2020 was supposed to be the ultimate chapter in the Bill O’Brien saga with the Houston Texans.
After years of a power struggle with former general manager Rick Smith and an unfortunate series of injuries, O’Brien had seemingly acquired everything he wanted.
Quarterback Deshaun Watson was healthy, JJ Watt was healthy, a left tackle franchise in Laremy Tunsil had been acquired, and O’Brien finally had full control of the roster. He just needed to execute that off-season to put the finishing touches on a team that many in Houston thought had the potential for a Super Bowl. Besides they had only been one epic collapse against the Kansas City Chiefs away from the AFC Championship.
Unfortunately, as everyone is now well aware, O’Brien historically fumbled that off-season.
Forgotten in the wake of a 4-12 campaign and the trade of former star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, there has been perhaps no worse repercussion of what happened that off-season that the 2020 draft class. Houston was able to trade one of their second round picks for Brandin Cooks, an absolute overpay at the time but now one that fate has somehow allowed to work out extremely well.
Otherwise, the scene is pretty grim. Of the five players drafted, only three remain. Second-round defensive tackle Ross Blacklock, third-round defensive end Jonathan Greenard, and fourth-round offensive tackle Charlie Heck. Three players that represent the first and only draft run entirely by O’Brien.
Since then, Nick Caserio has stepped in beautifully to the general manager position and has reeled off two extremely favorable drafts in a row. As Caserio begins to reshape the roster, this raises an important question for the 2020 class: where do they fit in?
As things stand today, the upcoming 2022 season under new coach Lovie Smith looks like a “sink or swim” situation for all three of these players.
Blacklock, despite his top-50 draft status and two whole years under his belt, is not projected to enter training camp as a starter in Smith’s 4-3 scheme. Second year sixth-round pick Roy Lopez is assumed to start at the 1-technique while veteran Maliek Collins serves in the 3-technique defensive tackle role.
Blacklock’s career has been underwhelming up to this point with only three career starts with 22 tackles and 2.0 sacks during the 2021 campaign. Thomas Booker was recently drafted in the fifth-round out of Stanford and, with a similar physical profile, projects to play in the same role as Blacklock.
It will be vital this year for Blacklock to establish himself as a viable pass rusher from the interior and an important member of the defensive line rotation if he hopes to return to Houston on a second contract. Offseason conditioning could lend his profile towards either spot and it will be interesting to see how Blacklock dedicates himself.
Next, Greenard is seemingly the easiest to project of the bunch. He will enter 2022 as a full-time starter at the weakside defensive position after starting 12 games in 2021 and tallying 8.0 sacks.
Caserio has brought in veteran edge rushers like Mario Addison and Rasheem Green to play as the opposite defensive end and, entering the second year in Smith’s scheme, there is a lot of optimism this year that Greenard puts it all together.
Expectations around Greenard believe a double-digit sack season is very much within reach and nobody will be surprised if he plays his way into an early contract extension at the conclusion of 2022. O’Brien may have had some misfires, but this selection looks like a homerun.
Finally, there is Heck. Houston is likely in a bit of trouble if Heck is forced to start at either of the tackle positions but the team is high on him internally. Heck will simply be tasked to perform as a replacement level tackle should anything happen to franchise tackles Tunsil and Tytus Howard. He has performed well previously previously in short stints and the hope will be he can do that again.
Austin Deculus was drafted in the sixth-round from LSU and will compete for snaps with Heck this offseason. Whoever between them inspires the most confidence in the coaching staff that they can protect quarterback Davis Mills will likely got the nod for both more special teams snaps and to serve as the priority backup tackle.
These three players from the 2020 class all have remarkably different expectations entering the year. Greenard is a starter the team hopes can become a star, Blacklock is a rotational piece everyone wants to see breakout, and Heck is there to serve as a roster buffer in emergency.
Regardless of expectations, the Texans will certainly be a better team if their former general manger’s draft picks can pan out.