The Houston Texans have hit the offseason wondering which of their free agents should be invited back for the rebuilding process. If you are general manager Rick Smith, having a short list of contributing players makes most of the decisions rather easy.
The big names on the roll are running back Ben Tate, tight end Garrett Graham, left guard Wade Smith, swing tackle Ryan Harris, defensive end Antonio Smith, inside linebackers Joe Mays and Darryl Sharpton and nose tackle Earl Mitchell.
Graham looks like the heir apparent to Owen Daniels. When called upon, Harris was an upgrade at right tackle over Derek Newton. Rumored defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, via John McClain of the Houston Chronicle, would not have to look at much film to recognize Smith is a factor in making J.J. Watt the most dominant defensive lineman in the NFL.
Crennel prefers linebackers closer to the size of 6'3", 260-pound Brian Cushing than the under 6'0" Mays and Sharpton. The undersized 6'3", 300-pound Mitchell will not remind anyone of the gargantuan Ted Washington manning the middle of a 3-4 D-line. However, the New England Patriots won their first Super Bowl with sub-300 pounders Anthony Pleasant and Brandon Mitchell at the defensive tackle spots in a 4-3 alignment.
Salary cap and contract analyst for CBSSports.com Joel Corry has calculated the anticipated figures for the 2014 non-exclusive franchise tags based on a salary cap of $126.5 million per team.
The numbers under the "Projected" column are his best estimate of the tag figures based on the marginal increase from the 2013 salary cap of $123 million per team. A quick look at that column confirms that none of the Texans eligible to ply their trade on the open market are worthy of the franchise tag.
The website OverTheCap.com currently gives the Texans $9.16 million worth of cap space. It is based on an estimate of $127.8 million for 2014, if all of the Texans' free agents are excluded. Let us step into Smith's shoes by using the Salary Cap Calculator and try to uncover some room so we can make some deals.
We're going to need it just to compete in the AFC South. The division-winning Indianapolis Colts already have $37.12 million at their disposal.
First, we eliminate all the fringe players that were added to the roster to cover the 12 players who spent all or part of 2013 on injured reserve. That means goodbye to Jawanza Starling, Alex Kupper, Evan Frierson, Phillip Supernaw and eight other warm bodies who played for the league minimum.
That only reduces the burden by an additional $1.4 million or so, but it’s a start. The time has come to cut away more dead weight. Maybe you thought these guys showed some promise, except drastic times call for drastic measures.
Eddie Pleasant, Ray Graham, Justin Tuggle, 2013 fourth-round pick Trevardo Williams, Cody White, Jonathan Grimes, Alec Lemon and 2013 sixth-round pick Alan Bonner: they’re all history. And $2.7 million more has made it into our coffers.
We have almost $14 million in cap space, and now, the real fun begins. If you were too injured, too inept, too expensive, too old or any combination thereof, your time with the Texans is over.
The most obvious candidates will go first. Derek Newton, Brice McCain and T.J. Yates fall into the inept category and should not have a place in the new regime. Right tackle Newton and slot cornerback McCain were among the worst at their positions by the metrics of Pro Football Focus (subscription required), ranking near the bottom in Newton's case and at the very bottom with McCain.
Yates mopped up in the loss to the San Francisco 49ers, and then, he took Houston's pick-six string to a record-setting five-in-a-row the next week against the St. Louis Rams. Case Keenum was given the starting job after Yates had zero touchdown passes to go with his two interceptions against the Rams.
The biggest names will now be called to task, even if their departure results in a steaming heap of dead money.
Danieal Manning was far from the ideal deep safety, particularly when he was left to fend for himself most of the time in Wade Phillips' scheme. At age 31 and with a $6 million cap hit, his kickoff return skills are not enough to justify his retention.
Johnathan Joseph came to Houston as a free agent at the same time as Manning, and in 2011, he was worth every bit of his $8 million tariff. He played hurt in 2013 while recovering from a double sports hernia and was still an above average cornerback, per Pro Football Focus.
Unless J-Jo is willing to renegotiate his $11 million cap number in 2014, some other team will have to gamble on whether his soon-to-be 30-year-old legs can still take it.
Daniels has served as the de facto No. 2 receiver for the Texans throughout his entire career. In fact, the tight end is ranked second all time on the team to Andre Johnson with 385 catches.
Daniels missed 11 games last season, and Graham had 49 receptions and five touchdowns as his primary replacement. Rookie Ryan Griffin, the best blocker of the three, started the final three games while Graham was sidelined and looked like he was ready to be the full-time backup.
The Texans typically carry three tight ends on the roster, but they do not need one that turns 32 this year and is due a $6.25 million paycheck. Although he might be asked to come back for a lower number, we will proceed as if Daniels' release is assured.
Eventually, that season-killer extraordinaire and master of the pick-six, Matt Schaub, has to face the music for his failings and his $14.5 million cap number. Even if Schaub was willing to be cut and sign a new deal, new head coach Bill O’Brien would be ridiculed for even floating the idea.
The Salary Cap Calculator now has the Texans with $32.77 million worth of breathing room. The suggested releases have not really broken any new ground, as all have been seen as distinct possibilities by the media and fans alike.
Arian Foster could now be vulnerable for a variety of reasons, the first of which is the average 2.57 year lifespan of NFL running backs. He started off training camp in 2013 with hamstring problems that eventually spread to his back and required season-ending surgery.
Foster is also dealing with an accusation, via TMZ, that he impregnated a young woman named Brittany and then tried to convince her to get an abortion. A married man with a young daughter, this is not the image that the most interesting man in the NFL wants to project for himself.
This sort of publicity could force the Texans organization to sever ties with Foster if his physical issues linger on. However, releasing their franchise back would only boost their cap space by $1 million.
On the other hand, it might convince Tate that owner Bob McNair is seriously interested in retaining his services. Tate made it clear to Ross Jones of FOXSports.com that he was not interested in the “complement role:”
With Foster gone and some bucks to bargain with, Tate could be enticed into hanging around to see what kind of magic the new head coach might be able to conjure up.
O’Brien may abandon the zone blocking system that made Foster so successful. A shiftier back with the grit to play with four broken ribs could be just the right building block to pair with a new quarterback.
There are a lot of moving parts to all this cost cutting. The heaviest losses would be to special teams. Their performance was so abysmal in 2013 it is the one part of the team that requires a complete overhaul. Bryan Braman and Deji Karim are two free agents that would be welcomed back under any circumstances.
The chances of it turning out exactly as it has been described here are slim. Many of the players released would have to be replaced in order to field a complete roster. In any case, the changes coming to the Houston Texans will need to be radical if the results between the goalposts are going to do the same.
All salary information courtesy of OverTheCap.com.