Marc and Ben are back with their takes on the NFL on Nickelodeon debut and the first round of playoff football. Also, Marc gives his list of the top head coach candidates.
Schedule: @KC, BAL, @PIT, MIN, JAX, @TEN, GB, BYE, @JAX, @CLE, NE, @DET, IND, @CHI, @IND, CIN, TEN
Additions: RB David Johnson (Trade), WR Brandin Cooks (Trade), S Eric Murray (FA), WR Randall Cobb (FA), S Jaylen Watkins (FA), DL Ross Blacklock (Draft)
Losses: WR DeAndre Hopkins (Trade), DL D.J. Reader (FA), CB Johnathan Joseph (FA), RB Lamar Miller (FA), RB Carlos Hyde (FA)
I’m at the point where I don’t really care who’s on the Texans. I fully expect Deshaun Watson to drag them to the playoffs no matter what. Last year, I picked them for 7 wins, only to watch him carry a sorry team to the division title and a playoff win. Even with another underwhelming supporting cast, there’s no reason to think he won’t have them playing in January once again.
GM Bill O’Brien seems really committed to making life hard for both Watson and HC Bill O’Brien. After trading away the Texans’ future last offseason, O’Brien got to work on the present. I don’t care about any supposed contract squabbles—especially since he has been a model soldier in Arizona—DeAndre Hopkins is worth more than a second and expensive contract. To go and trade a second for Brandin Cooks weeks later somehow made it even worse. Maybe in 2021 O’Brien will try to go back and trade away Andre Johnson to complete the time treachery trifecta.
One possible silver lining of moving Hopkins is that it could push Watson to be even better. Getting rid of his top target can sometimes make a quarterback trust his reads more and create an overall scarier attack. Considering the weapons around him are still dangerous, it’s possible. Cooks and Randall Cobb join Will Fuller and Kenny Stills to create an intriguing receiver room. No one will replace Hopkins single-handedly, but few, if any, quartets match their qualifications. Even if Fuller misses his standard 6 games, they’ll be solid. Tight end Darren Fells showed great chemistry with Watson, seemingly always finding the right spot when his quarterback scrambled. A couple younger, more explosive guys behind him will earn some playing time, too.
The crown jewel of the Hopkins’ return, David Johnson, will have to ball out for that trade to look like anything less than robbery. With Lamar Miller and Carlos Hyde gone, opportunity won’t be an issue. It’ll be up to him to prove his 2016 season wasn’t a fluke. Running backs have always produced in this offense, so he should continue that trend. As for whether he’ll return to form, I doubt it. Let’s not forget that DJ was straight-up benched last season despite supposedly being healthy. He’s another guy I expect to be much more valuable in fantasy than real life.
Even after substantial offseason investments, Houston’s offensive line flopped last season. With youth along the line and all five starters returning, I think the 2020 iteration will look closer to what fans hoped for last year. A costly acquistion, left tackle Laremy Tunsil has been a flag magnet. Outside of that, though, he has solidified Watson’s blindside just as the team hoped. The team is hoping for jumps from 2019 picks Max Scharping and Tytus Howard. Veterans Nick Martin and Zach Fulton will also need to play better. As a whole, this group is a borderline strength for the team and any uptick in their play will help make up for the outgoing talent.
With Watson at the helm, offense isn’t the worry. That would be the defense, which was awful in most categories last year. Bottom-10 against the run in 2019, they could drop even further without D.J. Reader. He’s arguably the best nose tackle in the league, so replacing him won’t be easy. First crack will go to Brandon Dunn, who spent the past few years rotating in behind Reader. Rookie Ross Blacklock and possibly former Raider bust P.J. Hall should get some snaps as well.
The rest of the Texans’ defense is full of big-name and generally highly-regarded players. As I said, though, they were below-average in virtually every metric last season. A guy like J.J. Watt can still wreck games, but don’t confuse him for his old MVP candidate self. Just seeing him suit up for 16 games would be a win in my book. Linebackers Benardrick McKinney and Zach Cunningham are both well-compensated, but I’m not sure they’re as great as some think. Still, inside linebacker is far from a weakness.
Edge rusher Whitney Mercilus is another guy whose name goes further than his play. If he’s the top pass rusher on your team, the result will be something like Houston’s 31 sacks last year. Someone needs to step up beside him, and Jacob Martin seems to be the leading candidate. Acquired in the Jadeveon Clowney deal, Martin has 6.5 career sacks in very limited snaps. The Texans need him to keep that efficiency in a larger role, or quarterbacks will once again have all day to pick apart the secondary.
While I like the defensive backs, they’re not good enough to compensate for a weak pass rush. Between Bradley Roby, Lonnie Johnson, Gareon Conley, Vernon Hargreaves, and rookie John Reid, Houston has no shortage of noteworthy names at cornerback. By November or December, they should have a solid outside duo and nickel corner from that group. Safety is even more exciting, with Eric Murray coming from Cleveland to start alongside Justin Reid, a guy I really like. Reserves Jaylen Watkins and A.J. Moore give the team a lot of flexibility to run dime packages.
I actually think O’Brien is a competent coach. It isn’t just Watson getting them to the playoffs, as his teams are always well-prepared. The problem is his front office experiment has left the roster with a bunch of big-time names, but not enough big-time talent. Dealt the NFC and AFC North plus Chiefs and Patriots, Houston has a challenging road ahead. Knowing Watson, though, he’ll make that road look more like a stroll in the park.
What’s your record prediction for the Texans? What did I get right or wrong? Sound off in the comments.
Cleveland had just finished 1-15 in Hue Jackson’s first season as head coach. They needed help at almost every position and had a bounty of draft picks to find that help. Part of that bounty was an additional first-round pick acquired by allowing Philadelphia to trade up for Carson Wentz in 2016.
Just as they did the year prior, the Browns chose to pass on drafting a quarterback and acquire more picks by trading back. This time, it was the Texans on the other end of the call.
Houston had won the AFC South in back-to-back years, but that’s about as meaningful as winning your family fantasy league back-to-back. The Texans knew that if they truly wanted to compete, they needed an upgrade at quarterback.
Their first attempt didn’t go so well. 12 months after they signed Brock Osweiler to a massive contract, they dealt him in one of the only pure salary dumps in NFL history.
Trading up with the Browns represented a second chance. Their guy was still on the board, and the price wouldn’t matter if he panned out.
Houston Post Trade
Giving up a future first rounder is always tough because you never know just how high it will end up. Houston’s nightmare scenario came true as they finished 4-12 with the 4th-worst record in the league.
An already risky move to trade up for the third quarterback in the class was quickly teetering on disaster. Then, Watson started doing Deshaun Watson things.
Tom Savage was named the week one starter, but the combination of his awfulness and a dominant Jaguars defense opened the door for Watson to see immediate relief action. From that point on, he never looked back.
Now starting, Watson quickly showcased the elite potential Houston saw in him. He locked up a win in his first start with a highlight run against the Bengals then went toe-to-toe with Brady in Foxborough and humiliated the Titans.
Watson’s rookie season was electric, but unfortunately, it was also short-lived. After three more exciting starts, he tore his ACL during a non-contact practice drill. The Texans cratered without him, and Watson’s murky future along with their now top-five pick being shipped out caused the doubt surrounding this trade to resurface.
But, as we now know, doubting Watson is foolish. He grinded through rehab and was ready in time for week one. Despite his return, the Texans lost their first three games.
Then, they went on of the better mid-season turnarounds in NFL history, winning 9 straight games and finishing 11-5 with the division crown. A lot of the credit goes to Watson, who continued to make highlight plays while cutting down on his mistakes and playing behind a porous offensive line. Despite losing in the Wild Card Round, it was a great season for Houston.
I’ll admit, I doubted the Texans before 2018 and again after it. I thought they beat up on bad teams during their win streak and would fall back to earth. Instead, they won the division again and gave the eventual champion Chiefs a scare in the divisional round.
I’ve learned my lesson. My faith in Watson will never waver again. No matter what weakness is on the roster or what idiot is in the front office, he will put the team on his back.
I said in my review of the Rams’ trade up for Jared Goff that you can only really win one of these mortgage-the-future moves if you get one of the absolute best players in the league, which Watson surely is. It’s hard to deny his talent—he’s my fourth-best quarterback in the league—or accomplishments.
Houston would do this deal again in a heartbeat. Bill O’Brien, especially. Without Watson, he’d be out of a job. Though, to be fair, he seems content getting there on his own.
Cleveland Post Trade
Purely based on the value of the draft picks, this was a win for Cleveland. Houston’s 2018 pick (4th overall) landed significantly higher than the 2017 first (12th) they traded away.
They didn’t draft complete busts (which says a lot for the Browns) with the selections, either.
With the 25th pick in 2017, Cleveland made a polarizing move by taking Peppers. Some expected his versatile and game-breaking college career to translate to a star pro career. Others thought he lacked a true position and might only stick as a gadget player in the NFL.
While Peppers has certainly been more than a gadget player, he has struggled to lock down a position. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams couldn’t find a consistent role or snaps for him in Cleveland.
As a result, Peppers was included in the package sent to New York for Odell Beckham Jr in 2019. The change of scenery was beneficial to Peppers, as he began to cement his role and earn the trust of coaches. To Cleveland, though, he was another failed first-round draft choice.
Thankfully, the Browns’ other pick from this deal has fared significantly better. Like Peppers, Ward faced concerns over how his college production would translate to the pros. In his case, the big worry was size.
Young corners notoriously struggle, so he’s certainly had his lumps. For the most part, though, the good has overshadowed the bad. Besides health concerns (seven games missed in two seasons) and inconsistency, he has shown the makings of a very good player for years to come.
As for team success, nothing changed after this deal. The Browns followed up a 1-win season by becoming the second 0-16 team in history. 2018 brought hope for the future as they finished 7-8-1, but that all came crashing down as a 6-10 finish in 2019 derailed Cleveland’s hype train.
Ward could become a star corner for Cleveland and Peppers might have been necessary to land OBJ, but let’s be real: hindsight shows this as a terrible trade for the Browns.
Watson developed into a superstar quarterback, which apparently Cleveland’s Moneyball-inspired front office wanted no part of. The best part is, they were only able to trade away the rights to this star quarterback because they traded away the rights to a star quarterback the year before.
Even if you’re a Baker Mayfield defender, it’s clear the Browns passed on two superior quarterbacks before eventually taking him. No amount of extra picks will make up for that, especially not with Cleveland making those picks.
Final Verdict: Texans Win
There’s been plenty of times where these expensive moves up in the draft don’t end up working out. This was not one of those. Watson is pretty much the only thing keeping Houston afloat, and missing out on him has to sting even more for a Browns front office that passed on Wentz the year before.
Who do you think won the trade? What deal should I look at next? Sound off in the comments.