And while Watson’s ability to move around in the pocket has covered some of the mistakes made by his offensive linemen, he was still sacked an NFL-leading 62 times last season. Watson didn’t miss a game, but he had to play through injuries to his ribs and lungs, while continuing to take those hard hits.
So far this offseason, the Texans have done little to fix that issue. The Texans re-signed Seantrel Henderson, who broke his lower leg in the 2018 season opener, and expect him to be their starting right tackle. Houston also added tackle Matt Kalil in free agency on a one-year deal, but he is coming off a knee injury that caused him to miss the entire 2018 season.
General manager Brian Gaine didn’t think there was a deep tackle class in free agency, and the Texans didn’t want to overspend to sign tackle Trent Brown, who signed a four-year, $66 million contract with the Raiders last month. It’s easy to see why teams are hesitant to give out huge contracts to offensive linemen in free agency. Last offseason, Nate Solder signed a four-year, $62 million deal with the Giants and underperformed the contract in his first season. According to Pro Football Focus, Solder ranked 16th out of 35 qualifying left tackles in 2018.
Houston had an answer at left tackle, but instead traded Duane Brown in the middle of the 2017 season. Brown held out for a large portion of the regular season because of a lack of guaranteed money left on his contract, which had two years remaining. After he appeared in one game against the Seattle Seahawks, the Texans sent him packing back to Seattle just days later.
Of course, there’s still time to address the need at tackle, and Houston is likely to use at least one of its three picks in the first two rounds on the position. And there will be pressure to perform right away for that player.
O’Brien said while it is possible for an offensive lineman to develop and play in his first year, “it’s not easy.” The head coach pointed out that the closer they play to the ball, the more difficult the transition is from a strength and knowledge standpoint.
“Most of these guys, first of all, in college, they’re in these great offenses in college, but they’re in two-point stances,” O’Brien said. “They’re not in three-point stances there. They’re not run blocking a whole lot -- some of these schools -- I’m not saying every school, but they’re throwing the ball 60, 70 times a game. So, they’re backpedaling. Now you’ve really got to train the guy how to run block, because we have to be able to run the football. There’s a lot that goes into it.
“They go from blocking who they blocked in the ACC, the Big Ten, the SEC, to now the first day of training camp, they’re blocking J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus. So, there’s a big adjustment, but if they have a great work ethic and they stay true to who they are, they’ll develop and they’ll be able to play their first year. But it’s not easy.”
The Texans have seen that with draft picks in recent years. Although they were picked lower in the draft, Houston gave 2017 fourth-round pick Julién Davenport and 2018 third-round pick Martinas Rankin chances to contribute last season, and both struggled with blocking and pre-snap penalties.
O’Brien sees Rankin as more of a guard than a tackle and said the Texans “have high expectations” for the second-year lineman. At the combine, Gaine said Houston is “hoping for an even better dividend, more growth, more potential” from Davenport in his third season with the team.
Whoever the Texans draft is going to be under the microscope right away. Houston needs to protect Watson, and it is more than likely going to rely on a rookie to make a significant impact. If not, and the Texans have to count on the likes of Davenport or Kalil, Watson will be doing just as much running in 2019 as he did in his first two seasons.