Texans need to improve Deshaun Watson's protection through free agency

HOUSTON -- Now that the Houston Texans finally have their franchise quarterback in Deshaun Watson, new general manager Brian Gaine’s goal this offseason should be protecting him, their most valuable asset and key to success moving forward.

The Texans had the worst offensive line in the NFL in 2017, according to Pro Football Focus. The unit gave up 252 total pressures, which is the second-most allowed over the past 12 seasons.

In the seven games before he tore his ACL, Watson completed 61.8 percent of his passes for 1,699 yards for 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He relied on his mobility to extend plays as a big part of his game. While it remains to be seen how Watson will recover from his torn ACL and how that will impact how elusive he can be in the pocket, imagine the numbers he can put up with a solid offensive line.

“When you have a quarterback in place that you believe in, that you think can help you win a lot of football games, you’ve got to start to put pieces around him and pieces in place to help him succeed on the field," Gaine said last month. "That’s not just with the perimeter players and the skill players, that’ll be with the offensive line. So, it’s certainly an area that we’re going to evaluate heavily here."

Three of the Texans’ starting offensive linemen are free agents: left guard Xavier Su'a-Filo, left tackle Chris Clark and right tackle Breno Giacomini. It’s unlikely the Texans will bring Su’a-Filo back. The 2014 second-round draft pick ranked 75th out of 77 guards under PFF’s grades and has been seen as a bust in Houston given the high pick used on him.

The Texans have a lot of cap space after they were mostly inactive in free agency a year ago, and they should spend a lot of the more than $56 million they have available on filling glaring holes on the line, especially focusing on players who can be good in pass protection. Part of that inactivity was likely due to the status of Tony Romo, who waited until early April to announce he was retiring. Houston had traded Brock Osweiler and was looking for a starting quarterback. The Texans eventually turned to Watson after starting the season with Tom Savage as their starter.

Houston could look at former Carolina Panthers guard Andrew Norwell. The 26-year-old didn’t allow a sack or a hit last season, according to PFF, and allowed only 13 hurries on 564 passing plays. Norwell started all 16 games for the Panthers at left guard in 2017 and was named first-team All-Pro.

If Houston wanted to go for a veteran for the inside of the offensive line, it could go for Jahri Evans, who started 14 games at right guard for the Green Bay Packers in 2017. Evans has taken a step back from earlier in his career, when he was especially successful as a run-blocker, but he could get a solid short-term deal in 2018 after a solid 2017.

Houston could also look at former New York Giants offensive lineman Justin Pugh, who could be an attractive prospect because he has experience at both guard and tackle. The 27-year-old played in only eight games for the Giants last season due to injury but is at the top of the list of this year’s offensive line class.

The Texans definitely have questions at tackle, with both Clark and Giacomini set to enter free agency, although it’s possible they bring one of the two back on low-risk contracts. Houston could also get right tackle Derek Newton back from injury. Newton tore the patellar tendons in both legs in Week 7 of the 2016 season and missed the entire 2017 season. Texans head coach Bill O’Brien said he has been impressed with Newton's progress in rehab.

Given the money the Texans have available and the limited draft resources without a first- or second-round pick, Gaine will no doubt look at external options, as well. In 12 games last season, former New England Patriots tackle Cameron Fleming allowed four sacks and six hurries; his 10 total pressures allowed in 191 pass-blocking snaps was the lowest pressure allowed among free-agent tackles. Fleming’s teammate Nate Solder is coming off his worst season as a pro after six seasons protecting Tom Brady. He also is going to be a free agent and might not require a long-term deal at 29 years old.

While this is overall thought of as a weak offensive line class, there are several players who would make a huge difference in the Texans’ ability to protect Watson. With the sixth-most cap space available in the NFL, Gaine should be able to make a good run at any guard or tackle he is interested in.