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The Value of Things: Gaming the Linebackers

How much are the Texans counting on Christian Harris?

NFL Combine Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The Texans had nine selections in the draft this past month. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that when you have a roster that is fairly devoid of elite talent that you are unable to bolster every position group. Some positions are just unable to be addressed for one reason or another. Sometimes it just isn’t a priority. Sometimes it might be a weaker position in the draft relative to other years. Sometimes things just happen.

The Texans linebacking core was one of those position groups. The Texans made one selection on day two of the draft that actually caused Nick Caserio and Lovie Smith to hug it out. It was the selection of Christian Harris in the third round. Harris was a mainstay at Alabama. Of course, Alabama is loaded with defenders every year, so it remains to be seen what he will have at the next level. Derek Stingley Jr. and Jalen Pitre were selected earlier and both are important players, but I can’t imagine anyone is more important to the immediate success of the defense than Harris.

Looking back at 2021

Most of that is a function of the position and not necessarily Harris himself. If we look at the 2021 unit we see some really mediocre performance. I used PFF grades with the secondary when I gamed out that position. The Texans spent the offseason exfoliating the chaff and replacing it with players that had either done well in other organizations or they hope to be good players in the draft.

Usually, a 60 grade ends up being somewhere around league average. A good frame of reference is always helpful when you are looking at your team’s performance. We will probably look at the AFC South later on this summer when we have the time to do some deep dives. For now, we will look at the Texans in-depth. So, you will see each player’s snap count followed by their overall PFF grade, grade against the run, grade in coverage, and their pass rush grade.

Christian Kirksey: 789 snaps, 50.3 overall, 41.4 run, 61.9 cover, 63.1 blitz

Kamu Gruger-Hill: 777 snaps, 44.3 overall, 45.0 run, 45.8 cover, 66.2 blitz

Zach Cunningham: 494 snaps, 62.9 overall, 87.4 run, 41.7 cover, 50.7 blitz

Neville Hewitt: 324 snaps, 49.4 snaps, 46.6 run, 56.1 cover, 61.9 blitz

Whitney Mercilus: 323 snaps, 61.2 overall, 49.7 run, 64.3 cover, 65.4 blitz

Garrett Wallow: 180 snaps, 33.9 overall, 47.9 run, 29.9 cover, 66.6 blitz

Let’s start with the obvious. Wasn’t Whitney Mercilus a defensive end? I guess he was for the most part, but I would put him here to highlight a couple of things. First, he really didn’t fit well in this defense. Secondly, two players from last year’s team are gone and they were the top two players. That doesn’t bode well for the immediate future.

Cunningham is the best example I can think of for a phenomenon I’ve noticed in all three major sports. I hardly know what to call it, but something happens when a guy gets a significant raise in pay. Somehow, front office personnel and fans seem to expect that player to become someone else. I remember Carlos Lee signing a six year, 100 million dollar contract with the Astros. Fans expected an all-star. Lee put up the same numbers he always had, but the perception was that he underproduced.

Cunningham was the same way. He has always been a really good run defender. Those guys have value. Bernardrick McKinney was a similar linebacker when he was in Houston. Those are great guys to have on your team, but they are essentially two down linebackers. The Texans paid Cunningham like a three down linebacker and then started to use him as such. Guys don’t magically become better when you pay them more money. They just become richer.

Bringing the Band back together

So, essentially the Texans decided to bring the band back together. Mercilus and Cunningham were cut during the season as they failed to find takers in a trade for both players. Maybe they could have fetched sixth or seventh round picks if they wanted, but the main thing was getting their salary cap back in order. By 2023, those contracts will be completely off the books.

In addition to Harris, the Texans added Blake Cashman from the Jets. He played in all of 33 snaps for them in 2021. He managed a 29.1 PFF overall grade, but does that really count in the equivalent of a half of football? He actually had a 64.6 grade in 2020 and even qualified in 2019 (49.1 for 72nd out 89). So, I suppose he will fit right into the team concept.

Some draft profiles have Harris being an average starter eventually. If we look at Cunningham’s grade, that’s essentially what he was overall last season. When you read the summary it sounds like someone is describing Cunningham, “However, he could thrive as a chase-and-hit, weakside linebacker, where he can play faster. He can handle some coverage chores but it’s not his strong suit. Harris has the physical attributes and athletic ability to make plays as an eventual starter but he might lack three-down versatility.” Again, that kind of player has value. The key is not asking him to do too much.

So, let’s say that they use him in the exact role that the profile suggests. Essentially, you’ve replaced Cunningham with a younger and cheaper model. However, you haven’t gotten a lick better. Maybe you mix and match your guys a little better in year two of the Lovie Smith defense. However, the end result is likely punting this unit to the 2023 offseason when you have over 100 million to spend and more draft capital.