Depth for the Houston Texans’ defensive line has been an overlooked asset for the past couple years. With J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney stealing the spotlight, the deep supporting cast the Texans have on the defensive line has done a stellar job playing their part up front. As a group, they only allowed eight rushing touchdowns in the 2018 season, which was the third least in the NFL.
This position was so deep that at times the coaching staff was forced to place significant contributors off the 46 player active game day roster. This luxury may soon be in jeopardy as four players are set to become free agents next week. Angelo Blackson, Christian Covington, Brandon Dunn, and Joel Heath have garrisoned a Texans defensive line that ranked third in the NFL in average rushing yards per game in 2018.
With all four players set to become free agents, there likely will not be enough funds to go around to compensate all of them at the salary they are worth. The Texans did not pay a single one of these players over $1 million this past season. They are not likely to get away with such frugal compensation this year...
All four free agents to be are either 25 or 26 years old and have several more years of good football left in them. It will be a shame to watch one, two, or even three of them not return as they have all recieved significant playing time the past few seasons. Just as in any beauty contest, these four contestants vying for a renewed contract have shown off their respective skills in a variety of disciplines: pass rush, run stopping, versatility, and health.
Covington, the only player the Texans drafted out of the group of defensive tackles, is an all-purpose lineman who flashed glimpses of pass-rushing capabilities this past season. Known for his run-stopping capabilities, Covington is a 3-4 defensive end, which means he generally lines up directly over the offensive tackle. In Houston’s defensive scheme, his job is to follow the script while Watt, Clowney, and Whitney Mercilus freelance across the defensive line. Particularly on run plays, Covington has become adept at being an immovable object on the defensive line when runs are directed his way. Along with those run defense skills, Covington has grown into a semi-capable pass rusher. With three and a half sacks last season, he is the most adept pass rusher out of this group about to hit the market.
Covington has dealt with several strings of injuries throughout his four seasons. In 2017, he ended the season on IR with a torn bicep. In 2018, he battled a thigh injury among other nicks and bumps. The Texans will keep Covington over Heath, Dunn, and Blackson if they want to continue to develop him as a pass rusher and a versatile defensive lineman.
Angelo Blackson is far and away the least-known yet highest-contributing player on the entire team. Taking over 40% of the snaps on defense, Blackson played in all 16 games this past season and stepped up this season as a run stopping defensive end. In a rotation with D.J. Reader, Blackson is a more of a 4-3 defensive tackle who matches up well against offensive guards in the trenches. He usually steps onto the field when the Texans are in nickel and he can line up further inside.
For all of his contributions, Blackson goes relatively unnoticed on the defense, leaving the flashy plays and stats to players like Clowney, Reader, and Watt. With one sack and one tackle for loss on the year, keeping Blackson as a Texan may not be the most inspiring move the team makes this offseason. He isn't a stat sheet hero, but a valuable piece to the middle of the front-seven.
Along with Blackson, Brandon Dunn can be lumped into the “under the radar” category of Texans. The Texans signed Dunn off of the Bears practice squad in 2015. He has been with the team for four years now and has progressed into a starting nose guard for the defense. At 6’2” and 310 pounds, he is a tough man to move off of the ball. Dunn’s upper body strength enables him to shed blockers and maintain the defensive line of scrimmage for the Texans. Dunn had the pleasure and fortune to learn under Vince Wilfork for two years in Houston and he demonstrated those lessons quite often in 2018.
Of the four free agents on the defensive line, Dunn should be the most coveted by opposing teams. A cost-effective defensive tackle is a valuable asset in a league where defensive linemen are garnering enormous salaries. If the Texans are to keep Dunn in the fold, I think they will have to sign him to a long-term deal and pay him between $5 - $6.5 million per year. It should be within salary cap means to keep Dunn, and conversely losing him would leave the team with just D.J. Reader as a defensive tackle option (although he is listed as a DE).
Last on the list of upcoming free agents is Joel Heath. He is the only restricted free agent of the bunch, which means that if another team gives him an offer, the Texans have five days to match the offer or let him go. Heath contributed early in the season, but a knee injury, illness, and a lack of production kept him off of the game day roster for the second half of the season. In 2017, Heath had production comparable to what Dunn and Blackson did this past season. But with just five games played in 2018, Heath’s value to the team may not be as high as it once was. With a restricted free agent qualifying offer placed on him, there is a good chance Heath stays with the Texans unless someone actively pursues him this offseason.
Each of the four players has several advantages worth keeping them in the mix to be a part of the 2019 version of the Texans d-line. In terms of snap counts, Blackson led the way with 430 plays on defense and played in all 16 games. While their production on the field are similar, Dunn should carry more value heading into the offseason due to his position as a NT for the Texans. For Covington, the Texans and specifically Bill O’Brien prefer to keep their drafted talent and continue to mold them throughout their career. Finally, for Heath, the restricted free agent status gives the Texans the opportunity to match and retain him without too big of an expense.
There could be a ton of movement in this position group over the next couple weeks, so keep an eye out for any free agent moves in the NFL that may affect our current roster of defensive linemen.