Houston Texans' Top Remaining Offseason Priorities
As custodians of the first overall choice in the draft, the team was destined to be the subject of endless speculation regarding their probable target. They also pulled off the most unexpected trade of the new year when Matt Schaub was shipped off to the Oakland Raiders for a sixth-round draft pick.
First-year head coach Bill O’Brien has been increasingly forthcoming about what might be going on behind the scenes. On March 31, a “closed Q&A session with media and season ticket holders” unleashed a torrent of tweets from Deepi Sidhu and Drew Dougherty of the Houston Texans media department.
The disclosures from the session filled in some of the blanks that had been left unanswered since the hiring of O’Brien. Combined with some recent comments, it provided a clearer picture of what the Texans need to accomplish from now until the start of the regular season.
A Little Honesty with the Fan Base, Please
Immediately after Gary Kubiak was fired, owner Bob McNair was trying to sell season-ticket holders on the notion that the Texans were positioned for a quick turnaround. “We expect to be in contention next year,” McNair said. “We don’t consider this a long-term rebuilding process.”
Not only does this claim qualify as what the media derisively calls “spin,” it ignores the historical record. Since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978, only three of the 38 teams that lost 14 or more games the previous season made the playoffs the following year.
The fact those three teams (2008 Miami Dolphins, 2012 Indianapolis Colts and 2013 Kansas City Chiefs) did so in the last six years does say something about the current state of the NFL. That does not mean it has or ever can be refined into a formula with repeatable results. The only similarities among the three instances were a change in the head coach and starting quarterback in each time.
This has taken place numerous times with other teams and it did not lead to comparable success. But if a pattern is emerging, the Texans have taken the first step by making the coaching change. The quarterback part comes next.
Instead of settling into a predictable discussion about the top three signal-callers (Manziel, Bridgewater and Bortles), O’Brien has thrown the door open to other options:
O'Brien says he brought Fitzpatrick in to compete with Keenum and Yates, and will "draft a QB, maybe two." #Texans— Houston Texans (@HoustonTexans) March 31, 2014
While the head coach has not spelled it out, what he revealed about this year’s crop of quarterbacks in an interview with Don Banks of Sports Illustrated is telling:
There are a lot of guys who can play quarterback. I don't [see a lot of separation among the quarterbacks]. I see strengths and weaknesses with every one of these guys, and I don't see where there's two or three guys that are just light years ahead of the rest of these guys.
This led Banks to surmise, “The more I listen to O'Brien, the more I'm starting to believe passing on a QB at No. 1 overall is truly in play for the Texans. I'm not predicting someone other than a quarterback is the end result, but it's a possibility.”
While not a definitive conclusion, this is clear: In O'Brien's opinion, there is not a quarterback available that is going to change the franchise overnight. If a quarterback is taken at any point in the 2014 draft, his development will be a process and not an event.
It will be nothing like Andrew Luck’s rookie season that included four fourth-quarter comebacks and seven game-winning drives. That means what the Colts pulled off in 2012 is a long shot at best. For that matter, it will certainly not resemble the rebirth of the Chief’s Alex Smith, a comeback that is eight years in the making and still in progress.
It takes a lot of reading between the lines to comprehend what O’Brien is trying to get across. When it is run through the Universal Coaching Translator, it comes out as “Be patient, everyone.”
And it is the closest thing to an honest answer anyone is going to get.
Trim More Salary Cap
The cap space for the Texans was $2,105,243 as of February 7. Now that Owen Daniels, Brice McCain, Matt Schaub and now Danieal Manning are no longer with the organization, the room under the cap is now $14,823,057. The $10 million bump in the salary cap to $133 million for each team accounts for most of the increase.
The Schaub trade forced the team to take every bit of his $10.5 million in dead money this season, a high price to pay for a sixth-round draft pick. It offers further proof that management is thinking long term and looking to the relief it will offer come 2015.
Next up is cornerback Johnathan Joseph, who told CSN Houston before the start of free agency he would be willing to restructure his contract. The signings of safeties Kendrick Lewis and Chris Clemons preceded the failed attempt to have Manning rework his deal. The re-signing of CB Elbert Mack is not going to provide the same kind of leverage, but will send the same message to Joseph, in any case.
There has been no talk of center Chris Myers doing the same, even though he has the fifth-highest cap hit on the team at $7 million this season. The 32 year-old Myers, who has started 112 games in a row for Houston, must be wondering when he will get the call to discuss the inevitable.
Find Rick Smith Some Help
The coaches and general managers say too little, and everyone else says too much. It makes it hard to nail down just what the Texans will do with No. 1 in addition to their other 10 picks.
Now that the procession of pro days is mercifully drawing to a close, the “draftniks” can stop treating them like a buddy telling you about his trip to Ipanema Beach in Rio de Janeiro. We know, dude; just after you saw the most luscious bod ever she was followed by a dozen more, each hotter than the last.
Let’s be grateful there isn’t a 12-pack of prospects that can cause as much gushing as we have heard coming from the Johnny Manziel extravaganza at Texas A&M and the Jadeveon Clowney spectacular at the University of South Carolina. Arian Foster’s attempt to sell stock based on his future earnings may have bombed out, but somebody, somewhere is trying to figure out how to turn Clowney’s Hall of Fame probability into an investment instrument.
Bleacher Report’s own Chris Roling said it best:
Wait, we're using "Jadeveon Clowney" and "Hall of Fame" in the same... I'm done.
— Chris Roling (@Chris_Roling) April 2, 2014
What Houston does with the first pick may not be as important as what they do in the rest of the draft. Despite the gaping hole at quarterback and the necessity to inject some life into the anemic pass rush, there are other positions crying out for attention.
In order, they are nose tackle, inside linebacker, right offensive tackle, defensive end, slot receiver, running back, slot corner, outside linebacker and left offensive guard. That is nine picks for nine positions. Because the Texans hold the rights to Mr. Irrelevant, the 256th and final spot, their 11th pick is almost certain to offer no relief.
Since six of their 11 picks come in the fifth round or later, the Texans’ draft expertise will be put to the test. Unfortunately, there is a shortage of qualified participants.
Outside of general manager Rick Smith, defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel and Director of Pro Personnel Brian Gaine, there is no one else who has been on the front lines of an NFL draft. O’Brien never rose higher than offensive coordinator in the NFL. Jim Bernhardt, Director of Football Research, appears to have no experience in professional football whatsoever.
Khaled Elsayed of Pro Football Focus (subscription required) recently put Rick Smith under his Draft Grader microscope. While a numerical value was not assigned to Smith in the usual PFF style, he seemed to come out slightly on the plus side.
The Texans will need him to bring his “A” game to New York if they are going to make the most of their surplus of selections. Someone else on the staff is going to have to come through with some perceptive insights to make Smith's job a little easier.
Establish a New Culture
When Bob McNair announced the firing of Gary Kubiak on Dec. 6, 2013, he made it a point to state that “We’re about winning and accountability.” The Texans were accountable under the leadership of Kubiak. It was just the wrong kind.
After Antonio Smith was suspended for taking a swing with his helmet at Richie Incognito of Miami Dolphins in a 2013 preseason game, Dale Robertson of the Houston Chronicle quoted Kubiak as saying “I’m disappointed in myself because I’ve got to make sure my players keep their composure on the football field.”
Kubiak turned “That’s on me” into a shield he used to protect his players. And they loved him for it.
Jacoby Jones, who was released by the Texans after the 2011 season, described Kubiak as “'My Biological Father” when the former head coach was hired as offensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens. It was supposed to be a joke, but this attitude was instrumental in leading to Kubiak’s firing.
Loyalty is a wonderful thing, but can be taken to extremes. Starting Matt Schaub against the St. Louis Rams in Week 6 of 2013, after Schaub had thrown a pick-six in four straight games, is the most glaring example.
The 2014 Texans have yet to practice or play a game, but the moves made by the front offices illustrate that the old rules do not apply. Bill O’Brien learned about the NFL at the feet of Bill Belichick, a coach who was never afraid to release a player the moment before his production did not justify his contract.
Over the years, the list included Richard Seymour, Ty Law, Lawyer Milloy and Adam Vinatieri, among others. Some like Mike Vrabel and Willie McGinest came at just the right time. Others, such as Wes Welker and Asante Samuel, were premature.
Belichick could absorb the occasional mistake and keep on winning through meticulous game preparation and uncanny execution. Oh, and having quarterback Tom Brady as the one constant through all the turnover doesn’t hurt.
O’Brien has been working on getting rid of players who have outlived their usefulness. He called out slot receiver Keshawn Martin by telling the group at the closed session mentioned on the opening slide:
O'Brien: slot WR is important in our offense. We don't really have one right now. #Texans
— Drew Dougherty (@DoughertyDrew) March 31, 2014
It looks like the Patriot Way is fast becoming the Texans Way.
Sign Bargain Free Agents
The Houston Texans may have 11 picks in the draft, but they are not going to hit on all of them. Much has been made of how Pete Carroll and his coaching staff developed lower round talent like defensive backs Richard Sherman, Walter Thurmond and Kam Chancellor into charter members of the Legion of Boom.
Whether it was coaching or the luck of uncovering late draft treasure—or a combination of the two—the act of duplicating this success by the Seattle Seahawks or any other team is open to conjecture.
A tried-and-true approach throughout the NFL is striking it rich with free agents. Arian Foster is a case in point: an undrafted find who became an All-Pro. He is an exceptional exception but illustrates the value of such players.
A new head coach like Bill O’Brien cannot expect to build a program based on good fortune and would be better served by recruiting proven producers who are still on the open market.
A check of the free agent tracker at Spotrac.com showed a wide range of veterans who are available, even at this late date.
Slot receiver: Jason Avant
Right Tackle: Tyson Clabo
Cornerback: Drayton Florence
There should be at least one nugget in what remains. Now go out and find it.