Despite the mood Texan fans are in due to Bill O'Brien's moves this offseason, the fact of the matter is that the Texans will probably have a winning record again in 2020, and might win the AFC South for a fifth time in seven seasons under O'Brien. MY point is not to celebrate that, but instead point out that this is not a bad football team. Bill O'Brien is making moves he THINKS will make them a better football team, equipped to win at a higher level this coming season.
Like you, I am ultra skeptical, bordering on pessimistically doubtful, that these moves THUS FAR leave the Texans in a better place. O'Brien is making a big bet on a combination of locker room culture, player development, and Deshaun Watson. (I believe in one of those three things immutably, and I'll let you guess which one — hint, it's the only one with two legs.)
O'Brien has assured fans that he's not done with roster "upgrades" yet, and he cites the draft this week as an opportunity to make improvements. The only problem there is that the Texans' first pick in the draft is in the second round, 40th overall. As of right now, they don't pick again until 90th overall. O'Brien emptied the chamber of first round picks in 2020 and 2021 back in August when he made the trade for Laremy Tunsil. It's absolutely imperative that O'Brien now sign Tunsil to an extension, and then Tunsil becomes the left tackle for this team for the next ten years, because for the last decade, most of Houston's star power has come from the draft's first round.
If you're listing the best handful of players on the team since O'Brien took over it would undoubtedly include J.J. Watt, Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins, Jadeveon Clowney, and Duane Brown. All of them were first picks, and all but Clowney overachieved SIGNIFICANTLY versus their draft slots. The only other player I can think of that belongs on a list like this would be Arian Foster, and he was an undrafted lottery ticket from back in 2009, with ties to O'Brien.
So, in plain English, O'Brien has forfeited TWO years worth of what has been the substantially dominant method through which the Texans have built their core. In fact, let's go back and look at the first round picks from 2008 through 2017, and see just how monumentally significant these players all were to any success the team has had, and you will see — improving this team for the rest of this offseason will be supremely difficult:
2008 - DUANE BROWN, T
SELECTED: 26th overall
CAREER AV (among 1st rounders): 3rd
It';s a shame that we don't get to appreciate it up close, because he is now in Seattle, but Duane Brown has carved out a remarkable career, attaining All Pro status for two different teams, and becoming the highest rated non-quarterback in his first round draft class, a class where he was the seventh offensive tackle taken. It's one of the great Texan "what ifs" in team history — if the Texans had given Brown a contract extension, would the chain of events that ended with the gutting fo the first round of 2020 and 2021 for Laremy Tunsil have occurred?
2009 - BRIAN CUSHING, LB
SELECTED: 15th overall
CAREER AV (among 1st rounders): 7th
Even with two traumatic knee injuries, Cushing still wound up the 7th highest ranked first round pick in 2009. Of course, the lion's share of that attainment came in 2009 and 2011 (25 points of the 60 AV points he accumulated), his two best seasons, by far. The 2009 first round draft class is down to under a half dozen players still active.
2010 - KAREEM JACKSON, CB
SELECTED: 20th overall
CAREER AV (among 1st rounders): 17th (tie)
If you'd told me a decade ago that Kareem Jackson would still be kicking around, going into an 11th season, I would have said you were crazy. No player in this post struggled more as a rookie than Jackson, but he became a very solid nine year starter for the Texans, and has been good enough to be around the midway point for first round picks in a class where he was taken 20th overall.
2011 - J.J. WATT, DE
SELECTED: 11th overall
CAREER AV (among 1st rounders): 2nd (tie)
Watt is tied with Von Miller for 98 AV points overall in his career, but has done that in 23 fewer games. Undoubtedly, if Watt had just been healthy for a full season in either 2016 or 2017, he is probably the highest rated player in this entire draft class. By the way, five of the top 11 picks in this draft are going to the Hall of Fame — Watt, Miller, Julio Jones, Tyron Smith, Patrick Peterson. Pretty sporty,
2012 - WHITNEY MERCILUS, OLB
SELECTED: 26th overall
CAREER AV (among 1st rounders): 14th
Whitney Mercilus is right about where you'd think to find him on a list like this — slightly above the halfway point for 2012 first rounders, right in between Michael Brockers and Kevin Zeitler, two guys who, like Mercilus, are very solid players who have never made a Pro Bowl.
2013 - DeANDRE HOPKINS, WR
SELECTED: 27th overall
CAREER AV (among 1st rounders): 1st
I can't even write a paragraph here without crying and inflicting water damage to my keyboard. We love you, DeAndre Hopkins. You are awesome. Let's just move along.
2014 - JADEVEON CLOWNEY, OLB/DE
SELECTED: 1st overall
CAREER AV (among 1st rounders): 12th
This list actually gives a great illustration for how out of bounds Clowney's initial contractual demands may have been, and as to why he is still sitting on the sidelines without an employer. He is a fine player, but he hasn't played enough good football to crack the top ten players of the FIRST ROUND of his own draft class. Worth noting, new Texans WR is sixth in AV among first rounders in this class. Of course, much of that accomplishment was accumulated before he was concussed four times in the last two years.
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2015 - KEVIN JOHNSON, CB
SELECTED: 16th overall
CAREER AV (among 1st rounders): 30th
Johnson is the only real disaster, the only one among the picks in the last dozen years to be released by the team. He is still bouncing around the league, now on a one year deal with the Browns, but the Kevin Johnson pick did not work out. Marcus Peters is an All Pro, taken two picks later. Granted, he has bitched his way onto three different teams in his first five seasons, but still!
2016 - WILL FULLER, WR
SELECTED: 21st overall
CAREER AV (among 1st rounders): 16th
Given that Approximate Value is a cumulative stat, it's probably safe to say that the big reason Fuller is this far down the list is because of the number of missed games (22 in four seasons). Two other current Texans are 2016 first rounders — LT Laremy Tunsil (9th on this list) and CB Vernon Hargreaves (tied for 21st).
2017 - DESHAUN WATSON, QB
SELECTED: 12th overall
CAREER AV (among 1st rounders): 3rd (tie)
Not much to say here. Deshaun is the hope of this franchise for the next ten years. If Andy Reid had taken him instead of Patrick Mahomes with the 10th overall pick, it would be Deshaun with a Super Bowl ring.