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The Texans Are Folding on a Golden Opportunity

With Deshaun Watson on a rookie contract, a talented roster, and a division in chaos, Houston should be pushing its chips in to become an AFC contender. Instead, the perplexing trades that sent Jadeveon Clowney to Seattle and brought in Laremy Tunsil show the franchise is as directionless as ever.

NFL: AFC Wild Card-Indianapolis Colts at Houston Texans Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Does anybody know how I can score an invite to Bill O’Brien’s poker game? The Texans entered the season with a hand that should have them going all in: They have a young, exceptionally talented quarterback on a rookie contract, several stars under long-term team control, and the third-most salary cap space of any team in football, and the quarterback of their main divisional competition just retired. Instead, just days before the season, they decided to fold on Jadeveon Clowney. Rather than use their ample salary cap space on retaining Clowney, who made the Pro Bowl each of the last three years, they opted to trade him—and botched the execution of the trade situation such that Clowney was able to dictate which team he was traded to. That meant that for Clowney, they got a return only slightly better than if he had sat out the 2019 season, and that to acquire much-needed left tackle Laremy Tunsil, they needed to pay a massive premium, including multiple first-round draft picks.

Hypothetically, we should blame the Texans’ general manager for the baffling Clowney trade, but of course, the Texans don’t have a general manager. Houston fired GM Brian Gaine in June, apparently with the plan of hiring Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio, whom O’Brien worked with during his five-year stint with New England. However, this was a terrible plan. The Texans weren’t legally permitted to talk to Caserio, and Caserio wasn’t interested anyway, as he opted to stay with New England, and the team didn’t have a backup plan, opting instead to handle the 2019 season without a general manager. They’re having four guys split the duties generally fulfilled by a general manager, but considering the Texans’ grand plan was to bring aboard O’Brien’s former coworker, I’m guessing he’s the guy pulling the strings.

As you can see from the Caserio debacle, the Texans are not exactly great at figuring out whether they have leverage or not. This became relevant again during the Texans’ negotiations with Clowney. Clowney hasn’t been quite the player the Texans dreamed of when they drafted him with the first pick in the 2014 draft—to be fair, he was being talked about as one of the greatest edge-rushing prospects of all time—but he’s clearly been a star. He was recently ranked as the 41st best player in the league by ESPN and graded as the no. 7 edge rusher in football by Pro Football Focus in 2018. He’s never posted double-digit sacks but has turned into perhaps the league’s best run defender from the edge position, a neat tandem with surefire All-Pro J.J. Watt.

Clowney’s rookie deal expired after the 2018 season, and it made sense for the Texans to try to keep him. After all, they’re in great position from a salary cap perspective. With Watson on his rookie deal through 2020 and Watt and DeAndre Hopkins signed to reasonable contracts that last until 2022, the Texans had $35.8 million in salary cap space this year (third in the league) and will have $78 million to spend in free agency next year (second in the league). They could afford a deal with Clowney and had plenty of reason to reach one.

Instead, the Texans placed the franchise tag on Clowney. This upset Clowney, in part because he’s listed as a linebacker instead of a defensive end, which costs him a bit over $1 million even though they’re basically the same position. Rather than take the $15.9 million one-year deal he would have gotten under the tag, Clowney opted to hold out, but it seemed like he was planning to eventually sign and return to the team.

Then it became clear the Texans were shopping Clowney on the trade market, and Clowney decided not to report. A critical distinction: If Clowney had signed, the Texans would have been able to trade him to anybody. But it’s illegal to trade an unsigned player, so because Clowney was unsigned, all of a sudden he had a big role in picking his trade destination.

That was a problem, because there was one player the Texans genuinely needed to trade for: Tunsil, who has emerged as one of the best young offensive linemen in the league, while the Texans have struggled to adequately protect Deshaun Watson. But Clowney did not want to play for the tanking Dolphins, so that trade opportunity never came about. Instead, the Texans had to part with a massive draft haul—two first-round picks and a second-rounder, a massive dent in the future of the franchise—to eventually get Tunsil in a separate trade.

And so the Texans traded him to his preferred destination—the Seahawks—getting a third-round pick plus linebackers Barkevious Mingo and Jacob Martin in return.

The logic behind trading a player ahead of his franchise tag year is that you want to get something in return for him in case he walks in free agency. But the Texans don’t really get anything in return for Clowney. Yes, they get a third-round pick in the 2020 draft, but … that’s literally what the Texans would have gotten as a compensatory selection if Clowney had left a year from now of his own accord.

The rest of the trade is worthless. Mingo, a famous draft bust, has been criticized by Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll and was on the verge of getting cut by the team out of training camp. Martin was a sixth-round pick in last year’s draft and only recorded nine tackles last year. The Texans essentially gave up a year of a Pro Bowl–caliber player for two mediocre players and a pick maybe 20 spots higher than what they would have gotten for simply letting Clowney leave. That’s better than nothing, sure, but it’s a whole lot worse than what they should have been able to accomplish.

The Texans have won the AFC South three of the last four years, and with Watson, Watt, and Hopkins in the fold, they still have the opportunity to cement the division as theirs. The Colts, who dominated the division this century, are on their heels following Andrew Luck’s retirement. The Jaguars just paid premium money for Nick Foles. The Titans have to figure out whether to sign Marcus Mariota to a long-term deal or let him leave, and both sound like awful options. The Texans should be making moves to dominate the league.

Yet in this massive moment for their franchise, they just traded a year of a Pro Bowler for next to nothing. In June, they wagered big on a general manager they couldn’t sign. Now, on the verge of a season when they should make the playoffs, they took a high-quality player they could have and should have signed and decided not to wager on him, instead handing him all the leverage in trade negotiations. This vastly raised the price of the trade they needed (to get Tunsil) and lowered the potential return for trading Clowney to the team he wanted. They eventually traded a legitimate star for replacement-level players and a draft pick that won’t help them in this critical season (and one they essentially could have gotten without even making a trade).

I still don’t know who’s in charge of the Texans, but I definitely still want that poker invite.

This piece was updated at 3:25 PT on August 31 with additional information after publication.