2009 in Review: The Offensive Line

Apologies for only getting to one of these this week.  I had a fun (but thankfully minor) surgery on Tuesday.  Hit the jump if you're familiar with the series because the next couple of lines are review.

I'm going to look at every player who played more than 100 snaps for the Texans from a number of different angles.  I'll give their regular statistics from this year and last year (except here, where there are none).  Similarly, I will bring in Pro Football Focus and Football Outsiders numbers for the last two years and compare them.  A glossary of FO terms can be found here, and Pro Football Focus operates on a strict +/- system.  Finally, I'll give my impressions on each of them as someone who has spent probably 100 hours each year watching the game tapes and filling in charting numbers for FO.  For players with less than 100 snaps, I'll just give a brief summary.  From this, I hope to give a balanced reading of each player's ability and relative value to the team.

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A fun one at the intersection of statistics and logic, much like Andre Johnson's DVOA rating: Adjusted Line Yards think the Texans got very similar play from the offensive line in 2009, and blames the poor running on the backs themselves.  That running back yardage total ranks ahead of just San Diego and Detroit, good enough for 30th place.  Case closed, let's draft a running back!

As showcased in the backs section, every one of FO's statistics hated Steve Slaton last year.  He was dead last in success rate, DVOA, and DYAR for all running backs who met the qualifying line of 100 rushes; FO also thinks he is a convicted felon in the offseason.  Regardless of how true Slaton's failings were from a scouting perspective (I think you can assign blame to both Slaton and the offensive lIne), it's unlikely to repeat itself again.

ALY says the Texans have struggled to run on the left side of the line the last two years.  In 2008, the Texans had Duane Brown and Chester Pitts on the left.  They were considered the strongest run blockers on the team, which I'm sure made for great media guide quotes while the right side blocked better than them.  In 2009, Pitts was out most of the year, so it made a little more sense that they'd fall off.  Left guard was the gaping hole for the Texans last year--my eyes have seen it, FO's statistics saw it, and Pro Football Focus did as well.  The good news?  Gaping holes are much easier to improve upon than solid parts.  

Duane Brown

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One of the fun things about the NFL season is how quickly things we have learned can be proven untrue.  A few weeks into the season, fans were abuzz about Duane Brown's improvement.  He was blossoming before our eyes.  He was up and down after the first three weeks, then Dwight Freeney spent the first Colts game knocking him up.  Then he got knocked out forty times in a row.  That plus politics.

As I noted in the backs piece, Duane Brown did improve.  The problem is that improving from "the worst left tackle at pass protection in the league" to "one of the ten worst left tackles at pass protection in the league" isn't really the kind of leap that keeps Matt Schaub's jersey clean.  Brown has the size, he gets proper leverage, and he's quick enough once he gets his feet moving to get good downfield blocks.  His instincts off the snap are just horrendous though, which helps lead to both the poor pass protection and the high number of penalties.  

Excuse Brown if you'd like by saying that his numbers are skewed by a bad game against Freeney and playing the second Jaguars game hurt, but most NFL players do look better when you remove their two worst games from the season.  We're on 32 games of him at left tackle and he's yet to be anything more than bad in a season.  Even if I grant that he may improve all the way up to mediocre, is that enough?

I continue to be reminded of Chester Pitts: the skills and measurables of a tackle with the instincts of a guard.  While it really depends on what sort of replacement left tackle is available via the draft or free agency, I think that there are scenarios where the Texans would be better served letting Brown try left guard and picking up a new left tackle.  The Texans can still run a good offense with poor left tackle play, but it really decreases their margin for error.

Kasey Studdard

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The other weak link in the line statistically, Studdard was even worse on film.  While PFF thinks his run blocking was the worst part of his game, I'm going to disagree and say he looked much worse in pass protection.  Studdard's contingency plan for blocking a stunt was only slightly more effective then curling up in the fetal position and wishing Vince Young was behind him so there was a chance he could avoid the sack.  On the other hand, at least when he thinks about Vince Young, unlike a certain twelve year-old who will remain nameless, he doesn't need a box of tissues and five minutes with his door closed.

Studdard was adequate blocking on screens, which makes sense given that he probably gave up 50 pounds to every player he was trying to block up front.  Other than that, the only part of his game that was good were his post-sack gestures, which were top-notch.  The optimist can look back and see that his last four games were the best of his season and say that he needed time to adjust.  The pessimist can look back and see that those games were against the Seahawks, Rams, the non-Ferguson Dolphins, and the non-Wilfork/Warren Patriots.  I just don't see enough here to warrant a roster spot past the practice squad.  Studdard seems like a good character guy, but when your calling card in the NFL is screen blocking and you're an offensive lineman, it's not a good sign.  If D. Brown isn't moved here, this is the highest priority area on the entire offense.

Chris Myers

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FO and PFF both seem to think that Myers is doing a credible job run blocking.  Color me unconvinced.  This is probably the one offensive player I disagree with the stats for the most vehemently.  Myers is a horrendous pass blocker.  Everyone around here knows of his exploits against Kris Jenkins, so I don't think I need to do too much convincing on that.  Does his run blocking make up for his pass blocking to the point where he's a top 10 center in football like his PFF performance says he was last year?   I'm gonna go with no.

Myers is technically sound, like most Texans linemen.  He does a decent job on screens and pulls as long as you keep him away from the big boys, but his body and size dictate that he just simply isn't going to win against nose tackles very often.  I charted him for sixteen games and mentioned him poorly in run blocking as much as any of the other Texans linemen.  Not only does he provide no push, but he also is terrible at holding his blocks out front.

I'm comfortable with Myers as a backup center/guard.  He fits the scheme and brings enough to the table to not be a total disaster.  Letting him start again would probably be a mistake, particularly since there is a certain in-house candidate with natural center skills who was forced to play guard last year.  

Random note on the PFF center ratings: They rated 11 centers +10 or better, as compared to 12 tackles and 12 guards.  Given that there are two more tackles and guards starting on each team, that seems like quite a weird split.

Mike Brisiel

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Brisiel, asides from having one of the strangest silent "i"s in the NFL, is known best as a run game mauler.  Unlike Myers and Studdard, he actually has the weight and size to back that up on the field.  While the PFF stats reflect poorly on his run blocking for the bit of last season that he did play, the pass blocking line is a really good sign after his poor 2008.  Combine Brisiel's first couple of seasons and you have a player who has shown flashes of everything but hasn't been able to throw it all together into one really stellar year yet.

Hard to add a whole lot of scouting reflections of someone who didn't really play that much (and played early when he did), but asides from the standard season-ending injury caveat, Brisiel should be a decent enough right guard next year and has the potential for more.  Whether the Texans let him meet that potential is another story.

Eric Winston

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Eric Winston is never going to be a lockdown right tackle, but he's very solid in just about every area of the game and that alone makes him the best offensive lineman the Texans have.  He did have his issues in run blocking last year, like pretty much every Texan lineman, but he made fewer mistakes than most.  Unlike Brown, I think Winston has enough speed to stop people rushing him outside.  What hangs Winston up the most are spins and double moves.  In the run game, he gets decent push and holds his blocks well.  When he fails in run support, it's usually because he just didn't get to the spot quick enough.

Winston is probably never going to be invited to a Pro Bowl, since he's not a quarterback and he doesn't just win games, but the Texans should be set at right tackle for the next few years as long as he stays healthy.  The tools, performance, and skill are all there, and he hasn't missed a start in 3 years.  

Antoine Caldwell

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Caldwell played competently for someone who was out of position and forced to the spot by injuries.  His biggest weakness is that he is terribly slow off the snap, something that would be much easier to deal with as a center.  Unfortunately, Steph brought up yesterday that the Texans think he profiles better at guard (and McClain has been saying it for months now) and they are likely to keep him there.  Which really throws a monkey wrench into my idea that he should just shift over and start Caldwell over Chris Myers.

I see no upside in letting Myers keep the center job unchallenged.  We've seen the stats.  We've also watched the games.  He just doesn't have the physical skill-set to be an every down NFL player against the physical tackle specimens lining up across from him.  Committing to putting Caldwell at guard permanently points to complacency, unless they're planning to use another high pick on a center.  

Either way, Caldwell deserves a big role in the offense next year.  Give him a full year in the system and I think it's not out of the question he finishes 2010 as the best non-Winston offensive lineman on the team.  I'd just much rather see it come at the expense of Myers rather than at one of the guard spots.  

Chris White

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Pee Pants, as he's affectionately known, was probably the best interior lineman the Texans had for the last half of the season.  Damning with faint praise, but he got the most push and was the best of Myers, Caldwell, and Studdard at taking stunts.  Unfortunately, he gave most of it away by being the most jumpy interior lineman in the NFL, and he seems to be very streaky compared to the rest of his linemates.  One of the greater mysteries of the 2009 season, right up there with "Why is Chris Brown on the team?", is how the Texans managed to field four interior linemen over the last eleven games of the season and rotate the two of them that were actually doing their job well.  

Long-term, White has little chance of being more than a backup plan again next season if Caldwell stays at guard, but he's proven to be relatively effective and should be an asset there.  Enough to justify the smallest RFA tender, in my mind.  

(F*** it, I'm) Going Deep

Chester Pitts - It was a good Texans career, but between the microfracture surgery and the acres of guards in his path, I'd be surprised to see Pitts back with the team.  I'd love to give him a small prove-it deal, but I wouldn't have my hopes up about him actually proving it.

Rashad Butler - He played competently in the Rams game when Brown exited, but I don't have enough tape on him to say much more than that.  Particularly given the quality of the competition.  He also got a few snaps in the goal line set and wasn't too impressive run blocking there.  The staff seems pretty sold on him, so I'd be surprised if he wasn't reprising his third tackle role next year.

Tutan Reyes - I believe this is a politically correct way of listing a boulder on your roster.  

Ephraim Salaam - When Brown was hurt, the Texans looked far and wide for a replacement tackle with upside.  Just kidding.  They signed someone old who knew their system, then told him to have fun on the inactive list while he was collecting his game checks.  I wonder if he ever actually showed up.

Adam Stenavich - Doing research on this guy yielded scouting report phrases like "struggles with speed rushers" and "built like an offensive guard".  He's listed as an offensive tackle.  MDC might be a better source of knowledge on this one as he's an ex-Wolverine.  I would be surprised to see him make it past the practice squad, personally.

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