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The Bill O’Brien GM Blueprint to Bad Trades and Baffling Decisions

Long before he traded away DeAndre Hopkins, the Houston Texans head coach and general manager was making strange choices that hamstrung his franchise. Here are three takeaways from his bizarre tenure.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

You’d have kicked Bill O’Brien out of your fantasy league at this point. On Monday, the Texans traded DeAndre Hopkins—a dynamic wide receiver who never misses games and is beloved by teammates and coaches alike—to the Cardinals as the headliner in a package that brought back a 2020 second-round pick, a 2021 fourth-round pick, and running back David Johnson’s bloated contract.

We can understand how bad this trade is by looking at two other trades that happened Monday. The Vikings traded Stefon Diggs—a great receiver who has not, in any of his five NFL seasons, ever had more receiving yards or touchdowns than Hopkins—to the Bills for a 2020 first-round pick and four other draft picks without having to take on a bad contract. And earlier the Ravens traded Hayden Hurst—their backup tight end, who’s a pretty good backup tight end, but still a backup tight end—to the Falcons for virtually the same trade package as the Texans got for Hopkins, only Baltimore didn’t have to take on a bad contract. The Texans got pretty-good-backup-tight-end value for one of the best receivers in the game on the same day that a slightly worse receiver was dealt for a much bigger haul.

The Hopkins debacle is the latest in a string of bad trades that O’Brien has concocted. Before the start of the 2019 NFL season, he traded Pro Bowl pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney to the Seahawks for a third-round pick and a pair of backup linebackers. He also sent a bushel of draft picks to the Dolphins to land offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, who had a great 2019 season while also leading the league in false starts by a mile.

One bad trade is funny; two is a trend; three should legally allow a fan base to vote out their team’s leadership. After the Hopkins trade, your league group chat would be going ballistic to accuse this fantasy owner of collusion, incompetence, or both, and soon your buddy who had been dying to get into the league would get promoted to take his spot. In real life, though, it’s O’Brien who keeps getting promoted.

It’s been almost a year since the Texans fired former general manager Brian Gaine and then tried, and failed, to hire Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio—O’Brien’s former coworker—to replace him. In that time, Houston hasn’t brought in anybody else to do the GM job. Instead, the team unofficially gave those responsibilities to O’Brien, already the team’s head coach. In January, O’Brien was officially given the general manager title.

What can we learn about O’Brien’s GM philosophy from his disastrous trading history? Here are three takeaways:

The Draft? What Draft!

Seven Texans have been named to at least three Pro Bowls since 2010: Hopkins, Clowney, quarterback Deshaun Watson, pass rusher J.J. Watt, receiver Andre Johnson, offensive tackle Duane Brown, and running back Arian Foster. Six of those players—everybody but Foster—were drafted by the Texans with a first-round pick. After struggling to contend for most of their first decade in the league, the Texans won the AFC South six times in the past nine years thanks primarily to that run of successful drafting.

Now the Texans have traded three of those players without getting a first-round pick in return. In 2017, they traded Brown to the Seahawks for second- and third-rounders. (Before O’Brien’s time as GM, but still noteworthy.) Last year, they traded Clowney to Seattle for a similarly underwhelming package, and we’ve already covered how baffling the Hopkins deal is. Meanwhile, Houston has shed draft picks. The Texans gave up two first-round picks and a second-round pick to acquire Tunsil and Kenny Stills. (Who knew Tunsil, King of the False Start, was basically three or four times better than DeAndre Hopkins? That seems to be the case from the trade returns!) The team also dealt two third-rounders last year, one each for Duke Johnson and Gareon Conley.

The Texans’ history clearly messages that the best way to build an NFL franchise is to gather a lot of first-round picks and use them effectively. O’Brien didn’t get that. He’s stripping the Texans of the stars they gained through smart drafting without giving the team an opportunity to replenish the roster with future first-rounders.

He Still Believes in Running Backs

Last year, the top 11 running backs in the league by rushing yardage were all 25 or younger, and each of them played for the team that drafted them. The reason is obvious—playing running back puts a ton of wear and tear on the body, and players can’t keep it up for very long. The best way to acquire an effective running back is to draft one.

Oddly, Bill O’Brien seemingly has decided the only way to acquire running backs is to trade for veterans. On Monday, Houston traded for Johnson, a 28-year-old who has been in precipitous decline since leading the league in scrimmage yards and total touchdowns in 2016. Last year, Johnson struggled to beat out Chase Edmonds in training camp, and then was usurped on the depth chart by Kenyan Drake. Some running backs look like cheetahs—lightning-fast, nimble, explosive. In 2019, Johnson looked more like the lethargic wildebeest who gets separated from his pack and eaten:

This move marks the third time in less than a year that the Texans have traded for a veteran running back. Last year, Houston traded a third-round pick for Duke Johnson and traded offensive guard Martinas Rankin to the Chiefs for Carlos Hyde. Johnson and Hyde turned out to be a decent tandem for the Texans—Hyde ran for more than 1,000 yards and Johnson was the team’s primary receiving back.

But trading for running backs seems ineffective—and expensive! Houston gave up a third-round pick for 26-year-old Duke Johnson! In the third round of last year’s draft, the Bills selected Devin Singletary and the Bears got David Montgomery—both running backs who had better years than Johnson and will develop on inexpensive contracts while Johnson turns 27. They gave up a starting offensive lineman for Hyde! And THEY GAVE UP DEANDRE HOPKINS FOR DAVID JOHNSON!

The smart thing to do would be to use mid-to-late-round picks on running backs—unfortunately, O’Brien has traded them all.

He Doesn’t Like to Shop Around

Having multiple jobs makes it hard to be singularly focused on any of them. If an NFL team has a dedicated general manager, for example, he can field calls from the 31 other teams to assess the best deal available for a superstar talent. When someone is the head coach, quarterbacks coach, general manager, fire marshal, treasurer, grill master, general counsel, and king of the franchise, though, he doesn’t have time for that due diligence. If he gets one decent offer from a team, he has to take it—after all, he also has to grind tape from 3 p.m. to midnight while squeezing in enough room to design the team’s new uniforms.

This effect was made abundantly clear in 2019. The Texans realized they could kill two birds with one stone by dealing Clowney, who was holding out for a new contract, to Miami while acquiring Tunsil to fill a hole at left tackle. However, Clowney wasn’t under contract, and had no desire to play for the Dolphins. So the Texans traded Clowney to a team he did want to play for—the Seahawks. But Seattle knew the Texans had no leverage because they were only interested in dealing with one other team and promptly ripped them off. Then Houston went back and completed a separate trade with the Dolphins—who also knew the Texans had no leverage— and promptly ripped them off.

We don’t know the tick-tock of the Hopkins trade the way we do with the Clowney-Tunsil debacles. But do we think this was the best offer the Texans could have gotten for DeAndre Freakin’ Hopkins? Of course not! They got the same package the Falcons gave up for Hayden Hurst! This must’ve been the only offer Bill O’Brien heard, and he thought it was fine.

Alas, nothing seems to sink O’Brien’s influence in the Texans organization. Some thought he would be fired as head coach after blowing a 24-0 lead in the postseason; instead he was promoted to GM. By 2025, O’Brien will probably be in charge of all of the Texans’ football operations, plus the team’s advertising, social media, and concessions. He’s gonna trade the stadium supply of hot dogs for a bunch of those weird individually packaged circus peanuts that old people give out on Halloween.