Sometimes you really don’t see it coming. You know pretty much anything can happen in the NFL and so it’s rare for you to be genuinely taken aback. But I won’t lie. I was utterly shocked when Eric Winston was released by the Houston Texans.
One of the best right tackles in the league over the past three seasons, Winston has excelled in the Texans’ zone-blocking scheme. Outside of a few muggings, he has dominated the opposition, regardless of who he lined up against. In a league that is truly low on quality tackles, Winston was that rare breed that could be relied upon week-in, week-out.
I mean, how often is it that an offensive tackle trends worldwide on Twitter because of the respect he’s commanded among players and watchers of the game.
The Texans cut Eric Winston. To quote Vonta Leach, “Are you kidding me?”
Houston, We Had A Tackle …
Where do you start when it comes to explaining how good a player Winston has been for the Texans? Let’s look at his grading and how he compares to other right tackles around the league over the past three years.
Run/ Screen Blocking
Consistently one of our higher graded right tackles, Winston fit the zone-blocking scheme perfectly with his ability to move laterally and get to the second level. His agility is a big reason why the Texans have had so much success in the run game recently. What’s more, he’s coming off a very good year with his pass protection. Not an easy feat when, for a large portion of the year, you have a rookie quarterback that likes holding onto the ball. While it may not seem like a lot, but the extra tenth of a second T.J. Yates held onto the ball meant he did so the fifth longest of all quarterbacks. The table below demonstrates how Winston is once again among the top right tackles in the league. This time due to his Pass Blocking Efficiency which measures how much (and what type of pressure) he gives up relative to how many snaps in pass protection.
Pass Blocking Snaps
Winston was never the dominating tackle like we’ve seen from Jake Long or Joe Thomas. Yet, his consistency year after year was virtually unrivaled.
So, with Winston gone and, by all accounts, a contract re-working not in the cards, what does that mean for a Texans line already fighting to keep hold of its starting center and right guard? Do they think that Derek Newton (13 career snaps at tackle and seven at tight end) or Rashad Butler (who is coming off injured reserve and was terrible filling in at left tackle in 2010 with a -11.4 grade) could step in?
It seems like an incredible leap of faith, as does turning to the draft. That worked out well in the long term the last time they filled a tackle spot with a rookie, but let’s not forget the massive teething problems they had with Duane Brown. That was OK in 2008, when the team was largely transitioning, but now it’s a contender. It can’t afford a rookie coming in and disrupting a line that has got better in part because of its continuity.
For a line that could potentially lose Chris Myers and Mike Briesel, it seems odd to part with their most consistent lineman. The $6.5 million he was earning isn’t a small number, but it’s hard to believe that the free agent market doesn’t see Winston earning more than that when all is said and done. The Texans may have saved themselves some cap room and avoided investing too much money long term in the offensive line, but for a team on the cusp of something special, that may not cut it. You need only look at how the New York Jets struggled trying to replace Damien Woody when he retired and how that impacted Mark Sanchez and the run game.
Where to Next?
The Texans loss is about to be one teams gain. Outside of Jared Gaither (and he has his own issues), there really isn’t any proven tackle talent on the open market. Winston changes that and immediately becomes the most attractive OT available given his talent, production and age (28). There’s no such thing as a sure thing in the NFL, but tackle-hungry teams are looking at the closest thing in Winston and are likely to call his agent early and often.
The hard part about setting a market for Winston is that so many teams could use him. It’s almost easier to look at which teams wouldn’t be in the market for a right tackle (Atlanta, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Dallas, Minnesota, New England, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Tennessee) than to break down all the teams that should be interested in the former Texan.
Wherever he goes, that team is going to need some cap room. I mean, if Doug Free is getting paid $8 million a year (after an admittedly good 2010) then what is Winston–a far more proven commodity, at the same age–going to command? Given how teams are creating cap room at the moment, there could be a number of teams. However, if you’re a team like the New York Jets, and you know your quarterback is unable to function when pressured, you have to make a serious run at the best tackle on the market.
Unfortunately for Mark Sanchez, the Jets won’t be the only team interested. Once the initial shock of being a cap casualty wears off, Winston should have his pick of teams to choose from.
You really can’t say it enough. Good offensive tackles like Eric Winston just don’t hit the market very often.