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Red Zone Play: Get Ready Houston, Here Comes The Pain

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The NFL’s worst offensive line doesn’t seem like it improved at all

Carolina Panthers v New York Jets Photo by Al Pereira/Getty Images

Not only have the Houston Texans failed to improve a league worst offensive line, it might actually be possible that they made it worse.

Let’s begin with the understanding that preseason games, joint practices, and Twitter videos aren’t always an accurate indicator of what the regular season holds. The other side of that, however, is looking to last season for validation, and when combining the two views of Houston’s offensive line the tea leaves read “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”

Let’s do a quick position-by-position analysis:

Left Tackle

Arguably the most crucial non-quarterback position on an offense, the left tackle will make or break a running game as well as make or break (or more accurately allow to get broken) a quarterback. With approximately $80 million in cap space, and a desperate need for a pro bowl left tackle, Houston went out and signed Matt Kalil...

Over the course of training camp and in context of last week’s game, Kalil has been described using the words “confused”, “lost” and “frustrated”. Certainly not buzzwords for winners.

But, don’t just take this tweet at face value, see for yourself:

So Kalil is a “wily veteran” who can’t fend off a rookie—hence the lost, confused, and frustrated play. Chances are Duane Brown is laughing at this as we speak.

Position Health Grade: D-

Left Guard

Oddly enough, Houston drafted Alabama State left tackle Tytus Howard with a first round pick after losing out on Andre Dillard and several other big school projected-starting tackles. Reports from NRG post-draft retconned the first round into a “I meant to do that” scenario with Howard as a great tackle prospect with a huge upside.

Houston offensive line coach Mike Devlin promptly moved Howard to left guard for some unknown reason, although rumors swirl that he moved Tytus to help his development (insert head scratching here). Here’s how that’s worked so far:

Pushed back five yards faster than Alfred Blue could run that same distance.

This looks much more promising, until you notice Howard actually gets beat until he decides to hold the defender... and holding penalties are drive killers, as we all know.

Position Health Grade: D-

Center

The one lone bright spot on the Texans line was supposed to be the center position. Nick Martin is after all, the brother of Pro Bowl offensive guard Zack Martin. But, the younger Martin can’t seem to avoid the injury bug, missing his entire rookie year after undergoing ankle surgery, then missing two more games the next two seasons (ending on injured reserved his first full season) before tweaking a hamstring during this year’s offseason drills, meaning he isn’t available to play now.

But, that’s ok, Houston has ex-Raider Greg Mancz the dual threat guard/center to fill the space Martin leaves.

Well, then... What’s a team with such poor depth on the worst unit in football to do? Pull the sub-starter quality right guard, Zach Fulton over to center.

Position Health Grade: F (would upgrade to C if Martin and Mancz were both healthy...)

Right Guard

Zach Fulton was one of the better players on the line leading up to the first preseason game... meaning he just wasn’t the same level of bad that Kalil and most of last year’s starters were, but certainly never going to make anyone forget Wade Smith or Chester Pitts or anyone else for that matter. And, who’s behind Fulton on the depth chart? Greg Mancz Martinas Rankin. You remember Rankin, the college tackle turned NFL guard Houston acquired with the third round pick gained in the trade with Seattle that sent Duane Brown, the best tackle in team history, out the door. To make matters worse, Rankin is also projected as the 2nd string left guard.

Rankin does still have promise and with solid coaching and good health might blossom into a solid starter some day. But, #MikeDevlin...

Position Health Grade: D

Right Tackle

The most recent depth chart has rookie second round pick Max Scharping listed as the starting right tackle, with Seantrel Henderson backing up. Scharping, like Rankin and Howard, seems to have tremendous potential, and Houston tried him at right guard against Green Bay last week, which may slow down the progress to realizing that potential. He’s a lunchpail, blue collar, ‘be the best teammate I can be’ kind of guy, so expect O’Brien and Devlin to give him every opportunity to succeed. But, with the uncertainty of him playing at guard or tackle, the RT spot has too many unanswered questions to feel good about.

Position Health Grade: D

Overall Offensive Line Grade: D

Taking the homer approach, and the typical “blame everything on the last person out the door” corporate America way of doing things, let’s assume all that’s wrong with Houston’s offensive line is the fault of former GM’s Rick Smith and Brian Gaine (that’s really not a stretch to believe). Now where do we go from here?

Scenario One:

Make some trades and see what can happen?

  1. The Washington Redskins are ripe for pillaging by trade. Former pro bowl tackle Trent Williams is unhappy and wants out of the nation’s capital. Standing next to him is guard Brandon Scherff. He’ll be a free agent at the end of this season and is considered one of the best, if not the best, run blocking guards in the league. Putting that sort of road grader out in front of Lamar Miller and Duke Johnson would go a long way to helping Bill O’Brien’s inability to stop calling A-Gap runs every other down.
  2. Oakland Raider’s center Rodney Hudson is also heading for free agency at the end of the 2019 season and Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock are all about that trade life. Since the Raiders are still a season away from real contention (let’s face it, there’s no way the Silver and Black get past Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City this year), why not stockpile some more draft capital? Oakland could use more tight ends, who often play vital roles in Gruden’s modified west coast offense and Houston has a litany of tight end talent. Package one with a late round pick and grab a great center, then kick Nick Martin to guard when he returns.
  3. Make a play for Chicago Bears’ interior line Swiss army knife Cody Whitehair. Just like the Raiders, the Bears aren’t truly a threat to go all the way just yet, despite trending in that direction. Whitehair is O’Brien’s kind of player, a guy equally at home at center or guard.

Other options: Bryan Bulaga from the Green Bay Packers would make a great stop gap until Houston could find a better long-term solution at right tackle. La’el Collins from the Dallas Cowboys would also be an immediate upgrade.

Scenario Two:

Do nothing and act like “we got this!” then watch the offensive skill position talent of Desahun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller V, Jordan Thomas, Jordan Akins, Miller and Johnson go to waste in 2019 as Houston once again racks up the most sacks, greatly shortening Watson’s career and limiting the amazing potential this collective bunch has together. Then watch as J.J. Watt gets another year older.

Now, it’s that time again. Put on your virtual general manager hat (who knows you might actually get to wear that hat for real if you’re good enough and can get an interview!) and let us know what you would do about the offensive line. History has proven a team with the worst line if football has next to no chance of winning a Super Bowl and for the Texans to advance in the franchise red zone, it’s #HTownChampionshipOrBust.