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Texans’ Rebuild Must Begin With Defensive Front

Winning starts from front to back.

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

In the matter of three seasons, the Texans turned their biggest strength into their greatest weakness. They had depth, talent, and playmakers across the entire defensive line in 2018. And yet, we had no idea what we had.

We criticized Christian Covington for only stopping the run; now we beg for his quality gap control. We used D.J. Reader as a rotational piece; now he’s the fifth highest paid defensive lineman in the league. Angelo Blackson, Brandon Dunn, and Joel Heath were the cleanup crew when J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney decided to freelance. Watt and Clowney combined for 25 sacks, 34 tackles for loss, and 46 QB hits in 2018. Houston’s defensive line not only got after the quarterback, but you could not run against them.

Clowney. Reader. Blackson. Covington. Heath. One by one, the Texans have lost almost every single piece of their vaunted 2018 defensive line. They have let every one of these pieces walk during free agency, making only one significant move to replace these pieces. The pieces that remain—Watt, Dunn, and Carlos Watkins—are simply shells of themselves compared to the monstrosity we had before.

The Texans tried to add pieces to the defensive line through low and mid-level draft picks and bottom of the barrel free agents. Drafting Ross Blacklock with their first pick in the 2020 NFL Draft (in the second round) has been the biggest addition the Texans have made to their DL in the past three years. Unfortunately, Blacklock has been less impactful than your 2020 New Year’s resolution. Hovering around 20% of the snaps per game, the former TCU defensive tackle hasn’t shown any signs of improvement throughout his rookie season. He is nowhere to be found in the pass rush and has been a liability when teams run the ball at him. It’s far too early to put the “bust” label on him, but don’t mind me if I prepare for this draft pick to not amount to much.

The only new player who’s made positive contributions to Houston’s defensive line has been UT product Charles Omenihu. The defensive end is playing the ninth most snaps on the defense and has been the most consistent player selected in the 2019 NFL Draft. Outside of Omenihu, P.J. Hall was a high upside add who tore his pectoral muscle. Duke Ejiofor has spent his entire career on IR. Jonathan Greenard has been more disappointing than a gluten free bakery. Believe it or not, outside of their draftees, the Texans have not added a player the past two years to the defensive line who was not previously cut by a team the season before.

With the 2020 season coming to a close and the offseason nearing, Houston enters the free agency market with a meager $7 million in cap space. This is not enough to sign a top flight free agent who could come in and change things. It’s not even enough to sign a one-and-done type contract similar to Tyrann Mathieu’s 2018 deal. Expect the Texans to cut veteran defensive players such as Whitney Mercilus (owed $12 million in 2021), Benardrick McKinney ($8.5M), and yes, perhaps (but probably not) even J.J. Watt ($17.5M) to make room for new blood.

An above average defensive line is not only formulaic to a good team; it is integral to the success of this franchise. In all eight seasons where the Texans had a winning record, they held teams to less than 106 yards per game rushing. That may seem like a lot, but holding opposing offenses to around 100 yards per game rushing puts you in the top third of the league.

This year, the Texans are second to last, behind only the actually historically bad Dallas Cowboys. If the Texans are going to turn it around in 2021, it will have to start up front.