Great Expectations: Texans' Free Agency Priorities

Rumors persist that a looming settlement between the owners and the players will end the NFL lockout this month, and details of the settlement have begun to leak. If you're like me, you're less interested in how they plan to divvy up the loot and more interested in what the new rules for free agency and the salary cap are going to be and what that means for the Houston Texans.

It's being widely reported that unsigned players with at least four years of service will be unrestricted free agents. It sounds like teams will be able to use the franchise tag to protect one player as before, but unable to restrict four and five-year players with tendered offers.

For the Houston Texans this means WR Jacoby Jones, OT Rashad Butler, OG Mike Brisiel, DE Mark Anderson and QB Matt Leinart join LB Kevin Bentley, P Matt Turk and FB Vonta Leach on the unrestricted free agent list. As some astute observers have already noted, this also means there are more free agent defensive backs out there now that aren't named Nnamdi. Take the jump as we try to separate great expectations from the realistic ones.

Another leaked detail of the proposed new CBA says teams will be required to spend over 90% of their salary cap. This should increase the number of buyers in the FA market and the number of dollars spent as well. Some estimates have placed the salary cap between $135 and $140 million, and it appears the Houston Texans currently have around $123 million in player payroll.    

Since I didn't get enough abuse for my Rick Smith post last month, I'm here to deliver some bad news:

  1. There is not going to be enough room under the cap for all the free agent wishes on everyone's shopping lists to be granted.
  2. No matter who is running the front office, there is no way to afford Nnamdi Asomugha if we plan to fill our other needs competently.

As much as I would love to see Asomugha in a Texans uniform, it's not looking likely nor worth pursuing. As a matter of fact, I doubt Gary Kubiak, I mean Rick Smith, has any plans to go after a shutdown corner. I can already see the comments and howls of betrayal for suggesting Smithiak would do anything less than attempt to fulfill our wildest free agency dreams, but hear me out.

Before anyone suggests this is more evidence of my hatred for Rick Smith, I think passing on Nnamdi would be the wise move at this point. My crude research suggests the Texans have less than $17 million to shop with after the lockout is over, and Nnamdi will easily cost more than $10 million per year. As I mentioned before, I think the FA market is going to be a feeding frenzy with inflated prices, especially for shutdown corners, and he will cost much more than $10 million. Besides, it's not as if the Texans' front office has a lot of experience diving into feeding frenzies, so why waste time going after someone who will make it difficult to stay under the cap that we probably wouldn't get anyway?

Maybe my bias against Rick Smith has lowered my expectations, but I just don't see the Texans landing the Golden Goose of the off-season. I would love to think that means Smithiak goes after Cincy CB Johnathan Joseph instead, but I'm going to continue to rain on your parade and tell you why I don't see that happening either.

Kubiak has already made it clear he wants to re-sign guys like Jacoby Jones and Rashad Butler. Groan all you like, but Kubiak seems to want as much status quo going for his offense as possible. I suspect he has Jakespeare at the top of the list, although I think Butler is more important. Since they also extended them tender offers, I bet Smithiak tries to resign Brisiel and Anderson as well. If they don't re-sign Turk, they need to get a punter in free agency too. This shopping list is getting long already. Did I mention that free agency is going to be a feeding frenzy in a compressed time period?

Maybe fate will lend Smithiak a hand and simplify a few things. In a league where teams are reaching in the draft for college QBs like Jake Locker and Blaine Gabbert in the top 10, I think Leinart is going to get a chance to compete for a starting job somewhere else. Since Kubiak has two other backup QBs, there's no need to worry about a QB in free agency. Also, if Vonta Leach wants to become the highest paid fullback in the league, he will probably end up somewhere else as well. I'm not saying Leach doesn't deserve it, but Kubiak seems to already have a replacement in mind in TE James Casey and Casey has even bulked up for the role. It seems like there's a lot of LB depth to be too worried about Kevin Bentley, but I'm not sure how Phillips or Kubiak feel about that.

That still leaves at least five current players to re-sign or replace and an inexperienced secondary to fortify from free agency. I see that as quite a list for a couple of guys who will never be called shopaholics. Maybe Smithiak will exceed my expectations, but I hope they have a priority list to contend with their limitations. I think re-signing current players like Jakespeare and Butler will be their top priorities. Hopefully, fortifying the secondary comes in as a close second.

Some people have been so overly optimistic they have suggested Smithiak will sign a veteran cornerback AND safety this off-season. I now know that is folly. Maybe they will prove me wrong, but given the conditions this off-season, I suspect Smithiak will be doing good to re-sign the current players they want and get either a veteran cornerback or a safety... but not both. There just isn't enough time or money.

Considering the depth at cornerback (that was strengthened by drafting Brandon Harris in the second and Roc Carmichael in the fourth round of this year's draft) and the lack of depth at safety (both of last year's starters are gone), I can only assume Smithiak has placed a higher priority on finding a veteran safety to pair with CB-turned-safety, Glover Quin. Remember, new secondary coach Vance Joseph was very excited about the film he saw of CBs Jason Allen and Brice McCain and he seems to agree with Phillips' view that Kareem Jackson's problems are immensely coachable.

The nicest thing Joseph said about S Troy Nolan was that he's "capable of doing it right." Combine that kind of talent with a fifth round pick and you have the most glaring need on the roster. No offense, Shiloh Keo; I'm sure you're going to be a beast on special teams, but we need veteran coverage skills from both safety spots. Does that mean we should pencil top safety free agent prospect Eric Weddle in across from Quin? Once again, I think the conditions conspire against the fans' wishes. It will take too much money and too much time to sign him, so get ready to settle for Gerald Sensabaugh. Hey, he knows Wade's system and he will be an improvement from last season.

I still think the Texans can make the playoffs with these limitations on their free agency shopping. If the pass rush is as good as I expect, players like Jason Allen and Brandon Harris might be able to hold down the corners just fine, but I don't see Troy Nolan or Shiloh Keo doing the same in the middle. Hopefully I'm wrong and Smithiak can shop-til-they-drop and fill everyone's free agency desires, but I think we would be wise to keep our expectations in check...and our priorities in order.

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