It took two hours for the Texans to drastically alter the shape of their franchise over the next few years.
The Texans first traded DE/OLB Jadeveon Clowney to the Seattle Seahawks for a third round pick along with linebackers Barkevious Mingo and Jacob Martin. They then traded OT/G Martinas Rankin to the Chiefs for RB Carlos Hyde, and Houston ended the day trading two future first round picks, a second round pick, OT Julien Davenport and CB Johnson Bademosi to acquire LT Laremy Tunsil, WR Kenny Stills, a fourth round pick, and a sixth round pick.
Shortly after the Texans’ exit from the NFL Playoffs at the end of last season, I wrote about how the Texans’ best chance to win a Super Bowl was right now. Deshaun Watson is uber talented and on a rookie contract, which would allow for the Texans to immediately improve the roster through free agency, knowing that they didn’t have to dedicate a huge portion of their salary cap to a single QB.
The Texans walked into this offseason with cap space that was both plentiful and unburdened by the prospect of saddling it with the salary of a star QB anytime soon. In this context, it wasn’t crazy to presume that the Texans would use that space to sign their supremely talented DE/OLB Jadeveon Clowney to a long-term deal and continue to build upon a strong point of the Texans’ roster. I certainly thought this. Rather stupidly, I suggested the Texans would absolutely not trade Clowney because they said they wanted to retain him. Of course, this was before the Texans decided to detonate their front office and Bill O’Brien assumed control of the GM position. O’Brien had never been interested in retaining Clowney and looked to trade him. The Texans had little to no leverage in these trade negotiations after July 15th, since they were unable to trade Clowney until he had signed his franchise tender. This gave Clowney veto power for where the Texans could trade him and reduced the number of teams Houston could make a deal with. This didn’t deter Bill O’Brien. The Texans eventually dealt Clowney for a package of players and a pick that was not equivalent to Clowney’s talent.
The Clowney trade was horrible and has a very real chance at being the worst transaction in the team’s history. The Texans got nowhere close to fair value and they never were going to. That didn’t stop Bill O’Brien, and in doing so, the Texans lost their best defensive player for what amounts to a bag of magic beans.
Losing Clowney makes a defense that ranked seventh in overall in defensive DVOA and first in run defense DVOA last year objectively worse. Clowney and J.J. Watt were the core of the Texans’ defensive line strength; as Rivers McCown (and this site too!) noted during the season, Clowney’s impact on opposing offensives made life easier on those around him. Clowney’s impact is felt beyond the simplicity of tackles and sacks. He has a gravity that must be respected. That is now missing, and the Texans’ defense will have to live without their primary wrecking ball no longer being there. No longer can Houston rely upon using Clowney as a interior rusher to collapse and force double teams on the inside. No longer can they stick Clowney on the edge and force RBs to chip and help towards his side. If we think of the decision to deal Clowney in the vacuum of whether or not it aids the team right now, trading Clowney was akin to shooting a limb off.
It should not surprise anyone if the Texans’ defense struggles even further this season after the loss of Clowney. The secondary was already stop-gapped by one year-contracts who have never lit the world alight with their play. The pass rush was above average last year, ranking 13th in adjusted sack rate. Without Clowney that, in all likelihood, will get worse; if it gets worse, the Texans’ passing defense becomes more and more reliant on an unreliable secondary. The Texans could not have made the Clowney trade without confronting the reality that they were making their team distinctly worse. This is the kind of trade that usually gets people fired.
On the other side of this ying was the Texans’ decision to trade two first round picks and a second round pick in order to acquire Miami Dolphins LT Laremy Tunsil. I am aware that there are other players and elements that are a part of this deal, but the high draft picks and those players are all that really matter.
I believe it’s possible to hate this trade yet still like it, considering its context. Trading away that level of draft capital for a player who is not an All-Pro or one of the 20 best players in the NFL is extremely eyebrow0raising. This is the bounty that is only reserved for the likes of perennial DPOY candidates like Khalil Mack. Tunsil is not that. Tunsil is really quite good, but it cannot be stressed how crazy it is to give up that amount of assets. First round picks are a team’s best chance at acquiring young, high level talent that can be held under contractual control for multiple years on a friendly contract.
If you take away those assets, you are essentially asking your team to become an outlier and consistently find talent in the late rounds of the NFL Draft. You might be thinking that teams find late round gems all the time, and you would be right. But those gems are never all on one team. They are dispersed all across the NFL because very few front offices can accurately find value there consistently. They can only hope they have a coaching staff who can turn most players into competent contributors. If you think the Texans are capable of doing this, tell me how Julien Davenport and Martinas Rankin are doing these days.
I feel like all that criticism is valid, YET I understand why the Texans did this. This offseason was centered entirely around finding five competent humans who could protect Deshaun Watson’s kidneys. Up until a few days ago, the Texans failed to adequately do this. If you disagree with that assertion, you probably hate this trade.
The Texans went into training camp with the decaying corpse of Matt Kalil as the projected starting left tackle. The trade for Tunsil was a valiant attempt at actually addressing the LT problem. Tunsil is a young and talented LT still on his rookie contract. He is everything the Texans could possibly want out of a LT right now. He’s the perfect band aid to the perception problem. The problem is that the Texans’ most prized asset, Deshaun Watson, spent most of last year being endlessly decked by a cavalcade of linebackers and defensive linemen. Considering Watson’s importance and some of the injuries he sustained last season, the Texans could absolutely not walk into 2019 without a visage of them attempting to help protect Watson. That need is even more pressing after the recent retirement of Colts QB Andrew Luck. Luck was supremely talented, but he was subject to years of abuse behind a woeful offensive line, and he suffered a slew of career-threatening injuries before finally having enough. Luck is a warning to all NFL franchises with a good QB. If you screw around and don’t protect your QB, this is what could happen. The Luck situation may have weighed into the Texans’ decision-making over the past few days. If the cost of protecting Deshaun Watson and the future of this franchise is two first round picks, it’s a simple deal, one that’s easy to make.
It’s still important to understand that Tunsil’s arrival does not fix the offensive line. There are still four other positions that are going to be occupied by rookies or players who were a part of the trash can that was partially responsible for Watson playing the majority of last season injured. Tunsil may fix the perception of the Texans’ offensive line, but he doesn’t change the reality that the unit is still highly suspect and filled with bad players. What the Tunsil move (and to a lesser degree, Hyde and Stills additions) did was firmly place the identity of the team around Deshaun Watson and the offense.
The Texans are going all in on this side of the ball. They are betting that an offense with Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller, Keke Coutee and now Laremy Tunsil is enough to make the Texans a competitive team who may be able to make a deep playoff run. This is to say nothing of the fact that the offensive game plan and scheme will be designed around a first year play-caller in Tim Kelly working with Bill O’Brien. It will require Kelly, O’Brien, or both, provide the Texans with something they’ve only had in brief stints over the past five years, and that’s a quality offense that maximizes the talent it has at its disposal. This has to happen because the Texans can no longer rely on being bailed out by a staunch defense. This is the team’s identity now.
Bill O’Brien was first hired to the Texans under the auspices of being a offensive savant. Now in Year Six of his tenure, he has a team that is built around his supposed strength. These are your 2019 Houston Texans, a team that’s betting it all on the offense.