It's an exciting time of year in the NFL. Teams will have their first crack at upgrading rosters after months of stewing over their issues.
Like in the NFL draft, the key to NFL free agency is filling needs with good value. After seeing the Washington Redskins for years throw money at high-priced free agents, the league has learned that winning in the offseason doesn't equate to winning Super Bowls.
While Houston Texans fans may crave a spending spree, keeping an eye toward managing the cap and avoiding issues that could lead to losing key players down the line is essential.
With that said, rumors and free-agent buzz are an impossible temptation to avoid this time of year.
To satisfy that craving, here's a look at the latest free-agent buzz surrounding the Texans, and whether the team should be buying or selling.
With Shaun Cody slated to become a free agent, the Texans will need to address the nose tackle position this offseason.
Even the biggest fans of backup Earl Mitchell will admit the team needs a wide-bodied, stout presence ahead of him to allow the linebackers to make plays on early downs.
Mitchell adds a speed dimension at the position, but is better suited in his backup role. With a draft class that includes several intriguing nose tackle prospects, the answer could come in the form of a rookie.
However, that shouldn't be the only avenue the organization explores for a new big body in the middle of the defense. Even if Houston drafts a nose in the first four rounds of the draft, the team should still look to add a veteran who, at worst, adds competition to the group in camp.
If there isn't an opportunity to add one of these impact defensive linemen, the Texans could opt to bring Cody back.
However, after recently undergoing back surgery, the 30-year-old might not be what the team is looking for at the position anymore. Cody would come at a substantially cheaper price compared to the three previously suggested names.
Judging by Gary Kubiak's glowing comments after the season, it would seem the organization will make an honest effort to retain Connor Barwin.
Re-signing the outside 'backer would obviously squash the notion of exploring the free-agent market for an edge-rusher. If Barwin leaves in free agency, the idea of replacing him with a free agent will be floated around.
With names like Paul Kruger, Cliff Avril, Michael Johnson and Anthony Spencer headlining the free-agent class of pass-rushers, there will be temptations out there.
The problem with these players is they'll all likely be given bigger contracts than Barwin. The bigger problem is most of them likely won't live up to the dollars they'll command.
Assuming Barwin leaves in free agency (big assumption), Houston's best options are either in-house or in the draft.
Whitney Mercilus had an underwhelming rookie season, but second-year players can make significant progress from their rookie seasons. The only way to find out if he can hack it as a full-time starting outside linebacker is to throw him to the wolves with full-time snaps.
Drafting a rookie edge-rusher in the first four rounds of the draft isn't a bad idea either. The class offers starting-caliber options beyond the first round, and finding an upgrade to what the team already has isn't out of the question.
When Brian Cushing was lost for the season, the Texans were stuck without any quality options at inside linebacker.
Bradie James, Tim Dobbins, Darryl Sharpton and Barrett Ruud were all called upon to help plug the leak, but it became clear that the Texans' defense was terribly vulnerable at inside linebacker with those players.
Even with Cushing expected to recover for the 2013 season, Houston will still need to find an upgrade to play next to him.
That upgrade, in all likelihood, will not come via free agency. This year's class of free-agent inside linebackers is fairly putrid and features mostly over-the-hill veterans or fringe NFL contributors.
The prize of the class (if you want to call him that) is Dannell Elerbe. The Super Bowl champ made a ton of money this year amidst the Ravens' success, and he's actually been a solid player for a few years. Like the edge-rushers, he'll likely be paid far beyond what he is worth on the field.
Other names include Brian Urlacher, Brad Jones and Rey Maualuga. The former two could spark some intrigue, but each would have to learn an entirely new scheme and would come with a sizable price tag.
The most cost-effective move would be to spend that roster spot on a player who's five years younger, faster and cheaper. The team needs to add young speed at the position, not an aging, expensive veteran.
Considering Cushing is headed for free agency in 2014, keeping the costs low at this position group to prepare for his eventual extension is wise.
The organization should look to invest in an inside linebacker through the draft, and this year's class provides more than a few intriguing prospects.
Out of all of Houston's pending free agents, Glover Quin offers the most bang for your buck.
An every-down player with the versatility to play on every level of the defense is exactly the type of player you pay to keep around.
Simply put, the fourth-year safety would be nearly impossible to replace in free agency. His role is pivotal to all the packages the defense employs from base to dime.
Early indications from the safety himself point to a contract getting done. He's genuinely wanted back by both the team and fans, so a divorce would almost be shocking at this point.
A few members of the secondary spoke to Nick Scurfield of the Houston Texans' official website about Quin's importance to the defense:
Said Pro Bowl cornerback Johnathan Joseph when asked about what Quin brings to the defense: “Just true leadership. He’s a natural-born leader. Works hard each and every day on and off the field, great guy in the community. It’s hard to place a value on a guy like that because he does so much and means so much to the team.”
Danieal Manning also weighed in:
“I’d love to get him back,” Manning said Monday. “I’m not the GM or anything like that, but I think they’re going to do a good job of keeping him here.”
GQ checks off in all phases of the game, on and off the field. He isn't an Ed Reed-caliber safety, but he's still one of the better ones the league has to offer.
It should surprise no one when the Texans hand him a pretty healthy extension after free agency opens.
If Glover Quin is the no-brainer to re-sign this offseason, Connor Barwin is the big question mark.
The Texans' pass rush wasn't good enough in 2012, and quarterbacks began picking the defense apart with ease down the final stretch of the season.
As an edge-rusher coming from the all-important weak side of the defense, Barwin was a non-factor far too often against the pass. His play against the run is a positive, and there's no question he's the superior player in this phase compared to backup Whitney Mercilus.
Is Connor's pass-rush ability something truly worth investing in long term? That's the question the Texans will have to answer.
Like with all free agents, it isn't a question of "should we sign Player X?" as much as it's "should we sign Player X for this price?"
With Connor coming off of a perceived down-year, Houston could find his price tag in a neighborhood it's comfortable with.
The price is the bottom line. Should the Texans pay Barwin like a top-10 3-4 outside linebacker? That's a scary thought. Given the Texans have been a top-10 defense in back-to-back seasons, that could be the starting point for negotiations (again, scary).
In the end, moving on with Mercilus and adding competition at the position through the draft is the smartest move.
The worst-case scenario is the team saves some money and has to devote a draft pick or two to replacing Barwin.
After allowing Vonta Leach to walk in free agency years ago, the Texans turned the job over to James Casey and found a new wrinkle in their offense.
While Leach is the best overall fullback in football, Casey has brought an element in the passing game that Leach didn't.
Houston's offense probably hasn't explored using his full skill set in the passing game enough, and retaining him should be one of the team's priorities.
He'll come at a much cheaper price than Leach, and the organization needs to find some stability at fullback given how much it values the position.
If teams come sniffing around and one actually lures him away, it'll put Houston in a bind. The free-agent class of fullbacks is a mixed bag of too pricey, not good enough or not a great fit.
With all the time and effort the Texans have put into developing James Casey, it would be surprising to see them let him walk.
Over the course of a stellar 2011 season, Ben Tate rushed for nearly 1,000 yards as Arian Foster's backup to the tune of 5.4 yards per carry. His name has been tossed around in trade rumors ever since (h/t Will Burge of ESPN Cleveland).
Another one of Houston's pending free agents in 2014, the soon-to-be fourth-year back hasn't continued quite the same torrid pace, and even lost his backup job to Justin Forsett for a stretch.
Beyond that, the key for Tate has been staying healthy. Gary Kubiak's closing comments on Tate at the end of the year were telling (via Houston Texans' official website):
That’s the biggest thing. Ben [Tate] is a three-year player and really a one-year big-time contributor. It’s been about injuries. It’s been about staying on the field consistently. You know there’s nothing you can do about that as a player. His first year was totally lost to surgery. I thought he played extremely well last year. This year had some good moments and then got set back by injuries and missed a lot of time. Obviously you’re not taking the ball out of [RB Arian Foster’s] hands, especially late in the season. He needs to bounce back next year, and we’re looking for consistency from him as a player and helping us on the field
That doesn't sound like the team is in a hurry to get rid of him this offseason.
As Tate has struggled to stay healthy, his trade value has likely plummeted. His pending free agency hurts his trade value too, as any partner in a deal would only be getting one year of his services.
Whatever late-round draft pick the Texans could net for Tate isn't more valuable than just letting him play his deal out as he tries to earn a big contract in 2014.
With the team slated to have only two running backs on the roster once free agency opens, the Texans should be looking to add runners to their backfield, not subtract.
The rumor has been thrown around local talk radio and the circles of Texans fan forums enough to get this much attention.
No, Houston will not be replacing Matt Schaub with Alex Smith.
Even in an ambitious hypothetical scenario where one might assume Smith is better than Schaub, it still doesn't work out from a cap, compensation or schematic standpoint.
Matt Schaub's contract extension all but binds him to the Texans for the next two seasons at least. The cap ramifications from cutting him would be devastating, not to mention adding a big, new contract for Smith on top of it.
Matt Schaub has six seasons of experience in the Texans' offense. Alex Smith has zero. For a team with the Super Bowl window possibly closing as we speak, messing around by adding (essentially) a 28-year-old rookie QB in Kubiak's scheme wouldn't be wise.
For the curious fans, the free-agent class of signal-callers doesn't offer any upgrades to Schaub either.
Fans banging the table for a change at quarterback should look elsewhere.