops their own Fells and never has to bring in one in free agency, but this is a good reaction signing to a position of need. I’d have rather spent the roster spot on someone a little younger, like Jacob Hollister, but we do know that Fells can block. The Texans have at least guaranteed they have someone who can do that next year, assuming health.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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