Weighing the Pros and Cons of Houston Texans' Top Free-Agent Targets
The front office of the Houston Texans could teach the CIA a few things about keeping secrets under wraps. General manager Rick Smith rarely tips his hand on any forthcoming moves, including which unrestricted free agents (UFA) are on his radar.
Head coach Bill O’Brien appears to be working from a different playbook. His meeting with Andre Johnson on Feb. 26 was a blunt discussion about a reduced role for the franchise’s all-time leading receiver in the upcoming season.
According to Johnson, it was less of a discussion and more of an ultimatum. He would have to be satisfied with becoming a part-time starter and getting around half of his usual number of receptions. Johnson read the signs and used his Instagram account to alert fans that his career in Houston was over.
This development immediately moved wide receiver to the top of the free-agent list for Houston. Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle reported that Brian Hartline, a possession receiver with the Miami Dolphins for six seasons, met with the Texans on March 5.
Hartline is the first confirmed UFA to visit with the team.
On March, Houston released Chris Myers, the starter at center for every game of the last eight seasons, according to Pro Football Talk. Myers was set to make $8 million, with $2 million of dead money left on his deal. This makes his departure palatable as Rick Smith looks to carve out more cap space.
This space will be essential for the Texans’ to re-sign their own UFAs. Kareem Jackson, Brooks Reed, Derek Newton and Kendrick Lewis are all worthy of sticking with the squad if the cost to retain them is proportional to their value. Should the team have to pursue alternatives, the replacement cost is sure to rise, making the cap gap an even more critical factor.
The following free agents comprise some of those alternatives.
There is no quarterback under consideration because keeping Ryan Mallett is virtually an all-or-nothing proposition. Because the top available prospects on the open market are Michael Vick, Mark Sanchez and Brian Hoyer, the Texans would have to fall back on Ryan Fitzpatrick as their starter.
Tom Savage is not prepared to be the backup, thus transforming journeyman quarterbacks Shaun Hill, Tarvaris Jackson and Matt Flynn from no-way-any-day impossibilities into conceivable contenders. There is little reason to waste our readers’ time analyzing the advantages of one over the others since the differences are negligible.
There are important pros and cons to discuss among players who would be worthwhile additions, so let us proceed with breaking them down.
The most dynamic receiver on the league’s most effective passing system, Cobb is the primary weapon of the Green Bay Packers offense. Including the postseason, he caught 106 passes for 1,465 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Cobb had the highest DVOA of any NFL receiver (35.5 percent), according to Football Outsiders. Simply put, “DVOA means a wide receiver with more value per play.” This metric is adjusted based on the opponent yet does not reveal the true measure of his value.
The majority of his receptions (62) were in the 0-to-9-yard range as measured by the receptions by direction statistic at Pro Football Focus (PFF). He managed to average 13.8 yards per reception and scored seven touchdowns in goal-to-go situations, per Yahoo situational stats.
All this was accomplished by a 5’10” player who weighs 192 pounds. Tight end Rob Gronkowski, at 6’6” and 265 pounds, had five touchdowns in the same area, made 58 of his 98 receptions in the 0-to-9-yard range and averaged 13.7 yards per reception.
Cobb had the impact of a top-notch tight end, operating with great efficiency in the confined spaces of the short-to-intermediate zones. It could be argued his 2014 season was the best performance in the brief history of the slot position, with the All-Pro season by Wes Welker in 2011 taking second place.
Cobb is fortunate to have Aaron Rodgers, the 2014 NFL MVP, as his quarterback. Unless he spends his off hours keeping up with every team in both conferences, he is more likely to identify Ryan Mallett as a NASCAR driver than as a fellow member of the NFLPA. A four-year contract for $50 million with $20 million guaranteed is the minimum to pry Cobb from the comfort of Rodgers' right arm.
The Texans have never had a true slot receiver, so they have never used one often. Pro Football Reference documented 1,062 offensive plays for the team in 2014, with a total of 68 snaps listed under slot performance for the Texans wide receivers last season. In the final year of the Gary Kubiak era of 2013, the total was 53 snaps, when Andre Johnson led the pack with 23 of his 1,011 total snaps.
Johnson was no slot man, setting up as a wide receiver in the X or Z position 95 percent of the time. Cobb would be a great addition, and Bill O’Brien would find some way to put his considerable talents to use. On the other hand, if the goal is to find a replacement for the 6’3”, 225-pound Johnson, Cobb is a mismatch in both stature and technique.
Here is a more realistic target: a reliable, unspectacular worker bee accustomed to playing with marginal quarterbacks.
When Ryan Tannehill needed a safety valve during his first two NFL campaigns, Hartline was his man. They connected often enough for Hartline to log back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2012 to 2013. Their relationship and numbers tumbled last year when the offense spread more targets around to Jarvis Landry, Mike Wallace and Charles Clay.
His skin color and statistics conform to the stereotype of the slow-footed, sure-handed No. 2 receiver. On the contrary, Hartline has adequate speed and strictly average hands. He clocked a 4.58 40-yard time at the combine and decreased his dropped passes from nine in 2013 to only four last year, according to Sporting Charts.
His routes are more than functional in the short to mid-range area, as he shows a consistent capacity to shake off a defender long enough to get a shot at the ball. You will not see him turning a simple seam route into a long gain on a consistent basis, but he will be in the right place at the right time to move the chains on 3rd-and-long.
Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald (h/t Doug Kyed of NESN) indicated the New England Patriots might be looking at Hartline to take the place of potential cap victim Danny Amendola. While it is hard to take any reports out of the Patriots at face value, Bill Belichick has built a dynasty by relying on workmanlike receivers in the mold of Hartline.
It seems as if the Texans have been down this path before, when the coach was Gary Kubiak and the player was Kevin Walter.
The debate had gone on for several years: How can this team evolve with a No. 3 receiver in the No. 2 role? Walter and Hartline share some similarities, though there are differences in their shortcomings. Hartline has never scored more than four touchdowns in a season, and Walter never had a 1,000-yard year.
The hope during the Walter period was Jacoby Jones would get his act together and become the speed counterpart to Andre Johnson. Then the offense could use Walter as the third man in a well-balanced trio.
Now there is no third man, and the expectation would be Hartline starting alongside DeAndre Hopkins. The team would thrust a rookie receiver into the Jacoby Jones role and be expected to mature into a partner for Hopkins in short order.
This draft class is well-stocked at the position in the opinion of Mike Huguenin of NFL.com. The next Odell Beckham Jr. could be waiting to don the deep steel blue of the Texans. That could be the plan, but is Hartline their in-between man? Not if the former Dolphin expects to pocket anything close to the $6 million he made in 2014.
You are a lucky man when you get the most reps of your career in a contract year. Graham peaked at 524 snaps in 2014 and turned them into 53 quarterback pressures.
His playing time with the Philadelphia Eagles hovered around the 400-snap mark over the years, but he was never able to break into the starting lineup. He seemed suited to a situational role as a 4-3 defensive end under Andy Reid and then a 3-4 outside linebacker when Chip Kelly took over.
Few players can make the switch from three-point pass-rusher to a stand-up role with coverage responsibilities. Although Graham adapted to the transition, his forte is still going wide and getting under the tackle’s initial punch. His build is reminiscent of Elvis Dumervil, who is constructed like a freezer chest: short with a wide base.
Defensive coordinators are always on the lookout for specialists who are also adept on special teams. Kelly was willing to put Graham on the kicking units, and he developed another set of skills along the way. As long as his contractual demands are reasonable, there will be plenty of suitors for his services.
Apparently, Graham is convinced his days as a part-timer are over. Geoff Mosher of CSNPhilly.com wrote it will take “a four-year deal in the $30 million neighborhood, with $20 million guaranteed” to keep Graham in Philadelphia.
Graham may also be following the lead of soon-to-be former Eagle Trent Cole. According to CSNPhilly.com (h/t Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer), Cole is looking to be released in an attempt to market himself as a 4-3 defensive end. For most of his career he has played that position, where the money is better and the job does not involve covering tight ends.
Manipulating the market to suit your desires is not as easy as it sounds. Graham has started 13 out of 64 games over his four years in the league, including just one in his breakout year. He will be competing against experienced, full-time 4-3 ends such as Greg Hardy, Mathias Kiwanuka, Cory Redding and Chris Canty for the kind of contract he is seeking.
His resume is on the rise but cannot support the guarantee he is looking for. Only when his demands reach a more realistic level will serious deliberations commence. That could include sticking with the position of a pass-rushing outside linebacker that placed the spotlight on Graham in the first place.
Thurmond signed a one-year deal with the New York Giants after winning a ring with the Seattle Seahawks. He played most of that Super Bowl season at slot corner, but his four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy may have cost him at the bargaining table.
When he played in 2013, his coverage skills were evident, as he held his opponents to an NFL rating of 74.9. Various leg problems cut short his playing time in 2011 and 2012. His NFL rating for 2012 was 60.9, showing he was starting to master the position.
Last season could have set him up for a big payday. The Giants defense was atrocious, ranking 29th in passing yards allowed. For him, it was better for negotiating purposes that he spent the bulk of the season on injured reserve. The fact it was a torn pectoral muscle instead of an issue with his legs indicates that kind of recurring injury is hopefully behind him.
Thurmond earned just $3 million in 2014, and most of his leverage is based on what he achieved in 2013. He should be open to a similar contract this season, which puts his value well below market price for someone who has shown his frequent flashes of talent.
No player provides any value for his team if he cannot stay on the field. Was the 2014 injury just bad luck or a continuation of the setbacks that have afflicted Thurmond for most of his career?
Chris Culliver looks like a safer bet at first glance but is followed by his own rain cloud, which conceals a torn ACL in 2013 and a hit-and-run charge in 2014. In fact, most of the top 10 free-agent cornerbacks as rated by Matt Miller of Bleacher Report had a recent injury and/or personal baggage plaguing them.
Kareem Jackson and Darrelle Revis were two of the few whose personal slates are clean. Revis is definitely too costly, given his $25 million cap hit. Jackson may also end up being financially out of reach for the Texans once the bidding opens.
What makes Thurmond one of the most attractive choices is his relative affordability. What makes him a risk at any price is the fact he has never been played in all 16 regular-season games over his five years in the NFL.
It would have taken a massive leap of faith to imagine the Derek Newton of 2013 would become a coveted free agent one season later. Pro Football Focus listed him as the 56th-ranked offensive tackle of the 60 players who were on the field for 50 percent of their team's plays.
Kyle Posey, who covers the San Diego Chargers for SB Nation, believes Newton could be the answer for the Bolts at right tackle. The current occupant, D.J. Fluker, is a 340-pounder with all the mobility possessed by a whale on dry land. Posey is convinced that despite the flaws in Newton's technique, he would be an upgrade at the position.
The Texans brain trust must assume Newton is attracting attention outside of Houston. Is there a Plan B if he fails to re-enlist with the team that drafted him?
Franklin should be one of the names being tossed around in the process. He is one of those rare offensive lineman who can play both guard and tackle with the same proficiency.
When free-agent left guard Zane Beadles accepted a five-year contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars the following offseason, Franklin took over his position. The Broncos offensive line showed no drop-off from 2013 when it came to generating rushing yards or protecting Peyton Manning.
The unit maintained its overall consistency despite moving center Manny Ramirez to right guard in Week 10, with Will Montgomery taking over for Ramirez.
The Texans should also be interested in Franklin since Ben Jones will probably end up filling the shoes of Chris Myers at center. Jones' former spot at left guard will go to Xavier Su’a-Filo, whose rookie experience consisted of 130 snaps.
Franklin represents depth at multiple positions, which could prove invaluable during the inevitable attrition of a 16-game schedule.
The versatility offered by Franklin will not come cheaply. Mike Klis of The Denver Post “expect(s) free agent Orlando Franklin to get handsomely paid by another team.”
The top 10 guards by cap hit make an average of $7.8 million annually. For example, Josh Sitton of the Green Bay Packers will make $7 million in 2015 based on a six-year, $33.75 million contract with a guarantee of $8.9 million.
The top 10 right tackles by cap hit average $5.6 million per year, 35 percent less than their compadres on the interior. The best Franklin can hope for is a deal similar to the five-year contract Anthony Davis of the San Francisco 49ers signed for $33.2 million with $8.38 million guaranteed. Franklin might even have to settle for little less, being a three-year pro who debuted in the league at the ripe old age of 24.
This level of compensation is not in the same ballpark of what Newton can expect, who is an adequate technician but not in Franklin’s class. The current Texan should hope to remain one, because no other team in the league appreciates him quite as much.
Franklin would be worth the extra investment should Newton find a suitor who is willing to overpay him.
As of publication, Twitter is all abuzz that Newton has agreed in principle to a five-year contract with the Texans. NFL mouthpiece Ian Rapaport tweeted the details:
Big numbers for #Texans OT Derek Newton: 5 years at $26.5M with $10M guaranteed. $13.75M in first 2 years and $17M in first 3 years— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) March 7, 2015
The Texans cannot confirm this transaction until free agency officially opens on March 10.
Diehard Texans fans have endured 13 seasons of frustration and disappointment. On top of that, Andre Johnson has left the building and created a vacuum that needs to be filled. Instead of some high-maintenance diva of a wide receiver, why not pursue the irresistible force of the one and only Vince Wilfork?
John McClain, Texans beat writer for the Houston Chronicle, thinks it could come to pass:
Don't b surprised if Wilfork reunited with Crennel and O'Brien if price is right. He and Crennel are real close.— John McClain (@McClain_on_NFL) March 7, 2015
The first season of the Bill O’Brien regime was something of a triumph for the defense, which ranked seventh in points allowed. With all due respect to 34-year-old Ryan Pickett, his addition to the D-line did impact the rushing defense on first and second down. But he only participated in 290 snaps over 13 games.
At age 33, Wilfork played 766 snaps in 16 regular-season games. He was even on the field for the occasional third down as specified in Yahoo’s situational stats. While his personal stat line did not show any sacks, his ability to collapse the pocket was key in holding opponents to an 84.0 passer rating.
The statement Wilfork posted on Twitter upon his release stated he “still has lots of gas left in the tank.” Paired up with J.J. Watt, the two of them could turn the pocket into a closet for opposing quarterbacks.
Wilfork finally won his second Super Bowl 10 years after he beat the Philadelphia Eagles in his rookie year. He has made $50 million in 11 seasons. What is his motivation at this point?
Bill Belichick casts a huge shadow over the New England Patriots organization. His predilection for releasing front-line players must motivate them to prove they can win without him.
A defensive lineman without a defined position, Wilfork has played tackle and end in the Patriots’ hybrid 3-4 system over the years. His 325-pound physique fits the profile of the perfect nose tackle for the two-gap system coached by defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel.
Can his body hold up to the demands of taking on two blockers? Wilfork has averaged 1,055 snaps three out of the last four seasons, with the exception being 2013 when he tore his Achilles tendon in Week 4. A two-year contract is the longest commitment which could sensibly be offered to him.
Houston drafted Louis Nix III to be the future at nose tackle. A combination of injuries and immaturity reinforces the belief he is nowhere close to taking command of the position. Will Nix accept Wilfork as a mentor, or could he view the veteran as a usurper of his playing time?
If Nix cannot handle that sort of situation, the Texans will have squandered another third-round draft pick. And the search for a long-term solution for the middle of their defensive line will go on.
Will the fans settle for Wilfork as a stopgap measure? Most of them do not look that far down the road. The smart ones wonder if general manager Rick Smith is capable of doing the same. Acquiring Wilfork could be the latest example of that deficiency.