From the beginning of the 2017 season, the Texans’ offensive line was a disaster. It was a head-on interstate collision with bodies splayed, flayed, flying, landing with a soft poof, and crunching into contortion. Kendall Lamm was Houston’s starting left tackle. Tom Savage was the starting quarterback. The Texans proceeded to give up six sacks with Savage in during the first half of the regular season opener at home against the Jaguars, and four once Deshaun Watson replaced Savage at halftime.
From there, over the course of sixteen games, the Texans used twelve different offensive linemen: Breno Giacomini played 1,102 snaps (100%), Xavier Su’a-Filo played 1,032 (98.2%), Nick Martin played 975 (88.5%), Jeff Allen played 732 (66.4%), Greg Mancz played 565 (51.3%), Chris Clark played 549 (49.8%), Juli’en Davenport played 241 (21.9%), Chad Slade played 167 (15.2%), Kendall Lamm played 160 (14.5%), Kyle Fuller played 90 (8.2%), Duane Brown played 68 (6.2%), and David Quessenberry played 28 (2.5%). The Texans used seven different starting offensive line combinations. These oversized men allowed 54 sacks, an adjusted sack rate of 9.2% (30th), and a pressure rate of 37.9%, which ranked last in football.
The Texans came into the offseason with $63 million to spend. They had two goals: Fix the offensive line and secondary. For both these position groups, the level of putrescent play featured in 2017 couldn’t happen again in 2018. Houston needed to protect their possible phenom quarterback, and they needed to play competent defense in case injuries to their front seven happen again.
The Texans spent money. On the offensive line, Houston signed guard Zach Fulton for four years, $28 million ($13 million guaranteed), guard Senio Kelemene for three years, $12 million ($5 million guaranteed), and tackle Seantrel Henderson for one-year, $4 million ($1 million guaranteed). Chris Clark and Breno Giacomini will never bookend the line of scrimmage in Houston again. Watching Xavier Su’a-Filo refusing to punch and clench the chest is over. Jeff Allen may never return to plod around and play pattycake. Savage’s smooth brain and lumbering body are forever vanquished from the pocket at NRG Stadium. Those days are gone, and the team is better for it.
All of this sounds good. But when these players were first signed, I, and nearly everyone in the footbawl watching world didn’t know if these guys were any good at all. I had no idea who Fulton or Henderson even were. I saw Kelemete fill in well for a leg-snapped Andrus Peat in the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs, but the sideline view is exposition for offensive line play; it doesn’t mean anything at all.
So, in the lamest way to say this it can be possibly said, let’s get to the bottom of it and see what Houston has in their recently signed offensive linemen. First up is Zach Fulton.
Unlike Kelemete and Henderson—spoiler alert—Fulton is a really good offensive lineman. He can do several things really well and only struggles with one aspect of offensive line play. His first two steps are the foundation for his entire game.
Against the Texans last year, Fulton spent the entirety of the game working D.J. Reader as the Chiefs’ starting center. On this play Fulton is blocking down on Reader while Alex Smith executes a run-pass-option.
Fulton controls the snap since he is the snapper. Quickly, he slangs the ball to Smith and takes a slide-step left.
When contact is made from the center position, it’s made immediately. Fulton is hitting the inside shoulder and blocking the inside zone in case Smith hands the ball off. Fulton is inside of Reader. His head is on his inside shoulder. All because of two steps.
Reader comes into Fulton a bit, but Fulton keeps his hands inside and extends. Swallowing Reader, he’s in position to stay on the block if the ball is handed off; if Smith throws it, there’s no chance of Reader having an impact on this play.
This block is inconsequential. Smith keeps it and throws it wide to Travis Kelce for a first down. Fulton doesn’t impact this play. That’s not what matters. What matters are the first two steps. These first two steps lead to Fulton getting his head in the right place on every block. This, combined with strength and hand placement, lead to him controlling nearly every block he makes.
This is a tougher block exhibiting the same strength. Fulton has a quick double team with the left guard. They’ll need to cover up and seal off both Leonard Williams and Demario Davis. Williams is a 2i. The left guard is primarily focused on getting to the second level. Fulton is required to get inside of Williams and reach him with a zone step.
His first step is deep and at an angle. His head is aimed for the inside shoulder. Fulton is deep and can run at his landmark.
His second step crosses over to Williams while he keeps his body square to the landmark. The first step sets Fulton up. The second is a race.
Williams is quick off the snap. He’s an incredible athlete and player off the football. When he punches Fulton, Fulton has one foot in the air. He isn’t fully settled. Now, for most offensive linemen, getting punched by Williams in this manner would leave them off balanced and tumbling backwards. Fulton has a strong lower body and core. This pop doesn’t perturb him.
When the second foot lands, he has his hands inside, his head on the inside shoulder, and he’s squared up with Williams. Fulton has reached him without any help from the guard. This is all on him.
Squared up with Williams, Fulton’s goal is to now run Williams off the line of scrimmage and shield him from the play. Williams takes a slight shove from a guard who’s hurrying like he’s a tardy, clock-carrying white rabbit to the second level. He’s a steering wheel in Fulton’s hands.
Fulton doesn’t go from this position and drive him upfield. Instead, he keeps running his feet wide. The hole is between him and the left tackle. He continues to fight wide to shield Williams from the ball. He accomplishes this by taking wider and deeper steps with his outside foot.
This work leads to Fulton going from being on Williams’s clavicle to being on Williams’s shoulder.
The hole is created. The defensive lineman is completely shielded off from the play. Fulton wins the block.
Fulton didn’t only play center in Kansas City. He played guard as well. From that position, he could make the same blocks he did at center; they were just slightly different. Here’s the same play, except Fulton is playing guard. There’s a 2i and a will linebacker. The center pops the outside shoulder and clubs the blitzing linebacker. Fulton takes over the block.
From the pure behind view, it’s easier to see these same two steps. One deep 45 degree angle step, and then a second one that crosses over. Fulton gets hip to hip with the center and drives Domata Peko off the ball. He naturally takes over once the center leaves. Fulton is a little high, but he’s able to drive Peko and his coarse hair inside, allowing the back to cut behind Fulton.
Here Fulton is the center again. D.J. Reader is a 2i. Fulton and the left guard have a more powerful outside double team because of the pre-snap alignment. Fulton stays. The center goes. Like he did all game, Fulton abuses Reader and drives him outside. The back cuts right behind him for an easy nine yards.
As a center or as a guard, Fulton can run players off the line of scrimmage on outside zone plays. He excels in this type of system. This is crucial. This type of blocking system is what Lamar Miller is better suited for. It allows him to read, make a cut and go. It naturally gets Miller out in space and into the second level. Part of Miller’s trouble with the Texans has been bulk and scheme. But part of it was also Xavier Su’a-Filo being unable to stick the second level and Jeff Allen being unable to drive the first level. Together they coagulated defenders and closed off space like cholesterol for Miller. With a player like Fulton in there, Houston has someone who can move defenders in the outside zone and create actual space for Miller to try to become Miami Lamar Miller again.
It’s not all outside zone for Fulton, though. He can run the inside zone as well. He’s not all quick feet and running. He’s an iron man. Fulton is able to drive defenders off the line of scrimmage in a more straight forward fashion too.
This is an inside zone play with Fulton at center. He has an ‘ace’ block to inside linebacker Benardrick McKinney. Fulton takes a slide step and plants, allowing the left guard to be the push to get movement going. In this position, hip to hip and together, they run the nose tackle up field. Fulton is on only half of the defender, moving him with his shoulder. This allows him to seamlessly peel off to McKinney. When Fulton splits off, he lowers himself and makes contact right in McKinney’s chest. Smashing McKinney with hands inside, he’s able to drive him vertically as well. This is a perfect ‘ace’ block.
Although he knocked McKinney around in the second level on the previous play, the one hole in Fulton’s game is blocking the second level. He dips his head. He doesn’t time his punch right. Getting there isn’t a problem; making consistent correct violent contact is. This struggle is exacerbated when pulling.
Here Fulton is the right guard pulling around the playside and left tackle Eric Fisher’s down block. The pull steps are perfect. He comes around Fisher’s block tight like he’s supposed to. Fulton just misses the block. When the safety fills the hole, Fulton hits the outside half of him. The minuscule player bounces off the block and solidifies. Fulton spins around and observes while he makes the tackle.
On zone plays, Fulton is inconsistent at the second level. Sometimes he whiffs. Sometimes he doesn’t. It’s a coin flip. But when he’s pulling, it’s almost always a baffling block like this. Everything is perfect except for the contact. He just doesn’t get it. Eventually the frustration bubbles and overflows, leading to Fulton just tackling defenders to ensure he makes the block.
Here he comes into the safety too high. He wraps him up and suplexes him to stave off the embarrassment and satiate the anger.
In the future, it’s reasonable to assume Houston will finally get rid of all these power run plays that don’t work and remove the incessant inside run plodding from the offense. Bill O’Brien says he’s making significant changes to his offense. Miller is still on the roster and has had success in the past as a zone back. Julie’n Davenport, the man getting first dibs at left tackle, is a better outside zone blocker. Nick Martin is scheme neutral. But Fulton is an outside zone monster; he struggles at pulling, something mandatory from a guard in a power scheme. Senio Kelemete is also a strong line of scrimmage mover, only a few tweaks away from being a great outside zone blocker. Fulton’s signing is more than a talent addition. It’s a possible scheme changer.
Fulton is also a great pass blocker. These same quick two steps are here in a different form in pass protection. On the interior, pass protection is all about space. It’s at a premium. Players are splashing around in a puddle while the exterior swims around in the ocean. Guards have to snap out of their stance immediately, read the defender’s path, and make contact instantly to snuff out the rush early.
Here Fulton is blocking the 2i defender all on his own. As an inside shade, Fulton moves over at the snap. He’s a cobra out of his stance. He pops out like a weasel and takes a slide step. But unlike in the run game, where he’s taking lengthy six inch steps to the defender, here’s Fulton is floating over to the defender. Fulton needs to come inside to cover the defender, but he has to do so in a fashion that allows him to read and react to the defender’s rush. If he overextends, he opens himself up to outside rushes. If he kick-slides back, he gives the defender space to rev up and bull rush.
The defender is even with Fulton and considers rushing wide. Fulton has great hands, though. He snatches the defender and snuffs out any possibility of this. From there it’s a lot of hand fighting. Fulton keeps his hands clawing at the defender’s chest while he runs Fulton backwards. The defender is able to create some movement, but not enough to drive him into the quarterback. This is because Fulton has a great anchor. He swallows up the defender’s energy, and then using his lower body and core, sits on it. Defusing the situation and guillotining the rush. On this play Fulton sits and tosses the defender outside once he goes airborne, creating a natural inside running lane for Alex Smith.
The anchor is crucial for inside blockers. They are blocking behemoths on the interior. Interior offensive linemen have to be able to sit and hunker down to extinguish a bull rush. If not, they become a space rock cratering the pocket, suffocating the quarterback under a tsunami of dust and rock. The interior has to set the pocket and give space for the quarterback to step up into. Limp blocking, rather than a hard line stance, crushes integrity.
As the center, Fulton is the pocket’s spine. He is blocking the 2i defender all on his own.
He snaps and takes a short slide-step inside to cover the defender, who times and leaps off the snap well.
Fulton is even with the defender. He sits.
The defender tries to bull rush and go through Fulton. It doesn’t work. Fulton has a great base. His hands are inside. He makes contact first. The defender is trying to push a bus in park.
Fulton is able to get extension with his punch.
This extension raises him. This is also an enormous man he’s blocking. No matter how perfect his technique is, he’s going to give up some ground. So Fulton sits and anchors down; when he does, the defender’s momentum is squashed.
At the conclusion of his bull rush, the defender tries to go wide. From here Fulton’s feet take over. He slides over easily. Whatever he loses in strength against this monstrous man, he makes up for in quickness. Fulton’s hands are inside, and he’s able to easily replicate this wide movement.
When the defender tries to run wide, Fulton drives him outside and takes him where he’s going. The defender gets wide, but he never gets closer to Smith.
Fulton gets tossed off the block once the defender long-arms him with a violent toss. But once he tries to come back inside, Fulton plants and turns back around, getting right back in the way, meeting the defender head on. By this point the ball is out of Smith’s hand anyways.
This is another pass protection play from the center position. This time Fulton shows off his punch. Fulton is blocking a ‘1’. He can get over and after the defender sooner. The defender tries to jump the gap. Fulton slides over and obliterates him with his punch. From there he extends, sits, and neutralizes the rush.
Hands are integral to offensive line play. But it’s more than punch strength, placement, and clenching. It’s timing as well. Like blocking a shot against a driving wing, the offensive lineman must time his punch at the correct time in order to hit his target. Fulton excels at this.
As a guard, Fulton is blocking the ‘3’ technique Derrick Wolfe here. He has him all to himself.
Against a smaller and quicker defender, Fulton has to be cautious. He can’t expect the bull rush. There are a malady of different moves Wolfe can use to his advantage. Fulton must be patient, wait for Wolfe to make his decision, and then use his strength to overwhelm him. Fulton first slides over and sizes the rush up.
Wolfe gets wide and angles himself at Fulton. He’s looking to get outside and tries to make himself skinnier to give Fulton a smaller target.
Fulton takes his hands from his holsters to punch. Wolfe reacts and looks to karate chop them away.
Fulton doesn’t do the obvious thing and follow through with his contact. Instead, he drops his hands to his sides again and slides over to the right further. This constricts the space Wolfe has to work with. They’re no longer out in the open. Fulton can make contact on his own terms.
Wolfe tries to dip and slide under the barbed wire. This dip is Fulton’s cue. He slides over with this right foot and initiates contact.
When he punches, he punches Wolfe’s side. There’s no power here.
Fulton extends Wolfe and sits. The pass rush is over.
This play is under similar circumstances. Fulton is blocking a ‘3’ as the right guard. He uses his right arm as a feeler and then makes contact once the defender commits.
The last aspect of interior pass blocking that hasn’t been touched on is stunts. As a center, Fulton is tasked with bouncing back and forth, helping blocks and passing defenders off. Fulton has spectacular hands and feet. His hands feel the pressure, and his feet carry him from defender to defender. On this play, Fulton shoves Jadeveon Clowney over to the left guard and then over takes the looping defensive end.
Fulton is a great player. Aside from the inconsistent contact he makes at the second level, there isn’t a hole in his game. Feet, strength, hands...it’s all here. In both the run and pass game, he excels as a blocker. He doesn’t have the athletic ability to be a spectacular blocker that puts him in the conversation with the top guards in the lead. The OMG impossible blocks aren’t here. But what is here is more than enough for him to revolutionize the interior of the line of scrimmage for the Texans. He can give Houston the competent guard play it’s been dying for since 2016.