You remember Rob Housler.
The 69th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. The 6’5’’, 250 pound freak athlete who ran a 4.55 forty, and posted a 37” vertical leap at the combine. The seam stretcher who was a mismatch for linebackers and safeties. The guy who was supposed to break out in 2012. And then again in 2013.
Or more likely, you forgot Rob Housler.
The athletic bust who never topped 500 receiving yards in his four seasons as a pro. The “red zone threat” who’s caught only one touchdown pass in his career. The guy with all the measurables of an elite pass catching tight end, but none of the actual on-field production.
No one's blaming you if Housler slipped your memory, especially after he became a missing person last season. His snap count dropped from 62% per game for the Cardinals’ in 2013 to just 33% in 2014. He was targeted by Arizona’s quarterbacks only 17 times all season, finishing with career lows of nine catches and 129 receiving yards.
After four years of unfulfilled promise, Housler signed a one year, $1.76 million deal with Cleveland - a free agent destination that doesn’t inspire much confidence in a career revival. But if you squint your eyes and tilt your head at just the right angle, you’ll spot a faint glimmer of hope this will be the year Housler finally delivers a useful season for fantasy owners.
BARELY HAD THE CHANCE
Despite four years of subpar results, it’s unfair to lump Housler in with tight end workout warriors turned draft busts like New York’s Adrien Robinson. Unlike Robinson - who was never featured as a pass catcher on any level - Housler played a major role on offense in his last two collegiate seasons at FAU.
In 2008, Housler accounted for nearly 16% of the Owls’ receiving yardage - not a terrible market share for a college tight end. In 2010, that share increased to an impressive 25%. Housler also finished second on the team in receiving touchdowns both seasons.
We can gloss over Housler’s quiet rookie year in 2011. He began his NFL career third on the depth chart behind capable veterans Todd Heap and Jeff King. Besides, expectations for rookie tight ends should always be held in check anyway.
Housler got his first legitimate shot as a starter in 2012, under former Cardinals Head Coach Ken Whisenhunt. He responded with a mediocre 45-417-0 receiving line, on 4.5 targets per game. The TE38 finish was certainly disappointing, but consider the context. Arizona scored only 15.6 points per game that year (31st in the NFL). Their quarterbacks were Kevin Kolb, John Skelton, Ryan Lindley, and Brian Hoyer. There hasn’t been a less talented group of names assembled in the same place since the iMDB page for Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!
There was a brief stretch in 2013 it seemed Housler might thrive in new Arizona Head Coach Bruce Arians’ vertical passing attack. From Weeks 6 through 12, he performed as a back-end TE1, posting per game averages of 4.3 receptions and 46.1 receiving yards. Unfortunately, a late season groin injury derailed his progress. Housler would surpass 40 receiving yards only twice in Arizona’s final five games. He played about 20% less snaps per game over that span, and missed Week 15 entirely with the injury.
The writing was on the wall for Housler’s disappearing act in 2014. In the weeks leading up to the NFL Draft, Arians was heard saying things like “Heath Miller is the best tight end in the NFL because he blocks big defensive ends”, and “Tight ends for me block first, catch second”. These were direct shots at Housler - a plus size wide receiver who was never meant to play in-line.
The numbers lend credence to Arians’ comments. Since he took over as head coach in 2013, 16.2% of the Cardinals’ pass attempts have been aimed at tight ends. The league average over that span is 22.5%. When Arizona signed veteran John Carlson, then chose Troy Niklas in the second round of the NFL Draft - a player Mike Mayock suggested could become the best blocking tight end in the league - Housler’s fate in Arizona was sealed.
The Cliff’s Notes version:
College - Housler proves himself as a certified seam stretcher. His ability to explode off the ball, separate from man coverage, and come down with tough catches in traffic, make him an early round NFL draft pick.
2011 - He plays sparingly during his rookie year (as most tight ends do).
2012 - #RyanLindleyKissOfDeath
2013 - Roller coaster. Housler plays well in spurts, but struggles with drops and consistency.
2014 - Washout. Housler falls out of favor with Arians, barely sees the field, and is targeted less than he was as a rookie.
2013 was the one pro season Rob Housler had a realistic opportunity to make an impact - and even then he played in an offense that has not been historically friendly to tight ends. The results were uneven, but not nearly bad enough to write him off as a bust as he enters his age-27 season.
A Good Fit for the Offense
First year offensive coordinator John DeFilippo will take over for Kyle Shanahan this season, making him the Browns’ sixth play caller in the last six years. DeFilippo’s NFL coaching history is limited to six seasons as a quarterbacks coach, the last three with the Oakland Raiders.
For what it’s worth, the Raiders have produced fantasy relevant tight ends in two of the last three seasons. In 2012, Brandon Myers finished as the cumulative TE6 with 79 receptions, 806 receiving yards, and four touchdowns. And last season, Mychal Rivera was one of only six tight ends to see at least 100 targets.
Anyone who tells you they know exactly what DeFilippo’s offense will look like this season is speculating, but a few things seem certain:
The Browns will try to be a run first team (not that they have much choice)
Slants, hitches, go-routes, and comebacks out of the backfield will be a staple (they drafted Duke Johnson for a reason)
Here was DeFilippo describing what he’s looking for in a tight end back in March (via ClevelandBrowns.com):
“A guy that can move around, be a mismatch on a linebacker, can run a choice route, get in and out of breaks on third and fourth down, can win against man-to-man coverage. That’s what I think we are in the market for. Everybody is looking for that personnel mismatch to be able to go out and do all those things. It just totally broadens the field for you and widens and makes you much more diverse.”
When Jordan Cameron bolted Cleveland for Miami later that month, the Browns moved on to Housler. Judging by the fact they waited until the sixth round of the NFL Draft to address the tight end position (they selected Randall Telfer who profiles as more of a blocker), it’s safe to assume DeFilippo believes Housler can be the mismatch-maker he desires.
Housler himself said he chose the Browns over the Falcons, Bengals, and Ravens in part because of comfort level and opportunity in the offense:
"What I can do is ... threaten guys deep and I'm pretty shifty across the middle," Housler said. "So I feel like I've developed a good awareness of zones and how to beat man coverage, so I think I bring that to the table. ... In (coordinator John DeFilippo's) offense, he's got people moving around and lining up in different spots, so I think that's going to keep teams off balance."
The notion Housler is going to have a significant role this season was supported at OTAs, where he was reportedly a fixture with the first team offense. Also, Cleveland Head Coach Mike Pettine recently called Housler “the ideal “F” Tight End”. In DeFilippo’s offense, the “Y” Tight Ends are Jim Dray and Gary Barnidge, who will serve primarily as blockers in the run game. The “F” is the one who lines up all over the field and tries to exploit the defense (i.e. the one we’re interested in for fantasy purposes).
There’s certainly a chance Housler flops again this season, but at least it won’t be because he’s miscast in a role that doesn’t suit his skill-set, or because the coaching staff buries him on the depth chart.
Housler is an interesting post-hype sleeper, who warrants consideration as a last-round flier (his current ADP is undrafted). He's getting the change of scenery he so desperately needs, and his new team is saying all the right things about how he'll be used. Considering the mediocrity Cleveland employs at wide receiver, Housler is as likely a candidate as any to emerge as the team's best pass catcher this season.
But here's the rub.
Even if everything goes perfectly for Housler this season, he's going to have a hard time topping out as a low-end TE1. Last season, the only tight end who finished inside the Top-12 in fantasy scoring with less than 87 targets was Julius Thomas, who did so because he averaged one touchdown reception per game.
The Browns finished 26th in the NFL last year with 31.4 pass attempts per game. They called a rushing play on 47% of their offensive snaps, the sixth highest rate in the league. Assuming Cleveland's passing volume remains steady under DeFilippo, Housler will require about a 17.5% share of the team's targets to reach the requisite 85 he'll need to challenge TE1 numbers. In 2014, only six tight ends exceeded a 17.5% target market share.
Maybe DeFilippo's offense can turn Housler into a target hog, but the quality of those targets has to be considered. Josh McCown completed only 56.3% of his passes last year, which isn't much of an improvement over the 55.5% rate Brian Hoyer posted as Cleveland's starter in 2014. Jordan Cameron caught 24 of the 25 catchable passes thrown his way last season, but still finished with a dismal 50% reception rate due to Hoyer's accuracy woes. And Housler – who struggled with drops in 2013 – doesn't exactly have vice grips for hands.
Gaudy touchdown totals are unlikely to compensate for the Browns' run first offense and scatter-shot quarterbacks. While Housler has the necessary size and catch radius to dominate in the red zone, opportunities don't figure to be plentiful. A league-low 41% of Cleveland's red zone touchdowns came via the pass last season, and no Browns player finished with more than Travis Benjamin's three receiving touchdowns in 2014.
Rob Housler may not be a league-tilting sleeper pick in fantasy football drafts this year, but his athletic ability and projected role in Cleveland's offense should make him start-worthy in plus match-ups, or as a bye-week/injury fill-in. Is it what we were hoping for when the Cardinals drafted him in the third round four years ago? No. But for Housler, it's a step towards getting his career back on track. And for fantasy owners looking to roster two tight ends, it's a zero cost investment worth considering once the young players with unknown upside (Ladarius Green, Tyler Eifert, Austin Seferian-Jenkins), and veterans in high powered offenses (Heath Miller, Coby Fleener) come off the draft board.
Housler remains one of the most athletically gifted tight ends in the NFL, and he's only 27 years old.
He's escaped Bruce Arians' tight end agnostic scheme, for one that figures to emphasize his ability to create mismatches.
The Browns may be a run-first team, but Housler only has to compete with Brian Hartline, and a probably-washed-up Dwayne Bowe for targets.
Housler may very well turn out to be a draft bust. He had a shot to establish himself as a top-end receiving tight end in 2013, and could not.
Cleveland is built to win by running the ball. Elite target volume is unlikely.
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