Why Ryan Griffin Is Houston Texans' Biggest X-Factor in 2014

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Why Ryan Griffin Is Houston Texans' Biggest X-Factor in 2014
USA TODAY Sports

The Houston Texans were thrashed by the San Francisco 49ers 40-13 in the fourth and final game of the 2014 NFL preseason. The 49ers finally had an offensive output that was worthy of a team that had made it into the last three NFC Championship Games.

For the Texans, the game largely lived up to its anticlimactic nature as a battle for the back end of the roster. A possible exception was the probable climax of Case Keenum’s career as a member of the organization. His four-game audition to prove whether he was capable of absorbing the intricacies of Bill O’Brien’s offense resulted in not a single touchdown.

There are some noteworthy decisions pending on backups for the offensive line, receiving corps and secondary. One small area where there are no doubts is who will be the tight ends when the season opens against the Washington Redskins.

The top three on the depth chart have been well-established since the start of training camp. Who will be the primary backup to Garrett Graham is probably a situational decision as opposed to a judgment based on talent.

Looking at numbers compiled by Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Ryan Griffin could be interpreted as the preferred receiving option with nine targets over C.J. Fiedorowicz's five. His proven production when he replaced Graham over the final four games of 2013 is another factor in Griffin’s favor.

After being drafted at the top of the third round in this year’s draft, Mike Mayock of the NFL Network acknowledged Fiedorowicz as “a blocker inside who can also get down the field a little bit.” Head coach Bill O’Brien sees him as a “Y” tight end, according the Texans’ radio voice Marc Vandermeer, “meaning he’s a blocker who can run short and intermediate routes.”

There was a time when a player who could both block and catch represented the best of both worlds. The dispute over the franchise tag designation of Jimmy Graham as a tight end demonstrated how the value of the position has become defined by receiving prowess instead of overall play.

Graham argued his role was closer to that of a wide receiver. His agent, Jimmy Sexton, claimed Graham was situated in either the slot or out wide on 67 percent of his snaps, as calculated by ESPN Stats & Information. His proficiency as a blocker was never brought up, and for good reason.

After Graham was deemed a tight end by arbitrator Stephen Burbank, the management of the New Orleans Saints could have helped their case by calling attention to his run-blocking grades for 2013 from PFF. If the minus-4.3 in that category had any effect, it was not evident in the record $40 million deal ($21 million guaranteed) for a player at that position.

The $10 million Graham will earn in 2014 looks like anything but the outcome of a failed strategy. This figure equals the seventh-ranked wide receiver salary belonging to Brandon Marshall.

On a more conceptual level, NFL Media reporter Albert Breer wrote that Graham’s contract “highlights (an) ongoing TE trend.”

In coach-speak, the New Orleans Saints star is an "F," which has, in essence, replaced the fullback in many NFL offenses. The idea is to switch out a blocker for another passing-game threat. Shifty, pint-sized slot receivers fill some of those spots, but in recent years, sturdier, basketball-player types -- who show up as "tight ends" on the roster -- have become more common.

The 6’5” Fiedorowicz may well be that type, even if his blocking expertise is what drew the attention of the Texans in the first place. Any contemporary NFL tight end must have a well-developed ability to catch the ball, which the rookie clearly possesses based on his collegiate performance and physical potential. 

The “basketball-player type” Breer refers to more closely fits Griffin than Garrett Graham or Fiedorowicz. His height (6’6”) is an obvious qualification, along with a pair of what Brett Kollman of Battle Red Blog calls “sticky hands.” 

The advantage a taller receiver has over a shorter defender can be exploited in a matter of a few yards. At the mesh point, where receiver meets defender, it takes just a move or two for the play to be made. The following GIF shows how the wrong reaction ends up adding to Graham’s 16 touchdowns in 2013.

@gifdsports

Quintin Mikell of the Carolina Panthers shows how deadly hesitation can be. It looks as if he was expecting some assistance from Luke Kuechly, who slips to the ground when he realizes Drew Brees is not going for the fade to the corner of the end zone. The safety arrives too late to do anything more than watch Graham pull the ball in over Mikell's outstretched hand.

Griffin does not begin to approach the quantity of speed Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski bring to their game. But quick feet coupled with quick thinking has a quality all its own.

The touchdown Griffin scored in the third preseason game put the Texans within a two-point conversion of beating the Denver Broncos. The play worked because he sold the quick out to defensive end Kenny Anunike. Quarterback Tom Savage had just called this route for an eight-yard gain on the previous play against linebacker Corey Nelson.

NFL.com

Anunike had the unenviable task of dropping into coverage if Griffin did not stay home to pass protect. Instead of making a move toward the sideline, he broke to the inside seam the moment Anunike set his feet parallel to the numbers. Griffin offered a clean target to Savage, who easily completed the pass.

Nelson is supposed to be patrolling the flat against curl, with an eye on anyone escaping up the seam. He fails to react quickly and trails Griffin as he walks untouched into the end zone.

Pat Starr from StateoftheTexans.com reported that Garrett Graham “has quietly put together a nice camp and is developing a nice on-field relationship with Ryan Fitzpatrick.” As a whole “tight end coach John Perry…likes the versatility the group brings with Garrett Graham, Ryan Griffin and C.J. Fiedorowicz...(and) is exactly what O’Brien wants to run the offense.”

Starr also described Garrett Graham as a “move” tight end, meaning his focus is to be on the move. Instead of staying in to block, this move guy will be setting up all over the formation, going in motion, doing everything but look like a traditional “Y” tight end.

Graham has shown he could act that way in a Gary Kubiak offense, in the same way that Owen Daniels did. After being awarded a three-year contract for $11.25 million in the offseason, he would appear to be the most valuable asset in the position group. Ultimately, it is Graham’s contract that makes Ryan Griffin the X-factor.

What doomed the Kubiak offense were the predictable progressions. There was Andre Johnson first and foremost, then the mirror-image tight ends from Wisconsin in Graham and Owen Daniels, followed by whoever else happened to be open.

If Bill O’Brien is going to take full advantage of the complexity of his offense, the ball should end up in a lot of different hands. That will mean fewer receptions for the old standbys, Graham included.

Griffin showed some tantalizing hints of his capabilities in the midst of the Hindenburg-like season of 2013. He has the archetypal size offensive coordinators covet and could be the perfect security blanket for the imperfect Ryan Fitzpatrick. He'll be a big target who is easy to identify and will keep the turnover-prone quarterback from launching the ball into those deeper portions of the field that get him into the most trouble.

Once Griffin is able to put his game together, then general manager Rick Smith can go about dumping Graham and his deal, with its easily digestible $1.5 million of dead money in 2015. And the $6 million saved over the next two seasons can be used to re-sign J.J. Watt, rebuild the offensive line or attract some free-agent talent for the defensive backfield.

Now, doesn’t that sound “X-citing”?

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