It may be a high-flying, speed-kills, and “defense wins championships” league, but nothing is possible without a competent offensive line. It may have been 16 years since Blindside came out, but little has changed the importance of quality offensive linemen.
The Texans have invested mightily in their offensive line. They are 11th in the league in salary cap allotment for their offensive linemen, according to Spotrac, at $40 million, just above the league average of $35.4 million. But it’s not the capital expended. It’s the draft picks spent.
Laremy Tunsil, along with Kenny Stills, and several lower round picks, cost the Texans Julie’n Davenport, Johnson Bademosi, first-round picks in 2020 and 2021, and a second-round pick in 2021. Essentially Tunsil cost the Texans a first, a second, and a good right tackle for the 19 games he’s participated in since arriving in Houston.
The year before, the Texans previously doubled-down and selected Tytus Howard and Max Scharping with their first and second round selections in the 2019 NFL Draft. Stylistically, it was a fantastic idea, but Scharping has not lived up to his draft pedigree. Throw in Martinas Rankin in 2018 and Charlie Heck in 2020, and the Texans have spent a legitimate amount of draft stock to be this bad at the position.
Unfortunately, the Texans are in a ‘why stop now?’ mode as they do not have clear cut answers at four of the five offensive line positions. Interior linemen are a problem entering 2022 unless Tytus Howard moves inside again.
The Texans can solve their most of their offensive line concerns in one fell swoop later this month. They own the third and thirteenth picks in the draft and could feasibly select two instant impact starters. A pair from Evan Neal, Ikem Ekwonu, Tyler Linderbaum, and Zion Johnson would alter the team’s offensive line for the foreseeable future. It would also send a clear message to the league about the team’s new identity and priorities. Davis Mills, or his future replacement, will be well protected behind a competent offensive line.
Boston College G/C Zion Johnson (@_ZJ77) was named 2022 Reese’s Senior Bowl Practice Player of the Week. This is an overall game week honor awarded to one position player on both American & National rosters. #TheDraftStartsInMOBILE™️#BestoftheBest pic.twitter.com/W61G0rU8ED— Jim Nagy (@JimNagy_SB) February 5, 2022
All four players are multi-year starters at their college with position versatility. Linderbaum would start at either guard or even center. Neal was quoted this past week saying he ‘can make an impact at any position except center’. Ekwonu would be the baddest man on the offensive line and grades out as a Pro-Bowl caliber right tackle. Zion Johnson is a pass blocking machine and hard-nosed run blocker.
With the infinite amount of holes on this team, being above average in one department could lift the woeful tide in the others. Better protection and blocking opens up the offense, even with lesser talent at the skill positions. It gives young prospects time to grow and shine. It creates salary cap flexibility for other high-impact positions.
My personal preference would be for Evan Neal and Tyler Linderbaum to become Texans in a few weeks. Neal is simply too polished to pass up, and Linderbaum is a picture perfect (though small) center. Both would IMMEDIATELY be improvements and require less development than Ekwonu or Johnson. These are the two players who could be long-term solutions, perhaps even with All Pro upside. That’s putting a lot on guys who haven’t even been drafted, but the early first round is for generational talent, and these guys are it.
It may not be sexy, but I’ll bite the bullet if it isn’t logical. When the rebuild happens, look to the new offensive line to be the cornerstone of the process.