You'll never see the Ninja coming. - Scott Halleran
We take a look at the situation revolving around defensive end Antonio Smith as he enters the final year of his original Houston Texans contract. Can the Texans gain relief from his $9.5 million cap hit?
Last offseason, I never would have guessed that your Houston Texans would have cut a positive-contributing starter, let alone someone popular and beloved in the City of Houston, for cap relief. Yet Eric Winston packed his bags and headed north for Kansas City after being released. One year later, it's now easier to believe that defensive end, and ninja assassin, Antonio Smith finds himself in a very similar situation.
Smith is in the final year of a five-year, $35.5 million contract and is scheduled to be a cap hit of $9.5 million. According to Spotrac.com, the Texans would save $6 million by cutting the Ninja Cowboy. This is double the relief Houston could gain from any other single player move. Pro Bowl guard Wade Smith offers $3 million in cap relief, for those wondering who was second.
Moving back to Smith, the Texans would be foolish to cut him
and let him join other castaways in Baltimore. Unlike Winston, Smith hasn't plateaued on the field. The Ninja Assassin is coming off a career season with seven sacks, three passes defensed, two forced fumbles, and a truck-load of gaps penetrated. Nor do the Texans have any serviceable options to replace him as a starter, a tall order considering Smith has only missed one game in his four-year Texan career. Given all of that, the Texans should extend him. Yet the leverage isn't completely in Smith's corner.
There is that huge cap relief number of $6 million, combined with the fact that Smith's going to turn 32 during the season. For a guy whose game comes chiefly from his off-the-snap quickness,his age may get more attention. If the Texans draft a defensive end in round one, like UCLA's Datone Jones, that would signal an end to the Era of the Ninja.
Additionally, overpaying for Smith would not fare Houston well when it comes to the looming contract talks surrounding the 2012 Defensive Player of the Year, J.J. Watt. Granted Watt will make mega-bucks anyhow, but general manager Rick Smith and vice president of football operations, and cap manager, Chris Olsen have to have that in the back of their minds as they deal with his line counterpart.
Still, this is a mutually-beneficial marriage. The Texans need Smith, one of the few vocal leaders in the locker room, and Smith is absolutely thriving under defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. For this to work, Smith's going to need significant guaranteed dollars while the Texans get overall relief. The best way to go about this is
drafting a rookie a longer-term extension to spread the cap hit out while guaranteeing most of it.
A three-year extension of about $10-15 million would be the way I would go. Tacking that onto the year at $9.5 million would turn the contact into a four-year, $19.5-$24.5 million dollar deal. I'd be comfortable with a guarantee of around $15 million, as Smith's reward for being a team player and getting back to a more manageable average of just under $6 million. You can backload the contract to the final year, when Smith is 35, and gain the relief while still maintaining that mutually beneficial relationship.
Everyone can win here. However, if Smith doesn't deal, it's a no-brainer to release him if the Texans find themselves cap-strapped. Unlike last year, I wouldn't expect anyone to be shocked if it happened.