Texans and Andre Johnson Can Both Benefit from Parting Ways

Rivers McCown@riversmccownNFL AnalystDecember 16, 2014

Houston Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson (80) catches a pass as Cincinnati Bengals free safety Reggie Nelson (20) defends during the second quarter of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 23, 2014, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
David J. Phillip

The Houston Texans and wide receiver Andre Johnson have been together since 2003, an eternity in NFL terms. They've been through two quarterback regimes and two years of quarterback hell. And while Johnson voiced discontent throughout the regime change from outgoing head coach Gary Kubiak to newcomer Bill O'Brien, this has generally been a mutually beneficial relationship.

But all that seems at risk following Bleacher Report's Jason Cole reporting that Johnson's camp believes the Texans will cut the receiver if he doesn't accept a pay cut this offseason.

Cutting Johnson would save the Texans about $8.8 million on next season's cap, though it would leave Houston with a gaping wound at wideout after DeAndre Hopkins. A post-June 1 designation could open up as much as $11.5 million in cap space for the Texans.

Remaining Years of Andre Johnson's Contract
YearBase SalaryBonusCap SavingsPost-June 1 Cap Savings
2015$10.5 million$4.64 million$8.82 million$11.5 million
2016$11 million$2.67 million$12 million$12 million
Source: Over The Cap

And you can't say Johnson hasn't had a down year. According to Football Outsiders, Johnson is currently 77th of 79 receivers in receiving DYAR, and 74th in receiving DVOA, despite a team-leading 119 targets. If we judged receivers purely on empirical stats, we would be imploring the Texans to cut ties with Johnson. 

There's the matter of watching him play, though. Here, I think the Texans have a tougher decision, and one that they have a little more information on than I have. I went through Game Rewind and watched every ball thrown to Johnson from Week 9 to Week 14, as well as a select few other plays when it was necessary to make a point. 

I am not sure Johnson has significantly changed as a receiver from where he was in 2013. 

Is O'Brien's scheme failing Johnson?

According to research I did at the time with Football Outsiders, Johnson was thrown just eight passes behind the line of scrimmage in 2013. In 2014, per the play-by-play, Johnson has been the target of 23 different wide receiver screens or smoke plays.

Watching them, this is just not a good way to use Johnson. He has never been elusive in the open field, and when he does receive the ball at this point in his career, he's more of a wait-and-scurry guy than someone who constantly keeps his feet moving. 

This is a screen the Texans threw at Johnson in Week 14 against the Jaguars—on a 3rd-and-15 (grumble). 

The scheme calls for Hopkins (red triangle) to block down on Johnson's man and for tight end Ryan Griffin (the red square) to get to a linebacker on the second level. Griffin stumbles out of his break and never reaches the linebacker, which puts Johnson between the linebacker and the defensive end. Johnson does have space to burst up the right sideline and get a little yardage, but he doesn't have that kind of speed at this point in his career.

Source: NFL Game Rewind

Instead, Johnson tries to ole the linebacker, but that slows up the play so much that the trailing help gets there and takes Johnson down for a loss. 

The funny thing is that the Texans actually have a fairly high success rate—12 of 23 per Football Outsiders definitions—on these screens despite Johnson's lack of elusiveness. This is probably more schematic than about Johnson being able to beat a guy in the open field. This isn't a strength for Johnson, and using him this way is liable to get below-average results as compared to a guy like Damaris Johnson. 

Has Johnson lost his deep speed?

I think this is the most relevant question about Johnson's effectiveness as a receiver. The Texans have thrown just seven passes at Johnson that have gone more than 25 yards in the air. The results have been completely ugly.

Andre Johnson on Targets 25 yards or more past LOS
Source: Football Outsiders

But, honestly, the tape isn't much different from what it was in 2013. Johnson's best game as a deep receiver last year came against the Colts on Monday Night Football, and in that game he used double moves to get behind Colts cornerbacks twice. Another came when then-quarterback Case Keenum hit him deep against the Chiefs, wide open on a busted play. Johnson has again been able to get open deep on occasion with a double move, but the Texans haven't been as competent in completing those balls to him. 

Here's a pass against the Eagles in the third quarter of Week 9's game. Johnson is able to quickly slip past his defender with a double move, but the ball doesn't come out because quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick is under quick pressure from Philadelphia's Trent Cole. Then, on improvisation, the ball is too far out of bounds to be catchable. 

Source: NFL Game Rewind

The point is: Johnson wasn't the kind of receiver you ran on seam routes in 2013, either. He can win deep with a double move, but he's not going to blaze past a Cover 4 guy up the seam at this point in his career. Coaches often tell you what they think of a player by how they use him—the Texans don't think Johnson is a deep ball player.

Has Johnson's ability to make contested catches declined?

This, I think, is the area where we can actually point to a decline. 

While SportingCharts.com points to Johnson as having a very low drop rate this season, fitting an official definition on drops is kind of like trying to have a message board decide which Final Fantasy is the best: tons of explanations and zero consensus. Johnson never had great hands, even at his peak, but this year he's let some very catchable balls hit the turf.

Here's one from the third quarter of the Week 11 game against the Cleveland Browns. The Texans run a pick play for Johnson, with Damaris Johnson (red square) providing the pick. That did not work out according to plan, because setting a pick with him is like setting a pick with Earl Boykin. 

Source: NFL Game Rewind

Andre Johnson catches the ball—it hits him right in the chest—but the hit by Browns defensive back Buster Skrine breaks up the play. 

I do wonder how much of the decline is in the difference between Kubiak and O'Brien's systems, though. I think Kubiak worked his route combinations to get Johnson in zone coverage more often, and Johnson was an expert at finding holes in zones and sitting down. O'Brien's route concepts seem to invite more man coverage, and I think that, too, has played a part in Johnson's struggles this year.

Eric Gay/Associated Press

Ultimately, I can see both sides of the argument here. I don't think Johnson has materially declined, but I also don't think the Texans should want to invest a $16 million cap number on someone who doesn't really excel in what they are doing on offense. 

A divorce may be the best-case scenario for both parties, much as it pains me to say it as a longtime admirer of Johnson and someone who hoped he'd be a single-team player for his entire career. Johnson can be a more effective receiver for another team, helping his Hall of Fame case. 

This free-agent class doesn't have any players with Johnson's reputation, but players like Jeremy Maclin have shown more of an ability to win in man coverage, and I think that's something O'Brien prizes. And, as Cole suggests, there's always the draft. If the Texans can't pick a quarterback high, they could very well pick another receiver there.

Rivers McCown is the AFC South Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and the co-host of the Three-Cone Drill podcast. His work has also appeared on Football Outsiders and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at @riversmccown.