On July 31st of this year, mere seconds before the MLB trade deadline, Houston Astros GM Jeff Luhnow completed a pennant race-altering (pennant race-sealing?) deal for Arizona ace Zack Greinke. It was just the next in a long line of big deals Luhnow has been able to execute to make the Astros who they are — the best franchise in their sport.
That deal came just weeks after Daryl Morey and the Rockets, a pretty well run team in their own right, completed a polarizing but earth-shaking deal for former league MVP Russell Westbrook. That deal was unexpected, the deal was intriguing (still is), and you got the sense that Morey was one of just a few people who could pull it off.
So once Luhnow and Morey were done doing what they routinely do, the natural reaction was to say, "Your move, Texans!" There was only one problem — the Texans were not being GM'ed by a Luhnow or a Morey. They were being GM'ed by a five-person committee led by a head coach whose emotional range has garnered him the nickname "Teapot," for his propensity of boiling over.
How would this Texans GM group view draft capital? How would they view salary cap space? Would Bill O'Brien be the sucker that you immediately spot when you sit down at a poker table? Well, for Houston sports fans clamoring for a Texans deal of Greink-ian or Westbrook-ian proportions, along with seeking answers for those fundamental GM questions, y'all got your wish over the weekend.
In a volcanic explosion of deals on Saturday — so much for taking the holiday weekend off! — Bill O'Brien changed the face of his offensive line, shipped out Jadeveon Clowney, and essentially gutted the top of the next couple Texans drafts. The sum total of what they did is as follows:
T Laremy Tunsil
WR Kenny Stills
DE Barkevious Mingo
LB Jacob Martin
RB Carlos Hyde
CB Keion Crossen
2020 3rd round pick
2020 4th round pick
2021 6th round pick
Texans send out:
OLB Jadeveon Clowney
G Martinas Rankin
T Julien Davenport
CB Johnson Bademosi
2020 1st round pick
2021 1st round pick
2021 2nd round pick
2020 6th round pick
I mean.... wow. Just... WOW.
If you put your hands over the draft capital involved, then it's easy to see that player-for-player, the Houston Texans became a better football team on Saturday. Yes, Clowney is now gone, and that will hurt on defense, but Tunsil is a franchise cornerstone left tackle, heading into his fourth year, and you finally — FINALLY! — got Deshaun Watson some real protection. The other players coming this way — Stills, Martin, Crossen, especially — serve a purpose. The non-Clowney players headed out are all guys we would not have blinked at the Texans' waiving them — Davenport, Rankin, Bademosi.
For these reasons, I am more excited for the 2019 season than I was when I woke up on Saturday morning.
Now, to the draft capital — holy hell... YIKES. That is a LOT to give up for Tunsil, and that's very LITTLE coming in for Clowney. However, this is the situation that the Texans' poor decision making on the offensive line put the franchise in. Desperation breeds overpaying. Or more simply, desperate times call for desperate measures. The best "real life" metaphor I can come up with is when you make poor fiscal life decisions (i.e. running up big credit cards, delinquency, bankruptcy — I mean, that's the Texans on the offensive line since 2015, right? Oh, and Breno Giacomini is the o-line equivalent of Chapter 13, for sure.) you pay higher interest rates to get nice things (i.e. two first-round picks and a second-rounder). In short, the Houston Texans have been trying to scrape by moving balances around from card to card for four years. Finally, O'Brien said enough of this and consolidated all of it on one big Laremy Tunsil. I don't know if the analogy TOTALLY works, but it feels like it does.
Man, there is so much to break down here. Let's do it "Winners and Losers" style, shall we?
4. Deshaun Watson
Now, we can really say it — the days of Deshaun Watson taking a bus to a road game because he is on the precipice of death by collapsed lung are over! Even with Lamar Miller out for the year, Watson was already operating with some pretty good skill-position weapons in DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller, Keke Coutee, and Duke Johnson, and the addition of Kenny Stills from the Dolphins is underrated. Stills is a durable, dangerous, veteran deep threat who provides true depth in the inevitable event Fuller or Coutee (or both) miss time. The days of going into Week 17 with DeAndre Carter as your number two WR are over, Texans fans! But it's Tunsil that is the cornerstone of the deal, and with the departure of Clowney, immediately becomes the fourth-best player on this roster. If you want to get excited about Watson's safety, watch this breakdown from my SportsRadio 610 colleague and former Pro Bowl offensive lineman Wade Smith...
Now, there's that small matter of paying Tunsil...
3. Laremy Tunsil's grandchildren
On paper right now, Tunsil, who is heading into the fourth year of his rookie deal with a fifth-year option already exercised, costs about $12.5 million over the next two years:
Truth be told, he will wind up costing a whole helluva lot more than this, sooner rather than later. He is eligible for a big contract extension right now, and the dynamics are in place for him to break the bank and shatter the roof on the tackle salary market when you consider the following:
(1) The contracts that have set the market for offensive tackles the last two seasons were Nate Solder in 2018 and Trent Brown in 2019, two average tackles who were lucky enough to hit a desperate market. (Also, two guys the Texans went in on and were NOT the high bidder, if we are looking for reasons we are here today discussing Tunsil.) Tunsil is light years ahead of both guys. He is a legit future All-Pro.
(2) The Texans gave up a king's ransom to get Tunsil. They can't very well let him walk away in free agency in two years, and after this Clowney ordeal, I'm guessing their desire to use the franchise tag on anybody, let alone the guy for whom they gutted two drafts, is significantly diminished. If I'm the Texans, I work on this now. Make it a priority, front-load the deal with some of the oodles of cap space you have right now, and lock Tunsil down.
Whatever the case, Laremy Tunsil is going to have some very wealthy great grandchildren.
2. Whitney Mercilus
To me, Bill O'Brien will never be able to justify shipping Clowney out for two role players and a third-round pick. Ever. He and the Texans misplayed their hand badly on that situation and completely underestimated Clowney's resolve. (More on that in a minute.) One of the biggest x-factors, though, in at least stemming the tide on defense is the return of Whitney Mercilus to his more comfortable outside linebacker position. Mercilus had a great camp this year, and appears primed for a really good season. He will need to have one if the Texans are going all-in on 2019. It's worth mentioning, too, that Mercilus is in the final year of his deal. If the Texans want to get an extension done before Week 1, Mercilus would be a guy with seemingly good bargaining power, considering the drop off in edge rushing talent from J.J. Watt, then him, to the next guy (not even sure who that would be).
1. Jadeveon Clowney
So Clowney is now a Seattle Seahawk. It hurts to type that. I always enjoyed watching a healthy Clowney play, but whatever Bill O'Brien's glitch was with Clowney, the two couldn't coexist anymore, which I put 100 percent on O'Brien, who is paid to make quirky relationships work for the betterment of the team. The Texans are worse defensively today, and it didn't have to be this way. Hell, according to reports on Sunday morning, the Texans actually chipped in on Clowney's salary to ram this deal through:
I don't know what O'Brien's problem was with Clowney specifically, but fans deserve some degree of explanation, because the deal they got in inexcusably disgraceful. From Clowney's standpoint, he has to be laughing. He is going to play for a better head coach, for a team with a better pedigree, in a defense much better suited to his needs, all while exercising his power under the franchise tag to steer his career the way HE wanted it to go. I'm happy for Clowney, and fearful he will reach his potential playing for Pete Carroll.
4. The Watt/Clowney "Era"
So we can now close the book on 2014 through 2018, the "Watt/Clowney Era." When the Texans used the first overall pick on Clowney in 2014, the experts gushed about the thought of J.J. Watt, who was still only heading into his fourth season, and Clowney wrecking shop for the next eight to ten years. Instead, Clowney was injured or ineffective for most of 2014 and 2015, and Watt was injured for most of 2016 and 2017. The only season we saw them play at near full power simultaneously was in 2018, and that was fun, but man, overall, what a disappointment, one of the biggest in my time covering and following sports in Houston.
3. The Patriot Way
The desire to create some form of "New England Patriots South" has been quite evident for some time, from the original hiring of O'Brien in 2014, to O'Brien winning the war with Rick Smith in 2017, to the hiring of Jack Easterby, to the failed pursuit of Nick Caserio to be the GM. O'Brien talks about "culture" all the time, and we assume it's the creation of something closely resembling the vaunted "Patriot Way." However, the moves over the last two days have been very un-Patriotlike. Trading Clowney in a vacuum might be something Bill Belichick would do, but not in a part of the calendar year where you have the worst bargaining position. Trading two first-round picks and a second-round pick for a left tackle, even a great one, would be something Belichick would fire you for even suggesting, probably. The Patriots are never desperate. The Texans were supremely desperate yesterday, even WITH a future franchise quarterback. I will say that one encouraging thing about yesterday's deal with the Dolphins is that Tunsil and Stills are both guys that the Texans may have stayed away from in offseasons past, Tunsil because of his draft night Twitter hack fiasco (weed gas mask, anybody?) and Stills because he is a noted kneeler during the national anthem. The latitude in evaluating guys who can help the team, not to mention the steep price paid, indicate a softening in guys' needing to be "perfect."
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2. Texans 3rd rounders
The only draft capital received back in the Clowney deal was a third round pick. Need I remind you that the Texans' drafting in the third round has been a disaster since O'Brien arrived in 2014. They've cut at least one third round pick halfway through their rookie contracts (or less) from each of the five drafts between 2014 and 2017 — Louis Nix III, Jaelen Strong, Braxton Miller, D'Onta Foreman, and they were going to cut Martinas Rankin before they did a garbage bin-for-garbage bin trade with the Chiefs for Carlos Hyde. The Texans trading for a third round pick is like a one legged man booking a ski vacation. Bad things will likely ensue.
1. Bill O'Brien's GM "Q rating"
Unlike Luhnow and Morey, I would guess that even with the big swings taken over the weekend, O'Brien's approval rating is in the toilet among Texan fans, and it will be until his output in the regular season against good teams, and then in the postseason, match the power he now has. Right or wrong, the perception among many fans of O'Brien is that of a quasi-bully (unfair, win my opinion — from my experience, I think O'Brien is a decent guy who sincerely regrets lashing out when he does do it) who is in over his head (this may very well be true, but I hope this all works out). The proof will be in the results. For now, it appears "O'Brien the GM" is doing his best to keep "O'Brien the head coach" employed, 2020 and 2021 drafts be damned. It's unhealthy, but entirely compelling. For years, Texan fans have complained about the lack of urgency with this franchise. That complaint is no longer valid. Now, finally, the Texans, and more so Bill O'Brien, have pushed their chips to the middle of the table. They're all in on 2019, and either it will work, or the flame out will be spectacular.
The season starts a week from today. I can't wait.