The trade that will send DeAndre Hopkins to the Arizona Cardinals, we assume, will be completed on Wednesday — the first official day of the 2020 NFL season.
And that’s when the heavy lifting begins for the Houston Texans.
The swiftness with which they made the deal, landing RB David Johnson and a fourth-round pick from Arizona, makes you think they confidently believe they can land a wide receiver (or two) to help replace Hopkins.
One came in the signing of Randall Cobb, but we’re not going to insult your intelligence and suggest that’s a zero-sum addition. More help is needed — most likely through the draft.
But wide receiver isn’t the only pressing need. They have a lot of holes for a team with a young franchise quarterback that led 24-zip over the eventual champs in the divisional round of the playoffs. The Texans defense gave up 51 points in that game. Houston’s offensive line gave up four sacks and got Deshaun Watson hit eight times that day.
The Texans’ needs run far and wide now. So how can they fix them?
Houston’s draft capital
Here are the draft picks the Texans have to work with:
Second round (40th overall, from the Cardinals)
Second round (57th overall)
Third round (90th overall)
Fourth round (111th overall, from Miami Dolphins)
Fifth round (172nd overall)
Seventh round (241st overall)
Seventh round (249th overall)
Seventh round (251th overall)
That’s ... not a lot.
Not receiving a single first-round pick for Hopkins or Jadeveon Clowney feels wild, and trading away firsts this year and next for Laremy Tunsil (and more) is equally absurd. Trading for three running backs in less than a year’s time is the licorice-flavored icing on this pickled herring-flavored cake.
But this is the bed Bill O’Brien has made. He now needs to find a lot of linen and comforters.
Which wide receivers can the Texans land?
Whether or not the Texans go the veteran route at the position, the draft should theoretically give them some decent options — and wideouts of all shapes and sizes from which to choose.
First, there’s the current WR depth chart: Cobb, Kenny Stills, Will Fuller, Keke Coutee, DeAndre Carter, Chad Hansen, Steven Mitchell, Jr., Isaac Whitney.
It’s not a promising group without help. It features two vertical receivers (Stills and Fuller), a slot guy coming off a resurgent year in Cobb (after several flat-line years), younger and shakier slot options (Coutee and Carter) and some possible WR4 and WR5 types (the rest).
What the group lacks is size, length and most of all, reliability. Stills has been healthy in his career, but Cobb, Coutee and Fuller definitely have not to date — how much can you count on them? Hopkins was such a crucial security blanket for Watson, it’s difficult to imagine any one rookie coming in and filling his shoes in Year 1.
But let’s say Houston is bent on using the 40th pick on a receiver. There should be decent options.
Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb and Alabama’s Henry Ruggs III and Jerry Jeudy will be long gone. We figure that local prospects like TCU’s Jalen Reagor and Baylor’s Denzel Mims will be, too, along with LSU’s Justin Jefferson.
Mims’ Senior Bowl and NFL combine performances have him likely landing late first round, in our view. Arizona State’s Brandon Aiyuk could slip to 40, we suppose, but the Texans can’t count on that. If they want either, it likely will require a move up — and likely more picks out the door.
That narrows our list down a bit, to the likes of Clemson’s Tee Higgins, Colorado’s Laviska Shenault Jr., Penn State’s KJ Hamler and USC’s Michael Pittman Jr.
Of those, Higgins makes a lot of sense. His stock has cooled following a slow 40-yard dash (mid-4.5 seconds) at his pro day, and the depth of this class also has hurt. But Higgins has the big-game experience, size, ball skills and downfield ability to make him as good an option as any, if he’s still on the board at that point.
Remember, Hopkins was a mid-4.5 guy coming out, too. Both receivers have great body control, hands and suddenness to make their catches. It also might make Watson — who attends his alma mater’s games when possible — happy to land another Clemson guy (to replace the Clemson guy).
Shenault’s toughness and versatility could appeal to O’Brien, but the injury history would make it a tough sell at 50; he’d be more of an option at 57, we suspect.
Pittman is a bit of a poor man’s Higgins in a way, so he could be a decent fallback option, too. Hamler’s deep speed would be fascinating to pair with Watson, but that’s some skill overlap with Fuller and Stills.
We’d rank the second-round options for Houston in Round 2 as follows:
2. Pittman (better at 57 than 40)
3. Shenault (at 57)
4. The field
One of those players can help rescue the Hopkins trade from total disaster, but it’s still a major climb and a giant leap to make that assumption.
What about the other needs?
The Texans theoretically could use help on all three levels of the defense. We’d say adding at least one edge rusher, one cornerback (even with Bradley Roby back), one or two linebackers, one defensive lineman (with D.J. Reader likely leaving in free agency) and another safety are on their to-do list.
Don’t forget that offensive line issue, too; it could use another player or two, we suspect.
If a receiver is likely with one of those two second-rounders, and you consider the three seventh-rounders as dart throws unlikely to strike oil, that leaves four draft picks to chip away at five or six positions.
We’re not great at math, but ... that feels tough.
Whitney Mercilus was extended, and J.J. Watt showed he still might have some quality left with his incredible return for the playoffs. But swapping Clowney for less-than-equal return and a lack of depth have left the pass rush thin.
Combined with the back seven on defense and the OL shortage, and it’s a lot to accomplish in one offseason. There’s also a lack of picks down the road, as the Texans don’t have their first- or second-round picks in 2021. Spending too much in free agency this year would also prevent them from gaining compensatory picks, so there’s a catch-22 with that approach as well.
This simultaneously feels like a rebuild and a team desperately trying to stay in contention. And that’s possibly the worst state in which a team can find itself. Choose one approach or the other and go full steam ahead. There’s no buttering both sides of the bread in this league.
Is it hopeless? No, but the pathway to success in 2020 feels difficult, especially with the Tennessee Titans appearing to reload and the Indianapolis Colts adding DeForest Buckner and still in good shape with their draft-pick till.
The Texans have to count on their scouting to ID ready-made and high-floor talents for this year to plug all the holes in the dike and take advantage of Watson while they still have him. He’s under contract through the 2021 season (fifth-year option) and could be franchise-tagged for 2022.
But that window is closing quickly, with limited resources with which to keep it open. All eyes turn to O’Brien, the team’s head coach and GM, to make things right. That’s the biggest part that’s keeping Texans fans from hoping against hope that this self-inflicted teardown can be fixed.
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