SS Glover Quin is considered to be their primary target for re-signing, but not for the $6.9 million a franchise-tagged safety would cost them. Likewise OLB Connor Barwin will not be asked to return for the $9.6 million his position warrants.
Head Coach Gary Kubiak, GM Rick Smith and resident capologist Chris Olsen, the VP of Football Administration, will have to plot out a strategy that lets them build on their recent success without sacrificing their long-term future.
This will involve a multi-step process of renegotiations, releases and reshuffling before the roster for the 2013 season finally takes shape.
All salary cap figures are provided courtesy of Spotrac.com unless otherwise noted.
There are five players whose contracts could be restructured to give the team some room to move:
Andre Johnson: $14,652,918
Matt Schaub: $10,750,000
Johnathan Joseph: $11,250,000
Antonio Smith: $9,500,000
Danieal Manning: $5,500,000
Johnson has been down this road before, having backloaded his deal in 2012. Will he be willing to do it for a second consecutive year?
Schaub extended his contract for an additional four years right after the start of the 2012 season. With his lackluster play over the final third of the season, he may be asked to delay some of his compensation to reaffirm his commitment to the team.
Joseph is in the year three of his five-year free agent contract, and will be receiving over three times as much salary as he did in 2012 ($2.25 million vs. $7.5 million). If he defers any of that to his final year, it could end up being a real cap hog.
Smith is in his final contract year, so there is no place to redistribute his pay. To save any money in his case, he would have to be released and re-signed. Coming off a near- Pro Bowl season but approaching 32 years of age, his value on the open market could be limited.
The contract Manning signed in 2011 is up in 2014, so he could be open to moving some base salary to his last year. It would likely not amount to more that $1 million.
In all, there might be something more than $5 million but certainly less than $10 million after the begging and pleading is over. Any payments deferred to upcoming seasons could restrict the ability of the Texans to accommodate any UFAs at that time.
Imagine what it will to take to keep J.J. Watt in the fold when his rookie pact expires in 2014?
There are two players under contract for 2013 that could get their outright release just for the meager but useful amount of money it would save.
WR Kevin Walter and LG Wade Smith are the likeliest targets for such a move. If Walter was let go, the savings would be a net of $1.5 million this year and $3.5 million in 2014. The Texans might be able to attract a speedy veteran like Devery Henderson for the equivalent of that immediate payoff.
The dead money going to Smith would be just $750,000, freeing up over $2 million for the re-signing of more critical players. With Brandon Brooks ready to take over at RG, Ben Jones could slide to the left side and continue his education at the guard position.
If this juggling of the lineup is too reminiscent of what occurred after the release of RT Eric Winston last season, get used to it. The lousy CBA negotiated by the NFLPA was so focused on preserving the players’ percentage of the take, they forgot to ensure adequate expansion of the cap.
Before we can predict who will be staying with the team and what it will take to keep them, let us take stock of the UFAs who will not be donning a Texans uniform in 2013.
Antoine Caldwell took too much time recovering from a succession of injuries to prove himself on the field. He was so underwhelming during training camp in 2012, he started splitting time at right guard with converted college center Ben Jones. By the end of the season, he was completely out of the rotation as rookie Brandon Brooks took over his spot.
Shaun Cody may be the most entertaining presence in the locker room since David Anderson, and his webcast On the Nose illustrated his talents beyond the football field. The team would have rather had him do a realistic impersonation of Vince Wilfork or even Jay Ratliff on the field.
Quintin Demps showed flashes of skill at both the safety position and the return game over his three-year career in Houston. But he turned into such a total liability in coverage by the end of 2012 he was benched for Eddie Pleasant in Week 16.
Shayne Graham came on board as a fill-in for Randy Bullock when the rookie kicker went on IR at the end of the exhibition season. An accurate kicker without great range, the minimum salary based on his experience is almost twice what Bullock will be making. He did a much better job than expected while he was part of the organization.
Bradie James may have only moved only a few hundred miles south to join his former coach Wade Phillips. Yet somehow he aged five years in the journey. He played at times as if he was running through a quagmire, and turned every tight end he faced into the next Tony Gonzalez.
Now we come to the players the team would like to have back if the price is right. Since none of them were franchised, the only way to gauge their value will be to offer their services on the open market.
Should they be enticed to return after testing the waters, here are some educated guesses on what will be required to reacquire them.
SS Glover Quin
When it comes the Texans’ decision makers, he is the apple of their eyes. While not a great cover safety, most of the players at his position are equally challenged. What makes him so valuable is how well he fits the system.
Once upon a time, there was a position on college teams called rover or “monster man.” Half-linebacker, half-defensive back, their chief duty was to back up the run and provide coverage on the handful of passes thrown.
This is where Quin does a superb job, playing close to the line in nickel and dime defenses. He does this well enough to overlook his shortcomings when receivers come his way.
2012 Cap Hit: $1,430,562
New Contract: 4 years, $20 million
OLB Connor Barwin
His team-leading sack figure of 11.5 in 2011 had him poised to cash in if he came anywhere close to that number. Not content to sign an extension early on, he thought a banner year would enhance his bargaining position.
His season total of three sacks was less than he recorded in a single game versus Jacksonville in his coming-out year. Barwin was still able to get into the backfield on a consistent basis, but could not make an inside move when the tackle took him wide.
In an interview on Sports Radio 610 in Houston, he admitted he started pressing when things did not go his way. His preference is to remain on a winning team like Houston, so will probably accept less than the going rate to re-sign.
2012 Cap Hit: $917,500
New Contract: 3 years, $12 million
FB James Casey
Everyone who follows the Texans knows who James Casey is, but cannot agree on what he is. Is he a fullback, tight end, H-back, or simply a man without a typical position?
As a fullback, he is not a sledgehammer-style lead blocker but can put a hit on someone to create a hole. As a tight end, he has great hands, good speed, but not the kind of size that fits the new NFL prototype. H-back is just a label, since no team actually uses anyone in that capacity these days.
Casey defies any standard description, but does enough things at an efficient level that he deserves a place on this squad.
2012 Cap Hit: $661,250
New Contract: 3 years, $8.5 million
There are a handful of players that should stay on the roster, provided the bidding for their services does not get out of hand. None will receive more than a one-year offer, and could get just a marginal raise in the bargain.
In 2012, ILB Tim Dobbins, RB Justin Forsett, OT Ryan Harris and P Donnie Jones were all paid the league minimum based on their years of service. That meant $700,000 for all but Jones, who earned $890,000.
Jones was rated the top punter by Pro Football Focus, and seems deserving of a bump just beyond seven figures. The others played above their pay grade, but not so much that their reward should put them on the same scale.
That leaves the wild card, CB Brice McCain. A broken foot is not a serious injury to recover from, but when you are a speed guy like McCain it could have a lasting effect.
His performance last season was not up to the level of the prior year, as teams found ways to set picks and knock him right out of the play. He will probably be looking for 3-4 years at $10-15 million, which seems like a lot to pay for a nickel back.
Wade Phillips may have seen enough promise in his replacement, Brandon Harris, to let McCain walk. There may not be enough change left in the till to do anything else.
It is hard to imagine given their financial situation the Texans may actually go looking to add talent outside the club.
Should they conjure up some salary cap hocus-pocus and be on the lookout for some low-cost pickups, here are some UFAs to think about.
WR Domenik Hixon (2012: $615,000) of the New York Giants caught 39 passes for 567 yards and two touchdown as Hakeem Nicks’ backup. Rueben Randle will be taking over as the No. 3 receiver for the Giants, and Hixon (6’2”, 197 lbs) is ideally suited to take the place of Kevin Walter.
DT Aubrayo Franklin (2012: $890,000) will be 33 at the start of the season, but is the kind of 3-4 space-eater (6’1”, 320 lbs) at nose tackle the Texans have been lacking. He could share some snaps with Earl Mitchell and help tutor Ra’Shon Harris on the details of how to play the 1- and 3-technique.
ILB Tavares Gooden (2012: $540,000) has been playing behind Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman in San Francisco. A special teams demon, he has been around long enough to be hungry for some consistent playing time as a two-down linebacker.
CB Joselio Hanson (2012: $825,000) is stuck in Oakland, but spent most of his career playing on some pretty good Philadelphia teams. He is no youngster at 31, but can still handle slot receivers at least as well as Brice McCain.
S David Bruton (2012: $735,000) is a big safety (6’2”, 211 lbs) who got crowded out of the Denver secondary. Another special teams terror, he has the size to handle the tight ends that Danieal Manning and Quintin Demps could not.