Making Calls on the Houston Texans' Hardest Remaining Cuts
Two games into the 2014 preseason, the Houston Texans have befuddled and bedazzled those searching for signs of improvement.
That model of unequaled ineptitude was reversed by a 32-7 trouncing of the Atlanta Falcons at NRG Stadium a week later.
Any Cardinals fans who felt they were on the expressway to Super Bowl contention after pounding the Texans needed a reality check. A win over a team recuperating from a 2-14 season is not an accurate gauge of what the future holds for this year.
Conversely, the first victory for Houston in 11 months does not firmly establish an upward trajectory from this point forward. Beating a squad that went from the conference championship game to the bottom of the NFC South in 2013 says little about the rebuilding process. Much of the success in this process depends on restoring the depth of the roster.
The “next man up” plan worked in 2011, when the lower levels of the depth chart helped lead the franchise to its first-ever playoff berth. Only 15 players from that landmark season are still with the organization, illustrating the volume of player movement in today’s NFL.
The job for head coach Bill O’Brien is to determine how much new blood should be added and what deadwood needs to be trimmed. The following names could end up falling into the latter category.
Recall that the headline of this article refers to the “hardest remaining cuts.” The release of his first-round choice from the 2012 draft would be the hardest cut for general manager Rick Smith to stomach.
Recall that Mercilus was chosen as the eventual replacement for Mario Williams, a free-agency loss in the 2012 offseason.
Connor Barwin would handle the role of pass-rushing outside linebacker until the former defensive end from the University of Illinois could handle the myriad tasks associated with his new position. Barwin was also going into a contract year in 2012 and might not have re-signed, making the rapid development of rookie even more essential.
Forget the seven sacks Mercilus was credited with in 2013, his first season as a starter. Most were the result of good fortune and not good play. In fact, 4.5 of them came in three of the first five games, back when Brian Cushing was still in the lineup.
Forget the declaration that Mercilus was the worst 3-4 outside linebacker as graded by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) if you can. His placement at the bottom of the OLBs has dogged him across the web, from Rotoworld to CBS Houston to Fox Sports and beyond.
The arrival of Jadeveon Clowney knocked the former starter down to the second-string “Jack” linebacker, a pass-rusher by trade who must also handle some coverage duties. The speculation surrounding the shift of Brooks Reed from outside to inside linebacker was rampant before the start of training camp. This switch should have put Mercilus in the driver’s seat to take over Reed’s job on the strong side.
During the first week of camp, Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle (subscription required) implied Mercilus had the right combination of skills to make the move:
With Cushing and Reed stacked inside and Clowney adjusting to weakside outside linebacker, Mercilus has the potential for an NFL breakout in 2014. Offenses must account for Watt, Cushing and Clowney on every play, often leaving the Texans' strongside outside linebacker free to roam. Mercilus' rare combination of speed, strength and on-field intelligence should help him constantly stream through holes while opponents focus on the Texans' star defensive trio.
After all this buildup, Reed opened the Arizona Cardinals game in his usual spot at right outside linebacker. Not only was Mercilus nowhere to be seen in the starting lineup, he wasn’t even the first OLB to fill in on either side of the formation. Quentin Groves replaced Clowney, and Jason Ankrah replaced Reed before Mercilus even made it off the bench late in the second quarter.
This pattern changed somewhat against the Atlanta Falcons, with Mercilus getting the bulk of the snaps (32) in relief of Clowney, per PFF. Chris McAllister, an undrafted rookie free agent out of Baylor, was close behind with 27 snaps, making the veteran’s hold on the position feel rather tenuous.
All this evidence is largely circumstantial. The odds that the 26th overall selection of the 2012 NFL draft will end up on waivers are slim.
Smith has already lost considerable face regarding the 2013 draft with the dismissal of both of his third-round picks, Brennan Williams and Sam Montgomery, and fourth-rounder Trevardo Williams. Cutting ties with a first-rounder would further weaken his position and reputation.
But Bill O’Brien has not been shy about showing players the door if they don’t fit the system or the plan. Witness the players above, along with Danieal Manning, Owen Daniels, Brice McCain, Alan Bonner and Cody White.
Clowney has shown that all the hype about his otherworldly athleticism was justified. Reed has the training to play two positions. Ankrah and Groves have shown enough in limited action to both have a shot at surviving the final cuts.
Mercilus has some value as a pass-rusher but may be too one-dimensional to make this team. That value might translate into trade possibilities given the NFL truism that states “You can’t have too many pass-rushers.”
If a seventh-round pick ends up being the return on the first-round investment in Mercilus, then it might as well be considered a cut.
The case for Case Keenum seems to be equally counterbalanced by the case against him. How many outstanding first halves in 2013 were undone by second halves where he failed to adapt to changing defensive strategies?
His performance in the second half against the Atlanta Falcons is a prime example of how little he has changed over the offseason.
Keenum directed a neat 10-play drive that featured three straight completions of 12 yards or more. On 3rd-and-5 from the Falcons’ 22 yard-line, he was off target over the middle to a double-covered Ryan Griffin.
Alec Lemon had single coverage and plenty of space in the flat to get open for a first-down completion. The Texans had to settle for a 40-yard field goal.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, the Texans were in the same position with a 3rd-and-8 at the Falcons’ 22-yard line. Once again, Keenum went to Griffin on the same route with the same coverage when Lemon could have had adequate separation with a simple dig to the inside. Only this time, the ball was deflected by a flailing Griffin and intercepted.
Keenum played one more series in the game that turns into a three-and-out. Tom Savage took over for the final series after Max Bullough returned an interception to the Atlanta 15-yard line. A Chris Boswell field goal wrapped up the scoring for the evening.
If the stat line from the Falcons game was the deciding factor, Keenum clearly won the battle of the backups. He was 6-of-12 for 81 yards and an interception, while Savage was 4-of-5 for just eight yards.
He had a convincing command of the offense for a few plays. That was until he started thinking his arm had morphed into Aaron Rodgers’ and could put the ball into a window the size of a dinner plate from 25 yards away.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) records average time in the pocket for quarterbacks. For players who had a minimum of 250 dropbacks, Keenum ranked sixth with 3.06 seconds to throw. Of the five players who took more time, only Terrelle Pryor was less productive.
The other leaders in this category were Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton, players who can kill you with their feet as well as their arms. While Keenum is running around trying to figure out what to do, the defense is just getting more time to figure out how to stop him.
Bill O’Brien and quarterbacks coach George Godsey have got to be asking themselves if this guy is ever going to get it. Cutting Keenum at this stage would turn Savage into the No. 2 quarterback. That's about as likely as the Texans trading Andre Johnson for Brian Hoyer.
What could take place is the pickup of a veteran castoff when the 53-man rosters are finalized on August 30. The availability of Jason Campbell, Matt Flynn, Dan Orlovsky or other quarterbacks of comparable experience could make Keenum expendable. A reunion between O’Brien and former Nittany Lion Matt McGloin might even be an improvement.
Keenum has two preseason games left to adapt to an offense that fellow quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick describes to Brian T. Smith of the Chronicle as “definitely a complex system.” He will need all of his scrambling ability to get it done.
At a “town hall meeting” back in March, Bill O’Brien made it known his new team lacked a slot receiver by saying “"We don't really have one right now.” This had to be taken as criticism pointed directly at Keshawn Martin, the player who had manned that position since his drafting in 2012.
Apparently, O’Brien failed to notice Mike Thomas had been signed toward the end of the 2013 regular season. Once OTAs were underway, Dale Robertson of the Chronicle wrangled a concession out of the head coach/offensive coordinator that he may have spoken too soon.
“I did say that,” O’Brien conceded. “Now, being out here for a few days, I think there are a few guys who do have the skill set to play the slot and outside.”
Brian T. Smith of the Chronicle, singled out Thomas as one of the few bright spots in the first half of the Arizona Cardinals debacle. It didn’t take much to stand out in that dismal outing, and his four receptions for 40 yards led the team.
Some unknown injury caused Thomas to miss the Falcons game, and Keshawn Martin made the most of his absence. Martin caught all three of his targets for 39 yards, along with a punt return for 16 yards and a kickoff return for 33 yards.
Dave Zangaro of CSN Houston posted the depth chart for the game against the Denver Broncos. It shows Martin as the No. 2 receiver behind DeAndre Hopkins and Thomas as the No. 3 behind Andre Johnson and DeVier Posey.
Depth charts are only relevant for positions that are truly competitive. The battle at slot receiver is really a fight for the No. 3 receiver in this offense.
An analysis of cornerback snap counts for the 2013 season from Pro Football Focus (subscription required) shows NFL defenses are playing a nickel cornerback at least 60 percent of the time. Defensive coordinators are having to bring in extra coverage because offenses are consistently relying on a productive slot man.
This reliance is even more pronounced in the Erhardt-Perkins system the Texans are running under O’Brien. Most passing plays have a crossing route or slant pattern designed to exploit seams in the flat. As the defense decompresses after the snap, openings appear in the middle of the field that a quick, alert receiver can use to create a clear target for the quarterback.
The 5’11” Martin would be easier to pinpoint than Thomas, but his hands have to be reliable. They have always been Martin’s weakness, and if he has finally corrected that flaw Thomas could be out of a job.
Both players have kick return talent, and the latest depth chart puts Thomas ahead of Martin in that area. Again, the significance of that is open to interpretation.
The third preseason game is where the starters get the majority of the playing time. It is just as important for situational positions, slot receiver being one of them. This time, the younger, bigger, faster player has the edge over the cagey veteran.
This inside linebacker is basically the football equivalent of found money.
When the Texans were still carrying four quarterbacks, everyone knew someone had to go. The team had gone out of their way to acquire Ryan Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum had eight games of recent experience and Tom Savage was a promising fourth-round draft choice.
T.J. Yates had the target squarely on his back, and it looked like he would be given his outright release. He had only attempted 32 passes in the last two years and was not thought to be of any value to another team.
On June 17, NFL Insider Ian Rapaport tweeted that Yates had been released by the Texans. The next day it was discovered that Yates had actually been traded to the Falcons for Dent. Getting a player who had been an occasional starter for someone who had no future with your team seemed like a pretty sweet deal.
The Texans were short one inside linebacker in the person of the recovering Brian Cushing. Dent was at least a warm body with more than a passing knowledge of playing in the NFL. It seemed like a simple case of getting something for nothing.
This transaction may end up being closer to nothing when all is said and done. Dent has yet to cause a ripple of recognition in training camp. He sat out the first preseason game and was on the field for just 23 snaps against the Falcons, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Mike Mohamed and Jeff Tarpinian are ahead of Dent on the depth chart at one inside linebacker (ILB) slot, with Cushing and Justin Tuggle listed as Nos. 1 and 2 at the other. The team will only carry four inside linebackers, and Dent is ineligible for the practice squad.
This is a hard cut because outside of Cushing, the other three inside linebackers have less combined experience than Dent has on his own. However, Dent's experience is in a 4-3 defense, where the middle linebacker can lay back and let the play come to him. A 3-4 ILB has to attack gaps and handle offensive linemen head on, particularly in the version run by defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel.
Dent will not stay unemployed long. He still has a lot of football left in him, but it will benefit a team other than the Houston Texans.
In baseball, a gas can is a term referring to an ineffective relief pitcher. He comes into the game and turns a small fire into a roaring conflagration.
If there was a football counterpart, it would be a defensive back who is so terrible the opposing quarterback keeps repeatedly torching him. Once upon a time, Kareem Jackson was that player in the eyes of Texans fans.
Now that role has been taken over by Harris, the team’s second-round pick in the 2011 draft. His legend grows more frightening with each game.
Harris could not even get on the field until late in his second season, and that was due to Brice McCain breaking his foot. Even though McCain was ranked as the overall worst cornerback in the league by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) last season, Harris still could not earn more than 210 snaps on the year.
Now it’s 2014, and the beat goes on. Texans analyst John Harris observed on their official site that Carson Palmer of the Cardinals perceived Brandon Harris’ side of the field as a “weak spot” and attacked it “throughout the first drive.” That drive resulted in an easy touchdown to Larry Fitzgerald, who was Harris’ responsibility on the play.
Harris did perform better against the Falcons but committed a penalty that extended their lone scoring drive. To contain the damage his presence might cause, he was limited to 20 snaps in the game, as recorded by PFF.
By any measure of football sensibility, cutting Harris would not be hard at all. It would be hard on the image of GM Rick Smith and further tarnish his record with second-round selections. The only player taken in that round to make a Pro Bowl during his tenure was DeMeco Ryans in 2007 and 2009.
Connor Barwin, Ben Tate and Brooks Reed have all had up-and-down careers. D.J. Swearinger has not shown any game beyond delivering the random big hit, and Xavier Su’a-Filo is just getting started.
These are the picks by which a GM is supposed to make his bones. As of now, Smith has come up with mostly middle-of-the-road talent. That realization may be the hardest cut of them all.