Two of the more important second-round picks in recent NFL history will come next month when the Texans’ selection windows open. A franchise lacking a first-rounder until 2022 needs cost-controlled assets, and its fans require a reason to trust an unusually structured front office.
It sounds strange to assign such stakes to second-round picks, but after the events of the past several months, how Houston proceeds on Day 2 of April’s draft will be crucial. This will be Bill O’Brien’s first draft in his coach-GM-czar role, which feels odd considering how much has happened since he became the Texans’ de facto boss.
Before O'Brien took power in June 2019, Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins, Jadeveon Clowney and J.J. Watt provided optimism for a Texans leap from second-tier contender to Super Bowl threat. The decisions O’Brien has since green-lit have threatened to deprive Texans fans of any hope the Watson window will not be squandered.
Houston traded Hopkins, a top-five wide receiver, to Arizona for a haul worse than second-tier wideouts fetched in recent years. It acquired a top-10 left tackle in Laremy Tunsil, but that trade not only cost the Texans two first-round picks and a second-rounder. The price O'Brien paid gave a one-time Pro Bowler immense leverage to become the NFL’s highest-paid offensive lineman. Houston revamped its defensive staff after Patrick Mahomes nuked their No. 26 DVOA unit, but its only notable free-agency move was re-signing Bradley Roby –- a mid-level No. 2 cornerback.
Watt is going into his age-31 season and coming off three severe injuries in four years. For a team that went 21-11 over the past two years and employs one of the game’s best young talents in Watson, the Texans feature a strikingly unstable foundation. As free agency cools down, pinpointing the surefire strengths of this perennial playoff threat is more difficult than it should be. The Texans are paying for their foolish decision to give GM power to a head coach whose .542 winning percentage ranks 12th among active coaches.
Piling on O’Brien for the Hopkins trade -- one of the most widely panned swaps in years -- almost seems redundant. It is true elite wide receivers have not helped secure many modern-era Super Bowl parades. Before the Chiefs' Tyreek Hill, the last top-five wide receiver to be part of a championship team was probably the 2006 Colts’ Marvin Harrison-Reggie Wayne tandem.
But if the best the Texans could pry from the Cardinals was a second-rounder and David Johnson’s albatross contract, then keeping Hopkins was the move. Even if he was seeking a new contract, the new CBA limits holdouts' options.
Handing soon-to-be 30-year-old Randall Cobb a three-year, $27 million deal only worsens the optics – especially when now-No. 1 Houston wideout Will Fuller resides as one of the NFL’s most injury-prone players. The Texans with Hopkins and 1,000-yard rusher Carlos Hyde featured an immensely more dangerous and dependable (and cost-effective) offense than an offense with Cobb and Johnson, who each peaked in the mid-2010s.
O’Brien can't afford any more nickels-on-the-dollar trades. He already botched one of these transactions, collecting a third-rounder and spare parts for Clowney after the Chiefs and Seahawks respectively fetched better hauls for less decorated pass-rushers Dee Ford and Frank Clark.
An offensive-minded coach who has yet to produce a top-10 Texans offense, O'Brien has commandeered more power than he’s earned. But chairman Cal McNair, bumped to the top of the Texans’ hierarchy after founder Bob McNair died, should be held responsible for allowing this to happen. When O’Brien and Bill Belichick are the NFL’s only current coach-GM figures, the name alongside Belichick's looks weird. The Texans botched their GM pursuit of Belichick right-hand man Nick Caserio last year, but Caserio’s contract expired in 2020. Not pursuing him or another GM this year predictably backfired.
O’Brien is on the verge of joining an undesired group of executives who screwed up promising situations in recent years. Likely the only reason O’Brien has four AFC South titles instead of one or two: ex-Colts GM Ryan Grigson failing to assemble a passable offensive line or merely a viable roster around Andrew Luck. Bengals owner-GM Mike Brown’s refusal to spend in free agency to further supplement Andy Dalton allowed Cincinnati’s playoff-win drought to reach 29 years. Barring something unexpected, Bears GM Ryan Pace will be known more for passing on Mahomes and Watson than building a championship-caliber defense. Cardinals GM Steve Keim had nearly bottomed out before executing this Hopkins heist.
In a vacuum, Hopkins may not have been essential to building a Super Bowl-caliber roster. But the three-time All-Pro/contested-catch maven caught 29.3% of the Texans’ 2019 passes -– the league’s third-highest percentage –- and blended perfectly with a young passer known more for play-making ability than pocket precision. With Fuller and Kenny Stills in contract years, Cobb is the only noteworthy Texans receiver signed beyond 2020.
Watson is set for a massive extension this year or next, but the Texans’ decisions during their quarterback’s rookie-contract window have shown little to indicate they can manage a roster with a franchise-QB salary atop the payroll.
It will be a bittersweet occasion when Watson signs his extension. The Texans -– unless they do something completely crazy -– will then have their franchise cornerstone locked up. But their actions during the years when it was easier to build around the best quarterback in franchise history complicate their future.
If the Texans do not change course soon, Watson should be hesitant to commit his early prime to this franchise.
You'll receive Yardbarker's daily Top 10, featuring the best sports stories from around the web. Customize your newsletter to get articles on your favorite sports and teams.
Emailed daily. Always FREE!