At first glance, the Houston Texans seem to have all the trappings of an NFL contender. They have an MVP-caliber quarterback in Deshaun Watson, who can transform into a superhero at any moment. The roster features some of the league’s most marketable stars in DeAndre Hopkins and J.J. Watt, both of whom routinely take over games on their own. When the Texans are clicking, they capable of performances that make you step back and wonder, “Why can’t this team win the Super Bowl?”
But there are also moments when the answer to that question is pretty clear, like when Broncos rookie quarterback Drew Lock diced up Houston’s defense in a puzzling 38-24 blowout last Sunday. The Texans have undeniable star power, but the spotlight trained on those guys can mask the roster’s deficiencies—as evidenced by the pass rush that’s been nonexistent since Watt went down with a pec injury in late October. There are times when the Texans look ready to challenge for a championship, but 13 games into the season, this is an 8-5 team that could relinquish first place in the AFC South by losing to the Titans this week.
The Texans are still the division favorites and have the potential to make some noise in the postseason. And if Watt can return from his injury, those chances will only grow. But even if Houston does sneak into the playoffs, it probably won’t be rattling off road upsets as part of some miracle Super Bowl run. The 2019 Texans season feels like the type that ends on a cold, divisional-round Saturday in Baltimore, as 10-point underdogs to Lamar Jackson and the Ravens.
Double-digit wins and a playoff victory would qualify as a successful season for nearly every franchise in the league, but at this stage, the Texans have grander ambitions. Watson has one cheap year remaining on his rookie contract (he’ll carry a $4.4 million cap hit in 2020, which will rank 29th among QBs). After assuming personnel control last spring following general manager Brian Gaine’s firing, head coach Bill O’Brien swung a series of aggressive deals designed to add the finishing touches to Houston’s roster. The Texans are built to win right now, and to a degree, they have. But another championship weekend is likely about to come and go with Houston watching from the couch. With a crucial offseason looming and the organization’s unconventional front-office setup unlikely to change in the near future, now is a good time to examine where this Texans franchise is—and how it gets where it wants to go.
When Gaine was fired in June, speculation immediately began about Houston potentially pursuing Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio to replace him. But after an initial interview request was rebuffed—and subsequent tampering charges were filed by New England—Houston decided to go through the 2019 season without a general manager. Some assumed that the Texans might ramp up their efforts again during the offseason, but earlier this month, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that the team planned to keep its current front office structure in place next season. This is O’Brien’s show.
As the head coach and de facto GM, he’ll reportedly have final say over personnel matters, with significant input coming from executive vice president of team development Jack Easterby. If Easterby’s job title sounds unfamiliar, it should. Easterby came to the Texans in April after six years as the Patriots’ “character coach,” a role that involved helping players and other team personnel manage their emotional well-being. “As men, sometimes we don’t know how to deal with different emotions or ups and downs,” Patriots special teams ace Matthew Slater told ESPN’s Seth Wickersham in 2015. “We don’t grieve the way we should, experience sadness the way we should, or express joy the way we should, because we’re so focused on the job. Jack has been there to say, ‘It’s OK to be down. It’s OK to have heartache.’” Easterby jumped to the Texans this spring to take on a more significant role, and he’s certainly found it as O’Brien’s right-hand man.
O’Brien’s tenure at the helm has been … lively, to say the least. In the span of one day in late August, he traded Jadeveon Clowney to the Seahawks for a third-round pick (and two backup defenders), and then sent two first-round picks and a second-rounder to Miami for left tackle Laremy Tunsil and wide receiver Kenny Stills. O’Brien has also traded a conditional fourth-round 2020 pick to Cleveland for Duke Johnson (which has since become a third-rounder based on the running back’s playing time), and he eventually sent the third-rounder he acquired in the Clowney deal to Oakland for cornerback Gareon Conley. Let’s just say that Houston’s front office has been busy these past few months.
Houston’s hectic day in late August was initially met with some heavy criticism. After the Seahawks got a first- and second-round pick for Frank Clark in April, netting only a third-round pick for a player like Clowney—who’s been a force of nature in Seattle this season—was tough to defend. But that trade was a culmination of choices that started months earlier. Clowney’s injury history and the implications that might stem from a huge payday made the Texans hesitant about handing Clowney a monster extension before he was set to hit free agency this spring. By putting off the decision, Houston found itself in a precarious spot this summer when it became clear that keeping him on the roster (by way of the franchise tag) wasn’t in the team’s best interest. On the eve of the season, O’Brien and Co. took what they could get.
The Texans were also lampooned for surrendering so much draft capital in the Tunsil deal, but Houston would likely justify that move by pointing to a growing sense of urgency with the last years of Watson’s rookie contract coming up. After failing to properly address the team’s offensive line concerns last season, O’Brien did what he had to do to give Watson every chance to succeed in 2019—the same way teams like the Rams parlayed a series of aggressive moves into a Super Bowl appearance last season with Jared Goff was still on his rookie deal.
Even if those explanations seem shaky, it’s easy to see how the front office could rationalize its moves so far. With Watson’s payday on the horizon, the Texans want to maximize the roster right now, even if that means sacrificing some value in the long term. But that mind-set also exposes the downside of handing control of the roster to a coach. O’Brien’s desire to put the best team on the field, draft capital be damned, may come at the expense of the franchise’s long-term outlook. This type of philosophy has succeeded in New Orleans, where Sean Payton has a large role in personnel decisions, but as O’Brien will discover, the degree of difficulty is quite high. Tunsil has unquestionably made the Texans better, but in order to retool other areas of the roster with very little high-end draft capital for the next two years, O’Brien will have to walk a tightrope. Even for the best evaluators, the draft is often a crapshoot—and the Texans have already cashed in most of their chips.
A GM’s role in personnel decisions is often overrated in the grand scheme of a franchise’s trajectory. Front offices are a collective unit that relies on multiple key staffers to make everything go. Texans salary-cap expert Chris Olsen has handled the team’s contract negotiations for years. Director of player personnel Matt Bazirgan has kept the same role under O’Brien. The same processes that Houston has followed in the past will remain in place—but ultimately, the buck stops with O’Brien.
The league’s smartest front offices—teams like the Seahawks, Colts, and Ravens—aren’t necessarily the best drafters or savviest talent evaluators. They’re the ones who are willing to exhaust every possible avenue to make their team better; the ones constantly trying to come up with new methods to find value and improve both their approach and their roster. Maybe the Texans’ current configuration will develop into that sort of group, but that remains to be seen.
Whether or not they’re up to the task, O’Brien and his crew are going to have their hands full this offseason. For the most part, Houston’s offense is set up for 2020 and beyond. The line is no longer the concern it’s been in years past now that Tunsil (after his inevitable extension), 2019 draft picks Tytus Howard and Max Scharping, and center Nick Martin (a longtime O’Brien favorite who signed a three-year, $33 million extension in September) are set to start long term. There are still decisions to be made regarding Stills, who has no money left on his deal; Tunsil and Will Fuller, who are both entering the final year of their rookie deals; and at the running back position, where starter Carlos Hyde is a free agent. But for the most part, that side of the ball will remain intact.
The defense is a different story. Numerous key defenders are slated to hit free agency next spring, including defensive tackle D.J. Reader, pass rusher Whitney Mercilus, and cornerbacks Bradley Roby and Johnathan Joseph. With a couple of logical cuts, the Texans could easily free up close to $80 million in cap space, which opens up the possibility of bringing back Reader and Roby, and also trying to find some edge-rushing reinforcements to play alongside Watt. It’s theoretically possible that O’Brien and his staff could somehow retool the entire defense without the team’s first- or third-round picks in the 2020 draft. The Conley trade turned out to be a great move after an entire offseason in Houston’s scheme; Jacob Martin (who’s shown flashes after coming over in the Clowney deal) could develop into an effective secondary pass rusher; and O’Brien’s staff could throw a no-hitter in free agency. But that’s a difficult needle to thread for any front office, let alone one led by a head coach and someone with Easterby’s unconventional background.
The Texans clearly felt comfortable moving forward with their current structure because in their minds, they’ve already seen results. But those “results” have come from the kinds of moves that don’t determine the long-term success of an NFL franchise. In the O’Brien-Easterby partnership, the Texans believe they have a brain trust with intimate knowledge of the Patriots’ team-building approach. At this point, though, it’s hard to identify which of Houston’s notable moves abide by those principles. Sustained success in the NFL is about winning the margins, not the headlines. Great teams stay great for a reason, and we’re about to find out whether Houston’s current structure will allow it to compete in the subtle ways it’ll need to.
An earlier version of this piece misstated the picks the Texans will have in the 2020 draft.