A much-maligned Houston Texans offensive line received some help Saturday in the form of former Miami Dolphins first-round selection Laremy Tunsil. He had been connected to the Texans via trade rumors leading up to this weekend, but many assumed that any deal involving Tunsil would return edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney back to Miami. Then, Clowney was traded to the Seattle Seahawks, and briefly, it appeared that the Tunsil to Houston talks were dead. That is, until several hours later.
The Texans secured their left tackle in the end, acquiring Tunsil and wide receiver Kenny Stills in a blockbuster trade that saw them sending a hefty package of picks to Miami along with Julie’n Davenport and Johnson Bademosi.
Considering that the Texans were most likely planning on trotting out Matt Kalil at left tackle, there is no question that Tunsil is an upgrade. Kalil has played over 150 snaps only once in the past three years, and in that 2017 season with the Carolina Panthers, he ranked 28th out of 37 qualifying left tackles in overall grade. The question isn’t whether Tunsil improves the team, because he clearly does, but rather how much he improves the team and whether the gap is worth the haul of picks that Houston gave up to acquire him.
Regardless of the answers to those questions, the Texans made one thing clear on Saturday: They are all in on building around Deshaun Watson and going after a championship.
HOW MUCH DOES TUNSIL HELP THE TEXANS?
The consensus on Tunsil appears to be that he is a rising star at the tackle position, but his PFF grades paint a different picture. Tunsil is coming off a career-best 70.4 overall grade in 2018, but even that ranked just tied for 20th out of 35 qualifying left tackles. His PFF wins above replacement value for 2018 came in at just under 1/10th of a win, not exactly falling in the range of a franchise-changing player.
Looking at his three-year grades since entering the league, Tunsil ranks 28th among qualifying left tackles in overall grade (67.0), 21st in pass-blocking grade (78.9) and 29th in run-blocking grade (56.5). He’s been average in pass protection, allowing pressure on 5.5% of his pass-blocking snaps, which ranks 15th among 38 qualifiers at the position since 2016, and decidedly below average in the run game.
He has improved over the first three seasons of his young career, though, and it’s entirely possible that he continues to develop into an upper-echelon left tackle. He just isn’t in that conversation right now given what we’ve seen from him so far. Even at his current level of play, adding a competent left tackle in pass protection serves as a sizable upgrade over the Texans’ outlook at the position from a season ago. Their left tackles combined for a 52.4 pass-blocking grade last season which led only the Oakland Raiders, and no left tackle group allowed more pressures (78) or a higher pressure rate (12.4%).
That being said, Watson doesn’t make life easy on his offensive line. As PFF data scientist Eric Eager discussed several weeks ago, a quarterback’s pressure rate falls largely on their time to throw. In fact, the time that a quarterback spends in the pocket is the single most important factor in determining their pressure rate, more so than how effective the offensive line is in pass protection.
No quarterback was pressured on a higher rate of their dropbacks last season than Watson (44.7%), but that was largely because he had an average time to throw of 2.84 seconds, good for third-highest among qualifying quarterbacks in 2018. The offensive line gets a lot of hate and for good reason. They weren’t good in 2018. Watson shouldn’t get away without blame, however. He is just as much, if not more, to blame for his high pressure rate than the line. Case in point, Watson took 22 combined sacks and hits last season in which the hit was caused by him holding onto the ball too long rather than any of his pass blockers not holding up in pass protection, a figure that led all quarterbacks.
It leads you to wonder how much of an impact the addition of Tunsil will have in pass protection. Surely there will be improvement over the Davenport experiment that failed miserably, but there is only so much Tunsil can do to protect Watson if he insists on holding onto the ball for three seconds per dropback.
Last year, Watson led all quarterbacks with 100 or more pressured pass attempts in passer rating (88.2) and yards per attempt (7.9) under pressure. Ignoring the fact that performance under pressure is volatile year-to-year and Watson is likely to get hit by regression, his clean pocket performance in the same metrics — 8.4 yards per attempt and a passer rating of 111.6 — were still significantly better. Houston’s top priority in 2019 should be protecting Watson and providing him with more clean pockets to work from, both for his health and the effectiveness of the offense. Adding Tunsil will help in the effort to do so, but ultimately, it’s Watson himself who must focus on eliminating the plays where he simply holds on to the ball for too long.
TEXANS GIVE UP TROVE OF FUTURE ASSETS TO BUILD AROUND WATSON
The other component of the conversation surrounding the blockbuster trade this weekend was just how far the Texans went to secure the prospective cornerstone of their offensive line. Two first-round picks and a second-round pick are a hefty price to pay for Tunsil, Stills and a pair of mid-to-late round selections. Houston felt as if they had to make a move, though, and were willing to pay that price. That trade, coupled with giving up what will most likely be a third-round pick to the Cleveland Browns for Duke Johnson Jr., signals that the Texans are all in on Deshaun Watson and this season in an AFC South that appears to be ripe for the taking after Andrew Luck‘s surprise retirement.
You can see why Houston feels like they have enough in place to mortgage their future to attack the present. There are definite reasons to be excited about Houston’s offense. Deandre Hopkins, Will Fuller, Keke Coutee, Stills and Johnson will form one of the top pass-catching corps in the league. Watson raised his overall grade more than any other quarterback from 2017 to 2018 and appears to be a young quarterback on the rise. There are pieces to work with, but there are also significant questions on the offensive line that remain after the addition of Tunsil. It also remains to be seen how their defense performs following key losses such as Clowney, Kareem Jackson and Tyrann Mathieu.
WAS THE DEAL WORTH IT FOR HOUSTON?
There aren’t many situations where giving up the sort of draft capital that the Texans did for a non-quarterback makes sense. This situation certainly wasn’t one of them. The key player in the deal doesn’t have a major impact on the passing game like an elite wide receiver or cornerback would and has been nothing more than a league-average player at his position to this point in his career. On top of that, Tunsil is due for what is likely a record-breaking contract extension in the near future if the Texans are to retain him past 2020. Neither Tunsil nor Stills move the needle enough to bump Houston into the tier of clear championship contenders, either. All of that equates to a deal that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense on the part of Houston.
Operating without a general manager, the Texans panicked at their offensive line situation heading into the season and grossly overpaid for the best available option on the trading block. Now they’re left with minimal flexibility in upcoming drafts, putting an immense amount of pressure on Watson to lead the current team on a deep playoff run and on Tunsil to blossom into one of the top players at his position. The odds are stacked against that happening.