On the surface, the Texans lost an extremely valuable commodity at tight end when Joel Dreessen joined the Denver Peyton Mannings for three years and $8.5 million. Dreessen has always been the best blocking tight end the Texans have employed during his stint in Houston -- which is meant as a sincere compliment to his skills, not just a damning-with-faint-praise "well, he's better than Owen Daniels at it." Last season, despite being the second tight end in this offense, Dreessen finished 12th in TE receiving DYAR, and second in DVOA.
Steph Stradley recently got down to writing about the possibility of the Texans taking certain positions in the first round, and tight end came up, which was a little surprising to me. My general position on Coby Fleener is that if he's there at 26 and you think he's a Gronkowski-esque weapon, pulling the trigger makes sense. I don't think he's that kind of talent -- I think he winds up being slightly better than Daniels, but I don't think he's going to be a gamechanger. Nevertheless, let's take a look at her reasoning for possibly going with Fleener, while acknowledging that she writes that tight end is "not considered a premium position in the draft."
Texans rely on the tight end position more than most teams in league, and run a ton of two tight end sets. Tight end has become more important to the Texans with their defense improving, and the desire to run the ball in the second half with offensive sets that help disguise run/pass more. Departure of Dreessen who was very important to run game, red zone. Owen Daniels isn't getting any younger, has history of ACL injuries. James Casey's greatest value to team is as a hybrid, versatile athlete who leads special teams, not as a tight end without a tight end body. If Coby Fleener is available at bottom of the first round, his college performance and measurables suggest that he may be able to do dynamic things in the Texans offense. Tight end may be the best player available at bottom of 1st round. NFL is a game of matchups. The Texans offense isn't about #2, #3 receivers, but dynamic pass catching playmakers from a variety of positions. Not a deep TE draft. TE is a position for the Texans offense where a player can make an immediate impact-see Owen Daniels' rookie year. Fleener may be a better TE prospect than the WR prospects available at the bottom of the first. Just because a team can make do with a lower round TE pick, doesn't mean that a team should pass up a special athlete with a history of performance.
Now the Texans absolutely did use tight ends more often than most of the league last season, but I don't think of them as a team that relies on them. I think when the Texans are healthy and running at their peak, they are an I-Formation team that runs with one tight end. Now, last season, that didn't happen. The Texans ran a lot of two-TE sets, and even employed the occasional three-TE set, but they also had to do that to disguise the fact that their No. 2 and No. 3 receivers were rather ineffective. Kevin Walter started to have problems getting separation, Jacoby Jones had problems holding on to the football, and without Andre Johnson for several games, the team had to lean on tight ends because Rick Smith didn't accumulate any quality wide receiver depth.
I do think that being able to win matchups has forced an increased relevance on having players like Dreessen, who can contribute in multiple sets. But when the Texans went so far as to put out 1 RB-2 WR-2 TE bunch shotgun formations, this wasn't just a compliment to Dreessen, it was also a red flag that said "we don't trust our receivers to win one-on-one, especially the one that is 37."
The Texans signed Joel Dreessen as a street free agent. Once they decided he could be a contributor in their system, they got him on a team-friendly three-year, $3.6 million deal. This is the status quo for players like Dreessen. At 29, he became a little too valuable (and old) to keep the role the Texans had in mind for him, and he had to go. The lesson though, is not that the Texans need to look hard to replace his production: it's that his production can be scrounged up without having to spend much on it.
Owen Daniels is the money-maker at tight end. He's the one who wins one-on-one matchups. Dreessen caught 28 passes last year, and 14 of those passes went for 10 or more yards. Guess how many of those passes weren't off play-action fakes? Six. And one of those was a desperate heave from Matt Schaub at the end of the Oakland game. Dreessen brought a lot to the table last year with his versatility -- but he's not someone who dictates matchups, he's a system fit. Maybe the Texans have his replacement on hand in Garrett Graham (or James Casey), and maybe they don't. Either way, I don't think replacing his specific role in the system is hard to do.
That's not to say I'm against the Texans drafting Fleener. If they think he's a matchup nightmare and they can become the AFC South Patriots, then they should look into it. But if we're ordering priorities based on need and value, I don't think there is a very compelling case that the Texans are hurting enough at tight end enough to spend a premium pick on the position. Finding a second wide receiver that can consistently win matchups against his defender is the top priority.
P.S. Garrett Mock