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Revisiting The Laremy Tunsil Trade

A look back at Bill O’Brien’s brashest decision.

Houston Texans v Tennessee Titans Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

In case you forgot, back in the 2019 offseason, the Houston Texans signed Matt Kalil in free agency. Specifically, Houston signed Kalil to a one-year $7.5 million contract, the type of money you give to someone who you expect to start at offensive tackle for you. The Texans then drafted Tytus Howard and Max Scharping that April. They thought, at the time, their offensive line troubles had come to an end.

Then the pads were put on. Kalil suffered from a mysterious injury, and the diagnosis was embarrassment. Bill O’Brien kept him off the practice field and placed him on the sideline, immediately after training camp began, to hide from the colossal mistake he made. Kalil was released before the season began and never played a snap for Houston. Howard couldn’t play left tackle. Scharping couldn’t play right tackle. Neither were surprising revelations considering their college tap and the situations they were jumping out from and into at the professional level.

Thus, immediately before the 2019 season began, Bill O’Brien was staring at another season of Julie’n Davenport at left tackle, or Howard or Kalil at left tackle. O’Brien’s grand idea of trading Jadeveon Clowney plus whatever else to the Miami Dolphins for Laremy Tunsil was nixed by Clowney because Clowney would refuse any trade to a non-contender since he had yet to sign his franchise tag.

O’Brien continued to call Miami over and over again, trying to fix what he screwed up. Eventually the Dolphins acquiesced. It only took Davenport, a 2020 first round pick, a 2021 first round pick, and a 2021 second round pick, plus Miami sweetening the deal by adding Kenny Stills, a 2020 fourth round pick that became project swing tackle Charlie Heck after a couple of trades were made, and a 2021 sixth round pick to make it happen. Desperation created a desperate package, one so obscene that even Laremy Tunsil wouldn’t have turned it down.

To make matters worse, O’Brien didn’t push for Tunsil to agree to a contract extension at the time of the trade, which gave Tunsil—who was entering the final and fifth year of his rookie contract—all the leverage in the world when it came to negotiating a new contract with the Texans. After giving up so much to acquire him, there was simply no way the Texans could or would let Tunsil walk in free agency. Hence, it surprised exactly no one when Tunsil—without an agent, mind you—used the Texans to completely reset the market for offensive linemen via a gigantic three-year extension.

By making that trade for Laremy Tunsil, the Texans added a top three pass protecting left tackle. With Tunsil in the lineup, Houston ensures that pass rushers like Yannick Ngakoue, or Frank Clark can’t wreck their offensive gameplan. Deshaun Watson doesn’t have to worry about the rush coming behind him, only the rush in front of him and then behind him once he scrambles around the pocket to try and make plays happen. Tunsil is a great run blocker, but not the kind that has dramatically changed how Houston designs their run game. He’ll never make an open field block in the screen game. The oh-my-goodness blocks are missing from him, outside of what he provides in pass protection. He does one thing better than just about everyone else, but the other aspects of his game leave yards on the table.

Tunsil is one player, playing a vital position. It’s still a position whose impact doesn’t stretch beyond the two gaps he occupies. Despite adding Tunsil, Houston ranked 27th in adjusted sack rate last season (Ryan Fitzpatrick had a lower sack rate than Watson in 2019), 18th in pressure rate, and 10th and 27th in adjusted line yards on runs over the left edge and left tackle. This season, Houston is 31st, 24th, 26th, and 8th in those same metrics. It takes an entire ecosystem to run the football and protect the quarterback. A franchise left tackle doesn’t solve every problem a team has. Houston is the epitome of this.

There isn’t a left tackle in the league worth what Houston traded for Tunsil. It was a short-sighted trade made to fix a glaring problem. The ramifications from it wouldn’t affect the 2019 Houston Texans. That squad was all in for 2019. It ended with them blowing a 24 point lead in the Divisional Round at Arrowhead Stadium thanks to a pass defense O’Brien severely neglected and leaked talent from the previous three years.

The Tunsil trade has affected the 2020 Houston Texans and will severely hamper the 2021, 2022, and 2023 Houston Texans, teams that Bill O’Brien will never play a part of. Adding Tunsil was great for the 2019 Texans because it didn’t cost Houston current assets; it cost them future assets. The lack of a first round pick in 2020 and paying Tunsil as much as they are has certainly affected this year’s team. This trade will also complicate things for the next leadership group as they try to build a contender around Watson who, combined with Tunsil, are set to make a combined $35.3 million in 2021 and $61.5 million in 2022, all while missing top draft picks, which provide the cost-effective talent that’s necessary to build a roster around two players that make as much as Watson and Tunsil do.

Part of the argument in favor of the trade when it was made back in 2019 was that Houston would be picking in the 20s when these picks were made. Football is a mercurial game. Due to a short schedule, violence that causes brutal injuries, and the way contracts are designed, stability is difficult to find. Win-loss records swing wildly year to year. In the span of a single season, Houston has dropped from 10-6 to their current 2-7. Consequently, the Texans didn’t give up a late first round pick for Tunsil in 2021. Instead, they’ve given up what Football Outsiders projects to be the 6th and 38th overall picks in the 2021 NFL Draft. For a team that needs to completely retool its skill position group and rebuild its entire defense, those picks would have been monumental. Going forward, Houston has an underperforming offensive line and a great quarterback that can only manage 22.2 points a game this year.

The Miami Dolphins have already reaped the rewards of the Tunsil trade. They traded down with Green Bay in the first round of 2020 NFL Draft and added another fourth round pick. They used the 30th overall pick to select Noah Igbinoghene, a 21 year-old cornerback who’s part of a rotation that is ranked 8th in pass defense DVOA. After other trades were made, Miami eventually selected Solomon Kindley, one of their starting offensive guards, in the fourth round; he has been a monster all season long.

Tunsil was replaced by Austin Jackson, a mid first round selection Miami made with the pick they acquired in the Minkah Fitzpatrick trade with the Steelers. Despite up and down play and stints on injured reserve, the Dolphins’ offense has been passable, because unlike his counterpart in Houston, offensive coordinator Chan Gailey understands how to design an offense that gets the ball out quickly in a wide variety of ways. Miami hasn’t missed Tunsil one bit this season. They’re the ones in the middle of a playoff run.

Since the trade, both teams are on different trajectories. Houston’s season has been effectively over since a loss to Minnesota dropped them to 0-4. They have a franchise quarterback who is a MVP caliber player, but the Texans will have to navigate salary cap issues and a lack of draft capital because of their decision to trade for Tunsil. Miami is 6-3, has a young and cheap roster, a top pass defense, and with Houston’s draft picks for next season, it’s going to be easy to build a Super Bowl caliber roster around Tua Tagovailoa.

Notwithstanding the lack of immediate impact, the Laremy Tunsil trade was disastrous for the Texans in 2019. There isn’t a left tackle in the league worth two first round picks, a second round pick, and a cap hit of $20 million plus a season. Left tackles are important, but hell, they aren’t that important, and they don’t make an entire offense. This move hampers how Houston is able to redirect its course and build a team around Watson in the post Bill O’Brien era. Houston sitting at 2-7 only makes what was already horrendous even worse.

Bill O’Brien may never have to answer to us. Eventually, his heart will be placed on a scale with a feather on the opposite end. And then, only then, will he be condemned for the sins he made that destroyed our favorite football team as he screwed up an impossible to screw up situation—the golden ticket, the holy grail, the cheat code, a great quarterback on a rookie contract.

The Tunsil trade was bad in 2019. It’s bad today. It will be bad for the next three to four seasons as Houston tries not to waste Deshaun’s career like they wasted Andre Johnson’s, J.J. Watt’s, and nearly DeAndre Hopkins’.


Was the Laremy Tunsil trade good or bad?

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