The Texans’ offensive line has been a waterbed under Bill O’Brien’s reign. Centers play guards. Guards play tackle. Each tackle plays on the left and right side. Rarely do the summer ideas stick in the fall. The offensive line is constantly contorting into something entirely new under the weight of O’Brien’s decisions.
Chris Clark, Kendall Lamm, Julien Davenport each played right and left tackle. Oday Aboushi played both guard spots. Greg Mancz has started games at center and each guard position. Remember when Jeff Allen started at left tackle and played admirably until false sharting three times in a row as the pineapple man opened the gates of hell? Martinas Rankin, after missing an entire training camp, was immediately inserted at left tackle once Seantrel Henderson snapped his ankle in Week One and eventually picked up a few spot starts at left guard. Tytus Howard was drafted to play left tackle, started off at left guard, and eventually found his place at right tackle.
Duane Brown, Xavier Su’a-Filo, Laremy Tunsil, and Nick Martin are examples of the rare players who played one single position along Houston’s offensive line. Nearly everyone else has been scattered along it, most of the time to their own detriment, turning predisposed plans into a mangled and wheezing thing.
In this sense, Charlie Heck is the perfect offensive line selection for the 2020 Houston Texans. At North Carolina, he played both tackle positions, but was an entirely different player at the right tackle position in 2018 than the hunchback nuisance he was at left tackle in 2019. He participates in the wonders of positional versatility by providing competent play on one side and disastrous play on the other side.
The first thing to pay attention to when watching offensive tackle prospects is whether they can meet the pass rusher at the point of attack square. Often, collegiate tackles make it two kick-slides into their pass set before they bail, turning to the pass rusher to act as a wall between the rusher and the quarterback. This often works in the college game. The ball is out in two seconds. There are zany things occurring in the backfield, forcing defenders to watch in confused wonder. A tackle gives up two pressures in a season and has a ProFartballFocus Grade of 92.1, only for it not to translate to the next level.
The problem with turning is that it creates an easy inside path to the quarterback. NFL pass rushers devour this turn by cutting inside, or long-arming the inside shoulder and driving the tackle back to the quarterback.
Heck at the right tackle position (#67) did a fine job meeting the pass rusher square at the point of attack. Despite it being a passing down on 2nd and 8 here, the quarterback taking a three step drop, and going up against a smaller rusher, Heck easily cuts off the end and provides enough of a punch.
This is a similar set of circumstances. Passing down. Right tackle. Smaller fast edge rusher. This time, Heck has to bail on his pass set, but it’s because of the wide looping angle the end takes. He could, and probably should, get cute and vertically step backwards to meet him head on, but instead he turns, shoves the outside shoulder off the edge, and widens him around the pocket. This is fine as well.
Balance and hands were the two things Heck struggled with. Because of his lumbering 6’8” size, pass rushers usually took the edge to try to torch the corner against Heck. The Texans’ newest tackle moves well. Most of these attempts didn’t work. Yet when defenders took the inside path, they were able to generate pressure. Heck didn’t show the balance and lateral agility to pop back inside and stifle the pass rush.
CEO Mack Brown made it a point to discuss Heck’s broken finger in 2019 when discussing Heck’s movement up to the pro game. A broken finger would of course give a player fits along the offensive line when strangling the chest is a vital component of any block. The problem is Heck’s hands were iffy in 2018 as well before the digit shattered. He was spotty at punching and latching in pass protection back then, and wide hands would occasionally grab the sides of a defensive end.
Take this pass set as an example. Heck stops his feet as the defensive end sizes him up. Because of his size, he’s still able to open the gate and smother the smaller defensive end. His hands are wide, though. The end is able to get into his chest and into Heck’s outside shoulder. The size advantage doesn’t permit any pressure, but against bigger and better players, this setup typically leads to bad results.
All in all, when pass protecting on the right side of the line of scrimmage, Heck was above average and was able to do his job.
The other side of the line of scrimmage is when the big problems arose for HEck. Switching from one side of the line to the other isn’t an easy endeavor. The stance is opposite, and some bodies aren’t mean to bend in two directions. The steps flip. Contact is made on the left foot instead of the right. The body strength flips. Some people are one side dominant and don’t have the total body strength to anchor and provide explosion off each leg. If they know the playbook it’s easy to toss someone to the other side, but all too often, the actual performance rarely matches.
On the left side, Heck simply didn’t move as well. He didn’t have the same amount of flexibility. Heck became a back bender, not a hip bender. His balance problems to deal with inside moves were accentuated, and some of his pass protection reps were brutal.
Here he’s the left tackle matched up against the defensive end. He kick-slides to meet him at the point of attack. His first two steps are fine. He’s square. But he’s tall. His hands are wide and he’s showing them off instead of having them tight to the chest. He lunges when he strikes. The end easily slaps them away and gets after the quarterback, leaving Heck spinning around like a refrigerator in a tornado.
More problems against Temple. There’s a hitch in his third set of steps. Heck gets narrow before contact is made. This forces Heck to turn and gives the end an outside advantage for his edge rush. Hands are once again an issue. They’re wide. He’s showing them off. The end is easily able to knock them away with his right hand and rip under with his left. This isn’t a finger problem.
Against Wake Forest, Heck went up against more of a power rushing defensive end, someone who didn’t take the typical wide edge paths. Heck was better about keeping his hands inside, but he didn’t strike and strangle. Instead, he used his hands as antennas, ways to reach out and feel the defensive end. The end was able to get into Heck’s chest, extend him to create separation, and get off his blocks. This may be a finger problem.
Offensive tackles are never able to dominate and control a block when their hands and punch are weak. Ends can keep their feet moving, run wide of the block, and create pressure they never should have been able to create.
This is a play action pass against South Carolina on 2nd and 9. Heck doesn’t strangle this block. He’s comfortable merely being in the way. At one point, he takes both hands off the defensive end, allowing him to run wide off the block and pressure the quarterback from behind.
Heck is big, but he doesn’t play big. He doesn’t overwhelm blockers. You don’t have to be an orc with a basket of scalps to play offensive line. Players can consistently make blocks without earholing, beating one’s chest, and feigning dominance. That being said, there’s a lack of physicality in Heck’s game. There’s a good base and foundation here. But Heck needs to get stronger and meaner.
On this pass rep, Heck is blocking a gap down on the defensive end. He’s in good position. Square. Extended arms. Fine pad level, even if he’s bending more than squatting. The defensive tackle is still able to easily yank him down and rip underneath him to create pressure.
For two seasons, the hands and balance problems limited Heck’s ability to strangle defensive ends as a pass protector. On the right side, he had the mobility to still be able to wall off defensive ends and provide protection. On the left side, he was hunched over, leaning, and was constantly allowing pressures to defensive ends in a variety of ways. Just because a player can theoretically play both sides doesn’t mean he should.
In the run game, there was the same dichotomy in play. The masculine and the feminine. The yang and the yin. The right and the left.
On the right side, Heck moved especially well in the run game. He was able to consistently climb up to the second level and make contact. Just making contact is a difficult goal to reach for most offensive linemen chasing after zooming, wriggling linebackers. Heck’s contact at the second level wasn’t always great, but because of the size advantage, just getting there is often enough to make blocks.
Carolina is running an option play right here. Heck is almost in a three-point stance and heads straight for the second level since the end is being read on the pitch. He scoots up there, takes on the outside shoulder of the linebacker, and walls him off from the play entirely.
Heck was frequently able to get up to the second level and at least make contact.
The same brutality Heck lacks in the passing game is an issue for him in the run game too. Catching linebackers at the second level and getting in the way usually works. Downhill thumpers will catch the inside half, run through weak linemen, and find the football. Heck has good feet. He gets to the second level in fine fashion. But sometimes you have to bring it. On this rep, Heck doesn’t come flat enough down the guard’s block and catches the outside half of the linebacker—giving the defender an easy route to go through him and make the tackle.
Heck is a natural fit for a zone scheme. He moves well. The feet, quickness, and understanding of angles allows him to reach his landmarks and move defenders along the line of scrimmage. This is a nice backside outside zone double team with the right guard. He gets his head on the inside shoulder and is able to take over the block when the guard leaves to the second level. From there, he drowns the defender inside and creates an easy cutback lane.
On one-on-one edge blocks, Heck has the footwork to reach and hook edge defenders. All in all, Heck shows the ability to be a competent zone scheme blocker on the right side of the line of scrimmage.
On the left side, things were similar—he still showed ability as a zone scheme blocker—they were just a little bit messier. The biggest problem he had was his flexibility. As mentioned earlier, he was bending at his waste instead of at the hips. He couldn’t easily move on the left side with proper pad level.
Waste bending leads to leaning and lunging. Because of this, Heck struggled to keep up with defenders when they moved from gap to gap. Often, he would be left behind when defenders would cut inside or out to play the ball.
At both positions, strength was still an issue. After initial contact, Heck’s blocks would occasionally die out once his first burst of hip explosion ended. It left him high, stuck, and strangling. In individual blocks, he didn’t have the power needed to drive out defenders on his own.
The second level tenacity was missing on the left side as well. He was able to get there, but he didn’t do much when he got there. Again, this is often good enough, but you’d like for him to be a little bit meaner to ensure defenders can’t wiggle and chase back to prevent seven yard gains from becoming twenty yard gains.
It makes sense why Heck was selected in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL Draft. When you focus on the good things he did on the right side of the line in 2018, it’s not unreasonable. He constantly won his pass reps. Heck had the quickness to meet pass rushers head on. There was fluid second level movement. He reached his landmarks in the run game. He’s also everything a coach loves: monster size, intelligence, blocks the correct assignments, football lineage, and provided some semblance of versatility.
There’s enough of a foundation here. There’s enough to build on. My biggest concern for Heck’s career is the Texans’ track record under O’Brien. They’ve struggled developing young offensive linemen. They have consistently mismanaged their own talent with insane position switches. They’ve seen players leave Houston to play better and arrive only to play worse. Most importantly, during the Bill O’Brien era, the Texans have preached versatility instead of teaching their young linemen how to play one position well.
Of course, the Texans see Heck as both a right and left tackle despite him being much better at one spot than the other. Bill O’Brien said so himself.
“I think he can play both sides. Great guy. Really smart, works hard. Obviously his dad is a coach. We were thrilled to be able to go up there and get him. We made a couple of moves today that we were happy with and that was one. We were able to go up there and get a guy that we really targeted and we liked at that spot.”
Injuries happen. Disaster strikes. Football is a game of attrition. As easy as it is to lock in Laremy Tunsil at left tackle and Tytus Howard at right tackle, a simple inside zone run play can lead to a backside defensive tackle shoved at the end of the play, rolling into the back of a knee, and then you find yourself drunk on a Monday night calling up Chris Clark once again.
Bad things are inevitable. Swing tackles are a valuable part of any NFL team. An injury to an offensive tackle can’t derail a team’s entire pass protection in this passing league. Teams need a third body who can come in and provide adequate pass protection. For the Texans, this has been a common occurrence. A broken ankle. A sprained MCL. Disgusting sloshing sounds. By selecting Heck, the Texans are hoping to have a solution at swing tackle not named Roderick Johnson. They hope they can finally burn Clark’s business card from their Rolodex.
I don’t see Heck being able to fulfill this swing role in 2020—and probably not even next season—although Houston begrudgingly brought Johnson back and added competition in Brent Qvale. There’s a heck of a lot Heck needs to improve on. On top of that, he has a good way to go at just right tackle. A singular focus on one position would alleviate some concerns, but once again, the Texans already see him playing right and left.
Heck is someone who needs to go in Mike Devlin’s Crockpot for a year or two. Hopefully by then, eventually, he can be a future swing tackle and fulfill the insatiable desires of versatility. As of now, he’s only competent at right tackle and still needs some cooking to do even over there before he can be counted on to contribute.