5 Cuts That Could Create Cap Space for the Houston Texans

Jeffery Roy@Jeff_n_WestburyContributor IIIFebruary 4, 2015

5 Cuts That Could Create Cap Space for the Houston Texans

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    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    The management and coaching staff of the Houston Texans typically keep a low profile during the early portion of the offseason. Some of their decisions make the news, such as the recent hiring of new offensive and defensive line coaches. Most activities take place behind the scenes, the most critical being which players to cut and which to re-sign.

    These two personnel evaluations are inextricably linked, particularly for teams who are short on cap space. The Texans have $10,936,195 to work with according to Spotrac, which places them in 22nd in the league.

    General manager Rick Smith is in this position partly due to the fact 26.3 percent of the total cap figure of $142 million is committed to three players: Andre Johnson, Johnathan Joseph and Chris Myers. Each of the former Pro bowl selections is 30 or older, making them prime candidates for this list. The rest of the cap cuts have another factor weighing down their cost-benefit ratio: a lack of production relative to their compensation.

    Smith will need some deep pockets to re-sign critical unrestricted free agents (UFAs) Kareem Jackson and Derek Newton. Who would have thought these two could ever progress to being must-have players? Ryan Mallett, Akeem Dent and Kendrick Lewis are almost as essential and fortunately carry lower price tags.

    The first task before negotiations can begin in earnest is finding the money to make it happen. These are the likeliest players to be released in search of that financial flexibility.

    All salary cap data provided courtesy of Spotrac.com.

Johnathan Joseph

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    $12,250,000 Cap Hit – $3,750,000 Dead Money = $8,500,000 Savings 

    Joseph has the fourth-highest cap hit at his position: more than Richard Sherman, Joe Haden, Vontae Davis and about a dozen other cornerbacks with bigger, badder reputations. He had to contend with two sports hernias in 2012 and a case of turf toe that ended his 2013 season.

    His comeback in 2014 was impressive overall, especially over that last half of the schedule. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), he did not allow more than 39 yards receiving in a single game over the last eight weeks of the season.

    The decision to keep paying Joseph at the same rate is complicated by the ascendance of Kareem Jackson. The pupil has now surpassed the mentor. The difference is not so much in ability but in versatility.

    Jackson can now cover the slot receiver over the middle as well as handle the vertical threat. He was always a more physical player and better run defender.

    The possibility of Joseph taking a pay cut does not offer the kind of cap relief that allows the Texans to address other areas of need. The best thing for all parties is a clean split. That would also permit corners such as A.J. Bouye, Jumal Rolle and Darryl Morris enough playing time to fully develop.

    As the biggest free-agent signing in franchise history, Joseph helped transform a pass defense from dead last in yardage allowed in 2010 to third-best in 2011. He still has some good years left but they would be better spent on a team in need of his veteran leadership.

Chris Myers

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    $8,000,000 Cap Hit – $2,000,000 Dead Money = $6,000,000 Savings 

    How does a team say goodbye to the steadiest competitor on its offensive line? This is a player who has started 112 consecutive games and learned how to handle sumo-sized defensive tackles so well he has been named to two Pro Bowls.

    The answer is with a combination of regret and relief. The regret is now this position becomes one more thing head coach Bill O’Brien has to worry about. Can Ben Jones, a center by training who has played nothing but guard in the NFL, move into Myer’s spot with little or no drop-off in effectiveness?

    The relief is Jones will do however well he can at less than one-10th of Myer’s cap hit. The ripple effect of the change is that Xavier Su'a-Filo has to take over for Jones.

    Su'a-Filo recorded a total of 130 snaps in 2014 per Pro Football Focus. After 11 of those snaps in a win over the Tennessee Titans in Week 8, O’Brien was less than wowed by the rookie guard, via Deepi Sidhu of HoustonTexans.com.

    I think he’s getting better. I think it is very difficult for a rookie to play on the inside. I think you see some rookies being able to do that. Other guys, it’s kind of some good, some not so good. I think Xavier falls into that category. He is a great kid. He’s a hard worker. He’s got a really good future in this league. He just needs to learn a little bit more about the tricks of the trade. We’ll continue to play him, give him a shot in there, but hopefully he learns from some of his mistakes, and he will.

    O'Brien had better be right because the future is now. A guard is not taken with the first pick in the second round of the draft without the expectation he will be inserted into the starting lineup before too long. The selection of Su’a-Filo was a clear sign Myer’s days were numbered.

    Jones may have played more than 2,000 snaps at the guard spots in his three seasons as a Texan, but everyone knew anchoring the middle of the offensive line was his destiny. His stint at guard was just to see if he could block up to NFL standards.

    Since that question has been answered in the affirmative, the one about whether $8 million is too much to pay a center will probably be answered the same way.

Garrett Graham

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    Brian Bahr/Getty Images

    $4,000,000 Cap Hit – $1,500,000 Dead Money = $2,500,000 Savings 

    Graham was available for 11 games in 2014 and played in 10 of them. He was targeted a single time in five of those 10 games, virtually rendering MIA for half of his season.

    Re-signed as a UFA on March 13, Graham is a “move” tight end in the Aaron Hernandez mold. In layman’s terms, good at catching passes but ineffective when it comes to run-blocking.

    Bill O’Brien was familiar with how to utilize this type of talent, having worked as offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots in 2011. Hernandez caught 79 passes for 910 yards and seven touchdowns that year.

    Perhaps because he did not have Tom Brady at quarterback or Rob Gronkowski as the other tight end, O’Brien drafted the 6’5”, 265-pound C.J. Fiedorowicz in the third round. NFL.com draft expert Nolan Nawrocki wrote, “…Fiedorowicz looks the part and has balanced skills to be a legitimate “Y” tight end in the pros. Is an asset as a competitive blocker and as a sure-handed receiver.”

    In other words, an “inline” tight end who would be valuable in the running game and a solid target in the red zone. It turns out neither Fiedorowicz, Graham or third tight end Ryan Griffin were integral parts of the Texans offensive game plan.

    Graham had just 18 catches in 26 targets in the 566 snaps he played in 2014 as recorded by Pro Football Focus. As a group, the Texans tight ends had the fewest targets (51) in the league and scored one touchdown apiece.

    Leo Howell of the fantasy football site numberFire went to great lengths to explain "Why Garrett Graham is the Perfect Tight End for the New Houston Texans Offense.“ Using the percentage of receptions, targets and net expected points for tight ends during O’Brien’s tenure with the Patriots, Howell predicted a breakout season for Graham. It turned out to be a “breakdown” instead as the customary position of tight end became an afterthought.

    As a gimmick, it was a stunning success. J.J. Watt and his three touchdowns on three targets turned out to be a dazzling strategy in goal-line situations. Thanks to Watt, Houston produced six touchdowns thanks to their hybrid DE/TE.

    That was more than the Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals, Detroit Lions, Miami Dolphins, Oakland Raiders, Pittsburgh Steelers, San Francisco 49ers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tennessee Titans as determined by the Player Game Finder at Pro Football Reference.

    No matter what the reason, $4 million is way too much to pay for a receiver with a single touchdown to his name. There may be a “move” tight end on the Texans 2015 roster, but not before this one moves on down the road.

Ryan Fitzpatrick

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    $3,875,000 Cap Hit – $625,000 Dead Money = $3,250,000 Savings 

    There seems to be little doubt that quarterbacks Ryan Mallett and Tom Savage are potential investments that could pay big dividends someday. But a veteran signal-caller must be there to shepherd them through the peaks and valleys of their rocky development.

    That may be true, but why does it have to be this guy? At what point in his rocky development has he shown the patience and capacity to show a promising young passer the way to NFL excellence? Fitzpatrick has never had a winning quarterback record in any season with any team.

    He was 6-6 in 2014 with the Texans, and while he had his best year statistically, he still tries to force the ball into spaces that just are not there. Recall his triple-interception game against the New York Giants that was highlighted by an Antrel Rolle pick intended for a double-covered Andre Johnson.

    True, there are not a slew of experienced quarterbacks who are interested in this kind of job. Then again, what about taking a flyer on Jason Campbell?

    Campbell is a UFA stuck behind Andy Dalton in Cincinnati on a Bengals team that is just running in place. His cap hit in 2014 was $1.5 million and a nice raise with an up-and-coming team like the Texans would still result in savings of over $1 million.

    His career statistics are comparable to Fitzpatrick’s and actually has two seasons with a winning quarterback record. They were back-to-back seasons (2010-11) with the Oakland Raiders, the Death Valley of the NFL.

    Some would see this as a penny-wise, pound-foolish move. Fitzpatrick has the 10th-highest cap hit on the roster and does not fit into the team’s long-term goals. If squeezing out every dollar is the short-term goal, this move creates more than $3 million to work with.

Andre Johnson

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    Associated Press

    $16,144,583 Cap Hit – $7,319,583 Dead Money =  $8,825,000 Savings

    After the Texans loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 9, cornerback Cary Williams of the Eagles had a lot to say about Johnson’s frame of mind.

    I don’t know if he’s happy. I”m not sure. I know he had some disputes before the season in a couple years now. But I know Andre Johnson. I know what he’s done over his career. Just the attitude. It just wasn’t the same.

    He’s a great player. I’m not sure if he was happy or anything like that. But I know that was a different Andre than I know.

    During an interview the Monday following the game, Brian T. Smith reported more consternation from Johnson.

    Andre Johnson’s response to the initial two questions directed his way Monday: No comment.

    A four-and-a-half minute interview didn’t get any brighter, except when the soft-spoken Johnson joked where he planned to spend his off days during a bye week.

    "I just need to go to like an island or something," Johnson said.

    The money drama started just before the end of the regular season.

    An article by Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle posted on December 25 was titled “Andre Johnson discusses potential pay cut to remain with Texans.”

    Nobody wants to hear that. But it’s the nature of the business. I’ve seen it happen, heard it happen, had it happen to friends of mine. I understand that.

    The next day Smith published an entirely different take by Johnson as told to Houston Fox26.

    Nobody ever approached me about a pay cut. I’ll cross that bridge whenever it comes.

    This could be the start of the same sort of standoff that kept Johnson from participating in OTAs last season. It was a year that marked the first time he did not surpass 1,000 yards receiving in which he played at least 13 games. 

    The decline in his numbers could have had something to do with not spending enough time working with Ryan Fitzpatrick. If the plan is to start Ryan Mallett and go with Fitzpatrick as the backup, both Johnson and the developing quarterback would benefit from having a full offseason to work together.

    The discussion of whether to trade Johnson before last season was tossed around but no team was willing to take on the average $15 million in salary and bonuses he was owed over the remaining three years.

    The dead money on his deal has dropped from almost $12 million in 2014 to less than $8 million this year. This makes simply cutting him somewhat easier to swallow.

    It is tough for most Texans fans to imagine this team without Andre. But Earl Campbell left for the New Orleans Saints, Hakeem Olajuwon went to the Toronto Raptors and Nolan Ryan defected to the Texas Rangers.

    Most great players have to move on sooner or later. The time for Andre Johnson may end up being sooner than everyone had hoped.

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