As the NFL heads into its offseason, the hiatus only applies to the action on the field. Free agency is just around the corner, and some teams have already released players to get some breathing room under the salary cap.
When it comes to the Houston Texans, it is difficult to tell whether they have the flexibility to pursue free agents from other organizations. The Texans are $12.9 million under the cap, but re-signing some of their own players will eat up some of that space.
If there is a possibility Houston could pursue a free agent, their role and subsequent cost will be classified this way:
B1 = Backup/Possible Starter
B2 = Backup/Rotational Player
B3 = Backup/Special Teams
S1 = Impact Starter ($5 million+)
S2 = Mid-range Starter ($3-5 million)
S3 = Bargain Starter ($1 million-$3 million)
Any available room to sign the “B” class free agents would likely limit them to $1 million or less as a total cap hit.
If the Texans have UFAs for a position group, they will be listed near the beginning of the slide with their salary cap hit from 2012.
The staffing for this position is already set from a veteran standpoint. Matt Schaub signed a four-year extension just before the first regular season game of 2012. There is every indication T.J. Yates will continue to play the role of backup in 2013.
The deterioration of Schaub’s play was an issue as the 2012 season wore on. It was so noticeable Texans’ owner Bob McNair was compelled to say,” If we had a chance to get a young quarterback who had (dropped) down and was a quarterback we couldn’t pass up, yes, we’d take him.”
That declaration indicates the draft will be the only venue to provide any added competition at quarterback.
FB James Casey: $661,250
RB Justin Forsett: $700,000
Casey will be expecting a bump in pay due to his versatility as a blocker and receiver. He may be more interested in going to a team that would allow him to become a full-time tight end.
Forsett was more consistent as the No. 2 running back than the oft-injured Ben Tate. He lacks the size and power that Tate offers, but has always come through when given some playing time.
If Casey becomes too expensive to keep, UFA Mike Cox (S3) of the Atlanta Falcons might be available for a bargain price. He is more blocker than receiver, but Arian Foster was more productive when he had someone of Cox’s build (6’0”, 259 lbs) clearing the way.
There are numerous choices in the same price range as Forsett. Many of them are close to 30 years of age, about the time the needle approaches “E” on what they can contribute.
An exception is Chris Ivory (B2) of the New Orleans Saints. At 6’0” and 220 pounds, he is about the same size as Tate and will be 25 when the season starts. His paycheck was just over $600,000 in 2012 and could be the right kind of pickup if Forsett cannot agree to terms.
All those who live and die with the Texans are clamoring for a long-ball pass catcher. DeVier Posey was shoved to the front of the line only to sustain a nasty Achilles injury in the final playoff game. His status for 2013 is uncertain at best.
There is an array of possibilities coming out of the college ranks, with plenty of options in rounds 1-3. However, it can take a couple of years before rookies develop into productive receivers.
Will a draftee be ready to pull his weight before the receptions provided by the ultra-reliable Andre Johnson begin to tail off?
Some proven experience at WR might be of greater value than the promise of uncovering some hidden gem. Or maybe there is someone out there who represents the best of both worlds.
In 2012, Domenik Hixon (S3) had 39 catches for 567 yards in his fourth season as a New York Giant. His current team is almost $5 million over the cap, and has Rueben Randle waiting to take over as their No. 2 receiver. The price tag for him could be well within the Texans’ reach.
If GM Rick Smith can juggle the figures, perhaps he could make room for Greg Jennings (S1-S2). The soon-to-be ex-Green Bay Packer is said to have his heart set on a reunion with head coach Joe Philbin of the Miami Dolphins, his former OC from the Pack.
The Dolphins are years away from contending, and Jennings might be persuaded to join a team that has a more well-rounded offense.
When Matt Schaub the passer was in trouble, his favorite safety valve was the Texans tight ends. Owen Daniels, Garrett Graham and James Casey were also his preferred targets inside the red zone.
Should James Casey defect to another team, the least costly solution would be to promote Phillip Supernaw or Logan Brock from the practice squad. Neither has Casey’s hands or athletic ability, but the offense might just get by.
The New York Jets are the most cap-strapped team in the league at $19.4 million over the limit. TE Jeff Cumberland (B1) may be a restricted free agent for them, but could easily end up becoming a cap casualty.
Cumberland does not block very well, but then Daniels is not known for being very proficient in that regard. He could be a nice replacement for the loss of Casey.
The Giants’ Martellus Bennett (S1) would be a dream acquisition, but at a rather stiff cost. If Houston was on the lookout for a player who fits the new breed of tight end, this 6’7”, 250-pound specimen definitely fits the bill.
Rashad Butler: $1,925,000
Antoine Caldwell: $816,062
Andrew Gardner (RFA): $540,000
Ryan Harris: $700,000
Antoine Caldwell is odd man out at RG with Ben Jones and Brandon Brooks sharing time by the end of last season. His career has been hampered by injury and may not receive an offer.
Rashad Butler entered training camp in 2012 as the favorite at RT, but was diagnosed with a season-ending torn triceps. He was placed on IR and may not be invited back for anything more than the league minimum.
Ryan Harris actually outplayed his partner in the rotation at RT, first-year starter Derek Newton. The coaching staff still believes Newton shows enough promise to eventually take over the position full-time. Harris would be excellent insurance with a slight raise in pay.
Adding any depth on the rest of the line via free agency would be cost-prohibitive. The best players on the market are too highly paid or belong to teams with the cap space to bring them back.
The alternative is to address any needs through the draft. Right tackle in particular possesses above-average depth. A selection could be made using one of the compensatory picks Houston gained for their own free-agent losses.
NT Shaun Cody: $3,000,000
DE Jesse Nading: $615,000
The consensus on Shaun Cody is $3 million is an awful lot to pay for a part-time nose tackle. When the man you share time with, Earl Mitchell, does a better job for less than one-third the tariff, it may be time for all concerned to move on.
Playing NT in the 3-4 defense is a tough job, so the responsibility does need to be shared. The only real candidate out there is Aubrayo Franklin of the San Diego Chargers. He will be 33 when the season begins, which is a little long in the tooth for the Texans’ purposes.
Free agency will not be the route to supplement this position, so mark this one as another draft day assignment.
Tim Jamison is recovering from his own Achilles' tendon injury, making his expected appearance for the 2013 season a question mark. This could open the door for Nading to remain with the Texans.
Free agent DEs for the 3-4 are also scarce, so the continued development of the Texans’ Jared Crick is essential for depth on the defensive line.
The salary cap difficulties of the New York Jets could put Mike DeVito (S2) on the block, but he would be a luxury Houston would rather devote to another position group.
OLB Connor Barwin: $917,500
ILB Tim Dobbins: $700,000
ILB Bradie James: $890,000
ILB Barrett Ruud: $825,000
Barwin has been the topic of much discussion, since his performance in 2012 was such a disappointment. His sacks dropped from 11.5 in 2011 to just three, and his play in every phase of the game was also below par. His contract demands will have to take an equivalent drop if he expects to stay a Texan.
Dobbins was supposed to take up some of the slack caused by the loss of Brian Cushing. A rather large gap to fill, but he did his best until struck down by a broken ankle in Week 17.
Ruud was next up to fill the breech, but was no more effective than the rest of the bunch. The Houston defense plummeted to levels not seen since 2010, and the linebackers were the main reason for the dropoff.
It all sounds as if no one will be invited back, but that would be impractical. If the price is right, Barwin and Dobbins are likely to return. James and Ruud face a more uncertain future.
To that end, Brad Jones (S2) of the Packers would be an upgrade over any of these ILBs. His combination of tackling and coverage would make a formidable duo with Cushing. Green Bay has a short list of free agents to re-sign, so it might take a bidding war to bring Jones aboard.
Whitney Mercilus was drafted as a contingency to the departure of Barwin. Strictly by the stats, he proved worthy of a first-round pick with a Texans’ rookie record of six sacks. Half of them were of the clean-up variety, and he had trouble sealing off the edge when running backs came his way.
Mercilus may have to do since pass-rushing 3-4 OLBs are a prized commodity in today’s NFL. Unless the Texans break the bank for an aging veteran like San Diego’s Shaun Phillips (S1-S2), they will have to stick with the status quo.
CB Alan Ball: $700,000
S Quintin Demps: $700,000
CB Brice McCain: $1,333,437
SS Glover Quin: $1,430,562
McCain went down with a broken foot in Week 13 in the midst of a less than stellar season. He was having an increasingly hard time sticking with slot receivers and was getting caught up in the midfield traffic.
Quin was asked to play a linebacker-safety role, hovering around the box when it looked like a run was coming. If it was play-action instead, he was expected to drop back and hang with tight ends that towered over him. He functioned at a Pro Bowl level despite what was asked of him.
Ball followed the same path from the Dallas Cowboys as Bradie James. His action was more limited than James, but was inconsistent in the few snaps he played. Demps missed three games due to injury, and to top it off was benched in Week 16.
There is little doubt Quin will be back with the Texans. McCain should receive a market appropriate offer, even though he will continue to be physically outmatched on occasion.
Should Ball and Demps hit the road, there are slim pickings when it comes to quality in nickel and dime cover men.
D.J. Moore (B1) of the Chicago Bears is one of the chosen few at cornerback, along with Darius Butler (B1) of the Indianapolis Colts. Safeties are less plentiful, where most of the free agents are either aging or in the restricted classification.
Shayne Graham: $925,000
Donnie Jones: $890,000
What to do with Graham? What he lacks in range he makes up for with accuracy. Ranked seventh in career field-goal percentage, his short kickoffs were a problem for the coverage team.
Randy Bullock was drafted in 2012 to be the big foot for Houston, then tore his groin during training camp and disappeared on injured reserve. He will earn just under $450,000 in 2013, so if Bullock is healthy Graham will be shown the door.
Donnie Jones was the top-ranked punter in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus. Considering there are free-agent punters like Dustin Colquitt of the Chiefs and Shane Lechler of the Oakland Raiders earning $2-3 million for this singular duty, he is a bargain with a moderate increase in salary.