It was a wild weekend as NFL teams decided to ignore the whole "official start of free agency" thing and every signing and move was leaked to reporters as soon as possible. The Houston Texans were one of the most active teams of the early period, locking up each of their three most important free agents and then reportedly garnering an agreement from Cleveland quarterback Brian Hoyer.
After some waffling, Hoyer's contract was finally made official upon his signing Wednesday:
The skeptic can say that the Texans haven't improved yet, because they're still in a talent deficit after informing wideout Andre Johnson his services would no longer be needed and releasing longtime center Chris Myers. But looked at in a vacuum, each of the three deals to bring back Ryan Mallett, Kareem Jackson and Derek Newton are fair, if not huge wins for the team. Then there's this Hoyer signing, which is a bit of a mess. Let's take these one at a time.
What does a Bill O'Brien quarterback look like?
Bringing back Ryan Mallett isn't a move that wows me, but it's the right move given Houston's options. I still see Mallett as an iffy-at-best bet to turn into something. It's not out of the question—I just have reservations. That the Texans were able to retain Mallett for just $7 million total over two years is a win, not to mention completely ridiculous in a landscape where proven bad quarterbacks have walked away with double that.
The implication seems to be that Mallett will battle for the starting job with the newly acquired Hoyer, who fits nicely into the end of the last paragraph. To put it simply: When the Browns dug up Hoyer from the scrap heap in the first place, it should have taught them (and the rest of the NFL) that doing so was a repeatable process. Instead, the Browns are paying full retail for Josh McCown. Meanwhile, the Texans are paying Brian Hoyer to do what Ryan Fitzpatrick already could have been counted on to do: be at the fringes of adequacy.
Hoyer played so poorly in the latter half of the 2014 season that the Browns turned to a clearly not-ready Johnny Manziel. For the season, Hoyer finished with a -4.8% DVOA, per Football Outsiders, which placed him 26th. While that was worse than Fitzpatrick, it's pretty much on par with what Fitzpatrick had done up until last season.
So if I squint, I can understand the idea that Hoyer will get more years and the Texans might be able to squeak something back in return for Fitzpatrick. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, they were able to do just that by trading him to the New York Jets. I'm less certain why the Texans try to acquire a player like Hoyer in the first place, though I'm sure given his experience with Fitzpatrick, O'Brien will get more out of Hoyer than most teams would.
But here's where I stop and wonder what the Texans are doing. It's been a year since O'Brien was brought on. Do we know what an actual Bill O'Brien quarterback looks like?
I'm continually re-amazed by the role previous relationships play in the NFL, where every free agent that moves seems to be close to someone on the coaching staff. All I know about O'Brien-approved quarterbacks so far is that they were with him in New England. Which is a great strategy if Tom Brady gets dumped into the anti-aging tar pits from Futurama and winds up in Houston somehow.
Until then—and I don't want to say anything too rash because it's just been one season—I feel like we're still waiting to see an actual plan at the one position you almost have to have a plan with in the modern NFL. I get taking a shot on Mallett. Paying Hoyer a reported three years and $16 million to take the Fitzpatrick role strikes me as a very cautious move at a time when the Texans need to take risks to get back to the playoffs. This is the toned-down version of my initial reaction, which was to just post 20 consecutive GIFs of the dude from Dawson's Creek crying in the rain.
All of the above
I wrote a piece about how Johnathan Joseph was the hinge player in Houston's offseason, so I am happily surprised that, according to Texans beat writer John McClain, Joseph expects to be back in the fold next year:
I assumed the worst for Joseph once the details of Kareem Jackson's contract extension were revealed. Jackson set the initial market at cornerback by agreeing to a four-year, $34 million deal with $20 million in guarantees. Fellow corner Byron Maxwell made it look cheap less than 24 hours later when he signed with the Eagles, but $20 million is a staggering number that likely locks Jackson to the roster for better or worse over the next three seasons.
It's my opinion that Jackson's recent career compares favorably to Maxwell, despite a horrendous 2013 season. It's clear that Jackson's early-career struggles have stuck in the mind of most, and in the end that made his market settle lower. This deal gives Houston another season to sort out their glut of inexperienced corner depth, which is an ideal situation for the defense.
|Young Texans Cornerbacks|
|Player||Class/Draft Pick||Snaps||2014 PFF Pass Coverage Rating||2014 QB Rating Allowed|
|A.J. Bouye||UDFA 2013||644||-0.3||75.3|
|Darryl Morris||UDFA 2013||266||+1.3||92.4|
|Andre Hal||2014 Seventh Round||230||-3.5||137.1|
|Jumal Rolle||UDFA 2013||209||+0.8||90.9|
|Source: Pro Football Focus|
I think Jackson's contract was about $3 million in guarantees too high, but I also think once we see the kinds of deals that corners like Buster Skrine, Davon House and Chris Culliver wind up with, Jackson's deal will look a lot better. This is probably a case where a rising salary cap raises all ships. Well, all ships that running backs weren't on.
Timed it well
A year ago, if you'd told Texans fans they'd be locking into a long-term deal with tackle Derek Newton, they'd probably have reacted poorly. But Newton had a career season with the Texans in 2014, and he was poised to take advantage of a very top-heavy tackle market before re-signing on Saturday.
|Derek Newton 2014 versus pre-2014|
|Timeframe||Snaps||PFF Pass Block Grade||PFF Run Block Grade||Hurries Allowed|
|Source: Pro Football Focus|
The modern NFL has tended to split into camps on the importance of right tackle. There are very few holdouts who believe you can leave left tackle unaddressed, but some teams value right tackle and some don't. The Lions, for instance, have spent the last two seasons splitting time with Corey Hilliard and LaAdrian Waddle—undrafted free agents—and done fine. Their division rival, the Vikings, invested heavily in right tackle Phil Loadholt even though he's got little in the way of pass-blocking acumen.
My personal vision tends to believe that right tackle is a place you go cheap at—as the Texans did when they drafted Newton several years ago. Throw in the fact that I do not necessarily trust that the 2014 vintage of Newton is a guarantee to show up in 2015, and I probably would have let him walk.
But the reported contract terms—five years, $26.5 million with $10 million guaranteed—are hardly onerous for the Texans. I can respect the point of view that values right tackle as a key contributor.
It does still feel weird that Newton, of all right tackles, is the one being valued. But he earned it on the field last season.