Houston Texans Blueprint for Winning Free Agency
The Houston Texans lost their last 14 games in the 2013 NFL season, so it would be nice if they could post a win in free agency. They must certainly have a plan, but their blueprint would more closely resemble one for a treehouse than a penthouse.
The Texans are expected to sit out the action during the first couple of weeks, when most of the mega-buck talent starts devouring cap space like competitive eater Joey Chestnut goes after Nathan’s hot dogs. There is more to go around this year with the salary cap getting a $10 million hike to a total of $133 million for each club.
Spotrac.com has general manager Rick Smith working with an allowance of $8,995,932 after signing outside linebacker Ricky Sapp to a one-year, $570,000 contract on March 4. That places Houston 26th in cap space, well below the league average of $22.3 million.
Smith will need some additional room to sign some of his own free agents, perhaps a few off the open market, and definitely their upcoming draft choices. That means some folks who are presently on the roster are soon to become ex-Texans.
The top candidates are quarterback Matt Schaub, tight end Owen Daniels, safety Danieal Manning and slot cornerback Brice McCain. If all of them are released, that would free up $20.3 million. Johnathan Joseph could be asked to agree to an extension that would lighten the load of his $11.25 million paycheck for the year.
The list of unrestricted free agents (UFA) under consideration will start off with the known, those players who were on the squad in 2013. The unknown, possible acquisitions from around the league, will follow for each position group.
Re-Signing Their Own Free Agents
The roll call for UFAs expected to return to the Texans is a short one. Tight end Garrett Graham, swing tackle Ryan Harris and special teams demon Bryan Braman should all be back. Harris and Braman will both play for the league minimum, $855,000 and $730,000, respectively.
Graham is in line to be the successor to Owen Daniels, a role that could come as early as this season. Former Texans tight end James Casey agreed to a three-year, $12 million offer from the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013. Even another year serving as No. 2 to Daniels should earn Graham a similar payday.
Wade Smith rode the coattails of his linemates to the Pro Bowl in 2012 but looked every bit of 32 years old in 2013. The new regime will take a younger, less expensive approach to replacing Smith and his $3.75 million cap hit.
Inside linebacker Joe Mays would have looked better playing next to Brian Cushing last season, but that was not to be. New defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel likes a big front seven, and the 5’10” Mays has the heart but not the build to fit in.
The same applies to Antonio Smith, a 275-pound defensive end who would be misused in Crennel’s two-gap system. Smith can still scoot by offensive tackles but has never been asked to tie up more than a single blocker. For the right price, he could be asked to stay, but the coaches may have other plans.
An option within those plans could involve moving Earl Mitchell to defensive end. A position switch would not come with a huge raise for Mitchell, who might find playing defensive tackle in a 4-3 defense more profitable.
The offense that Bill O’Brien ran with the New England Patriots does not use a fullback, making Greg Jones expendable. Lestar Jean had everything to make it as an NFL receiver except a reliable pair of hands. Daryl Sharpton spent more time on the injured list than the field and has the same size deficit at inside linebacker as Mays.
Finally, there is no point harboring any hopes of retaining Ben Tate. Releasing Arian Foster would not create enough long-term cap room to justify giving Tate the $15 million to $20 million he will be offered by teams with money to burn. The better solution is making the right selection in the draft or grabbing an underused back who is into his second contract.
Bill O’Brien is said to have a reputation of developing quarterbacks. He took Tom Brady’s game to a stratospheric level, turned Matt McGloin into an NFL starter and was busy preparing Christian Hackenberg to become the next Andrew Luck when Bob McNair came calling.
Now O’Brien has to demonstrate a knack for selecting three different quarterbacks for three specific jobs. Ideally, he must find a steady backup, a draft choice to develop for the future and an accomplished veteran to ease the way for an untested rookie.
The veteran could also be the answer as the backup QB at some point, but would probably view his time with the Texans as a way to resurrect his career. Either way, the grapevine is buzzing with possibilities.
Albert Breer of the NFL Network tweeted that Matt Cassel had been mentioned as a “bridge” to span the transition to the new face of the franchise:
On Cassel/Texans, I'd heard chances are real that O'Brien uses him as a bridge to a franchise QB, and for flexibility to take a non-QB at 1.— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) March 6, 2014
Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com made a pitch for Josh Freeman that did not mention the Texans but left the door open for any team willing to take chance on a five-year pro who just turned 26: “Freeman is young enough and has a big enough arm to convince a team that he could upgrade their starting job…In the right system, he still has a chance.”
Brent Sobleski of USA Today thought Ryan Mallett could be brought in if Houston decides this draft class does not answer the quarterback question for them:
The Houston Texans are a possible landing spot for Mallett. The Texans, who own the No. 1 overall selection in May’s NFL draft, may decide not to select a quarterback with the top pick. Mallett can be a viable alternative. Texans head coach Bill O’Brien was Mallett’s offensive coordinator with the Patriots during his rookie campaign.
Mallett is in the final year of his rookie contract and not yet a free agent. Bill Belichick could demand a steep price but would have to be realistic about a quarterback who has attempted only four passes in four years.
O’Brien could determine Matt Schaub is already in place and more accomplished that any free-agent quarterback outside of Michael Vick. That leap of faith would be too much to ask of the Texans faithful.
This decision is as crucial as making a selection from the Bridgewater-Manziel-Bortles triad and is the first test of O’Brien’s ability to make the right move at the right time.
Arian Foster is the starting running back for Houston until circumstances prove otherwise. He is at the tipping point in his career where most running backs have to accept a diminished role to preserve their skills.
Ben Tate was the ideal reserve back, and replacing him with a comparable player is out of the question. If Deji Karim was capable of handling 15-20 carries on a regular basis he would be worth keeping. Karim is barely 200 pounds dripping wet and not equipped for that workload.
LeGarrette Blount of the New England Patriots is on a team that plays the free-agent market on the cheap. They need to re-sign UFAs Julian Edelman, Ryan Wendell and Brandon Spikes while still keeping enough in the till to replace Aqib Talib. Talib expects to be paid like a “top of the market” cornerback but will have to find those greener pastures elsewhere.
Blount is a low-mileage back with power and speed. There is an abundance of cap space throughout the NFL and a nice three-year deal will be coming Blount’s way.
The boldest move O’Brien can make this offseason is to cut ties with Foster and give the savings to a player with fewer than 600 carries for his career. The Texans could use someone who runs downhill as opposed to a slasher who relies on dead-leg cutbacks to make his yardage and does not demand 20-plus carries a game to make an impact.
The days of having Owen Daniels function as the No. 2 receiver are hopefully over. The Texans must be prepared to play 21st-century football where the tight end is not always the first checkdown for the quarterback.
This does not mean the tight end is cut out of the playbook. A really good one creates matchup problems that can be exploited with regularity. But an offense that cannot go vertical with the same regularity just ends up going sideways too much of the time.
DeAndre Hopkins has everything to be that vertical threat except blinding acceleration. Keshawn Martin was supposed to be that guy but was stuck in the slot on most plays. Martin has to be able to run outside the numbers so at least one safety respects the deep ball.
If Martin cannot do it, then give Andre Roberts a shot at the job. When he was with the Arizona Cardinals, they kept sticking him in the slot while putting Malcom Floyd on the outside. Roberts has 4.46 speed and managed to catch 51 and 64 passes over two seasons with Kevin Kolb and John Skelton as his quarterbacks.
Place Roberts and Hopkins in bunch formations and let the defense guess who is going downfield. The $1.5 million he earned in 2013 was the balloon year on his rookie contract, and he never made over $750,000 in his first three seasons. Roberts will not break the bank but will break the mold for an organization that has never had three truly productive wide receivers on the field at the same time.
The two problem areas on the offensive line are left guard, because Wade Smith is too old and pricey, and right tackle, because Derek Newton still wears No. 75 for the Texans.
Maybe Brennan Williams will be healthy enough to play some actual football at right tackle. And maybe David Quessenberry will be healthy enough to make the switch from left tackle to left guard. In the event that one of these situations does not work out, Geoff Schwartz of the Kansas City Chiefs can lend a hand.
Schwartz has played at both guard spots and right tackle during the course of his career. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) has graded him out as a plus player throughout his five-year career, where right guard has been his most frequent position. Playing left guard is part of his repertoire, and he would likely be more than willing to make the switch if he gets his asking price.
He wants to become a fulltime starter and not just split time, and looks to be paid accordingly. His agent, Deryk Gilmore, is angling for a contract around $2 million a year, which is about half of what Wade Smith took home in 2013. His versatility on a 6’6”, 332-pound body makes Schwartz a valuable resource for that kind of money.
Red Bryant, former captain of the Seattle Seahawks defense, is an expert run defender but not much of a pass-rusher. By creating 3rd-and-long situations, his value was in forcing opposing offenses to challenge the stingiest secondary in the league.
Bryant earned $7.6 million in 2013 and may not be in the mood to take less after being one of the leaders of a Super Bowl winner. But last season was well above his average cap hit of $1 million over the rest of his career, so he could be willing to negotiate a deal in the area of $4 million per year.
Romeo Crennel hopes that is the case, because Bryant’s 6’5”, 326-pound frame conforms to the new defensive coordinator’s specs for a two-gap D-lineman.
If size matters, Ropati Pitoitua (6’8’, 310 pounds) brings it and started for Crennel on the Kansas City Chiefs in 2012. He made just $1 million with the Tennessee Titans last season and would be a good rotational player to switch off with Tim Jamison on passing downs.
This pairing needs a real anchor at nose tackle to be effective. Finding that sort of linchpin in either free agency or the draft is harder than it sounds.
The only bargain UFA out there is Cam Thomas (6’3”, 330 pounds), previously with the San Diego Chargers. San Diego is rather cap-strapped, with less than $5 million available at the moment.
Thomas is more affordable than Paul Soliai or Linval Joseph, two other free-agent defensive tackles with the preferred dimensions to play the nose. A two-year offer of less than $3 million per year could land the Texans a four-year veteran who is just coming into his prime.
Nothing hurt the defense of the Texans more than the performance of the linebacker corps. Another year without Brian Cushing for most of the schedule didn’t help, but that was not the real issue.
Their opponents' red-zone scoring percentage was 66.7 percent, worst in the NFL. Yardage allowed was seventh overall, which meant the opposition made the most of every possession. It was the anemic pass rush that made it all possible.
Outside of Whitney Mercilus and his seven sacks, the other 10 linebackers combined for a paltry six sacks. Houston allowed 195 passing yards per game, third best in the league. But it surrendered 29 passing touchdowns, tied for the seventh-worst total. Again, opponents took maximum advantage of every opportunity they were given.
Free agency is not going to be of any help in remedying this predicament. The NFL is not a big-box retailer with a continuous supply chain of edge-rushers who have mastered the swim and rip moves.
Shaun Phillips of the Denver Broncos is the top gun out there, but the Texans don’t have the swag to land someone of his caliber. Parys Haralson of the New Orleans Saints is the best they could do, a situational player with four sacks, seven hurries and four hits in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
The pickings at inside linebacker are not much better. In the $2 million per year and under category, Jasper Brinkley from the Arizona Cardinals is large enough (6’2”, 275 pounds) to stuff a hole when someone is running through it. All that size has not helped him rack up a single sack in his five years as an NFL player.
If his dad’s health wasn’t keeping Wade Phillips awake last season, the dearth of talent at these positions must have been doing it. This year it looks as if Romeo Crennel and linebackers coach Mike Vrabel won’t be getting much sleep themselves.
With the pass rush in decline, the cornerbacks and safeties of the Texans were often left to fend for themselves. Their efforts yielded better results than expected considering the yardage they gave up through the air.
The secondary would definitely benefit from better coverage over the middle. Nickel corner Brice McCain was used and abused on numerous occasions. His coverage assignments had a rating of 105.2 and scored six touchdowns as recorded by Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Walter Thurmond of the Seattle Seahawks was a revelation in the same role, but he had safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor backing him up. It would be interesting to see if Thurmond could be equally efficient with D.J. Swearinger and Shiloh Keo rolling in his direction. Seattle has the funds to keep Thurmond, but may also have an eye on how much it will take to hold on to Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas when they hit the market in 2015.
A safety to play in dime packages is just as needed, and Louis Delmas was recently released by the Detroit Lions in a cost-cutting move. Delmas is a hard hitter who is good in either Cover 2 or Cover 3 and would be an upgrade over Danieal Manning.
Many of the free agents at safety are a bit long in the tooth while Delmas will turn 27 before the start of the season. His cap hit of $1.2 million in 2013 puts him within reach of many teams, Texans included.