Since arriving in Houston, Bill O’Brien has been on a mission to consolidate power and become both the team’s head coach and general manager. He prevailed in a power struggle with former GM Rick Smith, then did the same with Brian Gaine, who the Texans cut loose this summer and will still be paying through 2023. Following a comically inept search for Gaine’s replacement, the organization eventually settled on giving O’Brien all the decision-making powers. Over the weekend, he finally showed what he’s willing to do with those powers.
First came news that O’Brien traded superstar pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney for a pair of outside linebackers, and that was followed shortly by a blockbuster trade with the Dolphins, which brought wide receiver Kenny Stills and left tackle Laremy Tunsil to Houston in exchange for a bevy of high-value draft picks. Two more moves for running back Carlos Hyde and cornerback Keion Crossen left the Texans to sort through a huge amount of roster turnover just days before the start of the season:
It’s not hard to see what O’Brien’s big idea is. The organization’s relationship with Clowney wasn’t getting any better, and O’Brien must have figured that getting anything in return for him was better than just watching him sit out an entire season and then losing him to free agency. By bringing in Stills, Tunsil, and Hyde, O’Brien is clearly trying to give Deshaun Watson as many weapons and as much protection as he can while Watson is still an ascendant quarterback on a rookie deal.
O’Brien certainly has a plan—visions of Watson ripping passes to Stills and DeAndre Hopkins while Tunsil protects his blindside must be dancing in his head—but the question is whether it’s a good plan. For starters, there’s no reason that the Texans should have lost Clowney while getting so little in return. If O’Brien was dead set on not giving him a contract extension, then he should have made a trade in July, when any team acquiring Clowney could have signed him to a long-term extension. Because O’Brien waited so long, Clowney lost the ability to sign an extension with his new team until after this season, which turned him into a one-year rental player and put a huge hole in his trade value. Getting two relatively anonymous linebackers in exchange for a player as good as Clowney is embarrassing.
O’Brien deserves more credit for being proactive in acquiring Stills and Tunsil, but he had to give up a lot in order to get them. Trade packages that are headlined by two first-round picks usually end up bringing back players like Odell Beckham Jr. and Khalil Mack. Stills and Tunsil are fine players who will surely make the Texans’ offense better than it was last season, but neither are necessarily franchise-altering talents. The trade would have certainly looked less lopsided if O’Brien had already had a first-round pick or two in the bank from trading Clowney, who could have easily fetched such a return back in July.
The thing about making big, roster-altering trades like these is that they serve as a signal flare for scrutiny. The Texans went 11-5 before crapping out in the Wild Card game in embarrassing fashion last season, and now here they are making the sorts of moves that teams with serious championship aspirations make. Whatever happens this season will function as an instant referendum on O’Brien’s chops as a general manager and his vision for the franchise going forward. By the end of it, he’ll either be looking like the one Bill Belichick disciple who might actually be capable of making his own way, or you’ll start to notice his skin taking on a strange, reddish tone.