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How to Turn the Houston Texans Into Super Bowl Contenders in Four Steps

Bill O’Brien’s team is in the market for a new GM after letting their previous one go last week. Here’s how the next decision-maker can turn Deshaun Watson and Co. into a juggernaut.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Houston Texans fired general manager Brian Gaine on Friday, making them the latest team to ax their chief front-office decision-maker in the weeks after the draft instead of the hours after the regular season. It’s unclear why team chairman Cal McNair (the 58-year-old son of late Texans owner Bob McNair) fired Gaine just 17 months after the team hired him, but the team is already interviewing other candidates, including San Francisco vice president of player personnel Martin Mayhew and former Browns GM Ray Farmer, according to the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport. The Texans are also expected to try to interview longtime Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio, a friend of Texans head coach and former Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien. (Houston attempted to interview Caserio before hiring Gaine in 2018, but the Patriots denied the request.)

During those interviews, surely those candidates will discuss what they would do if given the job. So we’ve created a handy to-do list for the rest of the Houston Texans’ offseason. Here’s a four-step guide to turn the Texans into a Super Bowl contender.

Get Some Protection for Deshaun Watson

Last season Watson was sacked 62 times, tied for the fifth-most sacks in a single season in NFL history. He faced the most dropbacks under pressure (281) and was pressured on the highest percentage of his dropbacks (44.7 percent) of any quarterback who played at least four games, according to Pro Football Focus. The hits added up. Watson played through broken ribs and a partially collapsed lung in 2019. He couldn’t board the plane to Houston’s Week 7 game in Jacksonville because of fears about what the air pressure might do to his chest, so he took a 12-hour bus ride from Houston to Jacksonville instead. (Houston won 20-7.) If the Texans want Watson to be their quarterback into the mid-2030s instead of the early 2020s, they need to do a significantly better job of protecting him.

Gaine added Alabama State tackle Tytus Howard no. 23 overall and Northern Illinois tackle Max Scharping no. 55 overall in this year’s draft, a significant investment. Still, adding two rookie tackles into the mix is not a good enough fix for 2019, especially when it’s Howard and Scharping, who played in the SWAC and MAC, respectively. The Texans’ main free-agent addition on the offensive line was Matt Kalil, who missed all of 2018 rehabbing a knee injury and was nicknamed “Speedbump McGee” by Cameron Jordan. Suffice to say the Texans have not yet solved this problem.

The most logical solution could be a trade. Washington’s Trent Williams has been one of the best left tackles in football this decade, but he may have finally reached his breaking point with the franchise. Williams has skipped Washington offseason practices and reportedly demanded a trade after a dispute between him and Washington’s medical staff. The Texans could swoop in to replace the gaping hole at left tackle they’ve had since trading Duane Brown to Seattle in the middle of the 2017 season.

The team could put Williams at left tackle and Howard at right tackle, slide Scharping to guard, where he’s already trained, plus have some tackle depth with Seantrel Henderson. That alone could move the Texans from one of the worst lines in football to average, which is one of the biggest leaps a team can make in a given year outside of improving at quarterback.

Sign (or Trade) Jadeveon Clowney

Protecting Watson is Houston’s biggest priority, but the most pressing decision of this offseason is figuring out what to do with Clowney. The Texans used the franchise tag on Clowney this year for $16 million (or $17 million, depending on how you count), and if the two sides can’t agree to a deal by the July 15 deadline, Clowney will play out the year on the franchise tag and either become a free agent in 2020 or be tagged again for roughly $19 million.

There’s a good argument for keeping him. Clowney is obviously talented, and he’s only getting better. His past two seasons have been the best of his career, by traditional pressure stats (18.5 combined sacks and 42 combined quarterback hits), Pro Football Focus run grades (top 15 among edge defenders in run-stop percentage in 2017 and 2018), and his health (started 30 of 31 games). Keeping him for the next four years, which would bring him to his age-30 season, could pay huge returns.

On the other hand, Clowney has yet to have a double-digit sack campaign or consistently get into opposing backfields. He’s made at least 14 starts each of the past three seasons, but he had knee issues earlier in his career. There’s also the question of whether good but not elite pass rushers have become overvalued. Teams with front offices considered ahead of the curve—the Patriots, Eagles, and Ravens—have avoided giving big money to solid pass rushers and been more than happy to let other teams sign away their contributors. (See: New England’s letting Trey Flowers sign with Detroit, Baltimore’s letting Za’Darius Smith go to Green Bay this offseason, Philadelphia’s letting Vinny Curry leave in 2018 and bringing him back for a much cheaper price in 2019.)

Whatever happens with Clowney, Frank Clark is likely the comparison for the next Texans GM, whether it’s the deal Clark signed with the Chiefs (roughly $62 million across the first three years of the deal) or what Seattle got in the predraft trade (a late first-round pick and a third-rounder). Signing Clowney would be the safe move. Trading him for a second-rounder may be smarter. If Clowney left in free agency next year, he’d likely net a compensatory 2021 third-round pick, which could easily be topped in a trade this offseason (or perhaps Clowney could be traded to Washington straight up).

Get a Real Tight End

Houston’s offensive line was bad at blocking in 2018. Of the 63 tackles who played 500 or more snaps in 2018, Kendall Lamm was graded 31st, and Julie’n Davenport was graded 59th by Pro Football Focus. To counter this, O’Brien often kept tight ends in to block. Houston used 12 personnel—one running back and two tight ends—on 37 percent of its snaps last year, the highest rate in the league. But with the tight ends running fewer routes, Houston’s receivers needed more time to get open. Watson led the league in average time spent in the pocket and was second in average time before getting rid of the ball. That time was a huge contributing factor to all the punishment he took.

If the Texans offensive line is better in 2019, they could have their tight ends run more routes, which would diversify their offense and get the ball out of Watson’s hands quicker. Last year’s tight ends coach, Tim Kelly, was promoted to offensive coordinator this offseason, so it’s safe to say he’s on board with this plan. The catch is the Texans don’t have a lot of tight ends who can catch. This offseason the team released Ryan Griffin, who led the position group with a measly 24 catches on 43 targets for 305 yards last year. That leaves them with 2018 third-rounder Jordan Akins and 2018 sixth-rounder Jordan Thomas, who combined for 37 catches on 52 targets for 440 yards and four touchdowns last year, plus 2019 third-rounder Kahale Warring. Perhaps one of those players can be productive, but until then, Houston needs a tight end who can command some attention from opposing defenses.

The team would be wise to call Tampa Bay about tight end Cameron Brate. He is due $7 million this year and may not have a huge role in new head coach Bruce Arians’s offense behind 2017 first-rounder O.J. Howard. Brate’s salary would be too much for most teams, but Houston has the second-most cap in the league ($40.8 million, behind only Indy’s $55.1 million) this year, while the Buccaneers have just $4.8 million in cap space, the third-least. Brate for a late-round pick would be a win-win.

Get a Better Running Back

Lamar Miller has failed to make an impact in Houston, and behind him are 30-year-old Taiwan Jones, Texas native and former Longhorn D’Onta Foreman—who missed all but one game in 2018 rehabbing an Achilles injury—and a smattering of unproven young running backs led by undrafted free agents Karan Higdon Jr. and Damarea Crockett. The best way for Houston to improve its running game is by improving its offensive line, not its running backs, but this is still a low-ceiling group without a serious pass-catching back. To fix this, Houston can do what it always does—make a trade with Cleveland.

In 2017, the Texans sent their 2018 second-rounder to Cleveland just to dump Brock Osweiler’s disastrous contract. In 2017, the Texans made a deal with Cleveland to trade up for Deshaun Watson. This year, the Texans can do something much lower profile—trade for disgruntled Browns running back Duke Johnson, who wants a trade after losing snaps last year and being buried behind Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt on the depth chart for 2019. Johnson has the hands of a wide receiver and the moves to line up in the slot, making him far more versatile in the receiving game than anyone on the Texans’ depth chart right now. Browns GM John Dorsey seems amenable to moving him, and the Texans could likely get him for a late-round draft pick.