The Houston Texans had such a terrible season in 2013 that their wish list was growing even before Matt Schaub threw his fourth pick-six in Week 5.
Schaub had proven he was not the answer at quarterback just one season after signing a four-year extension for $62 million. That scrambled any plans GM Rick Smith had to concentrate on shoring other deficiencies on the roster.
Now the rebuilding process was all about finding a quarterback. Problem areas such as offensive line, defensive backs and linebackers became lower priorities when exploring possible free agents and draft prospects.
The top overall pick in the draft belongs to Houston. In some years using it can be an easy decision, as in 2012 when Andrew Luck was the standout choice. The Kansas City Chiefs had to settle for Eric Fisher in 2013, an offensive tackle who will never reach the prominence of Luck or maybe even Duane Brown.
Pursing free agents will be trickier since there is not much room under the Texans’ salary cap to go after the most attractive candidates. Any acquisitions made via this route will be the result of bargain shopping.
The first step in this process is identifying who you want. The next step is to decide how to go about paying for them. This can require releasing players under contract, then using the savings to sign less costly talent.
A good guideline for signing unrestricted free agents (UFAs) is their cap hit from last season. What draft choices are paid is determined by slotting, and the clubs drafting them have little say in the matter.
What follows is a possible scenario about how Smith and recently hired head coach Bill O’Brien will go about putting this franchise back on track.
Salary cap information courtesy of Spotrac.com unless otherwise noted.
Draft analysis courtesy of NFLDraftScout.com unless otherwise noted.
Rick Smith & Bill O'Brien
The Houston Texans have $2,105,243 in cap space as of publication. The details can be reviewed on the Houston Texans' cap hit page at Spotrac.
Smith and O’Brien will have to decide which players to release if they are going to finagle additional cap space. Without it, they would be unable to sign their draft choices and any free agents they might covet. There will be an increase in the 2014 salary cap, but it will only be $3-5 million over the $123 million figure for 2013.
If a player at a certain position could be released to accomplish this, they will be listed at the beginning of each slide with a calculation of the savings. The calculation is: (cap hit – dead money) = savings. Dead money is usually the remaining portion of their signing bonus, which is almost always prorated over the length of contract.
For example, if T.J. Yates is released, his savings would be ($691,250 - $46,250) = $645,000. The savings happens to be equal to his base pay for the remaining year of his contract (2014). This will be the case for most players.
Matt Schaub: $44,250,000 - $21,000,000 = $22,750,000
It all starts with the quarterback. So it was for the Texans’ lost season of 2013, so it will be for any hope of turning things around.
Teddy Bridgewater was good enough coming out of high school to earn the starting job at the University of Louisville by the third game of his freshman year. He was groomed to play in a pro-style offense from the moment he arrived on campus.
A profile written by Greg Bedard of the Monday Morning Quarterback website quoted his offensive coordinator, Shawn Watson, as saying, “Teddy’s been taught from day one that I want him to be the coordinator at the line of scrimmage because he can be far better than me.”
He did the job well enough to have a 68.3 percent completion rate for his career.
Whether the decision is to draft one with the top pick or wait until the later rounds, there will need to be an experienced veteran around to ease the transition. Of all the quarterbacks who will be available, the most qualified happens to be Schaub.
That would please the fan base as much as drafting Derek Carr to rescue the franchise. Since Schaub would be politically unfeasible, someone like Shaun Hill of the Detroit Lions is a possible fit. He has been backing up Matthew Stafford for the last three years, and helped bring him along as the No. 1 draft choice in 2010.
Hill made $3.25 million in 2013 and would have to take a cut to join the Texans. At age 34, he will not be contending for a starting role anywhere else. Being No. 2 to another No. 1 is not a bad way to finish out your career.
Arian Foster: $18,250,000-$7,500,000=$10,750,000
Gary Kubiak did not get his offense rolling until Arian Foster came along. Play-action was fundamental to making the passing game work. Without a consistent running game, the defense had no reason to bite on the play fake that gave slow-footed Matt Schaub time to throw.
Bill O’Brien has little need for a runner who likes to carry the ball 20 times a game. His offensive scheme relies on timing, short passes and running more plays than the opposition. The New England Patriots never ranked higher than ninth in rushing yardage during his five years with them.
The exit of Foster would not open the door to keeping UFA Ben Tate. His price tag would be in the $12-18 million range for a 3-4 year deal, much more than any back is worth in this system.
Rashad Jennings had a solid 2013 season sharing time with the injury-prone Darren McFadden of the Oakland Raiders. His 733 yards rushing were accompanied by 36 receptions, just the kind of versatility that suits O’Brien. Jennings is also a low-mileage back at age 28, a big advantage over the overused Foster.
Jennings' cap hit was only $555,000, meaning a huge raise would still make him a cheaper option than Tate. That would also allow the Texans to bring back fullback Greg Jones at something close to the $1 million he earned last year.
An intriguing draft possibility lies just up the road from Houston at Baylor University. Lache Seastrunk is accustomed to functioning in a pass-heavy offense like the spread-option that brought head coach Art Briles to Waco.
Seatrunk is blessed with 4.34 speed that helped him average over seven yards per carry and gain over 1,000 yards in each of his final two seasons. He is projected in the third or fourth round, right where the Texans might have a compensatory pick for the loss of Glover Quin or Connor Barwin in the 2013 offseason.
Ted Ginn Jr.
This would have been a stable position group under the Kubiak regime. Keshawn Martin would be given one more year to prove he can handle the slot position, and DeVier Posey would be expected to finally put his Achilles tear of 2012 behind him.
The new head coach will not only expect more, but his offensive design will demand it. Wes Welker demonstrated how much the Erhardt-Perkins offense depends on the man in the slot.
Tom Brady floundered this season when Danny Amendola struggled to stay healthy. That issue enabled Julian Edelman to catch a career-high 105 passes. The Texans need production out of that position, and Martin remains a question mark at this point.
Ted Ginn Jr. had only 36 receptions for the NFC South champion Carolina Panthers but turned them into a career-high five touchdowns. As a UFA in 2014, he is coming off a one-year contract for $1.1 million and will be trying to break through the $2 million mark for the first time since his rookie deal.
The Panthers are almost $13 million under the cap but are more interested in re-signing Greg Hardy, Brandon LaFell and Captain Munnerlyn.
Ginn Jr. has been a chronic underachiever and will have a hard time getting a long-term commitment on the open market. His speed and ability to return kicks is something Houston has lacked since Jacoby Jones left the team. Another one-year pact to prove himself is an option the Texans would be willing to provide him.
All-American Allen Robinson from Penn State is set to go later than the second round. Should he drop in the rankings, a reunion with his college coach might be in order.
At 6’3” and 210 pounds, he is not the nimble inside receiver that fits the slot prototype. His length helps him go after the ball just like DeAndre Hopkins, and you can’t have too many of those receivers on your team.
Owen Daniels: $9,500,000 - $3,500,000 = $5,500,000
Jumbo tight ends are all the rage, and every team is combing the college ranks for the next Jimmy Graham.
The Texans have a Graham of their own, Garrett that is, who does not statistically measure up to his taller namesake. He is more than good enough to replace Daniels in the starting lineup, tying for the team lead in 2013 with five touchdown catches.
Second-year Ryan Griffin physically resembles the All-Pro Graham. Griffin was able to put his 6’6” to good use when Houston was done to a single frontline tight end late in the year. He caught 14 passes in the final three games and appears ready to reprise that role in 2014.
A third player at the position is on the list, and this draft class is deep in the towering types. Crockett Gillmore of Colorado State (6’6”, 253 pounds) was a late invite to the Senior Bowl and led the South with five receptions for 61 yards. A combine invitation and a comparable performance could put him into the third round and out of the Texans’ reach.
The bargain bin for veteran tight ends does not offer many selections.
Clay Harbor of the Jacksonville Jaguars did some good work for a lousy team, all for $630,000. The Jaguars are over $20 million under the cap and could be dealing for a stud like Dennis Pitta. Harbor would be expendable and ready to put on a Texans uniform.
Derek Newton: $1,389,000 - $15,064 = $1,373,936
Wade Smith has been the starter at left guard since 2010 and has not missed a game during that time. His play has gradually declined over the years, and he will be 33 at the start of the 2014 season. Even if he would renegotiate the $3.75 million due him this year, an injection of youth is called for.
Shelley Smith was drafted by the Texans in 2011 but did not see the field. He was released in the offseason and picked up by the St. Louis Rams, where he has been their swing man at both guard spots.
Smith made just $575,000 in 2013 and will be 27 this year. If the recovering David Quessenberry is not ready to take over job full-time, the former Texan would be a capable replacement in the meantime.
Newton was the weakest link in the offensive line during the 2-14 debacle. Ryan Harris should have been the starter from training camp into the regular season. Unless he is squired away by another team, Harris should be retained for the league minimum of $730,000.
What Jack Mewhort (6’6”, 303 pounds) of Ohio State lacks in flexibility and technique he makes up for in strength and toughness. The majority of college tackles need help with their footwork, and this former Buckeye is no exception. But he can pack enough of a punch in initial contact that few rushers get around him.
Mewhort will not last past the second round. Brennan Williams was on injured reserve the entirety of 2013 and has not played a complete season since 2011. Any indication Williams will not be ready for the start of offseason training activities is a clear sign to go after a right tackle early in the draft process.
The Texans changed defensive coordinators after Bill O’Brien took over. The switch from Wade Phillips to Romeo Crennel also represents a change in philosophy where defensive line play is concerned.
Yes, we are returning to the one-gap versus two-gap discussion again. Crennel is on the lookout for big players who play even bigger. The idea is to create at least one double team on every play, giving the player who draws a single blocker a shot at backfield penetration.
Antonio Smith (6’4”, 275 pounds) might be able to pull this off on passing downs, but he will get rubbed out on running plays. Earl Mitchell is a Texan UFA who goes 6’3”, 300 pounds and can slide over to nose tackle when needed. Mitchell could be that plus-sized end, and all he needs is to sign on the dotted line.
If Crennel doesn’t like what he sees in either man, Leger Douzable of the New York Jets deserves a look. Douzable has been backing up Defensive Rookie of the Year Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson and is not going to jump ahead of them on the depth chart. He played for the league minimum of $555,000 in 2013, is the same size as Mitchell and could be signed to a lower contract.
The two-gap 3-4 prospers with a massive presence in the middle. Those players come at a premium, making a foray into the college ranks an alternative approach.
DaQuan Jones is another Nittany Lion quickly moving up in class. Bleacher Report’s own Matt Miller ranked him as the eighth-best defensive tackle. NFLDraftScout remarked Jones lost 25 pounds before his senior season, meaning he has played at upwards of 350 pounds.
One side of the line or the other, the Texans will be taking a hard look at grabbing a tackle in the second round.
There are no savings to be had with the linebackers, primarily because there were not enough to go around. By the end of 2013, street free agents Mike Mohamed and Jeff Tarpanian were getting significant playing time due to injury attrition.
Inside linebackers Joe Mays and Darryl Sharpton gamely played through a lot of hurt and now find themselves wondering if they will be re-signed. Neither is an ideal fit for the new defense, as both are expected to deal with blockers head-on and not use their quickness the avoid them.
Mays has played middle linebacker in a 4-3 and would be more adaptable. He could conceivably team up with Brooks Reed inside, but with Sharpton gone, the depth would come from outside the organization.
Shayne Skov from Stanford (6’3”, 242 pounds) would fit in well since he looks like a dead ringer for Brian Cushing. Preston Brown is a teammate of Teddy Bridgewater with speed (4.76) to go with size (6’1”, 262 pounds).
In the event Houston does make a deal to trade down, Khalil Mack of the University of Buffalo is currently the top-ranked outside linebacker. Mack set an FBS career record with 75 tackles for loss, and Rob Rang of CBS Sports thinks he could leapfrog everyone ahead of him into the No. 1 spot in the draft rankings.
No wish list would be complete without someone you don’t stand a chance of signing up. Jason Worilds of the Pittsburgh Steelers is 25 years old and on the rise at outside linebacker. Pro Football Focus (subscription required for Premium Stats) has him credited with eight sacks, 42 quarterback pressures and a coverage rating of 64.6 in his fourth season.
In other words, his payday will be out of this “Worilds.”
Brice McCain: $3,000,000 - $900,000 = $2,100,000
Next to quarterback, this is the hardest position to draft. For every Patrick Peterson, there is a Janoris Jenkins, Stephon Gilmore or Alfonzo Dennard that does not live up to the hype.
Stanley Jean-Baptiste has boom-or-bust written all over him. Is he the next Richard Sherman because he is a good 6’3” cover corner who is just OK playing the run? Or is he just too stiff in the hips to negotiate all the twists and turns NFL receivers will put you through?
The free agents that are accomplished enough to warrant the money are way out of the Texans’ league. They could make a play for Alterraun Verner, but only if Johnathan Joseph is willing to sign an extension to reduce his $11.25 million cap whammy.
Maybe the Texans could get lucky with Brandon Ghee, a slot cornerback for the Cincinnati Bengals who looked pretty good in limited action, for a $630,000 cap hit. With only 80 snaps on which to based their decision, that is a gamble as well.
Danieal Manning: $8,500,000 - $4,500,000 = $4,000,000
The safeties present the same dilemma as the cornerbacks, except the possibilities are even more limited.
Usama Young of the Oakland Raiders was a nickel-and-dime player who played 208 snaps per Pro Football Focus for $985,000. He did not distinguish or embarrass himself, which is high praise when looking at the range of grades given for the position.
Kenny Ladler of Vanderbilt compares favorably to Antoine Bethea, according to Rob Rang of CBS Sports. This translates to being decent against the run because he is a good tackler. Cover skills are a work in progress for Ladler, who might improve with some professional coaching.
After seeing what the Seattle Seahawks did to the Denver Broncos, the importance of the safeties has never been more apparent in the recent history of the NFL. They shorten the field for opposing quarterbacks who like to use every bit of space that is out there.
The quarterbacks need every bit of it when there are four and five receivers running every which way. It looks like the cornerbacks are on an equal footing with their mates in the secondary for the first time since the passing explosion of the last decade took hold.