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2020 Houston Texans Offseason Preview: If I Was Bill O’Brien

This is where I would walk to if I wore these shoes.

NFL Combine - Day 1 Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

I have worn different faces, walked in different sacks of skin, and have brushed various sets of teeth across all the lives I have lived. I have been Rick Smith, I have been Brian Gaine, and now, I have taken my most hideous and diabolical form, for I am now general manager Bill O’Brien.

The Texans currently have $61.28 million in cap space according to Over The Cap. The Texans recently shed a little more than $10 million after releasing Vernon Hargreaves III—an empty skull decision. Hargreaves III isn’t a viable option on a good pass defense. He’s dumpster diving. He’s what you end up with after you don’t address cornerback poistion well enough in free agency. The Bradley Roby signing was a great idea. They should have signed two more cornerbacks last offseason.

They also resigned Bryan Anger, Brandon Dunn, and Whitney Mercilus ahead of free agency. Personally, I would have resigned Anger and let the other two walk. You can always find fat men to stop the run for cheap. I’m sure Ryan Pickett can still play. Mercilus doesn’t create a rush on his own, and his wide and looping pass rush angles require an interior rush. But he plays hard. He works hard. These two contracts could have been combined to go after someone like Bud Dupree. I’ll operate with these two under contract even if I don’t like it.

To create additional cap space I’d bring J.J. Watt in. He has the largest cap hit on the team with an amount of $15.5 million. That six-year $100 million contract is in its sixth year. Time is a lazy river and here we are again. I’d extend Watt for another three years and turn this current salary into bonus money to lower his cap hit to somewhere around $10 million this year. $8 million would be perfect. This means Watt is a Texan at age 33. Even on the tail end of his career, Watt should still be a useful bullpen pass rusher. I mean, Dwight Freeney had 8 sacks at age 35 in Atlanta.

There are a few players who can be carved out to create additional cap room: Zach Fulton $7 million, Senio Kelemete $3.25 million, Angelo Blackson $4 million, and Will Fuller $10 million. I’d remove Kelemete and Blackson from the roster. Kelemete isn’t a starter on this team, and the Texans’ already have an interior replacement in Greg Mancz. The Blackson signing was bad when it happened. It’s still bad. He can’t rush the passer. Zero sacks. One quarterback hit. Special Teams Player Of The Month. That’s his 2019 season. It’s easy to find cheap run stopping interior defenders, and Houston already has that with Carlos Watkins. $4 million? Blackson ain’t worth that. Houston has to improve the pass defense and every bit helps.

I’d keep Fulton and Fuller around though. Fulton has gained a lot of weight since coming to Houston. He’s like a Fulton and a half since the move from Kansas City. His movement is laborious, and he is no longer a quick foot zone blocking guard. The problem with Houston’s offensive line as constructed is it isn’t cohesive. Laremy Tunsil can play any scheme. Nick Martin and Max Scharping are zone scheme preferable players. Fulton and Howard are gap scheme blockers. They could find a better zone blocking guard at a cheaper price than Fulton. The one thing Fulton brings is that loving and beautiful word. Continuity. The Texans finally can say who their starting offensive line is week one 2020 in March. Let’s not mess that up.

Fuller played in “11” games this season, but quickly departed from 2 of them. The Texans had the seventh highest offensive variance, averaged 27.2 points a game with Fuller, and 17.2 points a game without him. It’s difficult game planning all week for Fuller only to watch him sit on the sideline helmet off and puppy dog eyed. He’s too valuable, and too great of a deep threat to give up on for one-year and $10 million.

What would be interesting is if Houston looks to trade Fuller. Personally, I wouldn’t, but Fuller is the best asset the Texans’ have. They could probably get a late second or an early third for him at a minimum. This could be enticing with a first round pick dedicated to Laremy Tunsil. They could then package these to selections to move up into the draft, and draft one of these absurd wide receiver prospects, or improve the pass defense, and then use the cap space to go after someone like Robby Andersen. I’d stay put. But these are possible options. There’s a reality out there where this exists, and it’s an intriguing one.

I, emperor O’Brien, now have $74 million this offseason. Before sifting through the free agents we have to look within. The following players are all free agents: Lamar Miller (RB), Carlos Hyde (RB), Darren Fells (TE), AJ McCarron (QB), Taiwan Jones (RB), DeAndre Carter (WR), Bradley Roby (CB), Johnathan Joseph (CB), Barkevious Mingo (LB), Jahleel Addae (S), D.J. Reader (DT), Chris Clark (T), Roderick Johnson (T), Dylan Cole (LB).

That’s a lot of names.

I feel terrible for Miller. He isn’t an ‘A’ gap runner. The Texans used him like Carlos Hyde, when they should have used him like Alvin Kamara. Now he’s 27 and coming off an ACL tear. He deserved better. Hyde was perfect for O’Brien. He could get the ball on 1st and 10 and get three yards and carry the ESTABLISH THE RUN illusion. He rarely breaks tackles. He broke 34 on 255 touches, which is 13.3%. He also doesn’t do much in the passing game. I’d look to free agency to find a running back to replace both players.

Fells caught seven touchdowns. The most he has caught in a season previously is three. He was good at knowing where to find space when Watson took off, and could box out smaller defenders in the redzone. The seven is an outlier. Redzone performance is one of those heartbreaking high variance stats. I wouldn’t expect for Fells’ to maintain this next season. Plus, Fells is an atrocious run blocker. My eyes yearn for prettier sights than to watch him pull and provide nothing at the second level.

The Texans also weren’t able to attack the seams with him on the field. The majority of his routes were quick curls and comebacks, long crossing routes to the sidelines, and of course, that dreadful read-pass option scamper into the flat. The 2020 Texans’ should be built around a vertical passing offense.

I’d rather roll with Jordan Akins, Jordan Thomas, and that CHAD Kahale Warring in 2020. The blocking difference between Fells and them isn’t much, Akins is a good redzone option, and they all offer more as vertical receivers—Warring especially. Then you can see what free agency competition you can bring in.

I want a quarterback who has similar traits to Watson. McCarron ain’t that. McCarron is a relic from the 2014-2017 Bill O’Brien guys, those vicious throwers who wasted a great defense, and all of our time with atrocious play. An O’Brien quarterback is either smart with limited talent or tall and with a big arm. McCarron is a fusion of the two. Tall and limited. Just think, if Houston didn’t have Watson, we could have spent 2019 watching McCarron start 12 games.

Jones and Mingo are special teams players. The Texans ranked 5th in special teams the past two season. They haven’t gotten enough credit improving at this aspect of the game. One of the keys to soaring to the heights they’ve never flown at before is finding players who focus only on special teams. Jones played 36.97% and Mingo played 75.36% of all special teams snaps, and less than 10% of their position snaps. I’d look to keep both on short term contracts to play special teams. Plus, whenever someone cries about Jadeveon Clowney, waaaahhhh, waaaahhhh, waaahhh, I can always point to BIG PLAY MINGO.

Carter can’t play here ever again after the kick off return fumble. I screamed when it happened. This has to the be the year Keke Coutee finally plays football.

In the secondary, it needs to be the end of Johnathan Joseph’s time. He’s 36. He doesn’t want to tackle anymore. Everything dies, this is no different. The greatest cornerback and free agent signing in franchise history will probably end up coahing here in a year.

Jahleel Addae is intriguing. The Texans play a lot of three safety sets. He was good in that role, but it’s such a valuable position. Zach Cunningham and Benardrick McKinney struggle in coverage. It’s worth pursuing a more talented third safety. Addae is a worm that would hang around only after other rocks have been flipped over.

The BIG decision is Roby of course. I’ll always love Roby. He did this. He was great at breaking on shorter routes and playing the ball.

The problem with Roby is he just had a cap hit of $10 million. It could cost a long-term contract and around $155 million a year to keep him. Roby could be worth it, because the market is wild, but he’s never going to be the best corner on a good pass defense. Last season, out of 88 qualified cornerbacks, Roby ranked 47th, 65th, and 49th in yards allowed per attempt, success rate, and yards allowed after the catch. This is what he came up with as a number one cornerback.. Houston may not have a better option than Roby this offseason. I would skimp on him, but it would be because of a scheme change. If the Texans are looking to play a lot of man coverage again, it would be worth keeping him for the brief prime of his career.

The other decision to make is Reader. D.J. was able to rush the passer until the Atlanta game. After that it all disappeared. He went from wiggly and using bullrushes and a nice outside move to doing nothing at all. Reader has never rushed the passer in his career, and last year was his best season at doing so. He had 2.5 sacks, 13 quarterback hits, and 14 pressures. This is fine. But Houston had a bottom six pass defense, and has to improve there. He primarily played 3-4 defensive end once Watt went down and they moved Dunn to nose tackle, and one of the perks of McKinney and Cunningham is you don’t have to spend a premium for run stopping defensive linemen when they can make plays without great first level play. I love Reader. I wish him all the best. Another team maybe able to juice him for more pass rushing, but the Texans haven’t been able to. I’d move on.

At swing tackle, the Texans are set to lose both Chris Clark and Roderick Johnson. Clark is the slightly better pass blocker, I guess, maybe, just barely, but doesn’t offer anything in the run game. Johnson flashed at the second level, is only 24, and could develop into a better pass blocker. He’s a fine swing tackle. He should stick around.

I don’t understand the Dylan Cole love. He stood in some hook zones and caught some passes. He’s always hurt. He’s like Mike Mohamed. Someone who will disappear from your memory one day until you read some esoteric super journalism like this.

All in all, I’d keep BIG PLAY MINGO, Jones, and Johnson. Everyone else can disappear for now. Let’s call it a $70 million for the 2020 offseason.

The last component of this team to address internally are the impending pay days of Laremy Tunsil and Deshaun Watson. Tunsil is under his fifth year player option at $10.3 million and Watson is on the fourth year of his rookie contract at $4.4 million. The Texans have almost wasted the premium team building cheat code; a quarterback on a rookie contract. I’d do everything I can to maximize this season. In this reality, Watson would player under the fourth year option, and we’d promise to pay him next offseason, and Tunsil would play under the fifth year option. If I had to guess, O’Brien will extend Tunsil this season and Watson the following season.

It’s going to be all about improving the pass defense when free agency opens up the sky in a little more than a week. Houston survived in 2019. They made the postseason because they won close games. They won close games because Deshaun Watson turned the spectacular into the mundane. The defense got by because of big plays by big players, a fairly high turnover rate, and a ball control offense that kept them off the field. This worked until they allowed 41 straight points to Kansas City, and the offense needed 14 points off special teams turnovers and a fake screen pass to score 31 points.

There’s an internet discourse whether or not pass coverage or pass defense is more important for a pass defense. There’s exceptions everywhere. The Titans had competent coverage the past two season, but a below pass defense because of a terrible rush. The 49ers made the Superbowl with a great pass defense led by their front seven, and Richard Sherman being their one major investment. The Patriots were led by their coverage and created just enough of a rush.

Whatever the answer is, I don’t know, but what I do know, based on the resources available, there are more sources of pass rush than cornerback play this offseason. Houston needs to grab one of the big pass rushers this offseason. My pick is Arik Armstead (#91). He can rush inside or out, he’s a plus run defender, he can play as an outside shade of the guard or tackle, he can play in a 3-4 base or a typical Nickle. Last season he had 10 sacks, 18 quarterback hits, 28 pressures, and 11 tackles for a loss. He’s 26 years old so you are paying for the prime of his career.

The only downsides are you are paying for one year of production, and this year came along a defensive front that had Deforest Buckner, Dee Ford (when healthy), Nick Bosa, and some spats of Solomon Thomas and Ronald Blair. His previous best season was 2018 when Armstead had 3 sacks and 12 hits. Last season was outlandish compared to this. Houston would need Armstead to lead its front seven. He wouldn’t a be a component.

The problem with free agency is you aren’t paying for what a player is worth, but what it takes for him to come leave his current team for yours. Talent is a premium. At the high end you are never going to get back what you put in. But this is a front seven that’s dying for top pass rushing talent on its own, and even more so when you consider the cornerback play behind it. I’d give Armstead 4-years $70 million, and would be willing to go bigger. We’ll call it $17.5 million for this season.

I wouldn’t stop there. I would add two more front seven players. One of which would be an Angelo Blackson replacement and someone who can take J.J. Watt off the field on run downs. Watt should only play 25 snaps a game or so. I love Jabaal Sheard for this role. He can play the run and pass, and can attack tackles in a variety of different ways. He had been the Colts’ best defensive player for the last few years. Supremely underrated. He’s always good for five sacks and double digit quarterback hits. 2-years $20 million. $10 million AAV.

Let’s watch him beat Tytus Howard again.

Houston still needs pass rushing help. You can never have enough of it. I love 30-something responsible pass rushers who play pass rushing downs only. Mercenaries on a cheap one-year contract with a monomaniacal focus. The dream is Robert Quinn. He was Dallas’s best pass rusher last season even after Demarcus Lawrence’s megaextension. He may want more than a one-year contract, and I have no feel for what his market would be. If it’s something absurd then Mario Addison and Benson Mayowa are other options. One-year $8 million. A pass rushing fiend. We’ll play the middle and go with Addison.

A configuration of Jacob Martin/Whitney Mercilus—Watt—Armstead—Addison is a murderous setup. Plus Charles Omenhiu and Sheard can sub in as needed. This is a pass rush that would run seven deep, should be a top ten one, and could make up for the problems behind them.

The cornerback market is a lot of older gentlemen you don’t want to give long-term contracts to. Jimmy Smith. Chris Harris. Logan Ryan. These are contracts you’d enjoy in 2020 that you’ll no regrats in 2021.

The idea here would be to change the scheme to more of a cover 3 or cover 4 scheme to try and get the most out of Lonnie Johnson Jr. Lonnie was one of the worst corners in the league his rookie year. He couldn’t press, he missed tackles and allowed 6.5 yards after the catch, and constantly lost players out of his break. He’s a body, a project, a specimen, not a football player just yet. None of this was surprised based on his Kentucky video.

The best move for Johnson Jr. would be to play zone coverage along the sideline and be a segment defender. The Texans could do this, move Gareon Conley to the slot, have Tashaun Gipson play deep middle, Justin Reid play robber, and then sign another cornerback to play the other sideline. This, plus a pass rush that can generate pressure with four alone, is the easiest way for the Texans’ pass defense to improve immediately in 2020.

James Bradberry is the best zone coverage corner available. He wants $15 million+. Right now we got $35.5 million. It would be enticing. It would be treacherous. In this pass rush heavy scenario it would be difficult to give Bradberry this, and then plot out Tunsil and Watson extensions. Levi Wallace is a suitable fix. 3-years $24 million. If he doesn’t leave Buffalo Artie Burns and Mike Hilton can slip in. Pittsburgh probably won’t keep both. I’d also add another corner once the first waves of free agency have beaten upon the shore.

If Houston plays a man scheme again next season they’ll be in the exact same place as last year. It’s rough. Unless they spend big on Byron Jones, and retain Roby, I don’t see a path to put together a good cornerback group. This is the biggest challenge they face this offseason.

As mentioned earlier, third safety is an important position. In a zone defense like this it would be even more valuable. The biggest hurdle for Houston is that McKinney and Cunningham aren’t pass coverage linebackers. Asking them to do Fred Warner things like carry the post, or chase crossers in match defenses, wouldn’t be a possibility. But if you go three safeties, or use a BIG or Buffalo Nickle, that lessens this problem.

Addae is an option. He was fine last year. What I’m going to do is sign Karl Joseph. Oakland’s former first round pick from a fired front office. He does have injury problems, but when he’s on the field he’s a game changer. Let’s give him the same sort of prove it contract that Tyrann Mathieu and Roby signed previously. One-year $12 million.

We are at $23.5 million and turning to the offense, and really, there isn’t much of anything to do. The Texans’ offense finished 17th in offensive DVOA and 14th in points scored because of play design and play calling, strange personnel usage, and offensive philosophy, not because of talent. By default, next year’s offense should be better.

The one position to address is running back. My favorite interior run option is Gus Edwards. He’s 25. He’s averaging more than 5 yards a carry over 200 carries. He’s like if Carlos Hyde was younger, hotter, and could actually break tackles. He is an exclusive free agent though and may hang in Baltimore for another season. I got 2-years $10 million to spend on him if he leaves.

That puts Houston at $18.5 million before rookie contracts and bargain bin shopping. $18.5 million also gives Houston flexibility to extend Tunsil for this season, and an action that solidified promises whispered to Watson.

In the draft it would be about finding spots to fill in where free agency couldn’t. The second round has to be all about pass defense, cornerback or pass rusher. Then, from there, I’d look at a guard to replace Zach Fulton in 2021, someone I could indoctrinate for a year ahead of time, a running back, since you can always find starters in the mid-round portion of the draft, a coverage linebacker, and of course, more pass defense help. Who are these players? I don’t know. It’s still early in the process. I’m only one man. I got cotton candy to mix. I’ll know by April.

Leave your Texans’ 2020 offseason plan in the comments below.