For Bill O’Brien to look competent in trading away DeAndre Hopkins, he’ll need the Houston Texans offense to thrive. Houston should expect an MVP-like Deshaun Watson, and a plethora of highlight plays from new additions, Brandin Cooks and David Johnson. However, even if recent standouts succeed, the Texans offensive line likely decides the team’s fate in 2020.
In Watson’s rookie season, Houston’s offensive line allowed 56 sacks. The following season, they allowed with a league-high 62 despite having the dual-threat option lead them to the postseason. Even after a “rebuilt” offseason, since Watson’s taken over as QB1, the unit finished in the top 10 in sacks allowed, barely staying under the 50 mark for a third straight season.
Watson will be without his top target, and the Texans are counting on a resurgence from Johnson in the run game. Neither of that can happen if the five-man front that’s struggled for three seasons continues to be mediocre. A full season in the system, plus veteran experience, might be Watson’s secret weapon as Houston tries for the three-peat as the AFC South winners.
How good can the Texans offensive line be in 2020?
Turnover at the tackle position
Outside pressure will be the downfall of a young quarterback and franchise left tackles won’t come cheap in today’s NFL. Protecting Watson was essential, but the asking price for Laremy Tunsil might have been one that could set the team back long-term.
The Texans traded a pair of first-round selections, a second-round pick, and two players for the 26-year-old tackle and Kenny Stills’ services. Instead of paying the former Dolphin right away to remain a stalwart on the left side, O’Brien waited until season’s end to ink him to a three-year $66 million extension, with $57.85 million guaranteed.
A revamped offensive line
Tunsil wasn’t the only addition to the Texans’ line last year. Weeks before being fired, former GM Brian Gaine perhaps panicked by selecting FCS standout Tytus Howard with the 23rd selection. Most mocks had Houston selecting Washington State’s Andre Dillard, but the Eagles jumped one spot ahead to make him Jason Peters’ replacement.
Despite not playing against FBS talent, Howard was a surprise for the Houston line as the team’s starting right tackle. Allowing just two sacks and five penalties, the Alabama State product seemed to be a natural fit in run blocking a position many scouts believed his size would translate over.
“Tytus had a really good rookie year,” O’Brien said. “Very tough, very physical, very athletic, great guy, great teammate. He’s got a really bright future.”
Tunsil, meanwhile, was a blessing in disguise for Watson’s progression. Explosive in pass protection, the Ole Miss alum allowed only five pressures and three sacks. In the run game, he was a mountain, helping Carlos Hyde surpass the 1,000-yard mark for the first time.
That said, neither is a complete product just yet and still could use some refinement. Tunsil was one of the top tackles last season: he also was penalized one with 20, 14 coming from false starts. Howard’s health will also be a concern as the rookies missed due to a torn meniscus.
Howard also will need to improve as a pass protector. Despite allowing fewer sacks than Tunsil, he also allowed 15 more pressures. And without a sure-fire security blanket in Hopkins, Watson’s flustered is a disaster waiting to happen.
Stalled by an uninspiring interior
The outside allowed five sacks, meaning nearly 95% of takedowns were coming up the middle. Nick Martin, Max Scharping, and Zach Fulton are all questionable starters, but the consistency will need to improve by season’s end if they want to keep that title.
Scharping, a second-round selection in 2019, started 14 games at the left guard spot once Howard moved outside. Overall, he was your prototypical rookie in making clean blocks but also having some blunders. Scharping played well in pass sets but struggled to open running lanes up the middle.
The same could be said for Martin, who took a step forward in pass protection. As the longest-tenured member of the line, his skills should have only improved season by season. Instead, there’s equal glimpses of greatness as there are moments of madness, leading to inconsistencies week by week.
Fulton’s never been a fit on Mike Devlin’s line since arriving at NRG in 2018. Unable to find balance as a run blocker or in pass sets, his pressures have only risen as his inability to open running lanes. Susceptible to double teams, Fulton’s the weakest link of the bunch far and away entering the new season.
The Texans still can place former starter Senio Kelemete back in the lineup, but his pass protection skills are atrocious. The unit performed well in run blocking, finishing top 10 with 125.6 yards per game. The problem is, their passing offense finished middle of the pack with a 236.4 average per outing.
Is offensive line improvement on the horizon?
Martin made his feelings clear when speaking of Tunsil’s penalties. Despite the left tackle making the mistakes, it’s a team effort to make sure the cadence is called correctly, leading to the entire unit failing instead of one player.
“It’s a group effort. You’ve got five guys out there,” Martin said earlier this week. “You’ve got half the offense and it really is – it’s never on one of us. Obviously, he’s quick and he’s athletic and he’s going to do what he does. We’re not worried about him.”
Houston’s biggest concern will be finding a stable unit. There are flaws in each position, and neither one is the same. Whether it be Tunsil’s penalties, Martin’s inconsistencies, or Howard’s health, a nick on the line is damaging to the backfield.
At least more balanced, Johnson could see a rejuvenation similar to Hyde’s in the run game. Useful as a pass-catcher, his reliability on broken plays might be effective as the new go-to weapon with pressure closing. Throw in Duke Johnson and rebound years for Will Fuller and Cooks, maybe O’Brien isn’t a madman for trading away an All-Pro wideout.
Will the pass protection be good enough?
Pass protection matters though, and with a year under their belts, Houston can’t afford to be near the top of sacks allowed category. Since entering the league in 2017, Watson has already been sacked 125 times: 41 more times than Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes combined. And with the ever-growing talent off the edge, one hit could be the end of the season for any pocket passer — ending Houston’s season right there.
However, O’Brien sees fit; the five best linemen must enter the field each Sunday. Howard and Tunsil are safe, but the interior can switch around depending on the schemes or whoever shined at practice. Until consistency is found, the Texans offensive line will likely cause another wasted season in Watson’s prime years.