2014 Houston Texans Offseason: If I Was Rick Smith

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Weston unveils his 2014 offseason plan if he had the opportunity to run the Houston Texans this offseason.

The hot stove is officially starting to warm up. Oh, wrong sport. News is slowly crawling on through the transaction wire now that the underwear parade is over and the franchise tag deadline has come and gone. I assume Rick Smith and Bill O'Brien have finally drawn up a plan and know what they want the 2014 roster to look like.

Oh, well. Even if the brain trust claims to not be fully sold onto who they should draft or whether they should or should not cut Owen Daniels, I am. Ever since I was a wee lad wearing Shazam! underpants, I was enamored with sports video games. More specifically, I loved the offseason, where I could mold and form any team to my liking. It all started with NHL 1998. Yeah, the one with Peter Forsberg on the cover. This has been one of the few constants in my life where I'm still chewing on the same MVP Baseball 2005 owner mode like a chihuahua with the femur of a mastodon.

So let's imagine we awoke in a Disney movie, but not the one where I was seventeen again, or the one where a magical earring switched my hot young body out with Rob Schnieder's, or the one where I trick an older lady into falling in love with a twelve year old trapped inside a hairy, baby-corn chewing man's body. It's the one where I wake up on a Friday so mysterious you could even call it freaky.

The Cap

Houston currently has $8,997,794 in cap room, thanks to the salary cap jumping by ten million to a total of $134,114,730 and because Antonio Smith, Ben Tate, Wade Smith and others' contracts have completed their course.

All figures courtesy from Over the Cap.

Cuts

This past week, we finally saw the scissors taken from the junk drawer as teams began to make their first cuts of the year to prepare for last Monday's franchise tag deadline. For the Texans, there a few obvious contracts to either restructure or do away with completely: Matt Schaub, Owen Daniels, and Danieal Manning, and a few not so notorious ones.

Matt Schaub has been good as gone ever since Keenumania. The only way I could see him stay a Texan is if Houston drafts Jadeveon Clowney and they vote against giving Keenum another year, or they opt to not sign a stop-gap veteran quarterback on a one-year deal. If Houston chooses to keep Schaub an extra season and cut him next year, they do save $10,000,000, which could be a factor in keeping Schaub if Clowney is drafted. However, by snipping Schaub in 2014, Houston saves a crucial $3,625,000, and the fan base gets the opportunity to watch Schaub start for a team like the Raiders or the Vikings where he will be given first team snaps until a rookie quarterback topples him.

Owen Daniels and Danieal Manning are a little more intriguing to look at compared to Schaub. If Houston opts to cut Manning, they would remove a base salary of $6,000,000, have a dead money hit of $1,500,000 and a projected gain in cap room of around $4,500,000. There's a few issues if they cut Manning. They will have to either roll with Eddie Pleasant (who I'm starting to warm up to) or Shiloh Keo, draft and start a rookie free safety, or sign a free agent who would cost around $3,000,000 a year anyways, which would negate much of the savings. If Manning wasn't the ripe age of 31 and coming back from season-ending surgery, I would give thought to keeping him around for another year, but underneath these conditions it really is not plausible. Houston is better off saving the $4.5 million and coming into 2014 with Eddie Pleasant and a cheap veteran vying for the starting free safety job.

Owen Daniels hasn't played a full season since 2008 and ever since he's played eight, eleven, fifteen, fifteen, and five games. He still has the ability to be a plus pass catcher, but due to durability issues I'd rather use the snow-white Cerebus of Ryan Griffin, Garrett Graham, and Zach Porter. By cutting Daniels, Houston gains a projected savings of $4.5 million dollars.

The players who are less obvious to cut are Derek Newton and Brice McCain because Houston saves $1,389,000 and $850,000 respectively while removing lackluster players. If they decide to do this, they will either have to take a right tackle in the third round again or hope Brennan Williams or David Quessenberry are either a.) healthy or b.) good enough to start at the NFL level. I opt for keeping Newton for the following reasons: a veteran free agent would cost more, I'm wary of expecting anything from Bravid Williamberry, and there's a greater need at left guard. In McCain's case, Brandon Harris has done nothing to prove he is a viable NFL player and we all know how difficult a time rookie cornerbacks have. On the other hand, McCain has shown nothing to prove he should still stay on the field, and its possible to find a decent nickle corner for only $150,000 more dollars. In the end I'm opting to keep McCain for another year simply because of money. If the Texans cut him in 2015, they save $1,700,00, so long live kitten-kitten for one more season.

In summary, here are the Texans cut options and what they gain if they do so.

Player Cap Number Projected Dead Money Projected Gain
Owen Daniels 6,250,000 1,750,000 4,500,000
Danieal Manning 6,000,000 1,500,000 4,500,000
Matt Schaub 14,125,000 10,500,000 3,625,000
Derek Newton 1,404,064 15,064 1,389,000
Brice McCain 1,750,000 900,000 850,000
Total 12,763,167

My Cuts: Owen Daniels ($4,500,000), Danieal Manning ($4,500,000) Matt Schaub ($3,625,000)

Total Money Saved: $ 11,364,167

New Amount of Cap Room Available: $20,361,961

Restricted and Unrestricted Players

Unrestricted Free Agents: Andrew Gardner, Garrett Graham, Jarvis Green, Ryan Harris, Greg Jones, Elbert Mack, Joe Mays, Daryl Sharpton, Antonio Smith, Wade Smith, Ben Tate.

Restricted Free Agents: Bryan Braman, Lestar Jean, Deji Karim, Terrell McClain, Earl Mitchell.

Houston has to sift through these guys like a one-toothed goldminer and decide if they should offer them a contract or let them run amok in the petunias of free agency. Additionally, out of these sixteen players, only Antonio Smith, Garrett Graham, Ben Tate, Wade Smith and Earl Mitchell warrant a serious discussion. The rest are a batch of players you simulate past and let the computer decide if they want to pay these guys $700,000 or not when playing Madden's franchise mode.

Ben Tate is gone (read this and get a glimpse of his 2013 frustration) due to the simple fact that he played through pain last year to make the big bucks, and the Texans don't have money to overpay another running back. It's still a shame Houston never fully took advantage of a Foster/Tate backfield.

At this point in his career, the only thing Wade Smith does well is cut the Will linebacker or one technique on the backside of zone plays. In every other aspect of the game, he's cancerous. He's an atrocious pass blocker who leans too much, lacks upper body strength to stifle pass rushers, fails to drive defenders vertically in the run game, and lacks lateral quickness. Even if Houston could sign him for the veteran minimum, they would still be better off moving on and using a high pick on a guard in this year's draft.

Antonio Smith and Earl Mitchell will get deals elsewhere. With an incoming 3-4 two gap scheme, the need for monstrous, ham-guzzling defensive lineman will push out the 300 pound nose tackle and the aging defensive end.

Garrett Graham is the only one of these unrestricted free agents who's intriguing. He is a subpar run blocker, but has a knack for finding space and can attack the seams in the pass game. Based on his age and production so far, I would sign him for three years, $3,750,000 with a $1,000,000 bonus (cap hit of $1,583,333 ) unless some team out there offers him James Casey money. If that occurs, Houston has already signed Zach Potter for depth to help in the run game and they can draft a white tight end from Wisconsin again. As stated earlier, the rest don't offer much value and are decisions for the computer to make.

Contracts handed out: Garrett Graham 3 years $3,750,000 with a $1,000,000 bonus, which comes out to a cap hit of $1,583,333 in 2014.

Houston is going to sign at least a few of these guys, so let's remove $4,000,000 as an estimate for roster filler, restricted free agent tenders, and future undrafted free agents.

New Cap Room Available: $15,198,628

The NFL Draft

There have been thousands of tweets, mocks, and articles posted about what the Texans will do with the number one pick. McNair loves Clowney, Blake Bortles is an O'Brien type of quarterback, unnamed sources claim the Texans are going to take a quarterback, Johnny Manziel is going to make the Texans pay if they don't take him, and a multitude of other link clicking hits. Here's the thing. There are really only two options that should be in play. Take Clowney or take Bridgewater. That's it.

Right now, I don't exactly know what the Texans would do with Clowney if they decided to use #1 on him. I assumed he would play with his hand on the ground, but after seeing him show up to the Combine ten pounds slimmer and running a 4.53 40 yard dash, it seems like he wants to play strongside outside linebacker. This is weird because Clowney is extremely rough at the moment. He has no moves other than a swim, and he succeeded in college because he was bigger, faster, and stronger than every offensive lineman he played against. In the NFL, this advantage is minimized and guys cannot just rely on speed and brute strength alone. They have to learn technique and become football players. He needs to learn an entire arsenal of pass rush moves and how to read the lineman across from him on top of a new position. If this occurs, it would be a first year filled with scabs masked by moments of brilliance in a frustrating rookie season.

The other issue with taking Clowney is you are giving up on 2014 and playing for the future. There's no reason to lose the possibility of gaining a starter on defense in exchange for taking a third round pick project quarterback, especially since Jimmy Garoppolo, Zach Mettenberger, and Aaron Murray do nothing for me. Additionally, this would mean Houston would either resort to trotting out Schaub for one more year a la 2006 David Carr, give Case Keenum another year to say "Eff It, I'm going deep" or sign a veteran quarterback like Michael Vick for a season. This scenario would lead to a team that would win four to six games. It would give the Texans a vicious defense for the future and the ability to take a quarterback in the first round come 2015.

The previous scenario is cool and all, but I'm operating under a different pretense. I have beat this monster into a pulp before, but its necessary to bring it up again. Here are the lucky stats for the Texans in 2013:

One Possesion Record 2-9
Turnover Differential -20 (32nd)
Opp Defensive Touchdowns 6 (2nd)
Strength of Schedule (Avg=0) 1.9
Pythagorean Wins-Actual +2.2

I don't know what Kubiak and Schaub did last summer, but I assume they went to a zoo where every animal was a black cat, traveled to a fun house and slaughtered every mirror in sight, played pickup basketball underneath a giant ladder, bought a hundred pairs of new shoes and laid them on top of a table, and spent every night sleeping in a cemetery. In addition to luck, the other difference between 2012 and 2013 was Matt Schaub's play.

Year Yards Cmp% TD INT DYAR DVOA W
2009 4770 67.9% 29 15 1,624 29.3% 9
2010 4370 63.6% 24 12 930 12.2% 6
2011 2479 61.0% 15 6 701 24.4% 7
2012 4008 64.3% 22 12 882 16.6% 12
2013 2310 61.2% 10 14 -122 -16.2% 2

With better quarterback play and coaching, regression to the mean (turnover luck, one possession record, etc.), the plexiglass principle (basically, teams that see a huge jump in wins or losses tend to regress or improve the next season), a weak conference, weaker division, and an easy schedule make a trip to the playoffs possible. So if Bridgewater is the real deal, which I think he is, the playoffs would not be out of the question for a talented team who just endured the worst season of all time.

As far as the rest of this draft goes, I would take David Yankey in the second round if he's available, then go outside linebacker, defensive end, cornerback, running back and then take the best talent available from there. As incredulous as it would it be to witness a side of the defense with J.J. Watt at DE and Clowney at OLB or observe these two penetrate into the backfield from each side of the line of scrimmage and terrorize offensive linemen across the league, the need for a quarterback and Bridgewater's ability outweigh this defensive erotica.

Cap Hit: Bridgewater $4,034,636. As far as the rest of the cap goes, let's use last year's Chiefs $7,415,574 rookie pool money as an estimate for how much the Texans will spend on their 2014 rookie class.

Cap Room Available: $7,783,054 ($15,198,628-$7,415,574)

Free Agency

With $7,783,054 remaining, all we can do is fill in the remaining holes after the draft. The last time Houston went all in during free agency was back in 2011, when Smith fixed the secondary by signing Johnathan Joseph and Manning. Since then, Rick Smith obliterated cap space by extending Foster, Schaub, and Cushing. As a result, Houston has been neutered in free agency ever since. When it comes to free agents: Terrence Cody may be an interesting fat-kitten nose tackle who can eat up blockers for a cheap price. The same goes for Tyson Jackson, and James Ihedigbo or Mike Mitchell could be potential replacements at free safety. I have no idea what to expect for these players to sign for until some of the larger dominoes start to fall so we get an idea what the market is like, but I assume these players will sign in the one to three million dollar a year range.

If this was 2015, when they could save $10,000,000 by cutting Schaub, I would love for them to sign another wide receiver like Julian Edelman to work the short game. Imagine giving Teddy Bridgewater Andre Johnson, DeAndre Hopkins, Julian Edelman, Garrett Graham, Ryan Griffin, and Arian Foster to work with. It would be an ideal situation for any rookie quarterback to come into and begin to produce immediately. However, based on the salary cap, all of this is merely a mirage like a Schlitterbahn in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert.

Contracts: Again, let's assume Houston signs one or two players, so let's subtract four million.

Total Cap Room Remaining: $3,437,500

Position Switches

One of the first things I do if I'm Romeo Crennel is call Brooks Reed into my office, break down some tape with him, show him why he would be better suited at inside linebacker and outline how he can get up to speed by the time the season starts. Like Connor Barwin, Reed had one good season rushing the passer and followed it up with a disappointing one. I assumed Reed still has not fully recovered from a 2011 groin injury and never regained his flexibility and speed. Last season Reed was an abysmal pass rusher, but he still did an adequate job of setting the edge. He's commendable at standing up offensive linemen and using his hands to shed off blocks. Because of this, Reed would be better suited to play inside linebacker where his current skills would be maximized. Barring another Brian Cushing injury (please don't happen, please don't happen, please don't happen), we could finally live in a world without a Barrett Ruud, Tim Dobbins, Joe Mays, Jeff Tarpinian, Darryl Sharpton, or Bradie James type of linebacker playing oodles of snaps.

The last position switches involves the offensive line. At the moment, the Texans employ three players who are currently slated as an offensive tackle--Derek Newton, David Quessenberry, and Brennan Williams. There have been murmurs that Quessenberry would play guard in the NFL, but I would lock him down at tackle. To me, both Williams and Quessenberry were both meh type of offensive linemen coming out of college who would have been overwhelmed starting in the NFL. The problem is we have no idea if they are even good enough to do that since they both missed the 2013 season. Derek Newton has been the starter for two years now, and even though he's slow-footed, plays too high, and lacks upper body strength, he still has been able to carve out a niche as an adequate run blocker. I would not invest any more money or draft picks in this position this year. I would instead have all three of these guys compete for a job during OTAs, training camp, and throughout the preseason. The strategy is simple, give the first team stats to whoever performs the best.

The last player I would move would be Ben Jones. Last season, they had him play guard for depth purposes and he was tossed some drives here and there to relieve Wade Smith of his duties. The problem was he lacked the strength to consistently block defensive tackles from the guard position. What he needs to do is spend the summer lifting weights with Brandon Brooks and turn himself from a doughy tube of icing into a mauler. I would move him back to his college position at center, where most of his blocks would be down blocks and one vs. one battles against the nose. In these situations, he just needs to cover guys up. Then, if he has to move guys vertically up the field, he would be acing up with a sturdy guard like Brandon Brooks or David "Please Fall to the Second Round" Yankey.

Contract Extensions

Like Rick Smith, I don't like waiting until a player because a free agent before signing him to a long term deal. In this case, J.J. Watt, the denizen of the backfield, and Kareem Jackson are the two key players who should be locked up before this time next year. Of the 330,000,000 people who reside in America, you wouldn't be able to find a single sack of skin who would disagree with making J.J. Watt the highest paid defensive player in the league this offseason. There are quite a few rumblings of discontent when it comes to Kareem Jackson. Despite a weird 2013 and a disastrous rookie year, he has slowly emerged into one of the better corners in the league. Jackson is a physical corner who's not only great in coverage, but can stop the run as well. His problem is the little things. He does not turn his head to look for the ball after playing great coverage; as a result, he gets marred with silly pass interference penalties. On top of that, Kareem hits too high at times and finds himself susceptible to unnecessary roughness penalties. The good news is both of these having nothing to do with talent or skill. All he must do is make a few tweaks to his game to supplant himself as a top ten corner.

The issue is there isn't enough money in 2014 to sign both in either real life or fiction. The only way for it to occur is if Smith signs them to back-loaded deals accompanied with a miniscule signing bonus. In 2015, there will be cap room when Schaub's dead money comes off the books, and Johnathan Joseph ($8,500,000) and Chris Myers ($6,000,000) can both be cut to save a total of $14,500,000. The only other issue is that Whitney Mercilus and Brandon Brooks are free agents in 2015. Depending on their performance in 2014, they could be looking for big paydays. Going into the current offseason, there is a fear neither Watt or Jackson will be signed to an extension and both will be able to look at the open market in 2015.

At the current numbers, I would not be able to sign either of these players right now. I just have to hope a nine win season can help incentive the pot enough for both to sign long-term deals next season.

Total Cap Available: $3,437,500

Roster Outlook

Offense

QB Teddy Bridgewater
RB Arian Foster
WR Andre Johnson
WR DeAndre Hopkins
TE Ryan Griffin
TE Garrett Graham
LT Duane Brown
LG Open
C Chris Myers
RG Brandon Brooks
RT Derek Newton

Defense

DT OPEN
DE OPEN
DE J.J. Watt
OLB Whitney Mercilus
OLB Open
ILB Brooks Reed
ILB Brian Cushing
FS OPEN
SS D.J. Swearinger
RCB Johnathan Joseph
LCB Kareem Jackson

When I began my research, I was full of optimism, youth and joy for this offseason. Shortly afterwards, I left like a head nuzzled on top of the metallic pillow of a guillotine. I had ideas of signing Julian Edelman as a housewarming gift for Bridgewater and giving J.J. Watt and Kareem Jackson long-term deals. In reality, none of this is possible and it was a surprising, yet necessary reality check.

What we will see Houston do is nearly identical to the plan I laid out. They will cut veterans to free up cap space to gain enough wiggle room to sign a couple other veterans on short-term deals for depth and build through the draft. Smith will need to be extremely savvy, signing undervalued veterans on one year deals like Seattle and Denver did in 2013, while having a slam dunk draft for the Texans to have a shot of success this season. With an easy schedule, weak conference, weaker division, current talent, and regression, Houston has a chance to make it back to the playoffs in 2014, but it's going to take a career year from Rick Smith to make this happen.

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