Monday morning the dinner bell rang and free agency unofficially began as teams and players and agents tampered around. So many ways to improve the roster, infinite hopes and dreams, millions of dollars to spend, oh the possibilities. The Texans lunged out of the gate and snagged a rabbit immediately. They signed defensive end Angelo Blackson to a 3-year $12 million contract worth $3.5 million guaranteed. Ugh, ok.
In case you already forgot, the Texans had the best run defense in football last season. Their front seven composed of players like J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, Benardrick McKinney, Zach Cunningham, D.J. Reader, and a competent tackling secondary stuffed rushing attacks. Teams averaged 3.4 yards an attempt against them, the lowest average in the league. The Texans had a run defense DVOA of -30.1%, the best rating in the league. It turns out when you have a front seven with players like this, making plays like this, having mediocre run defenders really doesn’t matter.
The problem Houston had entering this offseason was their pass defense. They couldn’t stop any team with a competent passing attack. Their cornerback play was a gray and fetid stained sheet. To improve the pass defense, they faced an enormous hurdle. The cornerback options in free agency were whatever. The Texans signed Bradley Roby to a one-year $10 million contract, but the former first round pick finished 82nd, 68th, 49th, and 81st out of 85 qualified cornerbacks in yd/pass allowed, success rate, air yards per pass attempt, and yards allowed after the catch per Football Outsiders Charting Data. The other options are/were guys like Steven Nelson, Ronald Darby, Pierre Desir, Darqueze Dennard, Jason Verrett, and Morris Claiborne. This is a carnival. These are spins at the wheel.
The most dependable way to improve the pass defense was by improving their pass rush. The Texans pass rush consisted nearly entirely on Watt and Clowney. Outside of these two the Texans had next to nothing. Watt and Clowny accounted for 46.9% of the team’s pass pressures, 58% of the team’s sacks, and 57.5% of the team’s quarterback hits. Whitney Mercilus had 30.5 pressures, but the interior of the defense barely registered anything at all whatsoever.
This offseason four of their interior defenders entered free agency. Brandon Dunn (RFA), Christian Covington, Joel Heath, and Angelo Blackson, who I thought was the best of the bunch entering free agency. And what did the Texans do? They tendered Dunn, signed Heath for another year, and for whatever reason, gave Blackson $4 million a year. Blackson specifically accounted for 3 passes defensed, 5 hurries, 2 quarterback hits, and 1 sack over the course of 430 snaps. This is as infinitesimal as pass rushing production can get for a player who played almost half of all defensive snaps. Instead of improving their interior rush, the Texans kept the same used car inflatables around.
The two big interior rushers available were Malik Jackson, who signed a 3-year $30 million contract with the Philadelphia Eagles, and Sheldon Richardson, who signed a 3-year $36 million contract with the Cleveland Browns. Jackson is a great stunter, slaps down passes, and is awesome at collapsing the pocket and limiting the space where the quarterback can step up. The perfect player to run blitz schemes off of and to create one v. one pass rushes for Watt and Clowney with. Richardson is a dominant bull rusher that wins pass rushes and creates disruption on his own. Other than that, there wasn’t’t much of anything else here. Two players that could have been integral to helping the Texans’ pass rush went elsewhere.
Here lies the problem with the Blackson contract. It’s not that it’s a cap crippling deal Houston can’t get out of—they can get out of it before the 2019 season even starts and be ok—it’s the opportunity cost and a wasted allocation of funds. Instead of expanding upon that $4 million and making a run at a defensive player who could actually create disruption and smear quarterbacks across the field, the Texans instead kept things exactly the same. They kept the same interchangeable bodies, who can’t rush the passer, and brought them back for another season.
Houston also made a run at Rodger Saffold to play left guard. Saffold is a perfect outside zone blocker. He can make every block required. He can reach the outside shoulder, get to the second level, cut off the backside, and has a feel for when to stay and exit a double team. It was reported they were simply outbid by the Titans. Instead of picking up the best left guard available in this free agent market, Houston is locked out, stuck with the slightly below average Senio Kelemete, who still struggles with his hands, and is more miss than hit at the second level. That $4 million a year could have been allocated better elsewhere.
Sure, the offseason isn’t over. There are other crappier pass rush options available. With the way Houston rushed the edge last year, they could use a speed rushing bend and rip guy. Shaq Barrett is this, and was productive until Bradley Chubb pushed him down the depth chart. Muhamad Wilkerson, Markus Golden, and Justin Houston have all done things before. But there really isn’t much here.
It’s frustrating Houston had the opportunity to go after a great interior rusher, that could greatly improve a nonexistent part of the team while masking their biggest weakness, and instead said, nah, let’s just run it back again with the same guys, do the same thing, and hope the darts they throw at the secondary will be more than enough. My guess is they won’t be, and the Texans used money that could have improved the pass rush on a player whose best strength is not being a net negative on the best run defense in football. Blackson is redundant. He’s nearly identical to Heath, or Dunn, or Covington. And he isn’t worth the contract he received.
I don’t get it. I really don’t.