The Houston Texans lurched into their 2019 training camp fully expecting Matt Kalil to be the team’s starting left tackle. General manager Brian Gaine gave him $7.5 million to do so. They placed rookie offensive tackles, who couldn’t immediately play offensive tackle in the NFL, Tytus Howard and Max Scharping at guard to let them stew. They sunk both of last year’s left tackles Julien Davenport and Martinas Rankin down the depth chart. Roderick Johnson was fun to talk about for a little while, but there wasn’t a clear if Kalil didn’t work out.
I knew this was a bad idea. You knew this was a bad idea. Everyone who has ever watched Kalil play knew this was a bad idea. Well, everyone except for the Houston Texans.
Kalil sat out the entirety of 2018 and is always wrapped in bandages and medical tape; he belongs in a sarcophagus not on an offensive line. His 2017 season was worse than Davenport’s non-right tackle 2018. The teeny peak had already been crested, and he was plummeting.
The weekend before the 2019 NFL season the Texans and their Articles of Confederation panicked. They moved two first round picks and a second round pick for Laremy Tunsil. Sure, there were some other pieces involved, late round picks, Davenport, and Kenny Stills, but this was just cumin and turmeric spicing up the main course. The Texans wanted Tunsil. The Dolphins wanted to push their rebuild off a cliff and tank completely.
As Rivers McCown wrote about the trade, teams never trade multiple first round picks for players, and when they do, it rarely every works:
Keyshawn Johnson fetched two. Khalil Mack fetched two. Ricky Williams. Jay Cutler. Jeff George. Herschel Walker. Fredd Young. Eric Dickerson. Jim Everett. The only player on the list of people who fetched two who we don’t think of as a waste of the picks is Mack, and that’s only because we don’t know the entire story of that trade yet because it’s so young.
The Tunsil trade was made in an emergency room. The prophecy envisioned inescapable doom and despair. Bus rides and bruised entrails. Deshaun Watson’s upcoming future was bloody and broken. So the Texans gave it all up to fix one aspect of their offensive line.
Yet, it takes more than one player to have a great offensive line. It takes more than five to have a great pass protection. All the Texans did was suture the left edge of their offensive line, while the rest will continue to bleed as Howard learns how to play professional football, Nick Martin continues to fail to block the second level, Zach Fulton provides competent play, and Seantrel Henderson grabs and holds and turns and runs and leaves the right side gashing open.
Additionally, the Texans will have to extend Tunsil in two seasons, they’ll have to extend Deshaun Watson in three at the latest. That’s the time table for when their fifth year option comes to an end. It’s expected for Tunsil to be extended after his fifth year option, and Watson to be extended after next season. But you never know what this team will do without adult supervision, and a head coach with full control of the team’s resources to extend his guys.
When these extensions take place they’ll be paying Tunsil $16 million a year or so, and Watson around $35 million a year. It’s nearly impossible to build a complete roster with a quarterback who makes that much. Teams have to ignore entire units of their team. They depend on having enough elite talent elsewhere to spread their talent and influence to cover up the holes on the roster. The core competencies have to smooth out the weaknesses. They have to draft well. It’s an impossible task when a team doesn’t have draft capital to add cost effective talent around a quarterback that makes $35 million a year.
This trade was celebrated for being a win now move as a way to take advantage of the present and Watson’s rookie contract. This isn’t true. The Texans spent the summer botching that opportunity. The ship never sailed. It sunk in the habor. Houston sat on $78 million in cap space, added developmental prospects in the draft, and then traded Jadeveon Clowney. This wasn’t a win now move. All it did was put pressure on a gushing gouge.
That bandage is torn off. There’s hair attached to the sticky tape, and black glue around the wound. All of that deals with the mystical future, not right now. Because right now, Tunsil is a great left tackle on a cost effective contract, and has the ability to get better and become an elite tackle if he fixes a few minor technique issues.
It’s easy to forget how important athleticism in football is. Relatively, all the players on the field move around at the same speed, with the same strength, and exist on a similar playing field. There are those precious extraterrestrials whose athleticism surpasses everyone else's, and physical ability explodes off the field. Tunsil is one of those guys. His pass set is centered around his quick feet, wide base, and ability to get off the snap. 90% of pass blocking is just beating the defender to the point of attack while staying under control. Tunsil does exactly this play after play.
Here, Tunsil (#78) is matched up against Trey Hendrickson (#91) as a ‘9’ technique on the outside shoulder of Darren Fells. He’s also lined up in a two point stance.
Typical offensive tackles, will take two steps, poop their pants, then turn and run to stay in front of a speedy edge rusher like Hendrickson. From there they lose all power and leverage, and are easy to drive, quickly disengage from, or cut inside of. Tunsil is an aberration. His pass set is calm, he maintains his base, and he meets the end head on. It takes three steps to square him up.
And on the fourth, he takes a drop step to hunker down for the upcoming bullrush.
Hendrickson doesn’t want to take on Tunsil head on. He wants the outside shoulder. He wants to bend and rip. Tunsil is pretty much impossible to bullrush. He’s always under control, his base is wide, and he’s too strong. On this rush he sucks up the power Hendrickson brings, gets his feet back under him after the initial jolt, and strangles his chest. Watson throws with Cameron Jordan in his face, but he doesn’t have to worry about his leftside.
His quick feet opens up an entire range of possibilities on every snap. He doesn’t have to react to the defensive end. Tunsil can be the one in control and dictate how his opponent’s pass rush will go.
Hendrickson is a wide ‘5’ this time. Tunsil slides wide and narrow to the line of scrimmage and comes after the defensive end. Hendrickson reads this. He counters by jamming his right foot into the ground and tries to cut across Tunsil’s face. Typically, this leads to the end getting control of the inside half of the offensive tackle. Not here. Not against Tunsil. He gets his hands inside, his head on his chest, extends Hendrickson, and drives him across Watson.
Some quarterbacks would see this type of action and fade to the left, putting them in front of the leaping defensive end, and lose their throwing lane to the center of the field. On this throw too, Watson doesn’t worry about the drama unfolding to his left. He’s able to stay placid with a calm heart and deliver the throw.
This pass set is similar. The difference is Hendrickson is quicker to the inside move. Tunsil overextends wide, and gives the defender an instant path to the quarterback. All it takes is one wide step to recompensate and get back to the end. Tunsil keeps the end tight to him as he travels deeper into the pocket. Rather than punch right away, allowing the end to have a chance to spin back to the quarterback, Tunsil delays it, and shoves him wide and away from Watson. This is next level awareness.
Advanced hand technique is shown repeatedly by Tunsil. He isn’t Ryan Ramczyk yet, but he’s well on the way. Hendrickson and Tunsil time their punches at the same time like some good and evil force squaring off in a summer movie made for babies. Because of this, Tunsil isn’t able to get a good grasp of the defender’s chest. Since he’s in control of every block, and is always head up with the defender, he doesn’t have to scramble around in fear. He takes a breath. Elongates the rush. Takes another step. Squares back up. Pops and extends the end. His feet buy him multiple tries.
This is another great example of delaying his punch and recuperating. The end chops away at his first punch, plants, and jumps wide. Most offensive tackles will put everything in this first punch. This will leave them tumbling over and heaving while the end bends and runs at the quarterback in a bloodied frenzy. This is a sample, a taste. A lure quickly yanked back. He turns, takes another step, and is centered with the end once again.
You’d like for this next step to deeper so he’s more square with the end, but this is nitpicking. Despite being parallel with the quarterback, Tunsil is able to sit, extend, keep his hands inside, and deal with the drive.
When Tunsil’s hands are inside, and his punch is correct, he’s dominant. He’s unbeatable. The defender stands no chance whatsoever. Here Marcus Davenport (#90) rushes as a ‘5’ technique and is quickly devoured.
Even though his jump off the snap, and his feet are elite, he does have more problems against quick rushes than power ones. This is because of his hand placement.
Hendrickson delays his rush by going wide. This decision takes Tunsil by surprise. His punch becomes a slap. His inside hand is on the center of the defender which usually foreshadows doom and death. When Hendrickson is even with the quarterback he bends, and turns up and past Tunsil. Watson is a physic though. He sees the future and scampers away before the rush means anything.
Tunsil times his punch correctly here. He just misses. His inside hand is on the center of the defender, and his outside hand is on the outside shoulder. Hendrickson is able to slap his punch off him, rip with his outside arm, and get around his face.
This is where that athleticism comes into play. Even though Tunsil is beat, he’s wide and difficult to get around, and he has the quickness to run his feet and get back in front of the defender. Typical offensive linemen can’t get away with the sins Tunsil can get away with.
Tunsil did allow two sacks this game. The first was a mental mistake. The entire pass protection is sliding one gap to the right. Tunsil commits to the man, not the gap. When the defensive end loops inside, his head is down, and he can’t readjust to the blitzing linebacker. Tunsil should take one slide step inside, use his right arm to feel the defender while keeping his eyes up, and then sit and wait for Alex Anzalone. Instead Furio comes from the mother country with a freeway to speed through.
The other sack was pretty much impossible to avoid. Watch Nick Martin’s head here. He slightly raises it before the snap, and then quickly looks back down. It takes a frame by frame analysis to really see it.
When Hendrickson sees Martin’s head dip he takes off and moves instantaneously with the football. Tunsil takes his typical pass set. There’s nothing off or incorrect about it. He just looks like a mortal for the first time, blocking an edge defender who beats him to the point of attack. Tunsil gets one punch off, but can’t stop Hendrickson from getting to Watson. The only option he really has here is to see the future and take a vertical pass set.
Once Tunsil gets his hands figured out completely, he’ll be the type of offensive tackle who puts up zero sacks, zero quarterback hits, zero pressures allowed clean sheets. Defensive ends can’t bull rush him. Their only hope is to beat him with hands and quickness, and even then, their desires rely on Tunsil missing the target. His technique is too sound. He’s too much of an athletic force to beat any other way.
In the run game, Tunsil was isolated against defensive ends on outside zone run plays. Typically, these runs went the same. Tunsil would take two great zone steps and smother the defender. From there he would extend and drive him along the line of scrimmage.
This block is vital for a team running the outside zone. It allows them to run the play in either direction, to both the strong or weakside, pull a blocker to the backside of the play, and opens playside cutback opportunities—even against wide defenders.
Tunsil’s struggles arose when he didn’t drive the defensive end off the football. On 1-2-stalemate blocks it allowed defensive ends to sit and make a play on the ball.
This is easy to correct. Tunsil’s hand placement is correct here. They’re inside, the pillow stuffing a purple face, he just needs to turn the steering wheel, and put himself between the end and the running back. That’s all. This will allow running backs to cut inside of his block unharmed.
Houston rarely paired Tunsil with Senio Kelemete to execute duece blocks in the run game. It worked really well when they did. On their double teams they were able to get hip to hip, become one, like some holy union, and move the defender to the next level.
Malcom Brown (#90) is no slouch either. The only thing this block is missing is Kelemete peeling off to the second level to pick up the linebacker.
The 4th and 1 zone read touchdown is another great example of Tunsil and Kelemete working together. The linebacker peels down. Both players correctly take note of this and block down. Tunsil has Brown his own (#90). Kelemete has the linebacker A.J. Klein (#53). Tunsil takes a perfect zone step, picks up the outside half of the end, and drives him inside. His block runs into Klein, knocks the linebacker off balance, and makes it even easier for Kelemete. If the end sat, instead of chased down, the Texans would have easily converted this fourth down anyways.
He was better at the first level than the second level. At the second level he took some strange angles, and didn’t latch on well enough. On this power play, Tunsil commits to the first level even though Shy Tuttle (#99), as a ‘2i’, is too far inside to do much with. The Texans’ left tackle ensures he gets a hand on him, but he’s unable to get to the next level because of it. Carlos Hyde cuts this play out wide rather than run it where the lord intended.
He can make plays in space though. Houston was able to run the first succesful wide receiver screen in what feels like the entirety of Bill O’Brien’s tenure because of him. With Will Fuller cutting off the cornerback, and Tunsil getting his hands on linebacker Demario Davis (#56) and preventing a tackle attempt, Duke Johnson is able to cut inside and away from the unblocked defender. He digs a tunnel from the line of scrimmage to the first down marker.
Blocks like this, and plays in space, will allow Houston to do so many things. They can continue to evolve their screen game, they could pull him on dart and power, they can smash him into unspecting backside linebackers, and maybe, just maybe, be able to block the second level on outside zone runs.
The Tunsil trade has undoubtedly made the Texans a better team this season. Watson can play unhindered without worrying about some monster lurching onto the back of his neck. They can deal with teams who have two great edge rushers. The leftside will at least be competent in the run game, and it will make life easier for Howard as he tries to accustom himself to the absurdity of NFL football. These are all great things for 2019. Yet, Houston dismantled their future for the present because of it. They have, at a minimum, complicated, their ability to build the next version of their franchise once Watson is paid like an elite quarterback, and they may have hindered their ability to do so completely.
The future doesn’t exist. The past is dead. The only thing is right here and right now. All of that is for a future Bill O’Brien, or a future head coach, and Nick Caserio, or some other general manager to deal with. Because for now, for this season, the Texans finally have their first great offensive lineman since Duane Brown was traded two seasons ago.