The Third Coast Sainted Texans

Earlier this week, I posited the question on Twitter for two nearby teams that were having poor years: What if the Saints and Texans merged rosters?

They seemed to have rosters that would fit together well, with each team having a strength where the other hand a hole, and vice versa. To make it more interesting (and also realistic), I decided to look up the 2015 cap hits for every player and build the team under the salary cap (listed on spotrac.com as $146,025,476). My goal here was to create the best 53-man roster possible while remaining under the salary cap.

I’m only considering players who were on the team as of this week, when I wrote this– not players who were on the team earlier in the year (like, say, Akiem Hicks or Kenny Phillips for the Saints).

And here we go. Texans fans are likely to be unhappy for a little while.

OFFENSE

QUARTERBACK

  • Drew Brees (age: 36, 2015 cap hit: $23,800,000)
  • Luke McCown (34, $665,000)
  • Garrett Grayson (24, $618,291)
  • Total: $25,083,291

This one is fairly straightforward. Brees is the only NFL-caliber starting quarterback on either roster, so he has to make the team, even at his age and cap hit. McCown is by far the cheapest of the next three options (Brian Hoyer’s cap hit starts with a 5, which would be fine if it were one digit fewer). And Garrett Grayson is the best prospect for the future. (Tom Savage is on injured reserve; we’ll get to IR at the end of the roster, but frankly, Grayson is the best prospect irrespective of Savage’s presence.)

RUNNING BACK

  • Mark Ingram (25, $2,000,000)
  • C.J. Spiller (28, $2,000,000)
  • Khiry Robinson (25, $585,334)
  • Marcus Murphy (24, $452,322)
  • Austin Johnson (FB) (26, $510,000)
  • Total: $5,547,656

know this one will make Texans fans unhappy. It’s pretty straight-forward: Arian Foster is a 29-year-old running back with a significant injury history and a cap hit of over $8.7M. You might be able to justify paying Foster and carrying one fewer running back if he could still reliably perform at his peak level, but at his age, you can’t count on that.

With Foster too expensive to risk, I think the rest of the Texans running backs are pretty bad, so this was fairly easy. No one besides Foster on Houston’s roster is even as good as Khiry Robinson, let alone Ingram and Spiller. Marcus Murphy adds value as a kick and punt returner. I went with Austin Johnson over Jay Prosch, knowing little about fullbacks, because he’s cheaper (and I don’t know how much Prosch plays, if at all).

WIDE RECEIVER

  • DeAndre Hopkins (23, $2,080,010)
  • Brandin Cooks (22, $1,905,330)
  • Willie Snead (22, $435,000)
  • Jaelen Strong (21, $627,995)
  • Nate Washington (32, $615,000)
  • Total: $5,663,335

DeAndre Hopkins is a budding superstar, an obvious choice for our #1 receiver and a must-have even at five times the cost. Brandin Cooks hasn’t turned into the star the Saints envisioned, but at his current age and cap number, he’s still a bargain– and he’s more suited to this role, the #2 to Hopkins’ #1. Willie Snead has come on strong as arguably the Saints’ most reliable receiver. Jaelen Strong is very young and a fine prospect to ease along in a fourth or fifth wide receiver role. I chose Nate Washington as the “cagey veteran mentor” to round out the bunch. Marques Colston is too expensive and has seemingly lost it. You could argue for Cecil Shorts, but Washington is on a one-year minimum deal and Shorts is being paid $6 million for two years. Even though he’s younger, I’m not sure he adds much value to the team at all, let alone over Washington. Cooks, Snead, and Strong can contribute on special teams, so I wasn’t worried about finding a player to fit that type.

TIGHT END

  • Ben Watson (34, $1,900,000)
  • Josh Hill (25, $586,668)
  • C.J. Fiedorowicz (23, $730,826)
  • Total: $3,217,494

It was a lot easier to justify Watson for the top spot after the game he had Thursday night against Atlanta. He’s the best do-it-all guy on either roster. Hill has the most athleticism; Fiedorowicz is a guy I don’t think is all that special, but is young, cheap, and has a relatively high draft pedigree (then again, I’m not sure if the Texans understand the draft).

OFFENSIVE TACKLE

  • Duane Brown (30, $9,500,000)
  • Terron Armstead (24, $769,359)
  • Andrus Peat (21, $2,071,544)
  • Total: $12,340,903

A no-brainer. This might be the best trio of tackles in the league.

OFFENSIVE GUARD

  • Jahri Evans (32, $7,000,000)
  • Brandon Brooks (26, $1,696,359)
  • Xavier Su’a-Filo (24, $1,261,727)
  • Total: $9,958,086

Evans is on the decline at 32, but he’s still the best guard on either team. Brooks is not someone I know much about, but I’ve generally seen his play well-graded and spoken fairly well of– or at least well enough to be the team’s other starter. Su’a-Filo is on this team for roughly the same reason C.J. Fiedorowicz is.

CENTER

  • Max Unger (29, $3,000,000)
  • Ben Jones (26, $1,662,362)
  • Total: $4,662,362

It’s easy to pick both starting centers when they come this cheaply.

TOTAL OFFENSE: 24 players, $66,473,127

DEFENSE

I’ve listed the team in a base 3-4, which made the most sense to me with the personnel I had to work with.

ENDS

  • J.J. Watt (26, $13,969,000)
  • Cameron Jordan (26, $4,169,000)
  • Bobby Richardson (22, $436,666)
  • Jared Crick (26, $1,639,875)
  • Total: $20,214,541

Watt and Jordan are a fantastic duo to have here and well worth the money. Bobby Richardson has played well so far his rookie season, particularly against the run. I don’t know much about Crick, but he’s cheap and he plays a lot of snaps for Houston, so he makes the team.

TACKLES

  • John Jenkins (26, $746,890)
  • Tyeler Davison (23, $489,306)
  • Christian Covington (21, $457,621)
  • Kaleb Eulls (24, $438,333)
  • Total: $2,132,150

One of the weakest groups on the team, but a very young one with lots of chance to improve playing between Jordan and Watt. Jenkins has the size to be a true nose tackle, so he’s the starter in the run-stuffing role. The word is that Vince Wilfork has looked ordinary, and even if he hasn’t, 2 years and $9 million is a lot for a 33-year-old nose tackle. (Though it’s not out of line with the kind of deals the Texans like to hand out– see “Reed, Ed.”) The other three are all rookies with varying talent level and skill sets; Davison is the most explosive of the bunch.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS

  • Jadeveon Clowney (22, $5,062,045)
  • Hau’oli Kikaha (23, $957,511)
  • Whitney Mercilus (25, $2,979,030)
  • Kasim Edebali (26, $512,000)
  • Total: $9,510,586

Clowney hasn’t produced the big numbers yet, but he’s shown the flashes of greatness that made him the top pick in the draft. Kikaha now leads all rookies with four sacks (in six games); he’s been less flashy but steadily productive. Mercilus is a fine player, although nothing special, and Edebali has shown some signs of life as a rotational pass-rusher.

INSIDE LINEBACKERS

  • Stephone Anthony (23, $1,404,766)
  • Dannell Ellerbe (29, $1,900,000)
  • Bernardrick McKinney (22, $971,840)
  • Justin Tuggle (25, $585,834)
  • Michael Mauti (25, $585,000)
  • Total: $5,448,440

I hate to say it, but Brian Cushing might be done. He looks like a shell of his former self out there– and to make matters worse, he’s on the second year of a six-year deal, one where his cap hit each year is higher than the entire ILB crew I’ve assembled here.

Anthony is the star of the bunch, but Ellerbe has been surprisingly good, surpassing my expectations. McKinney is a long-term player there, though he’s more of a run-stopper. I had no idea whom to go with for the fourth ILB spot; Tuggle beat out Akeem Dent based on age, salary, and slightly higher PFF grade. Feel free to replace him if you like someone better. Mauti won the special teams roster spot with his blocked punt Thursday night.

CORNERBACK

  • Keenan Lewis (29, $4,500,000)
  • Johnathan Joseph (31, $11,750,000)
  • Kevin Johnson (23, $1,827,166)
  • Delvin Breaux (25, $439,000)
  • Damian Swann (22, $481,807)
  • Total: $18,997,973

Another difficult decision I had to make was Joseph vs. Kareem Jackson. I was initially on Jackson because he’s younger and had a lower cap hit, but upon further research, I discovered he’s graded out really poorly this year, and he’s in the first year of a four-year contract extension; he’ll be 31 when it ends. Joseph is 31 now, but his cap hit is lower for the next two years than it is now, and the team can cut bait after 2016 with no further penalty. With the play so far of youngsters Johnson and Breaux, that is likely to happen. Also, Lewis has proven himself a fine #1 corner, even if he is exiting his prime, and Swann has performed solidly so far after winning the Saints’ nickel job as a rookie.

SAFETY

  • Jairus Byrd (29, $5,500,000)
  • Kenny Vaccaro (24, $2,570,376)
  • Rahim Moore (26, $3,000,000)
  • Andre Hal (23, $527, 281)
  • Total: $11,597,657

The Saints structured Byrd’s contract such that his cap hit makes him an affordable risk here– and even allows us to spend $3 million on Moore for when Byrd is inevitably injured. Vaccaro seems like an obvious choice, and I’ve liked what I’ve seen of Hal so far.

TOTAL DEFENSE: 26 players, $67,901,347

SPECIAL TEAMS

  • Kicker: Zach Hocker (24, $435,000)
  • Punter: Thomas Morstead (29, $3,400,000)
  • Long Snapper: Justin Drescher (27, $875,000)

I chose Hocker before Thursday night, but he’ll probably be fired after that game. Well, the Texans already fired Randy Bullock this year, so I decided to go with the guy who stuck around the longest.

Morstead is more expensive than Shane Lechler, but he’s also twelve years younger and has a lifetime pass for hitting the greatest onside kick in NFL history.

Drescher is cheaper and younger than Jon Weeks.

TOTAL SPECIAL TEAMS: 3 players, $4,710,000

TOTAL 53-MAN ROSTER: $139,084,474

We’re still nearly $7 million under the cap, so I decided to add some players to our Injured Reserve list (who do not count against the 53-man roster, but do count against the salary cap):

  • CB P.J. Williams (22, $494,651)
  • SS Vinnie Suneri (22, $377,125)
  • OLB Davis Tull (23, $373,433)
  • TE Ryan Griffin (designated for return) (25, $381,611)
  • OL David Quessenberry (25, $613,363)
  • OLB Reshard Cliett (23, $340,621)
  • QB Tom Savage (25, $408,146)
  • OLB Anthony Spencer (31, $665,000)
  • FS Rafael Bush (28, $1,900,000)
  • Total Injured Reserve: $5,553,950

That brings the entire roster, 53-man and injured reserve, to a GRAND TOTAL of $144,638,424Still close to $1.5 million and change to work with; if you’re not comfortable cutting it that close, I totally understand removing Bush from IR. The team’s only contracts that are both long and expensive going to legitimate stars like J.J. Watt and Cameron Jordan, leaving money to extend key players currently on their rookie deals, such as DeAndre Hopkins and Terron Armstead, when the time comes. Not a bad spot to be in. Of course, it’s easy when you get to pick and choose from two rosters.

 

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Texans Trench Warfare: CJ Fiedorowicz and Louis Nix III

It was a rough season in Houston last year, going from two consecutive playoff appearances to two wins. Long-time coach Gary Kubiak was fired, and a new regime headed by Bill O’Brien was given the reins. In the draft this year they really added some power in the trenches. Plenty of ink has been spilled on the #1 overall pick, Jadeveon Clowney, and rightly so. I’ll discuss both of their third round picks: tight end CJ Fiedorowicz & defensive tackle Louis Nix III.

ROUND 3, PICK 65

C.J. Fiedorowicz, TE, Iowa

Fiedorowicz was one of my favorite tight ends in this class; he performed well both on the field and at the Combine. He’s 6’5″ and 265 lbs, ran a respectable 4.76 40, and benched 25 reps. He’s the same height and weight as the Jets 2nd-round pick, Jace Amaro, with similar workout numbers across the board. The biggest difference between the two is that Fiedorowicz actually plays tight end, whereas Amaro is more or less a slot receiver– a gigantic, smooth-route-running slot receiver, but a slot receiver nevertheless. I know everyone is drooling in anticipation of seeing some great in-line blocking, so I’ll cut to the chase.

Fiedorowicz isn’t going to dazzle you with his route tree, but he does show ability to get open in tight spaces and make some tough catches. His go-to move, outside of the usual seam and drag route, is this little number I’ll call his shimmy move, where he plants his left foot at the top of his stem, follows it quickly by doing the same with his right, and flashes out towards the sideline. It’s not mind blowing, as I said, but it works. He’s a tough guy, as you can see here, where he wades through some traffic (while avoiding a jam from the linebacker) and gets blown up after catching the ball. But, hey, if you’re going to get destroyed, it makes a hell of a difference if you catch the ball, and he does.

He’s a very effective red zone player in both aspects of the game. First, as a receiver: On this play you see him run a delayed corner fade where he engages the defensive end and pushes him upfield momentarily before leaking out towards the back pylon. It’s a well-orchestrated play by Iowa, and all it takes is one false step by the defense for Fiedorowicz to high-point the ball and bring it down for six points. Second, as a run blocker, he can be relied upon to seal off the defensive end and making way for the runner. Let’s watch more, as run blocking is where he really shines.

You’ll consistently see his ferocity in the running game. On this play, Fiedorowicz takes on the opposing linebacker and drives him ten yards downfield. Sure, the runner is tackled for a mere two-yard gain, but Fiedorowicz keeps pushing his man even past the sound of the whistle. No harm, no foul. Here, he takes the 15th overall pick, Ryan Shazier, and does the same thing. And, for good measure, let’s end on a passing play where he positions himself perfectly to hedge off the defensive back away from the receiver.

ROUND 3, PICK 83

Louis Nix III, DT, Notre Dame

College football fans will be well aware of the man who dubs himself “Irish Chocolate.” Louis Nix’s personality is as big as his belly; all you need to know is that he’s 6’2″, 331 pounds, and he’s not winning any 40-yard dashes. His task in Houston will be very simple: Occupy blockers, so that J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, and the rest of the Texans defensive front can get to the quarterback, and plug up the middle in the running game. He gritted through a torn meniscus in 2013, and his play suffered as a result, so we’ll look at a few of his 2012 plays from the Oklahoma and Stanford games instead. Your enduring memory of Notre Dame’s season may be Eddie Lacy running over Manti Te’o on his way to the end zone in the National Championship, over and over, but before that game, Notre Dame fielded an all-time great defense that season, and Nix played the biggest (literally) role.

On most of the plays in these games, Nix is double-teamed, and he consistently gets a stalemate at the line in both the running and passing game. Very rarely does a double-team run block result in Nix getting moved backwards; I only recall seeing it happen once. While Nix does not have the have the type of speed which results in sacks for himself, his burst off the line in 2012 is awe-inspiring. Watch this play, where his first several steps are faster than every single player on both teams, resulting in pressure on the quarterback. This tends to be the result when Nix is not double-teamed; on this play against Stanford, he similarly uses his burst to push the pocket, and his pressure forces an interception. You simply cannot afford not to double-team Nix. He can also clog the throwing lanes by batting down passes at the line, much like J.J. “Swatt” is famous for doing.

As you might imagine, Nix’s burst off of the snap can make running the ball a chore for opposing teams. On this play, Nix quickly swims over the center and gets in for a tackle. At first glance, this next play might look ordinary– Nix makes a run tackle. Look again, and you’ll recognize that Nix’s momentum is moving him to the right of the play, allowing the center to use his position to shield Nix from the run. But as the quarterback takes off, Nix simply tosses the center to the ground and sprints out to his left to make the hit. That smarts, doesn’t it? Last, but not least, take a look at what happens on this play where Stanford pulls a guard and attempts to run away from Nix. By the time the handoff occurs, Nix is already four yards behind the line of scrimmage, with a full head of steam, and is able to bring down the runner for no gain shortly thereafter.

So, these were, of course, his highlight-reel plays. As I said earlier, most plays end with Nix in a stalemate with a double-team. For a smaller defensive tackle, expected to penetrate upfield and sack the quarterback, this would be a problem. Nix’s role in Houston is simply to occupy blockers. They already have the best defensive lineman in the world in J.J. Watt, who occasionally commands triple-teams. With the #1 overall pick, the Texans selected Jadeveon Clowney, widely considered the best defensive end prospect since Julius Peppers. Consider the scenario where both Clowney and Nix are as good as advertised: while I am certainly not knowledgeable enough to think of a scheme to stop them, I am not sure anyone has that blueprint.

Conclusion

The Texans decided with this draft to establish dominance at the line of scrimmage. With the selections of Jadeveon Clowney, Xavier Su’a-Filo, C.J. Fiedorowicz, and Louis Nix III all within the first three rounds, I believe this has been accomplished. Nix has health concerns, as I mentioned; he will need to return to his 2012 form in order to be a dominant force, as he just didn’t make the same impact in 2013. Fiedorowicz needs to add a few more routes to his repertoire before he can become a dangerous threat in the passing game. I believe he has the necessary tools. Now comes the work.

Not many of us at Zone Reads thought much of Tom Savage when he was rumored to be an early-round selection, but it turns out that talk was all smoke and mirrors, as the Texans picked him late in the 4th round, which is fine. I believe Ryan Fitzpatrick will start at quarterback next year, and while he’s not a player likely to win games with his arm without help, I do think he’s a player that doesn’t necessarily condemn the team to another losing season. Texans fans should be optimistic with a new regime in town and the talent acquired in this draft class. I certainly am.

How Can Jadeveon Clowney Improve?

The reasons why Jadeveon Clowney is an elite prospect are easily recognizable.  Clowney is an athlete in every regard.  He is a menace on the edge despite being constantly double-teamed.  When you don’t block him at all, the resulting hit on your running back ends up on SportsCenter for months at a time.  He checks every box.

So is there something that he could work on to help his transition to the NFL?  His attitude and demeanor have been much discussed this year in the media, but we took a look at what he’s actually doing on the field.  And we found something other than clichés designed to take up segments on major networks.

Specifically, we looked at Clowney’s game against Clemson from this past year.  One thing that stuck out was Clowney’s issues with keeping contain on several occasions.

Film breakdown after the jump.

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