GM Rick Smith
The NFL offseason is a time of change. Players come and go, along with position coaches or sometimes the entire coaching staff.
The Houston Texans experienced a moderate level of turnover over this period. They were not very active in the free agent market due to salary cap constraints. The biggest pickup, Ed Reed, was noteworthy for the negative publicity regarding his health status.
The draft brought some much needed help in the form of wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and safety D.J. Swearinger. Both have the potential to bring immediate benefits on offense and defense.
There was significant activity in other areas that impacted the team and their prospects for the 2013 season. Whether good judgment was exercised along the way will be noted with a grade for each decision.
All salary information provided courtesy of Spotrac.com (subscription required for historical data).
Unrestricted free agents Connor Barwin, Glover Quin and James Casey were not re-signed for a variety of reasons.
Barwin had 11.5 sacks in 2011, but his total was skewed by four sacks against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 11. That season turned out to be a statistical anomaly, since 2012 saw him ring up three for the entire year.
Quin was frequently overmatched in pass coverage but played the run very well. The Texans could not hope to match the $23.5 million over five years the Detroit Lions were offering.
A reserve tight end who was thrust into the fullback role in 2012, Casey was bound to have more fun catching passes in Chip Kelly’s hurry-up version of the spread offense. The $12 million the Philadelphia Eagles put on the table helped seal the deal.
Kevin Walter, an excellent blocker and sure-handed possession receiver, was released to free up cap space. His departure resulted in a savings of $2 million for the Texans. This money could be devoted to a younger player who was more of a downfield threat.
This move had a whiff of PR spin from the very beginning. When Reed was signed, GM Rick Smith had failed to retain a single UFA. And the natives were starting to get restless.
Whether classified as a free or strong safety, the cupboard for free agents at these positions was nearly bare. The Baltimore Ravens were not interested in keeping their future Hall of Fame ballhawk, and the Texans needed to make a splash.
The two parties seemed to be made for each other, even if the active leader in career interceptions would turn 34 right around the start of the season. Oddly enough, the cap hit for Reed and the man he was replacing, Glover Quin, was within $250,000 of each other.
When the word got out that their latest acquisition was recovering from hip surgery, the spin started to wobble. The questions started to sound like Senator Howard Baker at the Watergate hearings: What did the Texans know and when did they know it?
Florio offered no evidence to support his claim other than an interview with local orthopedic surgeon Kenneth R. First on the In the Loop show from Sports Radio 610 in Houston. Regardless of who knew what and when, all the principals ended up with egg on their faces.
Texans’ management looked as if they have not done its due diligence, and the team was forced to put Swearinger on an accelerated learning plan. Reed appeared to have concealed the truth about his physical condition, and may not be able to take the field until the middle of training camp.
Who would want to take a shot from a guy with a pair of guns like that?
Jones started out his career as an actual running back, but became a lead blocker after the Jacksonville Jaguars drafted Maurice Jones-Drew. With the help of his fullback, MJD has become the sixth-leading active rusher in the NFL.
The Texans tried to go without a straight-ahead, nose-busting player at the position last year. Arian Foster had a season most running backs would envy, and led the league in rushing touchdowns with 15. But he averaged just 3.6 yards per carry on second and third downs.
Most teams run out of a single-back set, and some hardly ever use a fullback. The New England Patriots had 25 rushing touchdowns last season, the top figure in the league. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required for Premium Stats), the Pats had 12 fullback snaps for the entire year.
In contrast, Houston had 640 fullback snaps in 2012. A team that puts a high priority on having two players behind the quarterback can put a man like Greg Jones to good use.
The presence of Hopkins will balance the passing attack by taking some of the defensive attention away from Andre Johnson. The passing game of the Texans relied on Johnson to an excessive level last season, with No. 80 getting 58.1 percent of the targets.
The No.1 pick out of Clemson has 10-inch hands, smooth moves and just enough speed to get good separation on his routes. It will take some time for him to become a true No. 2 receiver. Matt Schaub tends to look for his tight ends in a pinch, so Hopkins will need to be patient until he becomes more than a third option in his quarterback’s progressions.
Swearinger was known in college as a big hitter but not a great cover man. The book on him from Rob Rang of CBSports.com is:
Too stiff to handle coverage of NFL slot receivers for long and projects best at safety. Tendency to grab hold as the route progresses, which will draw penalties in the NFL.
He sounds like the Glover Quin 2.0 version, making him an average safety at best. Wade Phillips is renowned for asking his players to only do things that are within their skill set. Since Danieal Manning is not renowned for his ability to stick with a receiver, who is going to handle the tight ends and halfbacks who wander into the secondary?
The expectation is that just by being in the same locker room with Ed Reed, Swearinger will absorb Reed’s vast repertoire of instincts and ball skills via osmosis. The reality for this rookie will be a rough introduction into the pros, followed by period of adjustment by both coach and player.
Grade: A- (Hopkins)/B (Swearinger)
Depth has always been important factor in all team sports. Many believe football is the ultimate team sport, making depth even more critical.
Of course, injuries will test the quality of your backups. But situational substitutions in the NFL means there are a dozen or so players outside of your starters that get significant playing time.
For the Houston Texans, Brice McCain, Tim Dobbins and Ryan Harris fit this category perfectly. McCain is the slot cornerback, Dobbins the first inside linebacker off the bench and Harris is the swing offensive tackle.
The Texans are in the nickel at least 50 percent of the time, putting McCain in the lineup at least that often. Dobbins plays mostly on special teams, but he had to start five games after Brian Cushing went down for the year. When the play of right tackle Derek Newton became too ragged last season, the more experienced Harris came in to steady the position.
These players know who they are and accept their roles. This attitude led Dobbins to think he could miss OTAs without changing his place on the depth chart. He may have violated some unwritten rule that these voluntary activities are anything but that.
Dobbins knew he had the leverage because the Texans had not drafted or signed a replacement. McCain knew he would probably be re-signed because his replacement, Brandon Harris, was not ready to take over full time. Newton is recovering from surgery and rookie Brennan Williams is also hurt, turning Ryan Harris into an indispensable component.
This may be overstating the obvious, but there are some players on last year’s roster that did not stand a chance of returning.
When Darryl Sharpton seemed questionable for the start of the 2012 season, Bradie James looked like the perfect fit to start next to Brian Cushing. But James was a disaster, looking as if his nine years in the league caught up with him all at once.
Quintin Demps played special teams and nickel safety well enough in 2011 to be re-signed for 2012. He received a nice raise, but that was money wasted because he was a liability in both phases of the game.
Shaun Cody was a trooper, hurting his back in midseason. He returned in Week 13 and played the rest of the season in considerable pain. His contract has run out, and fellow nose tackle Earl Mitchell played well for much less than Cody’s $2 million salary.
Antoine Caldwell and Barrett Ruud could be added to this list for many of the same reasons. Inside linebacker is a subject of such concern that Ruud could return at some point, but Caldwell is so injury-prone his career may be over.
What if the Houston Texans had locked up home field advantage throughout the playoffs last year? Would hosting the New England Patriots instead of traveling to Gillette Stadium change the outcome of the game?
Since the Texans blew their last chance for top seed in the AFC in their final regular season game at Indianapolis, the question will remain unanswered.
In an interesting twist of fate, the man who ended their chances is trying to become one of them. He is Deji Karim, the player who returned the kickoff for a touchdown just after Houston had taken their only lead of the game.
A better question would be how the special teams coach, Joe Marciano, stayed an employee of the Texans. Not only is he still a part of the team, he also has an assistant now.
Bob Ligashesky is here to help because the Tampa Bay Buccaneers fired him. Football Outsiders ranked his unit 28th overall, four places above the bottom dwelling Texans squad. This will have to pass for an endorsement of his skills.
Even more help has arrived in the person of Shane Lechler. Perhaps the best punter in the 83-year history of the league, he may inspire the kick coverage team to consistently protect the middle of the field. Let us all hope Lechler never has to take that responsibility upon himself.
Bullock Observing Shayne Graham
In the 2012 NFL draft, the Houston Texans took the unusual step of selecting a placekicker. Randy Bullock of nearby Texas A&M University was chosen in the fifth round.
Veteran Shayne Graham was invited to training camp to help ease the draftee’s transition into pro football. When Bullock injured his groin and was placed on injured reserve, Graham was there to replace the unlucky rookie.
Fast forward to 2013, and Rick Smith has taken another unusual step. Bullock looks to have the job locked up. There is not another placekicker to be found on the roster.
Should the need arise, experienced feet that have scored thousands of points are available. Ryan Longwell, Olindo Mare and Jason Hanson are just a few of the names that could fill the void at a moment’s notice.
Such is the life of a kicker. Someday, Bullock will find himself waiting for that call.