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2020 NFL Preview: Is there any method behind Texans coach Bill O'Brien's moves?

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Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2020 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 5.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)

Many trades don’t end up working out. The Oklahoma City Thunder clearly didn’t get enough for James Harden. The Chicago Cubs would take back Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio. The Minnesota Vikings handed the Dallas Cowboys a dynasty with the Herschel Walker trade.

But in the moment? Most trades can be reasonably debated. Even the Indianapolis Colts trading a first-round pick for running back Trent Richardson didn’t seem awful in the moment. Go through sports history and you won’t find many trades that are universally mocked the moment they’re made with nobody defending one side.

That’s what made the Houston Texans’ trade of DeAndre Hopkins so unique. Everyone hated it in the moment it was made.

If you’re one of the very few people defending the trade, you’re trying too hard to be different or you’re Texans coach/general manager Bill O’Brien. The Arizona Cardinals were trying to dump David Johnson’s contract. They weren’t even making it a secret. Not only did they find a taker, they got back perhaps the NFL’s best wide receiver. A second-round pick going Houston’s way doesn’t balance those scales.

That one move made O’Brien the punchline of the offseason. O’Brien has had a weird career. This is, after all, a man who watched Tom Savage and Deshaun Watson over a full offseason and voluntarily started Savage in Week 1. He also has five winning seasons and four division titles in six years as Texans coach (that surprised you a little, didn’t it?). He has won with Watson and also some awful quarterbacks. Yet he has made so many questionable moves — trading a fortune for Laremy Tunsil and having no leverage when Tunsil asked to be the highest paid lineman ever, trading Jadeveon Clowney for very little, trading for Duke Johnson and then strangely not using him enough, and so forth — that even casual fans know to snicker when he’s brought up.

Is it possible we’re being too harsh on O’Brien?

There’s no real defense for the Hopkins trade. It seems it was a move done out of spite, because Hopkins asked for a reasonable raise and O’Brien had a strained relationship with his star receiver. Despite that and some other weird moves, it’s fair to mention O’Brien is 21-11 the past two years. The Texans are one of six teams to reach double-digit wins the past two seasons, joining the New England Patriots, Kansas City Chiefs, Baltimore Ravens, New Orleans Saints and Seattle Seahawks. The coaches for every one of those teams would be included in any reputable top-10 NFL coaches list. O’Brien would not.

Also, we like to retrofit Watson as a can’t-miss prospect the Chicago Bears horribly whiffed on, but he wasn’t that coming out of Clemson. There were doubts. O’Brien should get at least some credit for Watson’s rapid development and ascension to one of the NFL’s elite.

Results do matter. The Chiefs, Patriots and Texans are the only teams in the NFL to win four division titles the past five seasons. This isn’t Hue Jackson going 3-36-1 with the Cleveland Browns. O’Brien has had some success, albeit without a deep playoff run.

Yet, because the Hopkins trade was so egregiously bad, it seems the referendum on O’Brien starts now. If he wins with David Johnson recapturing his 2016 form when he was a first-team All-Pro, it’ll be hard to deny him credit. But if he loses and Watson clearly misses his top receiver, the jokes will never stop.

Let’s try to be open-minded. TCU defensive tackle Ross Blacklock, the player Houston picked with the second-round pick acquired from Arizona, could end up being a star (then again, so could LSU DT Rashard Lawrence, who Arizona took with the fourth-round pick Houston sent in the deal). Johnson might revive his career with a new chance. Perhaps the Texans keep winning the AFC South and don’t miss Hopkins at all.

However, if it all plays out as poorly as most everyone thinks it will, one trade will be the defining moment of O’Brien’s NFL career.

Houston Texans head coach Bill O'Brien had a rough offseason. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)
Houston Texans head coach Bill O'Brien had a rough offseason. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

You already know the grade, but let’s go through the non-DeAndre Hopkins stuff anyway. Receiver Brandin Cooks was the main addition. Cooks was acquired in a trade with the Los Angeles Rams and has been productive everywhere he has been, but his concussion history is a big concern. Houston signed Randall Cobb to a three-year, $27 million deal. Cobb bounced back a bit with the Dallas Cowboys last season but it still doesn’t seem Houston will get a good return on that deal. Defensive back Eric Murray, who was not a full-time starter during four seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs or Cleveland Browns, got a surprising three-year, $18 million deal. The Texans didn’t have a first-round pick because of the Laremy Tunsil trade, so Ross Blacklock was their first pick. The Texans’ draft was mostly panned — consensus grades of NFL draft experts ranked Houston’s draft 31st in the NFL, ahead of only the Green Bay Packers. Oh, and the Texans lost defensive tackle D.J. Reader to the Cincinnati Bengals on a four-year, $53 million deal. The Texans’ offseason was bad even without factoring in the Hopkins-David Johnson swap, so ...


As soon as the Texans got Deshaun Watson some offensive line help — he was sacked 44 times last season, down from a league-high 62 — he loses one of the best receivers in the NFL. Watson has been pretty consistent since entering the NFL. He’s one of the NFL’s best, and played well in the playoffs last season, too. He was excellent in a comeback win over the Buffalo Bills on wild-card weekend, and his escape for a 34-yard pass to Taiwan Jones that set up the winning field goal will be one of the highlights of his career. But Watson has played his entire career with DeAndre Hopkins, a first-team All-Pro each of the last three seasons. Not that Watson’s talent is in question, but he does need to prove he can maintain his level without one of the NFL’s best targets. He has his coach to thank for that.

J.J. Watt made a great recovery from a torn pectoral muscle in midseason to play in both of Houston’s playoff games. He had a sack and two quarterback hits in the comeback win over Buffalo. That was great, but was also the third time in four years that Watt has missed at least half of the season due to injuries. Watt was good in his eight regular-season games — he had just four sacks but ranked sixth among all edge defenders in Pro Football Focus’ grades — and his return should eliminate any long-term concern about the injury. Still, Watt is 31 years old and staying on the field has become a big question.

It’s easy to overreact to the Texans. All offseason we’ve heard how bad Bill O’Brien is. The Texans’ over/under win total at BetMGM is down to 7.5, even though O’Brien has had seven or fewer wins just once in six seasons. Since there are plenty of questions, I’ll take the under, but it’s not a slam dunk. Deshaun Watson is still a star and Houston typically exceeds expectations. Beware of buying too much into the negative hype.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Deshaun Watson is one of my favorite players in general; love his game, love his makeup. But it's an uphill climb for the 2020 Texans. DeAndre Hopkins was impetuously traded; two of the primary wideouts are brand new to the team (and coming from teams all too happy to discard them); the Houston offensive line is spotty; and then there's Bill O'Brien, a head coach no one seems to trust.

“Given that the quarterback board is as deep as ever, I want proactive picks at the position, not reactive picks. Watson still commands the QB6 slot in Yahoo drafts, an ADP around 55th overall. I'll reluctantly fade that cost this summer — distrustful of what Watson has around him, and concerned about the limited window for cohesion and acclimation.”

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DeAndre Hopkins was Houston’s best receiver but don’t ignore the value of Will Fuller. According to ESPN Stats, Deshaun Watson’s passer rating with Fuller is 104.3 and drops to 89.8 without him. He’s one of the NFL’s better deep threats and opens up the entire offense. The problem with Fuller, a former first-round pick, is staying on the field. In his four seasons, Fuller has missed two, six, nine and five games per season. Fuller can have a huge season if most of Hopkins’ targets get redirected to him. But to do that, he’ll need to be healthy.

Can David Johnson make the trade look less bad?

It seems like a long time ago, but Johnson was once the best running back in football. In 2016, he had 2,118 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns. Then, his 2017 season was limited to one game due to a broken wrist, he was in a horrendous offense with poor coaching in 2018 and in 2019 he was off to a good start before another injury. He fell out of favor, barely played late in the season and was traded.

Three years is a long time to go between good seasons, and you won’t find many NFL running backs who bounce back after that many down years. But Johnson is just 28 years old, theoretically still within his prime. He had 613 yards from scrimmage and five touchdowns through six games last season, so it’s not like he has entirely lost it. Bill O’Brien has all the motivation to give Johnson the ball a ton after he was ripped for trading DeAndre Hopkins. And Houston supported Carlos Hyde’s 1,070-yard rushing season last year. Johnson probably will never again have a season like 2016, and he’s very unlikely to make Texans fans forget Hopkins, but he can post a quality season in 2020.

The Texans won the AFC South, had a great comeback playoff win over the Buffalo Bills and led the Kansas City Chiefs 24-0 in the divisional round. We know how that Chiefs game turned out, but it shows the potential the Texans have. DeAndre Hopkins is a great player but the 2020 Texans wouldn’t be the first team to lose a potential Hall of Fame receiver and post a better record the next year. And the Texans still have Deshaun Watson. After all the heat Bill O’Brien got this offseason, another division title would be beyond satisfying for him.

The Texans’ offense seems very fragile. Will Fuller and Brandin Cooks are big injury risks. Randall Cobb and David Johnson haven’t been great in years. There’s no tight end defenses have to worry about. And on defense, J.J. Watt’s list of injuries is getting longer. It’s very easy to see how this could turn bad and fast. And if things go bad in Houston and DeAndre Hopkins posts another All-Pro season in Arizona? Then Bill O’Brien will really never hear the end of it.

If everything goes well for the Texans with health and players like David Johnson reaching their best possible outcome, Houston could win the AFC South again. But a rough offseason has left Houston vulnerable. It’s easier to see things going wrong than going right, and I like the Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans a lot more in the division. Maybe the Texans are ranked too low because of the negativity surrounding one trade, but it’s hard to buy into them being better or even as good as last season. The Texans will slide a bit, but probably not far enough for ownership to change course and fire Bill O’Brien.

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