On Thursday nights throughout the year, Marc Vandermeer and I get an opportunity to have The General John McClain on radio with us on Texans All-Access. Typically, we fire questions at John about Texans, NFL, Astros or whatever hot topic has come up because he can handle anything, honestly. Well, last night, he fired back and had a question for us.
"Who do you think will be the four starters on the defensive line?"
That got me thinking about doing some position breakdowns as we get closer to the start of training camp, starting with the defensive line. Let's take a look at the Texans defensive line crew, how it was built and tasks needed to succeed in 2021.
Drafted/Undrafted college free agents
Defensive Ends (2020 stats shown)
Whitney Mercilus (1st round, 2012) - 21 tackles, 4.0 sacks, five TFL
*Charles Omenihu (5th round, 2019) - 17 tackles, 4.0 sacks, 16 QB hits
Jon Greenard (3rd round, 2020) - 19 tackles, 1.0 sack, three QB hits
Interior Defensive linemen
Ross Blacklock (2nd round, 2020) - 14 tackles, two QB hits
Auzoyah Alufohai (UDFA, 2020) - one tackle in three game appearances
Roy Lopez (6th round, 2021) - 18 tackles, 1.0 sack, 4.0 TFL in five games at U of Arizona
Acquired in a trade
Jacob Martin (2019) - 20 tackles, 3.0 sacks, three QB hits
Shaq Lawson (2021) - 32 tackles, 4.0 sacks, 18 QB hits (Dolphins)
Acquired as a street free agent or unrestricted free agent
Jordan Jenkins (2021) - 32 tackles, 2.0 sacks, six QB hits (Jets)
Derek Rivers (2021) - one TFL in five game appearances in 2020 (Rams)
Interior Defensive linemen
Brandon Dunn (2015) - 26 tackles and three QB hits in 13 games
Maliek Collins (2021) - 15 tackles and a QB hit in 12 games (Raiders)
Jaleel Johnson (2021) - 44 tackles, 1.5 sacks and two QB hits (Vikings)
Vincent Taylor (2021) - 12 tackles, two TFL and one QB hit (Browns)
*DeMarcus Walker (2021) - 18 tackles, 4.5 sacks and five QB hits (Broncos)
*Inside/Outside dual threat candidate
Things that need to improve from 2020
1. Takeaways - Of the 15 players on the defensive line, seven return to the Texans from 2020. There is but one forced fumble (Martin) and three fumble recoveries (Martin/Dunn/Mercilus) on the ledger from that returning group. Defensive linemen aren't typically tasked with taking the ball away but creating just one turnover (one strip sack) is less than ideal.
2. Run game violence - First of all, I'm using the word violence in a football sense, just so it's not misconstrued. As such, going back and re-watching games from the 2020 season, the defensive front struggled playing violently enough to win their individual matchups. In prior years, that was not an issue and it allowed linebackers and safeties the opportunities to arrive at the ball to make stops for not much on the ground. Case in point, here's what the Texans gave up on the ground the last five years.
2020 - 160.3 yards per game on the ground (91.6 ypg for Texans)
2019 - 121.1 yards per game on the ground (125.6 ypg for Texans)
2018 - 82.7 yards per game on the ground (126.3 ypg for Texans)
2017 - 109.2 yards per game on the ground (115.2 ypg for Texans)
2016 - 99.7 yards per game on the ground (116.2 ypg for Texans)
The Texans out rushed their opponents on the average for the four previous years and probably more, but I stopped at the 2016 season. In 2020, though, opponents AVERAGED 68.7 ypg more than the Texans run game. There are two things at work in that comparison and we'll discuss later the improvements needed on the Texans offensive line/running game. That all said, the defensive line must ramp up their violence, block destruction and overall execution to bring those numbers back to a manageable level in 2021.
3. Who can pressure the passer? Someone MUST!
I've discussed this previously and focused on a couple of former Texans draft picks to step forward this season. However, when looking at production in 2020, the one player in this group with the highest sack total was DeMarcus Walker with 4.5 sacks for Denver in 2020. As a basis of comparison, 67 players throughout the league finished with a higher number in 2020.
4. Double team destruction - Life in the Trenches means that there are going to be double teams on defenders all the time, especially with teams such as, well, every team in the league, really. As such, the Texans were excellent against double teams/combination blocks in previous years. Last year, though, those double teams moved Texans defenders too far into the path of second level defenders, which opened significant holes for opposing running backs.
5. Tackling - Typically, tackling responsibility is something that falls on the 2nd and 3rd level defenders, but the edge defenders can improve getting off blocks and making tackles for little to no gain.
There's a ton noted above for rumination, but there are plenty of things that I think can happen in 2021 to make for a much improved overall unit performance...
1. Blacklock takes to Lovie Smith's defense like a duck to water
2. Shaq Lawson continues his ascent as a three down player out on the edge
3. Maliek Collins' quickness and strength are a major problem for offensive linemen like when he was in Dallas.
4. Derek Rivers channels his Youngstown State days, prior to his 2017 injury as a rookie with New England.
5. Charles Omenihu can move outside and inside with aplomb.
6. Jon Greenard's improvement is stark with more opportunities as a hand down defensive end.
7. ...and much more.
Honestly, I can't wait to see how this defensive line group develops. Oh, I almost forgot, The General's question...who will be the starters on the defensive line in 2021? I don't worry too much about starters because those will change up front depending on the opponent, the opponent's scheme and other factors. It truly will be a team effort up front for the group that emerges from the preseason on this team's 53-man roster.