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The Film Room: Julie’n Davenport (2017 Season Review)

Matt Weston breaks down the Texans’ future at left tackle.

New England Patriots v Houston Texans
Is this the future?
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Yeah, that’s right. I saw them LIVE first.

I was a fan of the band when they came out with their first album. I liked them before their first hit single. Their last album had some good choruses, but it was too mainstream for me.

Last spring, I wrote this ode for you about Juli’en Davenport:

Because of what I read after the draft, I am shocked by how good of a player Davenport already is. I expected a big, tall oaf who doesn’t know how to play the game. Davenport is already technically sound. His hands, feet, movement, and size are all NFL-ready. The only question I have is how difficult it’s going to be to go from blocking small, limited athletes to some of the biggest, strongest creatures on this marble. If Davenport can handle the speed of the pro game, and I think he can, Davenport could compete for the starting right tackle spot on the Texans’ line this season, and he could one day be Duane Brown’s replacement on the left side. Davenport is a legitimate player.

Joking aside, I liked Davenport coming out of college. He was a natural kick slider. His hands and feet moved really well together. He looked 100% like a left tackle. But because of a lack of strength and college run game limitations, I felt he was a crumbling rock that needed more wind, rain, freeze, and time to become a canyon. Sometimes floods arrive and exacerbate things, though. With the issues the Texans had at the tackle position, I thought Davenport could compete for a starting spot in 2017.

Sadly, he struggled in preseason. He got chewed up throughout the summer and wasn’t ready for professional football. The Texans started Kendall Lamm, Chris Clark, Breno Giacomini, and a returning Duane Brown before they gave Davenport another shot. Those were the right decisions. Davenport wasn’t ready yet.

Then time passed. He went from a Week Two sixth tackle, to the bench until Week Nine, when he lasted a half in his first professional start, then back to the bench until getting to play a little bit in Week 15 against Jacksonville, and then after an entire season passed, Davenport got another shot, starting the last two weeks of the season at left tackle. This was the the road he traveled his rookie year.

There were multiple abrasions and permutations for Davenport to start his NFL career. As a sixth offensive lineman, he was there to mug a mean Bengals’ defensive line after a ferocious pride of cats plunged into the quarterback ten times the week before. Most of his blocks were one on one edge blocks; he was okay.

This was one of the good blocks. Davenport is the sixth offensive lineman on the right side of the line. Bill O’Brien loves this formation. Since Stephen Anderson, Ryan Griffin, and C.J. Fiedorowicz aren’t good blockers, too many of the Texans’ runs out of a single tight end set end in derailment. Last year they used this formation 8% of the time, seventh most in the NFL. Kendall Lamm received the majority of these snaps. As you’d expect, they ended in agony. Houston had a DVOA of -51.5% and averaged 2.1 yards per play out of six offensive linemen sets.

O’Brien tossed Lamm out after his all-time lowlight performance against the Jaguars in the season opener and gave Davenport a shot in a beloved formation that has only let O’Brien down. Here the Texans are running an inside zone play and are trying to get as many strong double teams as they can. They have three, and Davenport is out on the edge by himself.

A slide step is taken. This is one short horizontal step, followed by a vertical step. Its purpose is to cover the defender while being giving the lineman the ability to react to what the defender is doing.

The defender looks to fight inside. Now he takes a vertical step.

One of the keys to understanding offensive linemen is their feet. It’s the most important aspect next to functional strength. Davenport has the quick feet and footwork down on the majority of his blocks. It’s rare to see for a player with as much inexperience at blocking absurd athletes. These first two steps are great. Davenport has his head on the end’s inside shoulder to protect the inside run.

The key to the block is his base here. His feet get a little narrow after his second step. His third step with his left foot is wide. This devours the defensive end. Additionally, his head hits the chest, his hands are inside, and his pad level is low. All very good things.

Davenport’s initial punch popped the defender’s head back some. This is a strong block.

From there he drives. He stays on the block nicely and gives the defender a ride when he tries to squeal and run off the block to the running back.

Davenport made a bunch of pretty good one-on-one blocks throughout this close game. This one was the best of the bunch. Most importantly, Davenport did a better job in this situation than Lamm did the year before, and Davenport handled his blocks better than the Texans’ tight ends usually do.

Here’s another example. Davenport is lined up on the left as a sixth offensive lineman. He takes a slide step inside and drives the defensive end off the line of scrimmage:

There were negatives in this game, too. The two things that hurt Davenport most were a lack of strength and his reaction to the snap of the football.

This is another inside zone play. He is again the sixth offensive tackle on the left side of the line of scrimmage. His feet are great. His head placement is a little too far outside, but his hands are inside. It’s a block he has control of. He just didn’t have enough power to knock the defender backwards. Instead, he is extended by one arm, tossed inside with the same arm, and looks on while the end makes the tackle. A stronger man would have buried the defensive end.

At times during the season, Davenport was nervous. He missed blocks, but it never felt like it was a lack of skill. There was a lot of crawling around in his own head. Instead of lining up and listening for the snap count, Davenport’s brain was racking with “Okay, he’s a five technique. My head must reach the inside since I’m the backside tackle on an outside zone play. I am responsible for the cut back and OMG this guy is enormous and I have to make sure my first step is wide and gain ground to cut him off because he has the speed to make a tackle from this position—

Davenport was late off the snap. Playing professional football is daunting.

At the beginning of the season, the biggest component that plagued Davenport in pass protection was his pass set. Consistently, Davenport’s feet were slightly off. His second and third slide step were popping slightly inside and shortening his steps, leading to him hanging onto the outside of rushers. This is something he knows how to do. The quickness of the game just got to him.

This came in Week Nine. It’s the first start of Davenport’s NFL career. He’s playing left tackle against Jabaal Sheard, the most underrated pass rusher in football.

Davenport starts his kick slide. His first kick step is good, just as it should be.

His slide is good too, just as it should be.

When he takes his third step, a problem arises.

Rather than finish his step with full extension, his foot lands slightly shorter than it should. This diminished step seems inconsequential, but it spoils his entire set.

Now when he slides, his feet are close together. His base is too narrow.

When Sheard makes his edge rush, his head is now on Davenport’s outside shoulder. Davenort is turned while facing Sheard instead of hitting him head on. He can’t punch his chest and control the block. Davenport is stuck clawing at Sheard’s shoulders.

Sheard is able to drive Davenport even with Tom Savage. He rips off the block once he plunges to this depth.

Davenport is able to recover enough and pushes Sheard past the quarterback so Savage can throw an incomplete pass. But failures are the end result of little mistakes like this.

Later in the game, Davenport has the same inefficient pass set. This time Sheard erupts around the edge and sacks Savage, who of course fumbles after the collision.

Mistakes like this aren’t surprising. Davenport was still covered in eggshells. Life in the NFL was just beginning. He was thinking instead of playing. It was hindering him from doing the things he can do well.

After this sack, he was demoted to watching football. He would head back to the locker room after the game pristine, his uniform smooth, uncluttered with bits of tire and man-made blades of grass. The future is so cold. Standing and watching, Davenport saw Jeff Allen play a pretty good left tackle considering the hilarious situation.

When Davenport finally received another shot to play, he was actually pretty good! Yes, the games were meaningless. Yes, the Texans were down by 20 points throughout the majority of the Steelers game on Christmas Day. Yes, the battle for third place in the AFC South only matters to scab-picking AFC South weirdos like me. But in these last two games, Davenport showed plenty of good things. He was no longer a frozen child standing in the middle of a fire fight. He was actually playing football.

Davenport’s outside zone blocking ability is the biggest thing that stuck out from these two games. They key to blocking the outside zone is head placement. Feet put the head in the correct position to cut defenders off and overtake blocks so your fellow man can get to the second level. Footwork is Davenport’s strength.

This is beautiful stuff. Davenport is spending his Christmas running an outside zone left play against Pittsburgh. Facing a ‘4i’, with two offensive linemen lined up left to him, he has a strong zone double team with Xavier Su’a-Filo. Because of the slight inside alignment, it’s most likely he’ll crawl to the second level.

Davenport takes his first step. It’s a slight wide step that angles the foot 45 degrees. As it should be.

When he makes this first step, Davenport reads the defender. He sees him play the gap. Because he isn’t fighting wide, Davenport doesn’t make his first step too wide. He correctly shortens it. This way he won’t get too wide on the defensive tackle, allowing him to split the double team.

His second step is a 45 degree angle step that gains vertical ground. This step is perfect. He makes contact once it hits the ground, and he is smothered to the outside shoulder.

His two steps put him in the perfect position. Now all Davenport can do is move his legs and wait for Su’a-Filo to arrive and take over the block.

His eyes are on the second level as he pumps his legs. Su’a-Filo arrives. But Davenport still doesn’t scrape off. There’s no rush. He’s patient. Players with poor feet, or a lack of quickness, will scurry and leave the more important first level to try and get to the second level sooner, a mistake that usually ends in a stuffed run.

Su’a-Filo arrives. He shoves Davenport. With the linebacker flowing over the top, now is the time for Davenport to peel.

He exits and hangs onto the linebacker for the rest of the run.

Tackles have to make a large number of individual blocks when running this play. They are left blocking wide defensive ends that the guard is unable to overtake. They’re frequently stuck turning backside defensive ends on the opposite side of the play. Here Davenport quickly turns the defensive end and walls him off:

Davenport can do more than just block the outside zone with incredible feet that lead to him hitting his landmark. He can also block strong double teams on inside runs.

On this play, Houston is running power to the left. Right guard and professional snowboarder Chad Slade is pulling to the play-side linebacker. The double team between Davenport and Su’a-Filo has to drive the first level. If they don’t, Slade won’t have the room to pull. From there, they need to block the middle linebacker.

Both players take slide steps to come together right now.

Davenport follows his first step with a short vertical one.

On his third one, Davenport is even and hip to hip with Su’a-Filo. They are one man. They can now work together to move the defensive lineman.

They successfully drive him two yards off the line of scrimmage. The other two lineman make their individual blocks. Slade has a place to pull.

Davenport is impressive here. Once Su’a-Filo takes the lineman inside, he doesn’t follow. The block has run its course. His job is done, so he stops and looks for the linebacker.

He pops into him and Alfred Blue has a slight crease.

Once he drives the linebacker, it becomes a hole. Blue has an easy eleven yards now. This second level block is the key to the play.

The Texans have struggled the last two seasons at blocking the second level. Su’a-Filo has never learned how to grab the chest and hold onto his blocks. Jeff Allen is a pusher, not a puncher. Chris Clark falls off second level blocks. Breno Giacomini can’t even get to the second level. Davenport is really good at getting to the second level.

This skill allows Houston to do different things. It will be monumental once Deshaun Watson is back. They can leave the end unblocked, get a strong double team between the guard and center, and be certain the play-side linebacker will get blocked if Watson keeps the ball. Houston can also run dart and counter without any apprehension. These plays, when run successfully, create a dizzying array of play-fakes in a multifaceted offense. Blocking the second level from the tackle position opens the run game and allows for more creative plays to be run.

In the passing game, Davenport is at is best against smaller, quicker rushers. He was able to handle Barkevious Mingo, T.J. Watt, and Bud Dupree. His quickness leads to him meeting pass rushers at the point of attack. From there, he extends his stretchy arms and controls the block or takes the outside rusher around the pocket if they try to loop to wide.

It’s amazing what one correct step can do. Once Davenport fixed his pass set hiccups, he could corral rushers. On this rush, he is all by his lonesome self against Watt.

His kick is wide. Look at that base.

His slide keeps his feet slightly shoulder width apart.

When he makes his crucial second kick step, he kicks wide again. This time he plants it down instead of bringing his foot inward.

Now he actually has a base and is ahead of Watt at the moment.

He screws up a bit by turning and opening up when he doesn’t need to. But at least now he is taking on Watt head up instead of hitting the outside shoulder.

When Davenport makes his punch, he can actually aim at the chest.

He misses a bit, but he’s still able to take Watt wide and bury him when he tries to flatten out his rush.

So much better. With this reclaimed ability to pass set, he could do things like risk aggressively coming after Watt and then quickly change directions and crush an inside spin move.

The biggest problem Davenport had after his second benching was the same problem he had all season. He had issues with strength. When a player isn’t strong enough, he will do things like ram his head into the chest to make up for the lack of pop in his punch, or he’ll lunge at the defender like Davenport does here:

Even with the correction in his pass set, Davenport continued getting beaten by bull-rushes. T.J. Yates owes Su’a-Filo a foot rub for this saving grace.

The good news is that Davenport mashes. When he is overwhelmed by strength, it isn’t because of a lack of physicality. Offensive line coaches love to say, “If he bites as a puppy, he’ll bite as a dog.” Davenport is a puppy, but he’s biting. He finishes his blocks and takes people to the ground.

From a pure football perspective, the Texans were worse after they traded Duane Brown. An offensive line that was mediocre with Brown in 2016 became the worst pass blocking unit in football in 2017. Kendall Lamm, Jeff Allen, Chris Clark, and Davenport all made starts in Brown’s absence. This offseason, with $63 million to spend (at the moment), upgrading the offensive line, along with the secondary, is the most important thing the Texans need to do.

The question Houston must ponder is whether Davenport can start right away. If they bet on him and he does, it will revolutionize this team’s offseason. They would only have to upgrade the other tackle position, and they’d fill a premium position with a cheap rookie contract.

Houston shouldn’t be ready to dive all in on Davenport, though. As promising as he was, there’s a lot of noise here. He was a sixth offensive lineman. He bungee-jumped around in his first professional start. The last two games of the season came in meaningless contests, one of which was an implosion from the start. The best player he blocked decently was Sheard. This is why there’s impedance from going all in on him.

Davenport should still and will get the opportunity to compete to start. Even if is his name isn’t carved in the top spot of the depth chart, it should still be there in an Expo marker. There’s clay here to sculpt. He has the the feet to block the outside zone. He can get hip to hip to make strong double teams. He moves well in space and hangs onto the second level. He has the athleticism to stay in front of quick edge rushers and the long arms to keep them off of him. If he can get strong enough, the struggles against bull rushes and moving larger men off the line of scrimmage should go away.

There’s a lot to like about Davenport, but it’s too soon to fall in love. Hopefully a spring of weight tossing and a summer of playing against a ferocious front seven can turn the temporary into permanent. The potential is here. Davenport could be a starting NFL left tackle and the heir to Duane Brown’s vacant throne as soon as this year.