I’ve been thinking of you. By “thinking of you,” I mean thinking about Benardrick McKinney’s contract extension. This is what I’ve been doing, and coincidentally, it’s also the name of the emo album I’m working on to make the kids feel a little bit better. These are the thoughts all my thinking has produced.
1.) At first glance, the extension is kind of weird in today’s NFL. Running backs are more involved in the passing game; the quick passing game is a focal point of more NFL offenses. Plays with multiple options are becoming the norm. McKinney isn’t the type of player to defend against these type of post-modern NFL offenses. He’s a brute, an enormous bicep-engorged man who takes a sledge hammer to run offenses. He reads plays well. He can attack and stand guards up with this strength. When he tackles players, he squashes them. There isn’t any falling forward for extra yards nonsense. Two yards stays two yards when McKinney makes tackles.
What has added to his value as a player is his ability as a blitzer. The angles created by stunts are attacked precisely and tightly. There isn’t wasted movement when McKinney blitzes. He comes directly off the back of the rusher tying up two blockers. He has a nice little spin move he uses occasionally, and when he’s one on one with a running back, he’s able to flatten them like a highway armadillo, quickly recovering to take down the quarterback.
But McKinney is bad in man coverage. He’s struggled covering running backs since he came into the league, and he struggled again last year. He’s too big and strong. He doesn’t move well in open space. He can sit in underneath zones, jump down to make tackles, and use his arms to take away passing lanes, but he’s not going to cover Dion Lewis one on one. He belongs in a cage in the ocean, not in the free roaming open water.
The thing is that the Texans drafted Zach Cunningham last year. Cunningham is the perfect complement to McKinney. He’s a fast player who moves quickly. He can cover running backs and tight ends. He can play in dime and nickel packages next to whatever safety Romeo Crennel wants to bring into the box. Cunningham still isn’t the best tackler, and he can struggle against offensive lineman colliding into him one on one, but he can chase and tackle when there isn’t anyone in front or around him; that’s a situation that happens fairly often with a front seven that includes J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus, McKinney, and D.J. Reader. Cunningham does what McKinney can’t, and McKinney does what Cunningham can’t. Together they are an inside linebacker yin-yang you can get for twenty-five cents at a pizza place buffet.
Although McKinney isn’t a post-modern linebacker, he’s still valuable. Run stoppers like him extend the game, and his ability as a blitzer is unfair with the pass rushing talent around him. Because of Cunningham, paying to keep McKinney allows B-Mac to do to what he does best for a long time without having to get hung up on what he doesn’t do well. Although McKinney isn’t the typical linebacker for today’s NFL—more 1998 than 2018—he’s an integral part of Houston’s defense. After a little bit of thinking, the McKinney extension makes sense.
2.) I also think McKinney is going to be more valuable with the new rule changes. Defenders and running backs can no longer lower their head to create contact. The truck stick has been lopped off in the guillotine. Professional football is now all about going around guys, not through them, and using shoulders instead of face masks to make tackles.
This makes strength even more important. The cool thing about using the helmet when making contact is it generates more power and force. You can put your whole body into it. You use it as a jolt, or a pop, or an explosion, and then you use your arms to wrap up and your legs to drive to take the player down. By removing the head from the tackling equation, it’s going to make tackling more difficult for players. They can’t hit as hard. They lose a couple of sticks of dynamite. Players like McKinney who can deadlift a Ford Ranger will be perfectly fine in this new world. They don’t need the helmet to be a detonator. Their arms are strong enough to crush ball carriers.
3.) If it hasn’t already happened, the time of J.J. Watt as a consistently great player is coming to a close. The man who didn’t miss a game and ended offensive possessions all on his own is now injury prone. Anything that Houston gets out of Watt going forward is an added bonus. What he can contribute, even if he stays healthy for an entire season after back surgery and a snapped leg, is unknown. The strength of the Texans’ defense isn’t going to be the same forever.
By extending McKinney, the Texans have a link to the next type of Houston defense. If both McKinney and Cunningham continue to improve, they can be the strength of a new defense to build around. Similar to Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly in Carolina, Houston can have a defense that narrows the center of the field, makes the defensive line even less important, and gives the secondary less room to have to cover and less tackles to have to make. With these two, plus Jadeveon Clowney’s terrorizing pass rush, Houston’s defense can still be fine for a very long time.
4.) When considering the landscape of the AFC South, McKinney is a must-have type of player. Both Tennessee with Derrick Henry and Jacksonville with Leonard Fournette are going to try and run the ball up the middle a lot this season. Both players are monstrous stiff-armers, difficult to chop up and mane. Without someone like McKinney to protect the second level of the defense, seven, thirteen, or seventeen yard runs are easily obtainable. McKinney is a necessary force needed to counteract the offenses of the two best teams in the AFC South.
5.) As far as the contract itself goes, it’s for five-years and $50 million. It includes $21 million guaranteed. His cap hit for 2018 will only be $1.7 million, but the contract makes McKinney the fourth highest paid inside linebacker based on average yearly salary. He’s paid less on average than only Kuechly, Bobby Wagner, and Alec Ogletree; he makes as much as Eric Kendricks. All four of these players are more well rounded than McKinney. McKinney is a better run stopper than Kendricks and Ogletree, but he doesn’t offer the same level of performance as Kuechly or Wagner. He’s a second-tier inside linebacker. It’s a comparable level of pay to what he deserves, and the extension will look better as more players hit free agency around him.
By awarding a contract with $21 million guaranteed to McKinney, Houston can probably cut him after the third year without having to eat a ton of dead money. The yearly structure of this contract hasn’t been published yet; it’s just a hunch based on all the time I’ve sifted through Over The Cap player pages and played hunched over laptop general manager. No matter how great McKinney is right now, the future is a murky thing, and $21 million guaranteed isn’t a horrifying amount to have to pay out.
6.) The extension also answers another question about Brian Gaine. Like his predecessor Rick Smith, Gaine seems to want to re-sign good players before they hit free agency, ensuring the last year of their rookie deals isn’t their last season in Houston. McKinney is the first such player to be extended by Gaine.
This makes it seem like it’s only a matter of time until Jadeveon Clowney is extended as well. Clowney is spectacular, and as a product of the 2014 draft class, under the same employer/employee situation as McKinney. Houston is probably just waiting for Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack to set the market and for Clowney to participate in football activities again since having minor knee surgery at the end of the 2017 season. A Clowney extension should be expected right around training camp.
The time is also now for Houston to contend. The best team building situation in football is having a really good quarterback on a rookie contract. With the salary cap, your team can’t be great at everything. Every roster is going to have holes. It’s up to the general manager to find the strengths and minimize investment at the position groups that complement those strengths. It’s up to the coach to scheme around the deficiencies. Teams with great quarterbacks are usually built around a great passing offense and some component on defense while the rest of the roster suffers.
Teams eventually always have to pay good quarterbacks a lot of money. But when you have a great quarterback on a rookie contact, you are paying $17 million less per year than a veteran would get for the same level of production. That’s another top five player in a given position group. That’s three starting caliber players. That may be an entire position group. One of the holes seals up with a great, cheap quarterback. Once that QB gets ready to hit free agency, contracts have to be shed and the team is forced to build around him. Boo-hoo.
Houston is in good shape to take advantage of Deshaun Watson’s rookie deal. They have around $29 million in cap space right now, and they’re projected to have around $46 million when next offseason starts. That’s a lot of money! By not having to extend Watson until 2021, if everything keeps rocking and rolling, the Texans have a long window to be something more than a Divisional Round finalist.
UPDATE: Now we know the specifics of McKinney’s extension with the Texans.