The 2020 NFL season is only a month old and the Texans are already looking to the future following the firing of Bill O’Brien.
O’Brien last week was relieved of his duties as the team’s head coach and general manager after an 0-4 start, which a series of questionable personnel moves.
Only one team, the 1992 Chargers, has started 0-4 and gone on to make the playoffs, meaning the Texans are likely playing for pride under interim head coach Romeo Crennel.
Jack Easterby has taken on the GM role in an interim capacity, but what will O’Brien’s long-term replacement in the front office have on his docket?
Here we look at the tasks that await the new GM in the 2021 offseason.
Replace DeAndre Hopkins
O’Brien’s decision to trade Hopkins for a second-round pick this year, a 2021 fourth-rounder and running back David Johnson was a move that played a significant role in sealing his fate.
While quarterback Deshaun Watson’s play has not really dropped off without Hopkins — his 8.5-yards-per-attempt average through four games is the highest of his career — the Texans’ offense is predictably worse off without the All-Pro wide receiver.
The Texans were 52-42 in games with Hopkins and are now 0-6 without him. They averaged 22.1 points in the 94 games Hopkins played for the franchise, but have put up just 17.8 points per game minus his services.
Hopkins helped the Texans rack up 343.8 total yards per game during his time in Houston, with their production in that regard dropping to 304.3 yards per game when he has not featured.
As one of the game’s top young quarterbacks, Watson can mask plenty of the Texans’ failings, but the impact of losing a receiver of Hopkins’ caliber was always going to be significant. They must repair the damage from a needless trade next offseason.
Shore up the protection
Another of O’Brien’s headline moves was the 2019 deal for left tackle Laremy Tunsil, which saw Houston send two first-round picks, a second-rounder and a pair of players to the Dolphins.
Tunsil, widely regarded as one of the league’s top players at the position, was signed to a three-year, $66 million extension in April. Yet the numbers suggest the Texans’ offensive line has actually declined since his arrival.
Indeed, between 2014 and 2018 the Texans rushed for 120.2 yards a game (fifth in the NFL) and gave up an average of 2.63 sacks (24th in the NFL).
Since 2019, however, the Texans’ rush yardage average has dipped to 115.2 (15th), while they are conceding 3.25 sacks per game (31st).
Tunsil is also the most penalized player in the league since 2019, having been flagged 16 times. Yet it is unlikely the Texans will give up on a player in whom they have invested so much, both financially and in terms of draft capital.
The challenge for whoever is running the Texans in the offseason is to identify the key weaknesses in the trenches and ensure Watson has the protection to realize his MVP potential.
Reverse the defensive decline
The 2019 offseason also saw the trade of Jadeveon Clowney to the Seahawks.
Clowney, the first overall pick in 2014, has never quite lived up to his billing as a pass rusher, but the dropoff by the Texans’ defense following his exit has been stark.
Between 2014 and 2018, the Texans ranked in the top 10 in the NFL in opponents’ points per game (21.3), opponents’ total yards per game (329.9), opponents’ rush yards per game (99.3) and opponents’ passing yards per game (230.6).
In the 20 regular-season games they have played since the start of the 2019 campaign, the Texans have allowed opponents to average 25.6 points, 389.3 total yards, 133.2 rushing yards and 256.1 passing yards. They rank in the bottom half of the league in all four categories.
Whether Clowney would have prevented that decline is open for debate but, with J.J. Watt struggling to stay healthy in recent years, this is a defense that lacks difference-makers — something that must be addressed in 2021.
Acquire draft capital
The list of tasks for the Texans’ next general manager is lengthy, but O’Brien’s replacement in that role will not be able to succeed in repairing the roster without adding draft picks.
Perhaps the most damaging result of O’Brien’s tenure as personnel chief is the lack of picks he has left them.
The Texans do not have a pick in either of the first two rounds of the 2021 draft as a result of their trade with the Dolphins, which looks particularly costly given their first-round pick would be fourth overall if the season ended now.
Houston needs to supplement an aging and — outside of Watson — mediocre roster with premium young talent. The best way to do that is to acquire picks.
After the mess O’Brien has left them, it will take some creative roster reconstruction from his successor to put the Texans in contention for a first NFL title.
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