Projecting Houston Texans' NFL Free Agent Targets
NFL free agency officially opens up Tuesday, March 12th at 4 p.m. ET.
When the time comes, the Houston Texans' brass will begin reaching out to potential free-agent targets.
The organization first faces the daunting task of retaining its own free agents, which has become more of a focus for the team in recent years.
While the Texans will work aggressively to re-sign their own free agents, they'll need to keep an eye on possible free agents from other teams.
It's impossible to ignore the need to keep their own, but there are a few players out there who fit the Texans schematically and financially who could help the team in a big way next season.
So, let's start doing some window shopping and take a look at who the Texans could target in free agency.
It really shouldn't be a surprise, but the free agent quarterback market doesn't offer much outside of average backups and has-beens.
With T.J. Yates offering more upside as the No. 2 QB, there really isn't much reason to explore the free agent market here.
Matt Moore is the best of the group, but he's been in different systems his whole career and will come at a higher price than Yates.
The Texans already (kind of) dipped their feet into the QB market in January when the team signed former camp arm Case Keenum and former Dallas Cowboys backup Stephen McGee to reserve/future contracts.
Both are long shots at best to make the roster, but each will likely be there in camp taking reps.
Don't expect the Texans to target any of the top free-agent quarterbacks.
Running Back and Fullback
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With the position not on the list of major team needs, expect a soft approach to the free agent tailback market.
Some of the lower-tier names in the pool like Houston's own free agent Justin Forsett, Mike Goodson, Chris Ogbonnaya or Tashard Choice could be brought in at a cheap price to compete for the third spot behind Arian Foster and Ben Tate. All are one-cut runners who fit the scheme.
Arian Foster will continue to be fed the majority of carries after leading the league with 351 in 2012. Though he didn't prove it in 2012, Ben Tate is still one of the better backups in the league when healthy. He'll have plenty to prove in 2013, so the team doesn't need to throw big money at a backup running back.
Fullback could become one of the more pressing needs if James Casey departs in free agency. Houston's backup fullback Tyler Clutts has some experience in the league, but it's hard to imagine him being handed the job outright if Casey leaves.
When examining the fullback market and the best fits for Houston, it makes the most sense to re-sign Casey. He won't command top fullback money, and replacing him could become a headache.
Jerome Felton and Darrel Young are the clear top-two free-agent fullbacks. The Texans passed on signing Vonta Leach to a big contract years ago, so it wouldn't make sense if they turned around and gave money like that to Felton or Young.
In the end, it might not be flashy, but re-signing Forsett and Casey is the best route to go.
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Wide receiver is one of the biggest needs on the roster heading into free agency. Before penciling in a free agent wideout into the starting lineup opposite Andre Johnson, realize the market isn't as good as it may seem.
There's plenty of productive players and big names in the pool. Victor Cruz, Mike Wallace, Greg Jennings, Wes Welker and Danny Amendola headline the group. The problem is they'll be paid big money off of their past accomplishments in the league, not off of expected future gains.
The Texans shouldn't be looking for another aging receiver. They should be looking for younger legs with some juice.
Some names that could provide more value at a much lower price include Brandon Gibson, Domenik Hixon and Ramses Barden. It may be hard to believe, but none of these players offer all that much more upside to current starter Kevin Walter.
A little more upside? Yes. But none of these value free-agent receivers are game-breaking difference-makers, which is what the team should be looking for opposite of Andre.
Signing one of the value free-agent receivers shouldn't be ruled out. However, it would lessen the chances of the team taking a wideout high in the draft, which might be the wiser choice given the depth of this year's class.
Offensive Line and Tight End
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The Texans have left tackle, left guard and center cemented with starters on the offensive line.
The organization needs to find out if Ben Jones or Brandon Brooks can be the right guard of the future. It also needs to find out if Derek Newton can continue to hold down the right tackle position.
With all those questions looming with players already on the roster, there isn't room for any top free agent offensive linemen.
There will be an opening for the third tackle spot if Ryan Harris and/or Rashad Butler don't return. Both are scheduled to be free agents and could be re-signed on the cheap.
If a little more serious competition is brought in at right tackle to push Newton, names like Gosder Cherilus, Jammal Brown or Khalif Barnes could be options. Gary Kubiak and staff likely hope Newton improves and seizes the job full-time, but one of those free-agent tackles could provide a decent fall-back option.
Former Texans' right tackle Eric Winston was cut by the Kansas City Chiefs, adding his name to the group of free agent tackles. A reunion shouldn't be expected considering the bidding war Houston would have to win to get him. Also, Newton might end up developing into the better player by the time Week 1 is here.
The offensive staff appears to be content with Owen Daniels and Garrett Graham being prominently featured as the two tight ends in the offense. With James Casey handling the third tight end duties when the offense features that set, there hasn't been a need for a third tight end on the active game day roster.
The Texans likely won't be interested in any free agent tight ends outside of league-minimum guys hoping for a camp invite.
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Nose tackle could end up being the position the Texans end up spending the most on in free agency. Having a solid, reliable veteran presence in the middle of the defense for early run downs is essential in a 3-4 scheme.
The free agent defensive tackle class is lacking in elite 3-4 nose tackles, but there are a few options the Texans could consider.
Shaun Cody has been a bigger contributor to Houston's run defense in past years than he gets credit for, especially when he was at full health in 2011. He's scheduled to be a free agent, which would leave a pretty significant role on the defense vacated.
Roy Miller would present an upgrade to Cody and would be a terrific run presence at nose tackle for Wade Phillips' defense. Miller helped anchor one of the best run defenses in the league with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2012. He's still only 26 years old and shouldn't come at too steep of a price.
Isaac Sopoaga is a proven nose tackle in the NFL and would provide more strength at the position than Cody. He's been a part of some great run defenses with the San Francisco 49ers and could hold down the starting duties. He'll come at a cheaper price than Miller.
Sammie Lee Hill, Terrance Knighton, Sedrick Ellis and Alan Branch are less proven free-agent defensive tackles with some experience in the league and upside. They should come at a reasonable price, but offer much less certainty compared to Miller and Sopoaga.
The Texans are set with J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith holding down the defensive end duties. Tim Jamison has proven to be a solid contributor off the bench as a third defensive end. Jared Crick should also continue to see time in the rotation.
If Houston invests any kind of serious cash in defensive line in free agency, it'll be at nose tackle.
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Linebacker is another position that could get interesting for the Texans in free agency.
It all starts with Connor Barwin. Once his fate in free agency is decided, a few more dominoes should fall in place.
The big question: What should the Texans do if another team aggressively courts Barwin and he's gone an hour into free agency?
Is the organization planning to take the money it would spend on Barwin and offer it to another free-agent outside linebacker? Or do they pocket the money and entrust last year's first-round pick Whitney Merclius with the job?
Cliff Avril would be the best option, but he could end up taking home the biggest contract in free agency. That's not a market the Texans will be interested in.
Paul Kruger will be a name floated out there after piling up sacks in spot duty for the Baltimore Ravens last year. He'll also bring home one of the bigger deals in free agency, so he shouldn't be considered a fall-back option.
A few more reasonable options would be two former players of Wade Phillips. Victor Butler could be brought in as a backup at both outside linebacker spots. He's only 26 and has experience in the scheme.
Shaun Phillips isn't the same player he used to be, but he has value as a backup capable of an emergency start if needed. Again, he has experience with Wade and shouldn't be too expensive.
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Though it's one of the biggest needs on the roster, it's unlikely a viable starting inside linebacker to play next to Cushing is signed in free agency.
The inside linebacker market doesn't offer many tantalizing options worth exploring this year.
Brad Jones and Dannell Ellerbe have enjoyed an inflation in value due to being the two best options out there on the market. Both players' skill sets can be easily attained every year in the draft, so breaking the bank on either wouldn't be cost-effective.
The Texans will likely begin exploring an extension with Brian Cushing at some point before he hits free agency in 2014. With the resources at inside linebacker likely going there, it doesn't make sense to explore the top-tier free agent market at the position.
The cheaper options, unfortunately, aren't that exciting either. Fans saw how Bradie James, Tim Dobbins and Barrett Ruud handled middle linebacker duties when called upon in 2012. All are free agents and could be retained for cheap, but the organization will likely look to go younger.
All signs should point towards upgrading this position unit through the draft, not free agency.
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Houston wisely invested in cornerback Johnathan Joseph in free agency a couple years ago. A signing in the secondary of that magnitude shouldn't be expected this year.
Kareem Jackson has developed into an above-average starting corner opposite of Joseph, so there's no need to sign a big-money edge corner opposite of him.
Slot corner is a different story. The Texans didn't get great production from the position in 2012, but it wasn't for lack of talent at the position. Free agent-to-be Brice McCain and Brandon Harris took turns with the job, but neither distinguished themselves as the guy. Roc Carmichael could still be in the picture as a former fourth-round pick from just two years ago.
If the Texans don't re-sign McCain and decide to look at slot corner options in free agency, they'll likely be looking at players who'll need to contribute on special teams too.
Leodis McKelvin is a dynamic returner as well as a capable slot corner. He's never lived up to his top-10 pick status, but he is a special returner and can contribute as a man corner.
Former Dallas Cowboys first-round pick Mike Jenkins has a history with Wade Phillips. His best year in the league was under Wade in 2009. Fans would likely much rather see this former Cowboy in a Texans uniform than Alan Ball.
Antoine Cason is another former first-rounder who never lived up to his draft status, but still has talent to work with and could come cheap.
Again, don't look for the Texans to break the bank for a cornerback.
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It's been said about a million times now: Houston's No. 1 offseason priority should be to re-sign safety Glover Quin.
The Texans should see competition in bidding for his services, and they'll likely end up having to give him a pretty good chunk of change once free agency is underway.
In the end, it should be worth the cost. Replacing Quin would be a difficult task and the free agent safety class is a big reason why.
Cover safeties are at a premium in the NFL, and there just aren't that many quality ones out there. There are even fewer to hit the free agent market.
Assuming the Texans re-sign Quin, which isn't a ridiculous assumption, a third safety in free agency could be something worth considering.
Houston's third safety was targeted and beaten often in coverage in 2012, whether it was Shiloh Keo or Quintin Demps.
The problem is if the Texans re-sign Quin to a big deal, they'll have significant money invested in the safety position. There won't be much cash left over to spend there, and the bottom-of-the-barrel free agent safeties are camp bodies at best.
Houston is better-suited addressing safety depth through the draft in April.
But above all: Bring back Glover Quin.
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The Texans have some major decisions to make with special teams this offseason. Shayne Graham and Donnie Jones are slated to join the free agent pool of kickers and punters.
Both should be welcomed back with open arms after having successful seasons with the team in 2012.
Graham made crucial kicks towards the end of the season and in the playoffs that likely earned him a level of trust with the coaching staff.
Last year's fifth-round pick Randy Bullock spent his rookie season on injured reserve, but he'll provide Graham competition in camp. If by some chance another team signs Graham, it's unlikely the Texans would go to camp with only Bullock on the roster.
Former Longhorn Phil Dawson is the premier kicker of free agency. The Texans will likely look at lower-tier kickers with a much lower price tag, however. If Graham leaves, they could wait out the market and see what cheap options are out there closer to OTA's or beyond.
Jones finished in the top 7 in punt average last season and proved to be reliable and consistent. If the Texans aren't interested in getting into a bidding war over him, they could explore some of the other punting options out there.
Free agent Shane Lechler is known for his huge leg and has over a decade of experience in the NFL. The Texans could be forced to explore other options like Lechler if Jones signs elsewhere.