Texans fans know a thing or two about bad offensive lines. Chester Pitts at left tackle. The Seth Wand experiment. Todd Wade. We've seen our share of the atrocious, so it seems natural to be a bit worried by the defection of Mike Brisiel and the release of Eric Winston. In fact, one of the very biggest factors in Football Outsiders' projection system is offensive line continuity.
Make no mistake: the loss of continuity will be a problem -- but that was going to happen, to an extent, anyway. The Texans were not going to match Brisiel's contract. It's a scenario where they just had to throw up their arms and admit that they should have attempted to negotiate with him before he reached free agency. If there is one thing about the Texans that I think we've learned this offseason, it's that they value the ability to stay healthy. Mario Williams and Brisiel were allowed to hit free agency in the first place because they couldn't put together a healthy season, and though they are both very talented, that ultimately kept the Texans from investing in them long-term.
But the release of Eric Winston was an extremely curious decision. Here was a seemingly healthy 16-game starter who would have been just 29 next season, was a vocal locker room presence, and by all accounts did everything right off the field. Cutting him didn't save all that much money (though it did save enough) at $4.5 million, and he was hailed as one of the best right tackles in the NFL by Ben Muth last season.
So, what happened here?
Obviously the big concession is money: the Texans were right up against the salary cap, and it was Winston's cap dollars that in large part generated the funding for Chris Myers' new deal.
But from afar, it wouldn't seem that difficult to come up with ways to keep Winston and Myers. One very popular way would be to release Jacoby Jones, who reached Bud Adams levels of scorn among Houston fans after his, uh, "performance" returning kicks against the Ravens in the Divisional Round. While that may not have completely filled the way to Winston, depending on which set of salary cap numbers you believe, it would have been a nice start. There were also potential restructures by players like Johnathan Joseph, Antonio Smith, and Matt Schaub that could have freed up some money.
Another, more unpopular way, and perhaps one that was basically promised away by Rick Smith, would be to just tender Arian Foster at a first-round level and deal with the griping. That would have saved a lot of money, and as I think we've learned from Mike Wallace's free agency, there aren't many teams out there aching to deal first-round picks for known quantities that they'd have to pay as such. Even if Foster had found a suitor, the Texans had a fine backup plan in Ben Tate.
I don't claim to be a salary cap expert, partially because there are very few sources that actually deliver true numbers, but mainly because I don't feel like the salary cap is much of an obstacle to keeping key players. There are ways around the system.
So then, that leads me to the conclusion that the Texans didn't think Winston was worth his salary -- which is a surprising idea based on the reputation he apparently has in outside circles, as well as the fact that the Chiefs were content to hammer out a four-year, $22 million contract with him and chased him immediately.
I think it's fair to say that Winston is not an upper echelon pass blocker, and the fact that he was also flagged nine times last year and eight in 2011 shows that he's not exactly unaware of that, but this is still an elite run-blocker who has been a 16-game starter five years in a row. A bit too much is being made about his pass blocking in my opinion, particularly since Robert Mathis was lined up against him twice a year for all those seasons.
So, is this instead a ringing endorsement for projected replacement Rashad Butler? I thought Butler acquitted himself alright during his four-game trial in 2010 while Duane Brown was suspended for PED use, though he was destroyed on a couple of occasions by DeMarcus Ware, as any left tackle would be. I'm not unsure that Butler could replicate a Winston season, but at the same time the fact that he hasn't played a meaningful snap at right tackle alarms me. The fact that he missed all of last season worries me. I'm a bit underwhelmed at the idea of walking into a season with him as a starter, especially on a team that has playoff potential. That doesn't mean that he doesn't have the talent to get the job done -- it just means that Rick Smith added a new bit of risk to the situation when he didn't really have to.
It's certainly interesting. Perhaps Winston was having surgeries galore behind the scenes, or the Texans had some tape on him that showed something that we couldn't see, but this appears to me to be a straight-up football decision. After last season, I believe that Smith deserves the benefit of the doubt for now, but I'm not exactly thrilled about how this transpired from the outside.