Barnwell: Bill O'Brien wants the Patriot Way. His trades go against it

ByBill Barnwell ESPN logo
Sunday, September 1, 2019

With a rare opportunity to shape his team's personnel in his image as a first-time head coach, Bill O'Brien went all-in and rebuilt the core of the Houston Texans on Saturday afternoon. By trading away Jadeveon Clowney to the Seattle Seahawks for peanuts and using the money saved to acquire the duo of Kenny Stills and Laremy Tunsil from the Miami Dolphins, O'Brien has addressed his team's biggest weakness in dealing from his team's most obvious strength. In terms of pro personnel, the Texans probably have about as much talent now as they did yesterday, but that talent is now spread throughout the roster in a more valuable way.

If this were simply a swap of Clowney for Stills and Tunsil, this Texans trade would have been defensible. Unfortunately, there's the small consideration of the draft picks involved in this deal. When you factor that the Texans got a third-round pick from Seattle while sending two first-round picks and a second-round selection and more to Miami, though, this looks like a desperate attempt to fix a problem the team created for itself. In sending away years of valuable draft picks, O'Brien and the GM-by-committee running the Texans mortgaged the future for a quick fix.

There is no doubting that the Texans are one of the many organizations around the league trying to capture the essence of the Patriot Way. They hired O'Brien as coach, imported Patriots character coach Jack Easterby this offseason and then tried to hire Pats executive Nick Caserio in June to take over as general manager, only to be put off their pursuit by tampering charges. During the committee's brief time in charge of personnel decisions in Houston, it has become clear that the committee -- which includes Easterby and has O'Brien as an undefined-but-significant influence -- doesn't have any clue what actually might qualify as the Patriots' blueprint for success.

The power grab

While every coach has at least some semblance of a voice when it comes to acquiring personnel, few NFL coaches have final say over the 53-man roster. The ones who do have incredible amounts of leverage. Bill Belichick is Bill Belichick. Jon Gruden got a 10-year deal to come out of broadcasting. Andy Reid and Sean Payton have assumed those duties over their lengthy careers. Other coaches might have a level of control, but the only other one I could find is Kyle Shanahan, who has control over the 53-man roster but cedes all other personnel decisions to GM John Lynch.

By several accounts and recent decisions in Houston, O'Brien has craved more power over the organization's personnel choices for years. Executives around O'Brien in Houston suggested the former Penn State coach wanted a Belichick-type role back in January 2017. There were reports of power struggles between O'Brien and former GM Rick Smith, who resigned after the 2017 season to take care of his ailing wife. When the Texans fired GM Brian Gaine in June and eventually replaced him with a committee, one report from longtime Texans beat reporter John McClain said O'Brien was now in charge of personnel.

The trades

None of the trades the Texans have made over the past month would fit what Belichick has done during his time with the Patriots. Belichick is a master of understanding timing and leverage. Whether you want to chalk it up to O'Brien himself or the nascent Texans personnel committee, Houston's recent moves have shown little aptitude or understanding of either. Consider the three trades Houston has made:

A fourth-round pick (likely to become a third-round pick) to the Browns for RB Duke Johnson. While Johnson might play a bigger role than expected after Lamar Miller tore his ACL, the Texans were essentially trading a valuable draft pick for a player who was likely to serve as a rotation back. The Patriots have repeatedly targeted running backs in the middle rounds of the draft and as low-cost additions in free agency during Belichick's run, with rare exceptions.

They traded a second-round pick for Corey Dillon in 2004 and got a great season out of the former Bengals standout, but Dillon was a three-down back in a different era, and his resulting contract extension ended up as a mistake for the Patriots. The Pats then used a first-round pick on Laurence Maroney to serve as Dillon's replacement, only for Maroney to also flame out.

Johnson can be a valuable player, but he was buried on Cleveland's depth chart and was weeks away from being the Browns' third-string back behind Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Cleveland had no leverage and still came away with a significant pick for a player it didn't need. There's no sense of positional scarcity here.

Clowney to the Seahawks for a third-round pick and backup LBs Barkevious Mingo and Jacob Martin. Perhaps you could argue that the Patriots have clearly deemphasized paying top dollar for pass-rushers. In that scenario, the Texans are probably better off trading Clowney. Furthermore, if you figure that the $16 million in cash the Texans had budgeted for Clowney's franchise tag will instead help pay for the 2019 salaries of Stills ($8 million) and Tunsil (to be determined), you could try to frame it as a redistribution of resources.

What the Patriots don't do very frequently, though, is wait until it's too late to trade a player, with Jimmy Garoppolo as the rare exception to that rule. The Texans absolutely blew their leverage with Clowney, as our Sarah Barshop noted earlier Saturday. When the Seahawks traded Frank Clark in April, they were able to take advantage of a desperate Chiefs team and pocket first- and second-round picks as the primary return from their haul.

The Chiefs were able to pay that much for Clark, in part, because they were able to simultaneously sign Clark to a long-term extension while making the deal. Teams making that sort of trade for a player who's about to get a new deal lose all their leverage when the trade is finished, because nobody wants to give up first- and second-round picks for a veteran and then subsequently let that player leave in free agency.

After the July 15 franchise deadline, though, a franchised player can't sign a long-term deal until he plays out the tag or is released by his original team. Any team trading for Clowney, as the Seahawks did on Saturday, would be forced to keep Clowney on a one-year deal before likely applying a second franchise tag in 2020 in advance of contract negotiations. That alone drastically reduced Clowney's trade value.

The Texans could have kept Clowney for 2019, waited out his demands for a new deal, likely seen him play at least a partial season, and then either franchised him again in 2020 in advance of a more valuable trade or let him leave for what would have been a third-round compensatory pick. Houston would have lost that compensatory pick if it spent money in free agency, so making this trade suggests that the Texans expect to be spenders in free agency next offseason. The Patriots, of course, almost always eschew free agency to pick up these exact sorts of compensatory picks.

Two first-round picks, a second-round selection, T Julie'n Davenport and DB Johnson Bademosi to the Dolphins for LT Laremy Tunsil, WR Kenny Stills, and fourth-round and sixth-round choices.If there is a position the Patriots clearly value outside of quarterback, though, it's left tackle. Belichick used a second-round pick on Matt Light in 2001 and then followed with a first-round pick on Nate Solder. Those two guys covered Tom Brady's first 18 years as a starting quarterback. When Solder got too expensive to keep in free agency last year, Belichick used a first-round pick on Isaiah Wynn and traded a third-rounder for Trent Brown and a fifth-rounder. When Wynn tore his Achilles in training camp, Brown took over and excelled en route to a Super Bowl LIII victory.

The Texans created their own mess at left tackle when they refused to give in to Duane Brown during his 2017 holdout, shipping Brown and a fifth-round pick off to the Seahawks for second- and third-round picks. They've narrowly missed on solutions over the past two seasons. In 2018, they tried to sign Solder in free agency, only for the Giants to outbid them. During the 2019 draft, Houston seemed likely to take Washington State tackle Andre Dillard with the 23rd pick, only for the Eagles to use fourth- and sixth-round picks to move up from No. 25 to No. 22 and beat the Texans to the punch.

If either of those moves had broken Houston's way, the Texans wouldn't have made this trade. Instead, the acquisitions the organization made were half-measures. They ran with Davenport in 2018, which worked out so well that Deshaun Watson was forced to take a bus to Houston's game against the Jaguars at Jacksonville because the team was concerned about the air pressure of a plane affecting his bruised lung and ribs. This offseason, the Texans signed oft-injured Panthers tackle Matt Kalil to start and used the 23rd pick on inexperienced tackle Tytus Howard, who spent most of his time in camp at left guard and wasn't healthy. Kalil was alternately injured and ineffective in practice, and while the Texans said throughout the summer that Kalil would be their starting left tackle in Week 1, the former fourth overall pick just isn't a starting-caliber tackle and hasn't been for years.

Of course, you might point out that they made a similarly aggressive move at quarterback and came out smiling. After fumbling through the likes of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Mallett, Brian Hoyer and Brock Osweiler with limited success under O'Brien, the Texans shipped a second-round pick to the Browns to dump Osweiler's contract and then sent a pair of first-rounders to Cleveland to move up and grab Watson. The price ended up higher than Houston expected, given that the 2018 first-rounder it packaged for Watson ended up as the fourth overall selection, but the team would make that same trade again, given how Watson has performed when healthy.

The issue in making the same trade for Tunsil, Stills and two Day 3 picks is economic. The draft locks in quarterbacks at below-market prices for five seasons, offering a huge amount of surplus value if the pick breaks right. Watson will make a total of $13.8 million from 2017 to '20 without even considering the value of his fifth-year option in 2021. A Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback making market value would probably take home somewhere around $110 million over that same time frame. There weren't any guarantees Watson would work out at the time, of course, but the upside if the move worked helped justify the draft cost.

In trading for Tunsil and Stills, though, the Texans can't realize the same economic benefit. They're forgoing draft picks -- the best way to lock in useful contributors at below-market rates against the cap -- to acquire proven talent at market rates. The two years and $15 million left on Stills' deal is team-friendly given how the wideout market has shot up in recent seasons, but that's also a lot to pay for a receiver whose skill set is likely duplicated by Will Fuller. Stills gives the Texans a third wideout and valuable insurance if Fuller and/or Keke Coutee go down injured, but it's hard to see how the 27-year-old raises his production given the presence of those two receivers and DeAndre Hopkins on the roster.

This trade is realistically about Tunsil, and the Texans aren't going to realize any surplus value on his deal. The 25-year-old has rounded into one of the league's best young left tackles, and after dropping on draft day as a result of the infamous gas mask photo hacking incident, Tunsil is in position to get paid. Tunsil is under contract for the next two years at a total of $12.5 million, but his deal is coming.

That deal simply isn't going to be cheap. Since the Texans weren't able to sign Tunsil to an extension before completing this trade, the former Ole Miss standout holds the vast majority of leverage in negotiations. Houston can't feasibly pretend that it will be willing to trade Tunsil again or let him leave in free agency in 2021. Tunsil knows as much. He's primed to become the highest-paid left tackle in league history, as early as this upcoming week. Khalil Mack was able to make about 20% more than Von Miller, the previous standout deal on the edge, over the first three years of his new deal after the Bears acquired him last offseason. Apply the same escalator to the top of the left tackle market and you're looking at something in the range of a five-year, $100 million contract.

Does Tunsil deserve that sort of money? Maybe. Given that the Texans are also shipping two first-round picks and a second-round pick to the Dolphins as part of the deal, though, they're also forfeiting the surplus value of those picks and essentially paying that to Tunsil as part of the contract. I wrote about the idea in discussing the Mack trade, but in making this trade, the Texans are realistically valuing Tunsil as worth something more in the range of $35 million to $40 million per season. Tunsil would basically have to be an MVP candidate on an annual basis to get this deal to make sense. Even the best left tackle on the planet would find it hard to make that work.

The future

The proper way to frame this is as an enormous risk. The Bears feel great about the Mack trade after Year 1, but his contract is underwater if he slips or gets injured. Even if Mack continues to play like a star, the Bears could easily end up in a scenario in which the missing draft assets prevent them from filling holes on their roster or upgrading on Mitchell Trubisky when the third-year quarterback gets expensive. Those possibilities don't make the Mack trade a good decision or a bad idea in a vacuum, but they have to inform the way we view the trade. If the deal wins the Bears a Super Bowl, nobody will miss those draft picks.

The Bears saw the opportunity to get a Hall of Fame talent and went all-in. Tunsil doesn't have the same sort of cachet and isn't yet the same caliber of player, but the Texans have a better quarterback and are making the same sort of move. It certainly increases their chances of competing in 2019 and 2020, when Watson is likely to make far less than market value. With the Colts losing Andrew Luck, the Texans should be comfortable favorites to win the AFC South and host a playoff game in January.

The teams that have won a Super Bowl around a cheap, talented quarterback haven't made this sort of move and felt good afterward. The Seahawks built around Russell Wilson and a historically great series of defensive drafts and imported several veterans, including players such as Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, but the first-round pick they sent to the Vikings for Percy Harvin turned out to be a disaster. Harvin was gone after making $16 million for six regular-season games in a Seahawks uniform. Given how narrow and specific the margin of defeat was the following season, it's fair to wonder whether a better decision at wide receiver might have won the Seahawks a second consecutive Super Bowl.

Philly built its own Super Bowl winner in two years around Carson Wentz after trading up for the second overall pick in 2016, but the Eagles used players such as Byron Maxwell and Kiko Alonso to help defray the cost of moving up for Wentz and then added an extra first-round pick in the Sam Bradford deal. Most of their other moves came in free agency and didn't require significant draft capital. They didn't make this sort of move.

Belichick, too, has never come close to sending this sort of draft capital out for a single player. He has never packaged a first- and second-round pick to move up for a prospect or sent a first-round pick out for a veteran (he did trade a first-round pick for Brandin Cooks, who was on a rookie deal, but he got it back the following year and didn't sign Cooks to an extension). The only times he has shipped a second-round pick in direct swaps for a player were in 2004 (Dillon) and 2007 (Wes Welker, with a seventh-rounder also heading to Miami). You can point to Brady and point out that Belichick doesn't have to be desperate when he has arguably the best player in NFL history on his roster, but it's clear that the Pats haven't and wouldn't use their draft picks in the way O'Brien has over this past month.

All the surplus value in the world doesn't matter if the team wins a Super Bowl. That's the realistic new bar for O'Brien to justify this trade, given how much it cost to acquire Tunsil. Houston can add something in free agency next offseason -- maybe it can sign someone like Logan Ryan or Trae Waynes to help at cornerback -- but it is going to move forward with a core of Watson, Tunsil, Hopkins and J.J. Watt. Those are four stars at arguably the four most crucial positions in football. Over the next two years, though, the Texans will need to address holes at running back, tight end, along both lines of scrimmage, and in the secondary, and that's without considering the possibility of injuries.

If it doesn't work out over the next two seasons, I'm not sure there's a way back for O'Brien. The Texans will be missing years of young talent, given that they'll have made just one first-round pick over a four-year span between 2018 and 2021. The Texans will have granted O'Brien his quarterback, his character coach, and finally, his power. Now, after one stunning day of trades and a series of divergences from Belichick's decision-making, O'Brien will need to prove that he can win a Super Bowl the Texans Way.

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