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Texans’ outlook bleak: No wins, no impact rookies, no top picks in 2021

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HOUSTON — For the first time since the 2008 season, the Houston Texans are winless through four games.

Monday, it cost general manager and coach Bill O’Brien his job. A series of moves made by O’Brien, combined with the lousy start, led to the firing. Assistant head coach Romeo Crennel is taking over as interim coach, and the rest of the coaching staff will remain in place, a source told ESPN.

Two years ago, Houston won the AFC South with a team full of stars. Quarterback Deshaun Watson was throwing to one of the best wide receivers in football, DeAndre Hopkins. On defense, J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney led an elite front seven with Tyrann Mathieu providing a spark in the secondary.

Two seasons later, only Watson and Watt are left. O’Brien let Mathieu go in free agency and traded away Hopkins and Clowney for next to nothing.

Before the 2019 season, O’Brien mortgaged the future by trading a package of picks for left tackle Laremy Tunsil and wide receiver Kenny Stills. He has one playoff win to show for it. Before this season, O’Brien traded Hopkins because the receiver wanted a new contract while there were three years left on his deal. The running back O’Brien got in return for Hopkins — David Johnson — is averaging 3.8 yards a carry through four games.

“This is terrible,” defensive end Watt said of the Texans’ 0-4 start. “It’s brutal. I mean, it’s depressing. It sucks. This sucks. I don’t know any other way to put it.”

Unfortunately for the Texans, and whoever will be charged with taking over as GM and coach, this winless start means more than missing the playoffs this season. Here’s why:

No draft capital

The one positive for a team that starts the season poorly and doesn’t look competitive is a chance for a high draft pick. That won’t be the case for the Texans this year.

Houston’s 2021 first- and second-round draft picks belong to the Miami Dolphins after O’Brien traded both as part of the package for Tunsil and Stills. While the first-round pick last year that went to Miami was No. 26, the Texans’ 2021 pick is suddenly looking even more appealing for the Dolphins.

Between the 2017 and 2021 drafts, Houston will have made two of its five first-round picks. (Granted, they traded one in 2017 to move up for Watson. In that same draft, however, the Texans also traded a second-round pick just to get rid of Brock Osweiler’s contract.)

The lack of draft capital is especially startling for a team about to lose its financial flexibility due to Watson’s $160 million contract, which takes effect after the 2021 season. With the huge cap hit from Watson’s contract alone, it’s crucial for the Texans to find affordable young talent. Unless they start trading players to add draft picks, they likely will to have to wait until 2022 for bankable young players to come through the draft.

When O’Brien made the trade with Miami, he did it because he wanted to protect his best player, and acquiring Tunsil and spending a first-round pick on Tytus Howard did fill big needs. However, the price for the Tunsil trade looked steep at the time and it’s even more glaring now — just more than a year later — with so many roster holes.

Of course, O’Brien never would have imagined having a high pick two years after finally protecting his franchise quarterback. But not only could the Texans have used the No. 26 pick in 2020 on a player who could make an immediate impact, but a top-10 pick in 2021 certainly could bring in a strong left tackle prospect. He wouldn’t cost an average of $22 million per season like Tunsil, either.

Per the ESPN Roster Management system, the Texans are spending more than $245 million in cash on their roster this season, more than any other team in the NFL. Even more of that money will be going toward Watson moving forward, and if Houston shows no progress the rest of the season, why would the team spend a similar amount next year?

No impact rookies

No draft capital means no young talent to build around. The Texans haven’t had the chance to draft many young impact players in recent years. While other teams are able to identify and capitalize on starters with salary cap-friendly rookie contracts, Houston’s roster is built around free-agent acquisitions and middling veterans.

In their Week 3 loss to the Steelers, the Texans did not have a single rookie play a snap from scrimmage on offense or defense. Only cornerback John Reid, a fourth-round pick, saw action on special teams.

Let that sink in. Not a single rookie. Second-round pick Ross Blacklock was inactive after he was ejected for punching a player in Week 2. Third-round pick Jonathan Greenard was inactive. Fourth-round tackle Charlie Heck was, you guessed it, a healthy scratch. Fifth-round wide receiver Isaiah Coulter is on injured reserve.

Will Fuller is the best offensive player drafted by the Texans aside from Watson, but he’s 26 now and making $10.1 million on his fifth-year option. He’ll be a free agent after this season. Otherwise, the most promising young Texans are either safety Justin Reid, a third-round pick in 2018, or tight end Jordan Akins, picked later in the same round.

Lack of talent under contract

The Texans will have to make decisions on several key players after this season, especially with the Watson and Tunsil extensions about to take effect.

  • Fuller is on his fifth-year option and hasn’t been re-signed because the Texans need to make sure they can depend on him. (His production has been inconsistent throughout his career, and he missed 22 games in his first four seasons due to injury.) Fuller and Stills are set to be free agents after the season.

  • Wide receiver Brandin Cooks is owed $12 million next season with no guaranteed money. Will Houston be able to keep him at that salary, and would Cooks be eager to take a pay cut if it means staying with the Texans? Through four games, Cooks has 10 catches for 138 yards, including no catches in Week 4. Behind Cooks, Fuller and Stills, that leaves slot receiver Randall Cobb, who has a cap hit of $10.6 million in 2021, Keke Coutee and Coulter. O’Brien hasn’t shown much faith in Coutee, and so far Coulter is redshirting his rookie season.

  • In the backfield, Johnson has a $9 million cap hit in 2021. That is a lot of money for a player who largely has been ineffective and has not shown the ability to replicate the form that got him his current contract with the Arizona Cardinals.

When listing the things Houston needs to improve, O’Brien said Sunday, “We’ve got to find a running game, a consistent running game.” O’Brien, of course, traded Hopkins for Johnson and a second-round pick (that turned into Blacklock) this offseason. The Texans also traded a third-round pick for Duke Johnson during training camp in 2019.

On the wrong path

Following the 2017 season, O’Brien signed a five-year extension that took him through the 2022 season. In January, he was also named the general manager. Now he is unemployed.

Regardless of how this season ends, it was clear to ownership that the franchise that has won the AFC South in four out of the last five years wasn’t on the right track moving forward. Houston will overhaul its front office and coaching staff.

It didn’t take long for the McNair family, the team’s owners, to rescind the faith it put into O’Brien. The McNairs have often said their goal is to bring a championship to the city of Houston. Winning an AFC South title isn’t the same as a Super Bowl and that’s why big changes are on the way.

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Dodgers right-hander Gonsolin will start Game 2

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ARLINGTON, Texas — The Los Angeles Dodgers will start rookie right-hander Tony Gonsolin in Game 2 of the World Series on Wednesday night, with first pitch set for 8:08 p.m. ET.

Gonsolin, who will oppose Tampa Bay Rays lefty Blake Snell, faced 11 batters and threw 41 pitches in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series and might not be able to provide much more than a couple of innings.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said his other two young starters, Julio Urias and Dustin May, will also be available out of the bullpen in Game 2, though Urias and May combined to face 14 batters in Game 7.

Walker Buehler will start Game 3 on Friday; whoever is freshest among Gonsolin, May and Urias will probably take the ball in Game 4 on Saturday. Clayton Kershaw, who pitched six innings of one-run ball in Monday’s 8-3 victory in Game 1, lines up on normal rest for Sunday’s Game 5.

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Dominant Kershaw propels Dodgers in Game 1

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ARLINGTON, Texas — Forget the perception. Burn the narrative.

Clayton Kershaw can pitch just fine in October, thank you very much — and after his performance in Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday night, the Los Angeles Dodgers are within three wins of their first championship in 32 years.

Kershaw carved through the Tampa Bay Rays lineup, retiring 17 of the final 18 batters he faced and leading the Dodgers to an 8-3 victory in Game 1 of the 116th World Series.

Over six innings, Kershaw allowed two hits and one walk while striking out eight. His lone blemish was a Kevin Kiermaier home run that wound up of little consequence as the Dodgers’ offense spent the middle innings tagging Rays pitchers with a complement of longballs and small ball.

A crowd of 11,388 stuffed the concourses at Globe Life Field with Dodger jerseys, cheered the Dodgers’ big moments and unleashed vociferous boos on a check-swing strike call. The prospect of a partisan crowd for the remainder of the neutral-site series gives the Rays another obstacle — as if beating the team that went 43-17 during the regular season wasn’t enough.

When Kershaw is pitching as he did Tuesday, the task becomes even more herculean.

Rays batters swung at 38 of Kershaw’s 78 pitches and whiffed on 19. All eight of his punchouts were of the swinging variety, with the last seven on sliders, and they moved Kershaw into second place on the all-time postseason strikeout list with 201. Should the series get to a fifth game, Kershaw is likely to pass the leader, Houston‘s Justin Verlander.

While in past years Dodgers manager Dave Roberts’ instinct has told him to send Kershaw out for the seventh inning, he resisted in Game 1. Even though Kershaw had allowed just two hits, even though Kershaw had generated 19 swings and misses, even though Kershaw had struck out eight, even though Kershaw had thrown only 78 pitches.

Kershaw had pitched into the seventh inning in 13 previous postseason games. He allowed opponents to score in more than half of them — 18 runs altogether.

Naturally, Roberts’ decision was followed by the Rays scoring a pair of seventh-inning runs and chipping away at Los Angeles’ lead, though by that point the Dodgers had flexed their offensive muscles in impressive fashion. Cody Bellinger, who hit the go-ahead home run in the Dodgers’ Game 7 victory over Atlanta in the National League Championship Series, blasted a two-run home run off Tampa Bay starter Tyler Glasnow in the fourth inning to break a scoreless tie. Rather than celebrate with the forearm-bash celebration that dislocated his shoulder in the NLCS win, Bellinger executed a light foot-tap with teammate Max Muncy.

As much as the Dodgers love the home run, their ability to play small ball gave them their biggest inning.

Back-to-back walks by Glasnow to begin the fifth inning were followed by Mookie Betts and Corey Seager executing a double steal. Betts scored on a Muncy fielder’s choice, Seager on a Will Smith single, Muncy on a Chris Taylor single and Smith on a Kiké Hernandez single. And just like that, the Dodgers were ahead 6-1.

They piled on the next inning with a Betts leadoff home run and back-to-back doubles from Justin Turner and Muncy. And the favorites since the beginning of the original season — as well as the shortened one — were a quarter of the way to their first World Series title since 1988.

For months, as the coronavirus pandemic changed the world, the prospect of baseball staging a season, let alone the World Series, looked grim. The league and players fought over salaries. Commissioner Rob Manfred threatened to cancel the season. MLB ultimately imposed on the players a 60-game slate, and within the first two weeks a pair of teams suffered COVID-19 outbreak.

Since then, apart from the odd single case, MLB has operated with remarkable efficacy.

Playoff teams spent the last week of the seasons staying in hotels and, aside from travel to and from the stadium and from city to city if they advanced, haven’t left. No player on an active roster has tested positive since Aug. 28, according to the league.

Game 2 is scheduled for Wednesday, with the Rays’ Blake Snell facing a yet-to-be-named pitcher. After an off-day Thursday, Tampa Bay’s Charlie Morton will start against Dodgers ace Walker Buehler.

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Follow live: Kershaw, Glasnow face off in Game 1 of World Series

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7th Kiermaier singled to right, Wendle scored, Brosseau to second. 3 8 7th Brosseau singled to right, Margot scored, Wendle to third. 2 8 6th Muncy doubled to deep right center, Turner scored. 1 8 6th Betts homered to right (349 feet). 1 7 5th Hernández singled to left, Smith scored, Taylor to second. 1 6 5th Taylor singled to left center, Muncy scored, Smith to second. 1 5 5th Smith singled to center, Seager scored, Muncy to third. 1 4 5th Muncy grounded into fielder’s choice to first, Betts scored, Seager third. 1 3 5th Kiermaier homered to right (382 feet). 1 2 4th Bellinger homered to right center (378 feet), Muncy scored. 0 2

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