The Texans And The Division Winners Outside The Contention Ring

The Texans have mishandled a lot of things this offseason.

They placed the franchise tag on Jadeveon Clowney, believing they were buying themselves time in order to pay him the contract he deserved, only for those discussions to turn sour and go nowhere.  They signed Matt Kalil to a one-year, $7.5 million with $2.25 million of it guaranteed only to cut him this past weekend.  They traded a fourth-round pick that can become a third-rounder for Duke Johnson Jr., who figures to be featured enough in the offense with Carlos Hyde that Houston will owe that third-rounder (The condition was based off whether Johnson plays in 10 games or not).

And this past weekend, they only added to the carnage, sending Clowney out the door for Jacob Martin, Barkevious Mingo and a third-round pick while trading two firsts, a third, Julien Davenport and Johnson Bademosi for Laremy Tunsil, Kenny Stills and a fourth-round pick.

The moves in the grand scheme of things are complicated.  The Texans are close to landing in yesterday’s column.  They need DeShaun Watson to stay heathy, which is partially dependent on him having a good offensive line, a sore need that was certainly addressed.  Despite the addition of Tunsil, one of the best tackles in the league, they still need three offensive linemen for the right side (First-round pick Tytus Howard will start and projects well); Sentreal Henderson was a nice player until he started playing like the seventh-round pick he was.  Nick Martin was not effective at center last season; neither was right guard Zach Fulton.

Offensive lines are like baseball teams. One guy can be good individually and it won’t mean anything if everyone else is trash.  Tunsil can’t put the whole line on his back.

In Tunsil, the Texans have a piece they can build around along with Thomas.  He’s young at 25 years old still, and a contract extension seems to be forthcoming sometime before next season.

Tackles are hard to come by.  Are they so hard to come by that it’s worth two first rounders and a second to get one that’s good?  Probably not.  Sure, Kenny Stills was thrown in, and while the Texans did need another weapon for a receiving core that can be partially blamed for Watson’s struggles, he’s not moving the needle.  Stills is a decent slot receiver whose production can be inconsistent.  Him and a fourth in addition to Tunsil just doesn’t feel like enough to give up two firsts and a second for.

You make this move if you know it’s the move that makes you a contender.

While The Ringer’s Robert Mays is right about Houston having a better chance, it doesn’t mean that they had one in the first place.

The Texans weren’t a team listed yesterday.  While Andrew Luck’s retirement makes them the favorite for their division, they aren’t a contender.

Tunsil is the first piece to make that the case.  But there’s still a lot of work to be done.

The Tunsil trade was a win-now move.  Trading away, or not paying, Clowney was not.

Either both have to happen or neither do.

The top two position groups you pay a premium for are quarterbacks and pass rushers, unless you have a true stud at another position (Tunsil will be a perfect example of this).

Clowney checks both boxes.  He’s a pass rusher and absolute stud.  There shouldn’t have been much negotiating between him and the Texans.  As long as Clowney’s demands weren’t exceeding $20 million a year, Houston should have been offering a blank check.

Perhaps their thinking was that Clowney wasn’t a detrimental loss.  That is partly true; this defense, and specifically the defensive line, is still pretty good with JJ Watt and Whitney Mercilus, along with new safety Tashaun Gipson Sr.  But keeping Clowney protects the absolute menace up front; that’s the most terrifying defensive line in the league, and at a time where pass rush is your most valuable asset on defense, trading Clowney, especially for the bag of chips they got back, is nonsensical.

The return can be defended by the lack of leverage Houston had, but that lack of leverage is still their fault.  Jacob Martin might be the most valuable asset received back. This is someone who was a sixth-round pick of Seattle’s in the 2018 Draft.

Houston must like the potential.  Martin was only on the field for 22.7% of the Seahawks’ defensive snaps last season and garnered only nine tackles.  He did have three sacks and forced two fumbles though, and Pro Football Focus graded him at a 66.5, which is considered to be in the range of a backup, but for a rookie with limited snaps may not be as bad.

Mingo, meanwhile, has been nothing but a journeyman.  He was better with the Seahawks last season, but PFF still had him graded at 55.4.

The Texans did a lot to get close to nowhere.  Sure, Tunsil is a foundational piece going forward, but after this weekend’s confounding moves, do we trust them to make the Tunsil trade pay off?

A couple other teams find themselves in the Texans’ position.  No, not the position where management is incompetent, but stuck in the middle as a division winner not equipped to win the Super Bowl.  Here are two other teams that find themselves there.

Cleveland Browns

Despite the ceiling being much, much higher than Chicago’s, the Browns are in a similar position to the one the Bears were in last season: They may be a year away.

The biggest difference between the Bears and Browns is the hype.  Cleveland has a lot to live up to.  The projections of 12 wins are quite high for a team that has a second year quarterback, a rookie full-time head coach and a division that, despite not having any contenders, still has two other quality teams in it.

The Browns won’t disappoint.  That is, if your expectations aren’t too high.

The defense is really good.  Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon are a ferocious pass rushing duo with Sheldon Richardson in the middle.  The secondary has Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams (One of my favorite prospects in the 2019 Draft), along with Damarious Randall and Morgan Burnett at the safety spots.  It’s not a defense that’s going to carry a team, but it’s not going to have to.

Or at least, it shouldn’t.

There are new faces that will have a prominent role in the Browns offense.  Freddie Kitchens has to work Odell Beckham Jr. and Kareem Hunt into the scheme, which is protected by an offensive line that has some holes.  Joel Bitonio, JC Tretter and Chris Hubbard are all solid or better, but Greg Robinson on the blindside and Eric Kush on the inside is a tad concerning.  Second-year guard Austin Corbett could move inside to replace the journeyman Kush, but rolling with more inexperience may make the problem with the Browns worse.

These concerns are minimal.  Cleveland should be really good, and incredibly fun to watch.  They should win the AFC North.  But the label of “contenders” may be a tad premature.

Minnesota Vikings

The NFC North is full of potential.

The Packers could be a Super Bowl team if not for a stunning lack of talent around Aaron Rodgers (More on that tomorrow).  Chicago the same if not for the loss of Vic Fangio and the existence of Mitchell Trubisky as their quarterback (Again, more on that tomorrow).  And the Lions, well, we’ll get to them Thursday.

Point is, the NFC North should be football’s best division.  It still could be.  But major issues bring each team’s potential down.

Minnesota’s problem shouldn’t be one at all.  They rival the Eagles for the most talented roster in football.  On paper, they have a top five defense and one of the best receiving duos in the league, in addition to a young running back whose ceiling hasn’t even been scraped yet.

Their quarterback, the one who they still owe $60 million to, is what is holding them back.

But Kirk Cousins wasn’t the only issue last season.  Despite ranking fourth in DVOA, Minnesota’s defense was nearly as good as it was during the 2017-18 season.   Their rush defense, which was without Everson Griffen for five games, dropped from 6th to 11th in the league last season according to DVOA.  They allowed the 15th most yards allowed on the ground per game last season, computing to just an average rush defense.

This year, that shouldn’t be as much of an issue.  Griffen is back, and so is Anthony Barr, who almost left for the Jets in free agency.

The secondary, which struggled last year despite the numbers, should be better.  Xavier Rhodes looked like a shell of himself last season, which set off a chain reaction in the secondary’s performance.  If Rhodes can get back to his Pro Bowl level, the Vikings D should return to the level it got to two years ago.

It all comes down to Cousins.  His 7.1 yards per attempt last year was the 24th best in the league, ranking him in the bottom third of passers.  That number came in below names like Marcus Mariota and Eli Manning.

The offensive line wasn’t great, but it should be better this season.  Minnesota drafted North Carolina State center Garrett Bradbury to hold down the middle.  He may not make the All-Pro team like Quenton Nelson did last season, but comes in about as ready for the NFL as Nelson was.  Perhaps he can help Cousins make the big-time throws, and lead block for Dalvin Cook, who will be a fun new weapon for Cousins to rely on and play with.

The Vikings should win the NFC North.  They’re coming off a disappointing year, unlike Chicago.  They’re more talented than Green Bay.  They’re much more talented than Detroit.  This team should be a contender.  Cousins will have to make that happen.