So it happened. A team considered a fringe Super Bowl contender that was expected to win their division and host multiple closed-roof playoff games is likely to end up with a Top 2 pick, if not #1 overall.
Sucks what happened to the Atlanta Falcons, huh? Oh yeah! The Texans aren't doing that great either!
What happened this year is unquestionably sad for those expecting more, but, to be honest, no one wanted to see this coming. Even though it was likely that Schaub would not recover from his Lisfranc surgery and the workload on Arian Foster would come back to haunt him, it still was a major shock to see the losses start piling up, and now here we are. A loss on the road on Thursday night (to the Jaguars, but a bad home team on Thursday tends to beat a bad road team, statistics indicate) pretty much cements the Houston Texans as the recipients of the #1 pick, formerly a franchise-crippling curse but now a blessing in the disguise of a bleach-chugging season.
But what do we do with the smoldering ashes of our 2013 season in order to allow us to rise like the phoenix in 2014? I'm glad you asked!
[u]Step 1: The Staff[/u]
Schaub's disintegration into Gabbertian gelatin was unfortunate, but conservative playcalling was our self-inflicted kryptonite long before our dynamic talent on offense failed to overcome it.
Fire Gary Kubiak
The mini-stroke is irrelevant. Give me "you're a terrible person to fire a guy who nearly died" and I'll give you "I just saved you from a stressful-and-a-half job that likely would have caused a full-on stroke or a heart attack. You're welcome". Kubes will land on his feet, I'm sure. He is still considered a gifted offensive coordinator (since apparently only BRB fans are aware of his predictability and conservative draws-on-3rd-and-long schtick) and, at a bare minimum, will end up a QB coach in the pros (or Hell, maybe he replaces Swaggercopter at A&M).
Clean house on the coaching roster
I guess I could have said this in the first set, but whatever. New head coach = new everything else.
Retain Rick Smith
Smith is considered a top GM who would be grabbed quickly if we cut him loose. I don't hold his "no contracts in midseason" against him, and the only "bad call" I would give him is extending Foster with the amount of carries he had. But I understand the macro view that he was establishing himself as a player-friendly GM, and if the Foster contract helps us retain our other key Texans, then I'm okay with that.
So who is the next coaching staff?
Ray Horton, Head Coach
Greg Knapp, Offensive Coordinator
Jerome Henderson, Defensive Coordinator
All three coaches are getting promotion from their current positions, so I consider all these choices reasonable hires. I chose Ray Horton because, first of all, he has done outstanding work as a defensive coordinator in Arizona and Cleveland. Both teams field top 10 defenses that he put together. He's aggressive, and not afraid to mix in hybrid coverages, which plays to our strengths (I don't have the stats to back it up, but I believe Wade's 3-4 was operating better early on when he blitzed more), and I feel he would know what to do with the strong pieces we have on that front. Furthermore, as a defensive guru, I count on him to not want to meddle too much in the offense. Obviously he is the final say-so from a coaching standpoint, but he is not tied to a particular offensive scheme, so I trust a defense-first coach to work with Smith in picking an Offensive coordinator who fits the current team as opposed to trying to reinvent the wheel.
Enter Greg Knapp. If the name is familiar, it's because he was the QB coach for your Houston Texans during the best 2 years of Schaub's career. After that, he went to Oakland to be their offensive coordinator, but was fired because he wanted to run the ZBS on a team with big, unathletic linemen. Oops. So I won't call that proof he's incapable by any stretch. He's also spent this last year studying Peyton Manning - technically, he's the QB coach at Denver, but let's be real: if Peyton's OC is accused of doing nothing all day...) so I'll give him bonus credit for maybe learning a thing or two about how one of the best QBs of all time goes about his business, some of which may be coachable to a new QB.
You probably don't know Jerome Henderson, and that's fine. He was a pro CB in the 90's and he's spent the last few years as the secondary coach for the Browns and Cowboys. Since both teams have gotten good secondary play out of young athletes (Joe Haden is a perennial All-Pro CB, and when playing man coverage - which Houston and I believe Horton prefers - the Dallas secondary plays well), I'm willing to consider Henderson a strong positional coach ready for a promotion. I'm also not expecting much. Horton will essentially run the defense with Henderson as his Aide de Camp, a common situation among NFL coaches. (If you can name me New England's defensive coordinator without Googling it, you're better than me, and I watched last week's game when they showed his face)
[u]Step 2: Free Agency[/u]
The Texans aren't in that bad of shape as far as free agency goes next season. I'm estimating a slight bump in the cap to about $125 million (the assumption being in 2015 and beyond the numbers will start to climb significantly but 2014 is still a flat-ish year) that means that we start free agency with about $11 million to spend with 46 players signed. There's a lot of teams in a lot worse shape.
Let Antonio Smith and Ben Tate walk
These two are the only pricey unrestricted free agents we are looking at this offseason. I'm excluding guys like Ryan Harris and Garrett Graham on the assumption that they'll either be resigned for modest salaries or someone on said modest salary with approximate talent will replace them. I'm trying to avoid getting too nuts-and-bolts on this one.
Back to those two, I think most Texans fans will agree that we would being paying more than their play on the field. Not to say either are bad, but Tate is expecting starter money, as is Smith, and I don't think that's the most efficient use of our resources. I hope these guys do great things (preferably in the NFC) but we have Arian Foster in 2014 for better or for worse (he would only save $1 mil this year, as opposed to $4 mil and $7 mil the next two years if his play fails to improve). As for the DE position, we are going to have to throw elite money at JJ to keep him, and I think we all agree that that is in our best interests. The downside is that we can only realistically afford a rookie contract or a marginal-to-decent starter across from him without sacrificing other positions. For what it's worth, I don't see a reason not to start Jared Crick in Smith's spot. A downgrade, but not a crushing blow.
The obvious one is Schaub, as he saves us $4 million in cap space even if we don't designate him a June 1 cut. The other three combined only net us about $2 million in cap room, but every little bit helps, and, frankly, their release is mainly to give the Texans fan base a "WOOHOO! Things are gonna be different around here!" vibe.
The biggest "non-cut" here is Manning. I've seen some people call for his release, a $4.5 million savings, but I think he plays well, and we're not so desperate that we need to. I'd rather Manning/Swearinger (with Keo and Pleasant as strong depth) than without him but with a little more cash.
That puts us with about $17 million in cap room this season, with the following holes:
Starters: QB, DT, ILB
I consider Case Keenum to be a very good-to-great #2 QB who I could trust if the top guy was hurt, but I don't consider him a starter. This also factors Earl Mitchell and Daryl Sharpton being released. (This puts us well ahead of the compensatory pick game, since you have to lose more total free agents than you gain, and therefore we can still get something for Tate and Smith, likely to be top free agents at their position)
Depth: RB, TE, OL, the entire defense besides Safety
No need to panic or anything, but the promotions inherent in Wade Smith, Newton, McCain, Tate, and Smith being let go will cause us to need to reload depth. No big deal. The main thing here is that this justifies a Best Player Available No Matter What approach starting about round 3 of the draft, plus it encourages me to not overload the salary cap so we can grab some veterans that fall through the cracks to fill in the holes.
Sign Brian Orakpo & Vance Walker as "big name free agents"
I wanted to be modest with my free agents picks A: because Houston has never gone out and gotten THAT GUY, and B: as stated above, I wanted the team to be able to sign rookies without a problem and also grab some potentially decent vets that get cut during the offseason.
So why these two? Well, for one, they are both younger. Both are out for their first unrestricted deal, which means they are more likely to perform up to the contract standards than if we got someone older.
Orakpo will probably cost us around 8 mil per year (I'm saying he gets roughly Paul Kruger money, which seems reasonable and is also more than twice what he's been earning) but on top of being a reliable pass rusher (8.5 sacks each year not counting the injury-shortened 2012 campaign; and that counts this season which has 4 games to go), he gives us the option to (finally) move Brooks Reed inside, making our starting LB corps Mercilus, Cushing, Reed, and Orakpo. We need depth for sure, but that's the most satisfying foursome I could realistically place in that position. (I get that reveals my choice for #1 pick, but we'll get to that later)
Who is Vance Walker? A 6'2" 300-pound DT currently playing above his pay grade in Oakland. I chose him because he should be cap friendly (I'm gonna go with roughly $4 mil a year, which is around the paycheck of Sammie Lee Hill and Broderick Bunkley) and I expect him to be able to play well at the nose. Undersized, but so was Mitchell, and I doubt he'll see much double teaming when playing next to that JJ fellow.
[u]Step 3: The 2014 NFL Draft[/u]
In Round 1, draft Teddy Bridgewater. In Round 2, draft a cornerback. Rounds 3-7, draft Best non-QB available
It's still too early to forecast mid-round draft picks, but I think we can find some decent depth throughout the draft at positions of need.
The important part is Bridgewater. There will be plenty of discussions on which QB is the right one, but my money is on Teddy, and I think he is absolutely going to be a very good-or-better NFL QB, and by signing an A-minus OLB in free agency, we can feel comfortable with Horton getting HIS GUY.
Early round 2 is a prime spot for cornerbacks. Walterfootball lists 5 that are in the 25-40 range on his big board (Verrett from TCU, the guy from Oklahoma State, the guy from Oregon, and the 2 from Florida, forgive me for not remembering all their names). Just like our good problem to have last year with every receiver being available, we should have plenty of choices for cornerback, and can pick the one that seems to suit us best. That is our nickel starter, and depending on his development determines how we handle Jackson and Joseph's contracts moving forward. Either way, he's better than McCain. I'm sure of it.
So that leaves us with our new franchise QB, a reloaded defensive front seven (despite losing 3 starters), and a team that, like last year's Chiefs, would be looked at as a sleeper pick to surprisingly launch into the playoffs by proving that, if the QB and the coach are the problem, nothing can fix it until you replace them.