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There is much more to the story than simply how bad the Texans were on defense in 2021 but we can start there. This unit finished 28th in sacks, ranked 31st in total yards allowed, 27th in points allowed, 31st against the run, and dead last versus the pass. About the only thing they did well was to take the ball away, improving from just 9 turnovers in 2020 to 25 last year. Now for the rest of the story.
Lovie Smith took over as defensive coordinator in 2021 and immediately began the transformation from the 3-4 they ran for years under Romeo Crennel, to Smith’s aggressive, one-gap 4-3 scheme. The unit’s struggles were a combination of the poor collection of talent Smith inherited, players that did not fit the new scheme, and the normal learning curve that comes with installing a new system. Smith was promoted to head coach for 2022. There were reports about the team potentially hiring a new defensive coordinator but as of June, it looks like Smith will still be running the defense and calling plays.
The switch between 3-4 and 4-3 schemes is always followed by sweeping personnel changes. It started last year with the exit of guys like future Hall of Famer J.J. Watt and long-time-starting inside linebacker Zach Cunningham and continued this offseason with the organization adding several players through both free agency and the draft that are expected to start or contribute significantly. All this might mean a rough couple of years for Texans fans, but for IDP managers, it presents a lot of opportunities.
The first step in a major scheme change is to evaluate the players that were inherited. Upon doing this, coach Smith was pleased to discover a starting defensive end buried on the previous depth chart. Jonathan Greenard was a third-round pick of the Texans in 2020. He worked as a backup at outside linebacker in the 3-4 as a rookie but by week three of last season, found his way into the starting lineup as a defensive end.
Managers glancing at Greenard’s overall numbers from last season might pass him by without a lot of thought. At 23-10-8 with 2 forced fumbles and 4 batted passes, the numbers are decent but not particularly impressive. At least not until you consider he played just 413 snaps over twelve games and dealt with a foot injury down the stretch that would require off-season surgery.
Over a six-game span starting in week three, Greenard was 16-4-7 with a forced fumble and 2 batted passes, despite leaving one of those games in the first half with a chest injury. Not bad for a guy that got very little help from the rest of his team. No one else on the roster had more than four sacks. Pro Football Focus ranked Greenard second on their list of year-three breakout candidates and had this to say; “Greenard was tremendous last season, but it was on limited time. He earned an 89.2 pass-rushing grade and has some of the best hand usage of any young pass rusher in the NFL. Greenard has a whole host of moves at this disposal to go along with nearly 35-inch arms. That’s a winning combination even if we didn’t get to see it over a full season”. Let’s just say I really like this guy.
The one concern with Greenard is injuries. He dealt with hamstring and ankle injuries in 2020. Last year he missed half a game with a chest issue before a stint on the COVID list (which doesn’t really count) and then the foot injury he is currently recovering from. While this is not enough to label him injury-prone, it is enough to put Greenard on the watch list.
There was not a lot of help for Greenard last year but things should be much different in 2022. Houston spent a lot of money on pass rushers, adding Mario Addison, Rasheem Green, and Jerry Hughes via free agency. Hughes is unlikely to have much of an impact but Addison and Green accounted for 13.5 sacks between them last season and are both solid NFL quality starters.
Green is 25 years old and could be a long-term answer. The 2018 third-round pick of the Seahawks, spent his first three seasons in a backup role, totaling eight sacks and forcing five turnovers. He earned a starting job in Seattle last year and performed well, totaling 27-20-6.5 with 4 batted passes. Green is not a blazing fast quick-twitch speed rusher off the edge and will never challenge for a sack title, but he is well suited for a three-down role. At 6-foot-4 and 279 pounds, he stands up well versus the run with enough get-off and technique to pressure the passer. He should land the starting spot opposite Greenard this year and has the potential to emerge as a solid IDP option.
Mario Addison and Jerry Hughes will be 35 and 34 years old respectively when the season starts. Both are past their prime and more likely to see rotational or situational playing time. Addison has become a journeyman late in his career. He recorded ten sacks over the last two seasons with Buffalo, showing he can still get to the quarterback but is near the end of a solid career.
After more than a decade as a starter for the Bills, Hughes was phased out in 2021. He is not the player he once was and has not put up more than four and a half sacks in a season since 2018. If some of the other/younger guys look good in camp, It would not be surprising to see Hughes let go before the season.
There are no bonafide stars at the tackle positions, nor is there anyone that has the look of an IDP contributor at this point. Maliek Collins, Ross Blacklock, and Roy Lopez are the only holdovers from last season and project to be the top three in the tackle rotation. All three are north of 300 pounds with the skills set to fit the scheme. Someone could emerge with a little value but at this stage, none of these guys has ever exceeded 30 combined tackles in a season. Collins has 15 career sacks but only 2.5 since 2019. If one of these guys were to step up, it would probably be Collins.
The darkhorse sleeper at tackle is rookie fifth-round pick, Thomas Booker. He was a 300+ pound defensive end at Stanford but projects as a three-technique tackle at the pro level. Booker had seven and a half sacks between his freshman and sophomore seasons but just two in 18 games over the last two years. On the other hand, he made a lot of tackles as a senior with 59 combined. Booker could find a role on third-downs as a rookie and is worth keeping an eye on.
- DE Jonathan Greenard – High upside sleeper with a little injury risk
- DE Rasheem Green – Potential DL2
- DE Mario Addison – Marginal value expected
- DE Jerry Hughes – No impact expected
- DE Jordan Jenkins – No impact
- DE Derek Rivers – No impact
- DE Ogbonnia Okoronkwo – Deep sleeper worth keeping an eye on
- DT Malik Collins – Possible depth in leagues starting two tackles
- DT Ross Blacklock – No impact expected
- DT Ryan Lopez – No impact
- DT Thomas Booker – Watchlist rookie
At this stage of the game, picking a Houston linebacker is a little like throwing darts while blindfolded. You know the direction of the board but have no idea what you are going to get when you let the dart go. There could be as many as seven players in the mix for three starting spots and even if you get the right three, it’s hard to say where they will line up or who will play in sub-packages. A big part of the problem is that the coaching staff is not even sure who or how they will line up at the position as they close in on the start of camp.
Kamu Grugier-Hill was the player to have last year. He was a sixth-round pick of the Patriots in 2016 but never suited up for New England and was claimed off waivers by the Eagles in September of that year. During his four years with Philadelphia, it seemed they were always talking about him being a starter in July, but never in September. He made a few starts for the Eagles as a backup before spending an uneventful 2020 with the Dolphins.
Grugier-Hill made twelve starts for the Texans in 2021, seeing action at all three linebacker spots during the season and accumulating a team-leading 108 combined tackles (70 solos) with 3 sacks, 3 turnovers, and three passes defended. His average of 12.1 points per game ranked 14th among linebackers. Grugier-Hill enters training camp as a favorite to land one of the starting spots, but his versatility means he could play any of them. He stayed on the field in sub-packages last year as well, which is a big plus for both his bid to be a starter and IDP potential.
Contestant number two is Christian Kirksey. His career began with the Browns in 2014, where he was a starting middle linebacker early, then moved to the weak side when Joe Schobert got there. Kirksey had a couple of excellent seasons with Cleveland before facing some injury issues in 2018 and 2019 and was eventually shown the door. After a cup of coffee in Green Bay where the injuries continued to be an issue, Kirksey joined the Texans last year.
Kirksey made thirteen starts on the weak side for the Texans in 2021, missing a couple of games with minor injuries and being benched before or during a couple of others. When he played, the numbers were respectable, averaging seven combined tackles with three turnovers and eight pass breakups. Kirksey is best suited to work on the weak side but the only place he has not played is strong. He is solid if unspectacular in coverage and is a candidate for sub-package duties.
Grugier-Hill and Kirksey are the veteran favorites to start in the middle and on the weak side respectively. The rest of the field includes rookie third-round pick, Christian Harris, former Lions sometimes starter Jalen Reeves-Maybin, career backup Neville Hewitt, Former Jets starter Blake Cashman, and Houston’s fifth-round selection from 2021, Garrett Wallow.
Harris put up good numbers at Alabama, totaling 159 combined tackles, 10 sacks 3 takeaways, and 5 pass breakups as a middle linebacker over the last two seasons. He checks the boxes for production and level of competition, having played in the SEC. The questions with Harris are positional fit and three-down versatility. At just over six feet tall and 226 pounds, he had some trouble getting off blocks and working through traffic at times. Thus, many scouts see him as a better fit on the weak side where he can chase down ball carriers without working through as many blockers. They also note some limitations in his coverage ability, which could spell a two-down role at least for a while. Being drafted relatively early by the current regime is a plus for Harris’s chances of earning a starting job. The potential to come off the field on third downs is a red flag for me though.
Early in the off-season, we heard the coaching staff talk about Jalen Reeves-Maybin possibly being in line for a starting role. It seems like we heard that same coach speak every year while he was in Detroit, but it never manifested into anything real. Reeves-Maybin made some starts for the Lions over the years but failed to endure himself to any of the coaching regimes he played under. In the end, he is a quality veteran backup with the ability to make spot starts.
When he gets on the field, Neville Hewitt puts up impressive numbers wherever he plays. When the Jets lost C.J. Mosley to COVID in 2020, Hewitt filled in nicely, going 91-43-2 with a turnover and 4 passes defended. He started two games for Houston last year, going 13-8, and totaled 37-23-0 on fewer than 450 plays. All that is nice but there has to be a reason the eight-year veteran is with his third team and has never been a starter until someone was injured. Maybe he just had to find the right fit or maybe it has to do with his lack of splash plays. Hewitt can play in the middle or on the weak side which seems to be the most crowded spots. If he lands the job. He can be productive for us.
I tagged Blake Cashnam as a former Jets starter more because he was supposed to be. He did manage to stay healthy and start six games in 2019 but logged 103 total snaps with New York over the last two seasons due to injuries. Cashman played mostly on the weak side for the Jets but is capable of playing any of the three spots. Considering the competition, His best shot at breaking the lineup is probably on the strong side.
The last guy to look at here is second-year pro, Garrett Wallow. He played a little bit in every game as a rookie, making two starts. In those two games, Wallow was 8-7-1. He is a dark horse candidate to win one of the starting spots but I consider him part of the completion for a few reasons. Wallow is a smart player with an outstanding work ethic, he can line up at any of the three positions, he has become a coach’s favorite for his work as a backup and on special teams, and most of the other guys are on short-term contracts. One of the keys to building a strong defense is to find long-term answers. I could see Wallow as the Texans’ answer strong side linebacker for the next several years.
There is a boatload of IDP potential here. This will be one of the most heated and most closely watched situations between now and week one. If I were drafting today, I would look at Grugier-Hill, Harris, and Kirksey in that order.
- WLB Christian Kirksey – Steady LB3 if he plays full-time and can stay healthy
- MLB/WLB Kamu Grugier-Hill – Potential LB2 if he lands a three-down role in the middle
- MLB/WLB Christian Harris – Sleeper/dynasty target with a high ceiling if he lands the right role
- MLB/WLB Neville Hewitt – Productive when he plays
- WLB/SLB Blake Cashman – Long-shot to earn significant time
- WLB/SLB Jalen Reeves-Maybin – Modest potential even if he starts
- SLB/MLB Garrett Wallow – Deep sleeper but worth keeping an eye on
The Texans will completely revamp their secondary this year, with the potential for up to four new starters. When building a secondary for the long haul, it is important to infuse both talent and youth. Thus Houston filled two of their biggest needs via the draft, landing corner Derek Stingley third overall and safety Jalen Pitre early in the second round. Both players are expected to make an immediate impact.
Eric Murray has worked at both safety spots for the Texans over the last two years. With the addition of Pitre, Murray likely settles in at the free safety spot in 2022. He is an adequate veteran option for now but is not the ultimate solution. The long-term answer at free safety may not be on the current roster but M.J. Stewart could make a run at the job. Stewart was drafted as a corner by the Packers in 2018 but has transitioned to safety over the last couple of seasons. While he has not been able to sustain a starting job, Stewart has seen significant action at both positions over his four years, including four starts at safety for Cleveland in 2021. Regardless of who lands the playing time at free safety, they are unlikely to be a major IDP factor since the free safety in a Lovie-Smith Tampa-2 style of defense usually lines up so deep he is outside the camera view when the ball is snapped.
It is not all that uncommon for a safety to make the move to linebacker, be it during his college career, at the pro level, or when making the step in between. Rarely do we see a linebacker move to safety though, which is what Pitre did while at Baylor. He did not get on the field much as an undersized linebacker but after the move to safety, Pitre started 23 games over two seasons for the Bears, putting up good numbers in the process. He filled the stat sheet with 135 combined tackles, 6 sacks, 4 interceptions, 4 forced fumbles, 3 recoveries, 9 passes defended, and a pair of scores. That’s a big check in the production box.
At 5-foot-11 and 198 pounds, with good speed and athleticism, Pitre has all the physical tools to be a successful starting safety in the NFL. It’s the intangibles that could make him special, particularly on a young team looking to build chemistry and culture. He is a leader that gives the Texans a smart physical presence and a playmaker at strong safety. Something they have been missing for a long time.
Houston’s strong safety position provided virtually no value for IDP managers last season. While that is something I expect to change with the addition of Pitre, there is a good reason to check our optimism when it comes to his statistical potential. That reason is Lovie Smith’s Tampa-2 style defense. Nearly all teams have some cover-2 in their playbooks and will bring it out on a situational basis. Smith likes to use it as the base scheme. Like everything else, there are variations and specific calls that change players’ responsibilities on a situational basis. In essence, however, the Tampa-2 is a two-deep zone that has both safeties line up well off the ball making each of them the safety net for their half of the field.
The ripple effect of a Tampa-2 scheme impacts both the responsibilities and box score potential of everyone in the secondary and to a lesser extent, the middle linebacker. With the safeties deep, corners start closer to the line and by virtue of the alignment, have help over the top. This allows them to be more aggressive, often working in press man-to-man underneath. It also puts them closer to the action on running plays, which in turn means more run support responsibilities and usually results in more tackles. The corner lining up on the strong side becomes of particular interest to IDP managers because he ends up making a lot of plays that would go to the strong safety in other schemes. With the safeties usually starting outside the hash marks, the middle zone becomes the responsibility of the middle linebacker. This is the role Brian Urlacher played when Smith was coaching the Bears. His ability to drop quickly and take away slants to inside receivers was vital to the Bears’ success. In case no one has noticed, there is no Brian Urlacher at linebacker in Houston, so we will have to see how this works out. What all this says to IDP managers, is even though the Texans’ defense has a way to go and could struggle in 2022, stay away from their safeties.
It was the Tampa-2 scheme that made Antoine Winfield Sr. and Charles Tillman two of the elite IDP corners of their generation. If you are trying to find the fantasy value in this secondary figure out who will line up as the strong side, AKA left corner. Last year that was Desmond King, who ended up as the team’s second-leading tackler and the fantasy game’s number eight corner on the strength of 88 combined tackles, 4 turnovers, and 6 passes defended. This year it could be King once again, or it could be Derek Stingley Jr who would get the added juice of the rookie corner rule on top of the goldmine position. There is also the addition of Steven Nelson in free agency to consider.
This is my thought as I sit here in late June; Stingley is going to start somewhere and I believe Nelson will start opposite him with King in the slot. With Stingley only playing in ten games over the last two seasons, we are sort of swinging in the dark with him by leaning on his 2019 season to determine the kind of player he is. That said, I think Smith will want to play his prize rookie at the most important position in the secondary, which in this defense is at left corner. If you draft before we have an opportunity to collect more intel, take a shot on the rookie and cross your fingers that you hit the cornerback lottery.
Houston is not only stronger at the top of the corner position, they are deeper as well. In King, they have a quality number three to take over if Stingley or Nelson go down. Last year’s other starter, Tavierre Thomas, should be the fourth defensive back in dime sub-packages. With veterans Fabian Moreau and Kendall Sheffield among the host of players competing for a place on the final roster, this is an improved unit from top to bottom.
- SS Jalen Pitre – The Tampa-2 base scheme makes me nervous, but I still like Petri as a DB3
- FS/SS Eric Murray – No impact
- FS Terrence Brooks – No impact
- FS M.J. Stewart – No impact
- CB Derek Stingley – Potential CB1 if he lands at the left corner position
- CB Steven Nelson – Possible CB3 with limited upside
- CB Desmond King – Watch list player with CB1 potential if he starts on the left
- CB Fabian Moreau – No impact
- CB Tavierre Thomas – No impact
- CB Kendall Sheffield – No impact
That’s a wrap on this chapter. The Jaguars are up next.
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