After a relatively quiet first day in free agency that saw the Houston Texans sign Jacksonville Jaguars right guard AJ Cann, a second "outside" free agent is added to the fold. MJ Stewart, formerly a Cleveland Brown, signed a one-year, three million dollar contract with the Texans, per Aaron Wilson of Pro Football Network. Who is Stewart, what are his strengths, weaknesses and potential role for Lovie Smith's defense?
Houston Texans sign former Browns DB M.J. Stewart | A Jack Of All Trades
The 26-year-old stands at five-foot-eleven, weighs in at 200lbs and enters his fifth season in the NFL. Drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the second round of the 2018 draft, Stewart was released after two seasons and picked up by the Browns. He was a versatile member of their secondary, displaying an ability to play nickel corner, strong safety and free safety in a variety of coverages. If PFF is your cup of tea, he earned a career-best 83.8 grade in 2021.
Stewart has played in 50 games over his four-year career but has started just nine games as the Bucs and Browns both sported deep secondaries. The Houston Texans are barren at the back-end of their defense; especially after losing safety Justin Reid to the Kansas City Chiefs and releasing starting cornerback Terrence Mitchell (a wise move). [UPDATE: Desmond King has resigned on a two-year deal worth seven million and 3.5 million is guaranteed] Could Stewart earn a starting role in Lovie Smith's defense and what position would that be at?
Analyzing and understanding Stewart's game is extremely important to setting the right expectations and utilizing him to the best of his ability. First and foremost, he's a versatile defensive back who might not stand out with an elite trait but does numerous things at a passable rate.
Whether Stewart is playing nickel corner at the 2nd level of the defense or safety at the 3rd level, he's an active run defender who never shies away from contact. Stewart embraces physicality with a big-hitter mentality and is a dependable tackler who secured 47 and missed just 4 in 2021 - good for a missed tackle percentage of 7.8% (per Pro Football-Reference).
The above clips show that Stewart is a reliable defender who can work downhill to limit YAC when the play is in front of him. His ability to read and react to run and pass plays is a desirable skill for the strong safety position and would be an upgrade over Eric Murray.
Furthermore, Stewart has shown capable coverage qualities as a nickel corner tasked with slot receivers. While not the greatest athlete, Stewart has good route combination recognition which allows him to cover multiple routes while in zone coverage.
The Texans led the league in Cover-Two snaps last season and Stewart had plenty of experience in this coverage with the Browns also being a Cover-Two+Cover-Four heavy team. He's even displayed some impressive reps vs talented wide receivers like Packers' Davante Adams and Raiders' Hunter Renfrow.
By no means would I expect Stewart to stick with star slot receivers all-game long but his highs are high. There's reason to believe he can still get better at this skill because of how much he's been moved around since his college days. At UNC, he primarily played outside corner and has since played nickel corner and safety which is a tough ask. Us Texans fans know the dangers of prioritizing versatility and that position switching is not as easy as it seems.
Overall, Stewart is a hard-nosed tackler who shows solid zone coverage at nickel and safety. Before getting into a final verdict and projection for his role next season, let's get into some limitations in his game.
As previously mentioned, Stewart is not a great athlete and that's a difficult area to improve even though he's relatively young. His combine athletic testing results can be found below and display his very average speed, quickness and explosiveness, which also translates to the field.
What does this mean for how he should be best utilized for the Texans' defense? Well, I wouldn't task him with pure man-coverage responsibilities very often as he can struggle with speedy and shifty receivers. Stewart relies on his instincts and ability to diagnose a play, but there are occasions where he simply gets out-athleted and gives up separation.
All in all, Stewart is a jack of all trades, master of none type, of player. His zone coverage awareness, physical tackling and decent athleticism make me believe he would fit best as a strong safety in Lovie Smith's defense. With Tavierre Thomas having a strong season at nickel corner, he has earned the right to be penciled in as a starter until training camp commences.
The beauty of adding Stewart is that his ability to wear multiple hats provides valuable depth. If Thomas does suffer an unfortunate injury, the Texans could move Stewart to nickel and experience minimal drop-off in play. Stewart provides a similar caliber of run defense to Thomas, a skillset that is very important with how often nickel is a major defensive personnel nowadays.
If I were to grade this deal I would honestly give it an A+. Stewart is a young defender set to enter his prime and could be a solid contributor throughout this rebuild. The terms of the deal are perfect - one year, three million - for a low-risk, solid reward signing. More of these deals, please and thank you Nick Caserio.