Why Garrett Graham is the Perfect Tight End for the New Houston Texans Offense
The Houston Texans spent the past few years heading in what seemed like a strong direction under head coach Gary Kubiak. The roster had an identity, and things were going great. There was a strong running game, a big-play passing game, and a defense anchored by some strong pass rushers.
But last year, everything went wrong, and Kubiak was sent on his way. In his place, the Texans hired Bill O'Brien, who soared up the coaching ranks thanks to his time calling plays for the high-powered New England offense of the late 2000s.
So with this change in coaching, we can expect some changes in identity for the Texans. One of the things O'Brien and the Patriots are most well known for is the use of multiple tight ends on offense. Several NFL teams have since adopted the "Gronk and Hernandez" approach to tight ends, involving a strong, in-line blocker with pass-catching ability, and a more athletic "move" tight end to create mismatches in the middle of the field.
But O'Brien and the Patriots were the trendsetters for this new focus on the tight end, and the former Penn State coach will now bring that playbook to Houston, where there's already talent in place to continue his tight end wizardry. This includes Wisconsin product Garrett Graham, who figures to have a big role to play in the Houston offense under his new head coach without tight end Owen Daniels.
If History Taught Me Anything...
The New England Patriots started using tight ends a lot more often under Bill O'Brien. You know this already, and it's not a shocking statement. But you might be surprised just how abruptly the offense in New England shifted under O'Brien.
The following chart shows the percentage of receptions by tight ends among pass-catchers (when considering tight ends and receivers as "pass-catchers") for the Patriots since 2007. O'Brien started calling plays in 2009, but 2007 is included along with 2008 as '08 was the Matt Cassel year. Also included is the percentage of team pass-catcher Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) earned by tight ends, and the amount of targets seen by players at the position as a percentage of the overall distribution of targets to pass catchers.
|Year||TE% REC||TE% NEP||TE% TAR|
As you can see, in just his second year at the helm of the offense, the Patriots saw half of their Reception NEP coming from the tight end position, with nearly half of the catches coming from the position. But even in his first year as a play caller, when Benjamin Watson and Chris Baker were his top tight ends, he got more out of the limited talent at his disposal, getting 52.22 Reception NEP out of his tight ends versus 18.75 the year before under Josh McDaniels (admittedly with Cassel instead of Brady under center).
So what does this mean for Garrett Graham? Well, he's a move tight end - in the "Aaron Hernandez" mold - meaning he'll have a key role to play on the Houston offense. Graham is versatile and capable of lining up all over the formation, including the backfield, like Hernandez was for O'Brien's Patriots, so look for his role in the offense to increase as the play calling provides him with opportunities to gain mismatches over the middle.
Graham struggled last season, mainly due to the horrible passing attack in Houston, and finished as the third-worst tight end with more than 40 catches using our Reception NEP per target metric. Part of that poor ranking came down to the quality of his targets, however, as the Houston quarterbacks were awful. Case Keenum and Matt Schaub both finished in the negatives in Passing NEP, meaning they lost points for their team compared to what the average quarterback's expected impact.
This poor quarterback performance dragged down Graham's production, which was higher the previous year with a more stable and capable Schaub at the helm of the offense. In fact, Graham looked like a potential breakout candidate heading into 2013 thanks to his strong performances the prior season, but the disaster that unfolded on offense in Houston slowed down his ascent up the tight end ranks.
But in this upcoming season, Graham will not only have a new play caller, but a new quarterback, as Ryan Fitzpatrick looks to be the starter for the Texans. This is great news for Graham, as last season, Fitz ranked ahead of Alex Smith and Carson Palmer in our Passing NEP metric, despite throwing fewer passes than either of his competitors.
Fitzpatrick, too, helped tight end Delanie Walker become relevant a season ago in Tennessee. With Fitzpatrick under center for the Titans, Walker saw nearly two more receptions and two more targets per game compared to when Jake Locker was playing.
So while the Texans shift identity, and while O'Brien looks to bring in his preferred players and build the roster to his liking, there's a very good short-term opportunity for Garrett Graham to prove that he's the tight end the Texans need to run the New England offense in Houston. And considering that Graham has the ability and athleticism to play the "Hernandez" position, look for him to see a healthy amount of opportunities in the Houston offense this season, with the potential for a true breakout season.
Whether you're a Texans fan or a fantasy footballer, you'll want to pay close attention to Graham this season. He could really impress in the right system with the right pieces around him.