Houston Texans: A Position-by-Position Primer to Free Agency
The disaster that was 2013 exposed so many holes in their roster they may not have the means to patch them all. Control of the first selection in every round of the 2014 draft is essential in making repairs, even though this tool has its flaws.
On the one hand, the players selected in the draft should be brimming with talent and promise. On the other, none of them will have a lick of professional experience.
Texans owner Bob McNair expects first-time NFL head coach Bill O’Brien to pull off a rapid reversal of fortune, according to John McClain of the Houston Chronicle. That will take more than general manager Rick Smith deciding whether Teddy Bridgewater or Jadeveon Clowney is worthy of being the top pick.
The last time Smith tried to make a big splash in free agency, it ended up in a belly flop by the name of Ed Reed. The sudden firing of pro scouting director Brian Gardner last week sent a clear signal that kind of incompetence will have dire consequences.
Smith is already dealing with a short deck in terms of cap space. OvertheCap.com has Houston committed to $125,235,430 in total compensation for 2014. When this year’s salary cap is finally announced, it is not expected to exceed $128 million by the calculations of former agent Joel Corry.
It will require the releases of some current players and re-negotiations with others to be able to pursue veterans from other teams. Once that leeway has been achieved, these are some names that should be on their list.
All salary and cap information courtesy of Spotrac.com.
The story at quarterback is not who will be asked to stay, but who will be shown the door.
Even if his escapades of 2013 could be forgiven, Matt Schaub is too pricey to keep around. T.J. Yates blew his chance in the game against the St. Louis Rams and is unlikely to get another.
Case Keenum failed to record a win in his seven-game tryout that came at the behest of Bob McNair. His crosstown move from University of Houston record-setter to pro football hero did not pan out.
It is a given that a quarterback will be drafted by the Texans. The primary questions are: Who will be the chosen one, and will the brain trust wait until Day 2 to call his name.
Coach O’Brien should avoid giving the rookie quarterback the “David Carr” treatment by simply throwing him into the fire. The problem is finding a veteran who can ease the newcomer’s transition to franchise savior.
The free agents out there are either physically damaged (Michael Vick, David Garrard), prohibitively expensive (Chad Henne, Shaun Hill) or consistently inconsistent (Matt Cassel, Rex Grossman).
Keeping Schaub around to atone for his sins is to think the unthinkable. He would have to be released and re-signed for what would amount to nickels on the dollar compared to his current cap figure of $14.5 million.
Josh Freeman would not be an upgrade in anyone’s eyes and is not a wily old sage who would be willing to share his secrets with a hotshot kid for the sake of the team.
The Minnesota Vikings are going to be shopping for a quarterback themselves, and Freeman does not fit into their plans. He is just 26 and still has time to change the arc of his career. His cap figure in 2013 was $2 million. A passer rating of 52.6 for the year gives him very little salary leverage.
What better place to showcase his skills than Houston, where he could be competing with No. 1 overall pick for playing time? If he beats him out, even if only for a short time, it would pave the way for Freeman to fulfill the promise of his 25-touchdown/six-interception season of 2010.
When the injuries start to mount as the schedule wears on, a premium is placed on good replacement quarterbacks. Freeman would be dealt for a draft choice and the Texans would hand the reins over to their new signal-caller.
It would be nice to keep Ben Tate, especially since Arian Foster has become tabloid fodder with his extracurricular activities. Tate will command a multi-year deal after rushing for 771 yards while playing with four cracked ribs for two months. He will finally be able to get out from under the shadow of Foster and make his own mark.
Toby Gerhart is in a similar position, having the misfortune of playing behind the incomparable Adrian Peterson. AP may have slowed down in 2013 but will remain the Minnesota Vikings' feature back, leaving Gerhart starved for carries.
The Vikings have the cap space to keep Gerhart, who possesses a good balance between size (236 pounds) and speed (4.53). He earned just $1,013,150 last season, and a one-year deal with a nice raise from the Texans would be right up his alley.
If he shared time on the Texans with the diminutive Dennis Johnson (5’8”, 212 pounds), who would be the change-of-pace back? That would depend on the offensive approach of the new head coach.
The Erhardt-Perkins system that O’Brien ran with the New England Patriots favored runners the dimensions of Laurence Maroney and BenJarvus Green-Ellis (both 5’11”, 210 pounds). When Bill Belichick won his first Super Bowl in 2001, it was behind the broad shoulders of Antowain Smith (6’2”, 232 pounds).
Since O’Brien joined the Patriots in 2007, Erhardt-Perkins as practiced by New England has been more centered around moving the ball through the air with bubble screens and short-range passes. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) shows 46.8 percent of Tom Brady's attempts fell into that category in 2013.
Then again, every offense needs to run effectively when the time comes to control the clock. This is one case where size does not really matter.
The NFL has become such a pass-intensive league, the effectiveness of a passing attack is not just measured by the top three receivers. To compete with the big boys like the Denver Broncos and New Orleans Saints, your pass-catchers must go five deep.
Not every team is able to pull that off, but they better try if they want to keep pace. The Texans under Gary Kubiak never even made an attempt, going for years with slow but dependable Kevin Walter as their second wideout.
Their No. 2 leader in actual receptions was tight end Owen Daniels, who is above-average at his position but no game-changer. A solid No. 3 wide receiver was nothing but a pipe dream, whether it was Jacoby Jones, David Anderson or Andre Davis.
Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins are firmly entrenched as the primary and secondary wide receivers. This could be the year when Keshawn Martin or DeVier Posey asserts himself as the go-to guy in the slot.
Instead of waiting for an existing player to come forward, why not go “Andre” all the way across?
The Broncos have an embarrassment of riches at wide receiver with Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker. Andre Caldwell is an unrestricted free agent (UFA), as is Decker. It is going to take a lot more than the $1,506,037 the Broncos paid Decker in 2013 to keep him.
The Texans would be happy to take Caldwell off their hands. His 4.37 speed combined with a 6’1”, 200-pound frame would make him a dangerous threat on the two-man slants that are a staple of the Erhardt-Perkins system. He had just 16 catches last season, but three went for touchdowns.
Super Bowl winners usually have to purge themselves of a lot of their UFAs for financial reasons. A Broncos win would send Peyton Manning to Disney World for sure and hopefully Andre Caldwell to Houston.
Bill O’Brien would have his top three wideouts, continue to develop Martin and Posey for added depth, and have his team headed toward the top tier of passing attacks.
Owen Daniels has spent his entire career with the Texans. The same holds true for UFA Garrett Graham. Daniels attended the University of Wisconsin as did Graham. Each player is 6’3” and weighs around 245 pounds.
This is where the similarities end. In 2014, Graham will still be a member of the team that drafted him. Daniels will be forced to move on.
Daniels has a cap hit of $6.25 million in the upcoming season, a steep price for 31-year-old tight end that has never caught more than 70 passes in a season. Graham had 49 receptions for five touchdowns in just 13 games in 2013. With a full season and better quarterbacks, he could have bested Daniels’ best season.
Ryan Griffin played well enough while Graham and Daniels were hurt to earn a spot as the No. 2 tight end. O’Brien has brought in former Patriots Romeo Crennel and Mike Vrabel as defensive coaches. Why not a player to serve as the No. 3 tight end?
Michael Hoomanawanui was more of an H-back than a pure tight end, serving as a blocker in some running formations. The Texans have not had much blocking come from the position in the past, which may account for their mediocre red-zone performances even in their division-winning seasons.
The right tackles up for grabs are mostly undistinguished journeymen or overpriced starters. The simple answer is re-sign Ryan Harris for the league minimum of $730,000 and pray Brennan Williams will be healthy for the first time in the last two years.
If the Texans plan on spending for a veteran offensive lineman, a replacement for left guard Wade Smith is the way to go.
Richie Incognito is available, along with all his baggage as perhaps the league’s dirtiest player and the instigator in the Jonathan Martin bullying saga. It’s hard to know if Incognito could earn anywhere near the almost $5 million he banked in 2013.
Even though Houston does not qualify for forced participation under the new Hard Knocks rules, any confrontation between him and his old nemesis Antonio Smith in the Texans locker room would immediately become must-see TV.
The safer route would be to sign a more temperate UFA like Travelle Wharton of the Carolina Panthers. He may be the same age as Wade Smith (32) but had an outstanding 2013 campaign blocking for the NFC South champions.
Wharton was the fifth-ranked guard by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) standards while earning just $1.1 million. The Panthers will have to pony up for defensive stars Greg Hardy and Captain Munnerlyn, who will both be looking to score big in their second NFL contracts.
Carolina also has two younger guards in Chris Scott (26) and Garry Williams (27) that are restricted free agents (RFA). There must be a gentleman’s agreement among NFL general managers that keeps them from bidding up RFAs, who almost never change teams.
Wharton would be looking for some security in what could be his last contract. Rick Smith might be more inclined to have him mentor David Quessenberry for a year or two. The right package of incentives will be the key to landing Wharton at this stage of his career.
Romeo Crennel was named defensive coordinator for the Texans on Jan. 20. The question about what kind of defense he would run began the moment the rumor mill started churning.
When Wade Phillips was named to the same position in 2011, the fans learned that his version of the 3-4 defense was different. The linemen were not required to two-gap like most defenses of this type.
This meant instead of lining up head-to-head with the opposing player, they could line up in the space between the offensive linemen. The alignment allowed the defensive player to penetrate the gap and cause more disruption in the backfield.
Crennel was known for the more traditional two-gap approach, which benefited from having large nose tackles such as Ted Washington (6’5”, 365 pounds), Keith Traylor (6’2”, 340 pounds) and Dontari Poe (6’3”, 346 pounds). These players were expected to draw the double-team and allow the linebackers to make the plays.
One of the first questions Crennel would have to answer was whether he would adhere to this two-gap style. His answer was, per Eric Edholm of Yahoo! Sports, “We're going to run a multiple defense. You’re going to see a little of everything."
This was supposed to calm fears that J.J. Watt would be turned into a grunt who was expected to occupy two offensive linemen on every play. The fact is he spent much of the latter half of 2012 and all of 2013 dealing with double-teams on a regular basis.
What does this long preamble have to do with free agency? The purpose is twofold. Will UFA Antonio Smith have a place in this new defense? And will Crennel seek out a sumo-sized nose tackle?
The answers are: probably not and definitely, in order.
Smith made it clear before the start of last season he “wanted to retire a Texan.” This translates to some sort of contract extension that would reduce his cap impact. But that was before this new coordinator came aboard with a preference for 300-pound defensive ends (Smith weighs in at 275 pounds).
The nose tackle question is just as sticky but must have an affirmative answer. It just so happens the New York Giants will be able to provide it.
His name is Linval Joseph, a 6’4”, 328-pound tackle in the Giants’ 4-3 defense. Joseph is well aware of his value in a 3-4 system and fully expects to extract it from the market. That means a contract in $8-million-per-year range, according to Jordan Raanan of NJ.com.
To make this work, Smith would be replaced by Earl Mitchell (6’3”, 300 pounds) at defensive end. Mitchell is also a UFA and would command his own contract in the neighborhood of $2-3 million per year.
These funds would come from releasing Matt Schaub and Danieal Manning, restructuring Johnathan Joseph’s deal and letting Joe Mays walk. If that is not enough to fill the whole enchilada, then maybe Rick Smith should have been dismissed in the outgoing parade of longtime employees.
If half of the hypothetical acquisitions proposed come to pass, there is not much left for the remaining position groups. Due diligence demands that all prospects are put on the table.
Ideally, the linebackers in any 3-4 defense should make most of the plays. The insiders should stuff the run and defend the middle against tight ends and slot receivers. The outsiders should seal the edge on stretch runs and screens, cover tight ends on the verticals and deep slants, and above all, pressure the quarterback all ways possible.
The best arrangement with existing personnel would be Brooks Reed on the inside, Brian Cushing on the open or weak side and Whitney Mercilus on the strong side over the tight end. That leaves one of the inside spots unoccupied.
Darryl Sharpton is too small and too brittle for this role. Mike Mohamed, at 6’3” and 240 pounds, is better suited physically but comes up short in the lateral quickness area.
If the Texans must go shopping, the New England Patriots’ inventory has UFA Brandon Spikes available. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) rates him as the top run-stopper of all inside linebackers. His coverage skills are underwhelming, as is the case with most players at his position.
If Cushing has to shift back to the inside, then Jason Worilds of the Pittsburgh Steelers could fill his shoes as the "Will," or weak-side, linebacker. His mate on the other side, LaMarr Woodley, has a cap hit of $13.59 million in 2014. This commitment could constrain the Steelers from keeping Worilds in the fold.
Will Blackmon of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Chris Harris of the Denver Broncos are tempting. But the Jaguars have cap space to spare and Harris is a restricted free agent and dealing with a torn ACL.
The only hope for another team to have a shot at him is the Super Bowl-winner effect. The Seahawks only have four big-name free agents to sign: Michael Bennett, Breno Giacomini, Paul McQuistan and Golden Tate. However, there will be less than $8 million in space to service them once the 2014 salary cap is made public.
There are other players way up the cornerback ladder, but they become increasingly expensive. Thurmond would help everyone forget just how dreadfully Brice McCain has covered the middle over the last two seasons. Otherwise, Brandon Harris becomes the only remedy for a chronic case of “slot burn.”
Safeties used to be an afterthought because cornerbacks were the stars in their one-on-one duels with wide receivers. The proliferation of multiple receiver sets, tight ends that can overpower single coverage, and the necessity to stay in nickel and dime packages most of the time has elevated the significance of the position.
That’s why the top 10 free-agent safeties had an average 2013 cap hit of $4.2 million. Several of that upper echelon did not deserve their pay, most notably Isa Abdul-Quddus at $9 million, Antoine Bethea at $5.75 million and Ryan Clark at $4.75 million.
But it exceeded that of the top 10 cornerbacks and their $3.5 million average—another indication of how much their impact has grown.
The best value could be James Ihedigbo of the Baltimore Ravens, who pocketed just $620,000 last season while allowing a passer rating of 66.9 per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). At triple his previous salary, Ihedigbo is a bargain given the earnings of his peers. Maybe enough of a bargain to get a look from the Texans.