How did we get to where protecting Deshaun Watson is such a patchwork effort?
How did we get to where protecting Deshaun Watson is such a patchwork effort?
Photo by Eric Sauseda

Houston Texans Offensive Line Rebuild — How Did We Get Here?

In 2018, for most of you reading this (since it's digital, and likely at some point in the morning), what used to be the walk to the front door to get the paper and skim the sports page has now morphed into grabbing your phone off the nightstand and finger-whisking through Twitter. That's my routine, at least.

Some mornings, that routine can result in a harrowing experience. Last Thursday was one of those mornings, as Twitter yielded a "This Is Your (Recent) Life" episode for Texan fans that they likely have ZERO desire to relive. I'll explain.

First, I saw this tweet from my friend @TexansCap:

"So what's the problem with this, Sean? Su'a-Filo is gone, why do you care?", you may be asking, and it's a fair question. My issue in reading this tweet is that the Texans spent four seasons and 41 starts trying to convince us "Oh, X is fine! Nothing to see here!", and now the league has spoken on Su'a-Filo via free agency, and their verdict? Their verdict is that he's barely a fringe roster player. In fact, I would argue that a case can be made for Su'a-Filo being the worst pick in franchise history (and I'll make that case momentarily).

Then came this article from my good friend John McClain of the Houston Chronicle, in which he gives a state of the union on the Texans' offensive line post-free agency. It's a fine summary factually, but it contains this excerpt, the horror of which is not McClain's fault:

If the season began today, the starting tackles would be Julién Davenport on the left and Henderson on the right. Kendall Lamm would be the swing tackle.

Factually, right now, this is true, and it's frightening. Everybody is making a big deal that the Texans don't really have a starting left tackle right now (as they should), but to me the bigger deal is that we are a heartbeat away from Kendall Lamm being reinserted into the lineup behind whomever takes over at left tackle. For those who don't remember, this is what happened when Kendall Lamm was named the starter heading into the season in 2017:

Never forget.

When the Texans had their two best seasons in franchise history, 2011 and 2012, it's no coincidence that they had talent and continuity along the offensive line. Even when the team bottomed out in 2013, there were still the makings of a decent offensive line, with Duane Brown, Chris Myers, Brandon Brooks, and Derek Newton heading into 2014.

So how did we arrive at this place, from 2014 where things were at least okay on the o-line to where the Texans fielded an offensive line in 2017 that had five different starting tackles and the abjectly horrific Breno F-ing Giacomini playing LITERALLY every snap of the entire season? (Oh, and Su'a-Filo starting every game. And Jeff Allen playing. And.... wow, this is depressing.)

By my count, here were the steps:

1. Drafting Xavier Su'a-Filo with the 33rd overall pick in 2014 to replace Wade Smith
As I said above, you can make a case for Su'a-Filo being the most disastrous pick in franchise history. The only thing possibly bailing that pick out from "worst ever" at the moment is that passing on Derek Carr and Jimmy Garoppolo has led the Texans, three years later, to Deshaun Watson, who I would rather have than any of those guys. However, that world-view discounts the revolving door of suck the QB position was from 2014 to halftime of Week1 in 2017. It was unbearable. The bigger picture is that a 2-14 team in 2013, with holes nearly everywhere, used the 33rd overall pick on a guard, which means said guard has to turn into Will Shields for the pick to make sense. Let's just say Su-a-Filo was not Will Shields, and leave it at that. We all know what he wound up being.

2. The combination of decisions and bad luck at center
When Bill O'Brien came in as head coach in 2014, center Chris Myers remained as one of the holdovers from the Kubiak Era who really helped in the transition. That's not surprising — Myers is a tremendous leader, and one of the best human beings to wear a Texans uniform. However, after 2014, Myers was a cap casualty. No harm there, it happens. Myers retired, dropped 50 pounds, and co-hosted the Texans postgame show with me, a HUGE step up in career trajectory, by any measurement. (I'm kidding.) The Texans handed the reins at center to Ben Jones, and this is where it got sideways. They let Jones, in whom they'd invested four seasons, walk in free agency to the Titans, and drafted Nick Martin out of Notre Dame. Again, not a horrible turn of events, on paper. But Martin has been inconsistent and unavailable, missing his entire rookie year and finishing both seasons on injured reserve with ankle injuries. If I could compare the Texans' plight at center to a hand of blackjack, it's like getting an 11, choosing not to double down (because the dealer has a face card showing), and then hitting three times and still not even having even a 17. Yeah, you made seemingly correct decisions, and yeah, you're still in the hand, but are you really? What is Nick Martin? At this point, we have no REAL idea. (Oh, and he is easily the brightest spot on the offensive line. So yeah.)

3. Letting Brandon Brooks walk and signing Jeff Allen to replace him
In addition to Jones leaving after 2015, Brooks signed with the Philadelphia Eagles. He has become a Pro Bowl level performer, and a Super Bowl champion. Meanwhile, Jeff Allen might get cut before the 2018 season begins. The Texans signed two guards in free agency last month, if you're looking for a commentary on Allen's play. I'd love to know what the talk was in the building on Brooks, who dealt with anxiety issues in his four seasons in Houston. I guess maybe that ordeal was enough to say "We will take Jeff Allen for a million less per season instead." Whatever the case, it was an atrocious decision, in hindsight.

4a. Derek Newton rupturing both patellar tendons
4b. Getting sideways with Duane Brown
4c. Completely ignoring offensive tackle in the draft for five seasons

Newton got murdered on national TV by Von Miller in 2016, and tore up both of his knees. I mean, what are you gonna do? That's nobody's fault. It's just bad luck. And the Duane Brown saga, as we've learned over the last couple weeks, is probably more complex than just "Hey, go ahead and pay him!" I mean, there are some deeply embedded shards of glass in the fibers of the carpet that is the McNair-Brown relationship. That said, through a combination of bad luck and, at the very least, mutually disintegrating a business relationship, the Texans were left with Kendall Lamm and Breno Giacomini as their starting tackles in Week 1 last season, and the way you arrive at a point where your Plan B is every other team's Plan Z is by ignoring a position group in the draft. From the beginning of the O'Brien Era through the fourth round of the 2017 draft, when the Texans selected Julien Davenport (who, by the way, is the NEXT guy to be thrown in at left tackle before he's ready), here is the list of offensive tackles drafted by the Texans:

........... (these dots are silence)

That is all. Nobody.

Even in the two seasons after they used a seventh rounder on Newton in 2011, the only tackles they drafted never played a down for the team — Nick Mondek (6th round, 2012, never made the team) and Brennan Williams (3rd round, 2013, now an up and coming star in WWE's developmental program). You could say it was bad luck with Newton and the Brown situation just became toxic and "we don't extend guys with two years left on a deal," but when your backup plan is a combination of undrafted free agents and broken down street Giacominis, you deserve whatever you get.

So now we enter a new frontier with Brian Gaine as the general manager. Soon we will find out if his bargain hunting in free agency was the right call, and we will find out, at the very least, if he prioritizes the offensive line better than his predecessor.

Much like the Texans' offensive line in 2017, he can't do worse.

Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.

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