In April, it looked crazy to defend Bill O’Brien.
After all, the coach and general manager was fresh off of trading DeAndre Hopkins to the Arizona Cardinals. This followed after O’Brien traded a left tackle’s ransom for Laremy Tunsil and dealt away Jadeveon Clowney for a couple veterans and a draft pick at the end of the 2019 preseason.
Stay-at-home orders prevented Texans fans from lighting O’Brien on fire in effigy. So, they just did it on social media.
So what if Hopkins wanted to rework his contract with two years remaining? He had recorded three straight 1,000-yard seasons and as many All-Pro selections. With Antonio Brown following “God’s plan,” Hopkins was arguably the best receiver in the NFL.
O’Brien simply scoffed.
In a stunning move, the stud wide receiver and best friend of quarterback Deshaun Watson was moved to Arizona in exchange for the 40th overall selection in the 2020 NFL Draft and outcast running back David Johnson. The critics were loud and numerous in their evaluations of O’Brien. How could anybody trade that caliber of a receiver in the prime of their career? In what world could a NFL franchise not receive at least a first round pick for an All-Pro player? Why would the Texans take on the albatross contract of David Johnson, a player seemingly on a downward spiral at this point in his career?
The Texans quickly flipped their own second-round selection, 57th overall, to the Los Angeles Rams in exchange for the often-traded Brandin Cooks. Cooks, the recipient of four 1,000-yard seasons from 2015-2018, was lauded as a similarly priced downgrade to Hopkins. The jeers were merciless for the front office from pundits, casuals, and players alike.
After many months, fan petitions of #FireOBrien, and a COVID-19 filled offseason that almost made fans forget, it seems that O’Briens master vision may have come to full scope Sept. 8 as Hopkins signed a two-year, $54.5 million extension with the Cardinals. Hopkins became the highest paid non-quarterback in the league, despite negotiating without an agent.
This is, of course, a testament to Hopkins’ greatness and the work he accomplished in Houston during the last 3 years. However, the ludicrous $27.5 million yearly value represents an opportunity to take fully into scope the plan the Texans have pursued for the 2020 season.
First, let’s look at what the Houston Texans have been able to do financially. The Texans were able to secure the future health of their franchise quarterback by locking down left tackle Laremy Tunsil to a three-year, $66 million contract extension, making him the highest-paid offensive lineman in NFL history. Tunsil, despite any commentary regarding false starts, was one of the NFL’s highest rated pass protectors last year and a big reason the offensive line unit as a whole turned a corner.
Next, the team signed linebacker Zach Cunningham to a four-year, $58 million contract extension. Cunningham led the AFC in combined tackles with 142 in 2019 and is well regarded as the team’s best coverage linebacker as well.
Finally, the Texans signed franchise-star Deshaun Watson to a 4-year, $160 million extension that will ensure Watson plays in Battle Red for at least six additional seasons. Nobody needs to be told how great Watson has been.
All this to say, dodging the mega extension at wide receiver has allowed the Texans to secure their franchise leaders with complete peace of mind. Tunsil will anchor the offensive line, Cunningham will pilot the defense, and Watson will continue to carry the franchise for years and years to come. These long-term extensions would be very difficult to swallow under the salary cap with a Hopkins mega extension on the books as well.
Second, let’s discuss what the team has done from a sheer football standpoint. The money saved from a hefty Hopkins’ extension has allowed Houston to stack the offense with more, but less talented B- to B+ players in Kenny Stills, Brandin Cooks, Randall Cobb, and David Johnson. Their cap hits all fall between $7 and $11 million dollars for 2020 with nobody representing any massive commitment beyond 2020. Along with their extremely manageable contracts, they represent one thing in common with Duke Johnson and Will Fuller. The Texans will be fast on offense. O’Brien and the staff have committed to spreading the ball around and outrunning teams in 2020.
This does not happen with Hopkins on the perimeter. The Texans may no-longer have a throw-it-and-pray matchup at wideout, but they will ask Watson to spread the ball around to a host of players safeties and defenses will have to respect deep.
Finally, and most importantly, it’s time to discuss Houston’s return for trading Hopkins, a much beloved receiver. He was gritty, worked hard, was well-spoken and had an incredible rapport with Watson. The gut-reaction is to be shocked at the lack of a larger return for Hopkins when considering first-round hauls for players such as Stephon Diggs. However, players like Diggs were not openly campaigning to restructure five-year deals that they were only two years into. There were no clear indications he would not playout the remainder of his 5-year, $72-million extension. With a new price tag of $27.5 million annually, it becomes all the more clear why Houston was unable to find a suitor for Hopkins that would surrender a first-rounder. The pick represents five years of premium talent on a team friendly contract that must be retained in order to pay receivers that kind of money. Nobody was taking that double whammy to the salary cap.
In short, there may be a three-fold vindication of O’Brien this September. The general manager was able to receive a more than reasonable return for what was to become the most expensive non-quarterback aspect in the football. Next, opting out of a huge pay day at wide receiver allowed the team to invest heavily in positions that are historically far more important without worrying about becoming the next Rams. O’Brien the coach has transitioned his offense from one that was brutally outmatched against Kansas City to one that may very well be able to keep up this Thursday evening at the NFL kickoff.
It takes a long time to evaluate the value and efficacy of trades in the National Football League. Maybe Texans’ fans need to apologize to O’Brien for the knee-jerk reaction on this one.