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Red Zone Play: Texans Don’t Build Through The Draft

Despite multiple statements to the contrary, actions speak louder than words.

Houston Texans v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

In one rapid fire succession of moves, the Houston Texans dumped former #1 overall draft pick Jadeveon Clowney and their next two years’ worth of first round draft picks, plus 2021’s second-rounder. Based on expected value alone, you’d think the Texans would have received a massive upgrade to their roster in return; after all, they did give up a Top 50 player and a chance to draft three more.

Instead, they got Laremy Tunsil, a desperately needed upgrade at left tackle, but not a player of Clowney’s level, and Kenny Stills, a solid deep-threat receiver who should help out Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins immensely. After that, Houston received a few lesser value draft picks and two linebackers who were rumored to be headed to the waiver wire within hours of landing on the trade table.

For a team that spent this past spring beating the “we build through the draft” drum after not doing anything significant in free agency (aside from bringing in Tashaun Gipson and Bradley Roby), there’s a big disconnect between actions and words.

Bill O’Brien:

“I think free agency is tough,” head coach Bill O’Brien said at Tuesday’s NFL Annual Meeting in Phoenix. “You try to do the best you can to keep your team together. We’re not going to build our team through free agency. We try to build it through the draft.”

Not sure if O’Brien’s knows this or not, but trading away all your draft capital for veteran players isn’t how “building through the draft” is suppose to work. Don’t take this the wrong way: Adding Tunsil is a big deal for Houston.

But so is paying Jadeveon Clowney to leave - which is essentially what Bill O’Brien did. Clowney was the last player from Bill O’Brien’s first draft left on the roster. While former general manager Rick Smith was clearly in control of the draft room back then, O’Brien’s influence has done nothing but grow since Clowney was taken #1 overall.

The only player to remain from the 2015 NFL Draft is linebacker Benardrick McKinney - a solid linebacker whose name was floated from “sources” as part of a trade package that would have sent Clowney to Miami, if Clowney hadn’t refused to sign his franchise tag tender, essentially blocking a trade that would put him in south Florida.

In 2016, Houston selected Will Fuller, Nick Martin and D.J. Reader. While Martin has yet to live up to the shadow his older brother Zack casts in Dallas, Fuller (when healthy) is an elite receiving threat. Reader is a solid, if not great, defensive lineman.

2017 brought the best draft pick in Houston Texans history not named J.J. Watt in Deshaun Watson. To acquire Watson, Houston gave away an additional measure of draft assets in order to rid themselves of [NAME REDACTED] and land the pick that ultimately brought Watson to Texas.

Zach Cunningham and Carlos Watkins (also acquired in the [Name Redacted] trade by way of the draft pick Houston received in exchange from the Browns) are the only others from that draft still hanging their helmets in NRG.

The 2018 NFL Draft was hamstrung by the Watson trade, but Houston struck gold with Justin Reid in the third round (I’m still somewhat shocked he was available when Houston picked). Bill O’Brien recently felt Houston needed a veteran running back more than another 2018 third round pick and traded Martinas Rankin to the Kansas City Chiefs in exchange for Carlos Hyde (another player rumored to land on the waiver wire moments before the trade) over the weekend. Cornerback Jermaine Kelly was waived as injured last month, leaving 6 of last year’s 8 draftees still standing.

During O’Brien’s tenure, Houston has now traded away first round picks three times prior to the draft and their second rounder twice. Odds are, these are, at a bare minimum, 3-4 starting caliber players Houston no longer has access to to help them get to the next level. Based on current depth charts, Houston has 21 “home grown” players on the roster, including 7 from the 2019 draft. That leaves only 14 who have made it through one or more seasons. Hardly the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers, who won four Super Bowls with a roster overflowing with their own draft picks.

With gaping holes still all over the roster, including the mammoth one they created by throwing away Jadeveon Clowney after stuffing his pockets with $7 million on the way out the door, the Texans are going to need those picks they gave up to land Tunsil. Let’s face it: The addition of Tunsil isn’t going to suddenly propel Houston to the Super Bowl this year. While many are exclaiming Houston has finally managed to protect Deshaun Watson, Tunsil is only one guy, no matter how huge he is. Even if Tunsil was Orlando Pace or Jonathan Ogden, he couldn’t single-handedly stop pressure up the gut or around the right side of the line. Now, if Houston could have landed Roger Saffold and Nick Martin would actually play up to his potential, things would be different - but those things haven’t happened.

Trading for Tunsil was certainly a good move, but historically, giving up two first round picks never works out for the team that gives them away. Walter Football currently has 11 offensive tackles projected to be 1-3rd round talent in the 2020 NFL Draft. Add to that 7 guards and 1 center. Based on the scarcity of talent at the tackle position right now in the NFL, they’ll all be gone by the time Houston picks in the third round. From that point of view, adding Tunsil made a lot of sense. But that fails to account for the hole Houston created in their front seven with Clowney, the holes they’ve not adequately filled in the secondary, or the specter of time and injury staring at J.J. Watt.

In hindsight, Houston could have avoided a lot of this by not signing [NAME REDACTED] in the first place. There were no signs he was a sure thing, no historical precedent that he was a franchise quarterback, nothing other than O’Brien and Smith’s observations from a joint practice with the Broncos.

After that blunder, the Texans could have avoided this past weekend by paying Jadeveon Clowney, signing Roger Saffold and Ju’Wuan James in free agency, and not getting jumped by the Eagles to lose Andre Dillard (or instead, trading up to land one of the other pro-ready tackles).

Where does the loss of future draft picks leave the Houston Texans?

  1. It greatly hamstrings the Texans’ ability to build through the draft over the next few seasons. While O’Brien’s former mentor-turned-bully Bill Belichick has always managed to restore any loss of draft capital through trades, O’Brien has no such resume. I Houston can land a savvy general manager, that person might be able to mitigate the impending future devastation of the 2019 offseason.
  2. Hiring said general manager. Knowing Bill O’Brien seems to be wielding power in H-Town like a teenage Kylo Ren, apparently flailing around in fits of megalomania, a lot of savvy GM candidates are just going to say no to interviewing with Cal McNair.
  3. Nick Caserio. If he is indeed Houston’s go-big-or-go-home target for their open GM seat, watching O’Brien leverage the future team building to land a starting left tackle and backup wide receiver probably makes staying in New England seem far more appealing than joining his buddies in the bowels of NRG Park.

What do you think? While having Tunsil and Stills is a good thing, has Houston gone to the bank and debited their draft capital one too many times? With no major free agency acquisitions to point at over the last five years and a seeming constant depletion of draft resources, how long can the Texans maintain this strategy before attrition takes out Watt, Hopkins, and closes the window on a team that just a few years ago had incredible potential?