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The Eyeball Test: Scouting The Texans’ 2017 Draft Class (Part I)

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Matt Weston does this thing that he does every year, review the Texans’ latest draft class.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Georgia Tech
Watch me tackle really poorly.
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The premise of this article is simple. I watch videos of every player the Texans drafted. I let you know how and why I feel the way I do about them. At first it was the result of me watching highlight videos and developing quick impressions because I don’t watch college football. At the time, I didn’t watch college football because I was a younger idealist who felt you shouldn’t care about schools you didn’t go to. That is a very stupid and bad opinion. It’s even dumber to actually care about.

Since then, I have become better and so has this thing. Last year, it turned into me watching actual games of every player and diving deep into it with the type of award-winning analysis you only get here at Battle Red Blog. This season it evolved again, into it’s final form—me watching a bunch of games and using GIFs to show you the why. This is its peak, unless I decide to write 3,000 words on why K.J. Dillon isn’t someone you should expect to ever receive meaningful playing time, or why Alan Bonner is going to be the key to the Texans’ special teams renaissance.

I’m not ever going to do that. This really is as good as it gets.

Deshaun Watson

I like Deshaun Watson. I wanted either him, Mitch Trubisky, DeShone Kizer, or Pat Mahomes (if Mahomes was the last man on Earth). I still can’t believe Houston actually invested draft capital in the quarterback position. I thought for sure we were going to spend the rest of the year watching Tom Savage and Brandon Weeden commit unholy quarterback atrocities. I’m ecstatic the Texans ended up with one of those three quarterbacks.

Now, let me wrap my heart in chains and shove it deep down into my bowels. I don’t understand why Houston traded up for Watson. Aside from leadership and intangibles, I don’t know how Watson is worth a first round pick more than Kizer is. Houston would have been better off keeping that 2018 first round pick and hoping Watson fell to them, or taking Kizer, who is every bit as good of a prospect. Based on Houston’s peripheral stats in 2016, the difficulty of the upcoming schedule, the improvement of the division, their performance last year, the loss of A.J. Bouye, and the unknown regarding J.J. Watt’s return, that 2018 first-rounder could end up being a top fifteen pick. I don’t want to hear that Houston traded up and got their guy. Bill O’Brien and Rick Smith have found exactly zero good quarterbacks during their ride together.

I like Watson. I just don’t agree with the decision to surrender assets to get him. If you want read more about why I like Watson, read this.

Zach Cunningham

On the defensive side of the ball, “tweeners” have enamored the NFL. Safeties that can play linebacker. Linebackers that can play safety. Defensive linemen that can play outside linebacker. Linebackers that can play defensive end. This has allowed defenses to be malleable and less reactive. They can keep the same personnel on the field no matter the formation. Their players can maximize their strengths against players specialized so far in the other direction.

Cunningham is this type of player. He’s a linebacker who can play safety. Houston has needed someone like him for awhile now. No longer will Brian Cushing or Benardrick McKinney be stuck in nickel or dime, only to get torched by running backs out of the backfield. When Houston loses to New England again this year, it won’t be because Dion Lewis and James White are catching passes and zipping around McKinney. No longer will the Texans have to play Eddie Pleasant as a nickel linebacker and get scrounged up on inside shotgun runs. Cunningham fills an immediate need and covers issues this defense has faced for a few years now.

The hook Cunningham sticks into your gum is his speed and ability to chase down and tackle. He’s at his best when he’s unblocked and running after others. He has safety speed and the ability to outrun running backs. Against Georgia Tech, the opposing offense is running a toss play to the right. Cunningham is supposed to be blocked by a pulling offensive lineman. When the lineman dives to make his cut, Cunningham leaps over him, continues moving at top speed, and spins the back down for the tackle.

In the box, this is how he stops offenses. He doesn’t stand up blocks or really use any moves to disengage. He plays far off the line of scrimmage, accelerates, and simply runs past blocks to make plays.

By playing in the box, Cunningham maximizes his strength—his speed, because he’s using it against staggering and slow-moving guards and centers. His best quality is up against the offense’s worst. Vanderbilt took advantage of this in a variety of ways. They played him at every linebacker position. They loaded up on the defensive linemen playing directly in front of him.

My favorite was this. Here he’s lined up behind a middle linebacker and is playing in between linebacker and safety depth. This allows him to read the play, gives him space to get to full speed, run past blockers, and sprint into tackles.

On this play, he runs right past the tackle like he’s slalom skiing, leaving the tackle beating the grass with his fist, while the back is down around the line of scrimmage.

The majority of time, this is what happens. It’s Cunningham playing in different linebacker positions, running past blocks, and making tackles.

On the off chance that Cunningham is actually blocked, he has only one move to get away from it. He’ll hold his ground and use a swim to get over the top of the block to get away. It works well. He’s pretty good at it. It’s how he survives when he does get blocked.

The problem here is Cunningham’s tackling, and it’s an enormous concern. It’s not something you can gloss over or just expect for him to get better at. Cunningham doesn’t wrap up. He’s a grabber, yanker, and puller. He’s one of the worst tacklers I have ever seen.

The other problem is Cunningham doesn’t consistently hit ball carriers head on. He aims outside with his eyes closed. This leads to a lot of misses and weak contact.

Here he comes off the block. Instead of coming into the back’s body, he leaps and makes contact early. His head is on the outside. His arms slide off the back’s torso. The back enters the open field and picks up ten extra yards.

Cunningham’s tackling issues are at the college level against lesser competition. His inability to tackle is going to be compounded when he tries to bring down backs like DeMarco Murray and Leonard Fournette. Cunningham has to learn how to hit ball carriers head on and wrap up, putting the barrel on the ball and creating collisions instead of soft tosses. All of this yanking, pulling, and diving is going to be a mess when he plays in the NFL.

Still, Cunningham is a good player, and this was a great pick. Houston needs speed at the inside linebacker position. He’s a perfect fit in that regard. Houston ranked 28th in DVOA at covering running backs and they needed someone with Cunningham’s skill set. By adding Cunningham, Houston now has speed at the second level of the interior in base defenses and strength in nickel formations. It’s going to be so much fun to watch Cunningham stunt, blitz, and run around an open field with J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus, Jadeveon Clowney, Benardrick McKinney, and others soaking up blocks for him. Tackling is an issue. It’s a legitimate concern, and not some forgotten callus hiding under the couch. Cunningham has to get better at it. If he does, he will be an integral part of the Texans’ defense and future iterations of it.

D’Onta Foreman

Like Cunningham, Foreman is a talented player who immediately fits a need. Houston has needed a viable backup running back since Ben Tate in 2013. Because Alfred Blue isn’t good and Bill O’Brien’s blood oath to run the ball forty times a game, Lamar Miller carried the ball 268 times in 14 games last season. This was 52 more than the most Miller had in a full season. This makes a man who is great in space, running wide and outside on outside zone carries, became a slightly better version of Alfred Blue—a beige, inefficient, three yard up the middle plodder who saw his talents squandered in an offense that didn’t match his skill set.

That was last year. This year, that should change—hopefully. Bill O’Brien has already admitted his faults for forcing Miller to incessantly be battered in the box. Now it already looks like Houston has a capable running back who can seize ten to fifteen carries a week, allow Miller to breathe longer on the sideline, and not be stuck following listless Jeff Allen pulls on the path to nowhere.

Foreman is not elusive. He doesn’t make people miss. What he does is use patience to set up blocks, vision to find holes to absorb every yard his offensive line gives him, and then get a bit more thanks to an enormous rumbling body that always carries him forward. Houston can employ Foremen on simple lead plays and inside runs instead of wasting Miller’s energy, grace, and beauty on inside pile ups. Using Foreman to spell Miller in these instances will soak up more yards in the process.

This is a basic lead play on second and eight. Once Foreman takes in the hand-off, he looks inside to outside and back inside. On the outside is an unblocked linebacker. Any bounce out that would become a foot race isn’t an option here. So Foreman plows ahead. He waits for his fullback. Once contact is made, Foreman bursts forward. His pad level is low the entire time, creating strength and leverage, and leads to the two extra yards he gets when he falls forward to the Earth.

This is how Foreman helps Houston on a basic level immediately. He’ll keep Miller fresh, and he’ll be better at running plays that don’t align with Miller’s skills. Now a lot of bodies out there can run four yards and fall forward for two more. You don’t use a third round pick on that. Why the Texans’ used a third round pick on Foreman is because he’s a complex and complete runner with the ability to do much more than dive forward through time.

Below, the University of Texas is running an inside zone play. Instantly, an interior defensive lineman breaks through the line. Foremen reads the line right to left with an unblocked defender on the left edge. He sees this and slightly cuts to the left. After a bit of a gallop, he lowers his legs and bursts ahead. His speed leads to contact with the unblocked linemen into his side rather than head on. With a monster around him, he cuts right and leaps over a diving safety for the first down.

This combination of footwork, vision, and burst allows Foreman to manufacture yards without having to break tackles. Here the offense is running a power variation where the guard pulls around the tackle to the outside. Like the previous play, there’s seepage right away. Foreman, trying to follow the guard, is forced to come to a complete stop. He nibbles with his feet. Then he cuts to the left and feels only a draft. From there he shoots forward past two tacklers and carries the safety head on for more.

Foreman is more than a brutish power back. He’s a smart and disciplined runner who is as patient as a wildlife photographer while he waits for his blockers. When he gets this carry, he has two linemen running right and there’s muck in front of him. He hugs the ball with both arms and hits the breaks. He waits for the left tackle to finish his down block carrying the defender inside, and he waits for his puller to kick out the linebacker. Once this happens, Foreman comes flat off the first puller’s back and accelerates, running as fast as he can until he runs too fast and topples over.

When Foremen gets past the second level and has to make defenders miss, he has trouble. That body isn’t meant to wiggle around others. He moves well, but he’s not going to make someone miss who’s sitting in the hole unblocked. His stutters and stops won’t work on free roaming linebackers.

What Foreman does well though is go through people. After accelerating to peak speed, he’ll punish and go through defenders to grab every blade of grass available. You’ll pray for defenders who are forced to tackle him one-on-one as he gallops into lower shouldered wallops.

One of the reasons why Foreman’s running style works so well around the line of scrimmage is his pad level. He’s always running low to the ground, filled with leverage and power. He flips on a magnetic field turning tackles into bounce-offs. He’s low through the first level before raising up to hit top speed and break through the second and third levels.

Foreman is going to play a lot on first and second down. He’s going to run through fields of shrunken heads and chewed up limbs sticking through the fence by running low, setting up blocks, cutting back, and raising up to accelerate until he falls forward for extra yards. What he’s not going to do is be a primary back that’s going to play on third down. He doesn’t have the skill set in the passing game. He’s not going to get open. He doesn’t understand pass protection and isn’t very good at sticking blockers head on when he does make the correct read.

Foreman is here on early downs to take carries out of Miller’s mouth and to wear down defenses with a physical style that is so much more than that. Foreman fills a need. He is a perfect combination of talent and fit for the Texans.

Part II of the 2017 Eyeball Test will publish at 2 p.m. today.