It's high school all over again. The bad boys of the Texans "efense" have been getting all the attention lately, while the good guys on the offense are taken for granted. I guess that's what you get when you rank as the third best offense in the league while posting a 6-10 record. But instead of beating another expired equine from the 30th ranked defense, I want to talk about the other side of the ball today. Specifically, I want to talk about a wide receiver. No, not that one. I'm referring to the Bard of Bayou City: Jacoby Jones.
Sure he's caused more bleach stains on your game day jerseys than anyone else on the offensive side of the ball the last few seasons. Sure his contract has expired, giving many fans reason to fantasize about his replacement...even to the point of hoping the Texans would draft a wide receiver in the 1st round this year who could run fast on a broken foot. (Good luck with that trade-up, Atlanta.) Take the jump while I don my asbestos panda suit and I'll tell you why Jacoby Jones will most likely remain a Houston Texan and why you shouldn't chug extra bleach if he does.
First of all, let's get into why Jacoby will probably remain a Texan. Yes, his contract is up and he's technically a free agent. However, since the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the lockout, teams cannot sign free agents until the players and owners agree on a new CBA or the courts settle their differences for them (a scenario no one wants to see since it would probably ruin the upcoming season).
The previous CBA (which has been in place since 1993) defined a player not under contract with at least four years experience as an unrestricted free agent. However, it expired in 2010 and the league redefined unrestricted free agency to only include players with six or more years of experience. This allows teams to tender offers of one-year contracts with slight pay raises to four and five-year veterans whose contracts have expired.
The players could still sign with other teams (if there wasn't a lockout), but the other team would have to compensate the player's former team with a draft pick, and the former team could match the offer to keep the player from signing with the new team if they wanted. The Texans have tendered Jacoby Jones, and any team signing him away would have to compensate the Texans with a second round pick. Then again, teams cannot sign anyone right now.
The big variable here is how the current lockout is resolved. If the courts lift the stay in June, then the league will use the free agency rules they were operating under after the CBA expired in 2010. That will leave four and five-year veterans like Jacoby Jones, Rashad Butler and Matt Leinart as restricted free agents as outlined above.
If the players and owners agree on a new CBA, we can only speculate what the new rules of free agency will be. It's hard to imagine the owners would agree to looser free agency rules, given the conservative nature of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals (as evidenced by the court reinstating the lockout and rebuking the lower court's ruling in favor of the players). My hunch is that players with less than six years of service will remain restricted free agents.
In spite of the fact that Atlanta valued a rookie wide receiver (who also has a penchant for dropping passes) enough to give up five draft picks, I doubt the rest of the league is buying into that inflation. Maybe there are teams out there who would give up a second round pick for Jacoby, but I bet there aren't many. With the loss of a 2nd round pick shortening the list of interested teams, the Texans would have an easier time matching an offer if they choose to do so.
Why would the Texans choose to resign Jacoby? We all know Jacoby has had problems dropping passes, but so have lots of other receivers at different points in their careers. Many rookies struggle with drops, including such marquee players as Jerry Rice and Andre Johnson. Jerry Rice even struggled with drops later in his career after Joe Montana was replaced with Steve Young. As much as I wanted to compare the drops of NFL wide receivers during their first few seasons, I could only find comprehensive drop stats for the last two.
Pro Football Focus posted an interesting list of last season's drop percentages per wide receiver recently. I was surprised at some of the results. DeSean Jackson (19.67%), Steve Smith (17.86%), Pierre Garcon (15.87%), Miles Austin (13.75%), and Wes Walker (13.08%) all had higher drop rates than Jacoby Jones (12.07%) last season. Get your smelling salts out for this one: Braylon Edwards was tied for 12th best percentage at 6.06%.
While Andre Johnson makes the top 15 (barely), Pro Football Focus' Khaled Elsayed points out that "Andre Johnson eliminated some of the drops that had always been part of his game. Somehow Johnson managed to improve this season, and did so on an injured ankle." (That's because Andre can always lay down a haymaker on injuries and dirty defensive backs.) Some of the results were not so surprising: Kevin Walter has the best drop percentage in the league from 2008-2010. And as Elsayed notes, "With their two best receivers in the top fifteen, you can't argue the Texans aren't helping out Matt Schaub..."
Although a 12% drop rate doesn't sound great, Jacoby's other statistics last season weren't too bad. Football Outsiders shows a 65% completion rate for Jones last season, and his last four games were particularly good. Jones had 22 receptions for 287 yards in those games after catching only 29 passes for 275 yards in the first 11 games. For a team that seems to always look for the silver lining, I'm sure that stat will not go unnoticed by the Texans.
Contrary to popular opinion, drop rates can be improved. Consider the Kansas City Chiefs. In 2009, they led the league with 48 drops and the coaches were desperate to solve the problem in last year's training camp. So desperate they hauled a Porta-Potty onto the field for practice and placed receivers inside and closed the door. One coach would pull the door open suddenly as another coach fired the ball at them. I'm not sure how much credit should go to the Porta-Potty drill, but KC did improve their drops last year. Dwayne Bowe led the league in 2009 with 11 drops and he has averaged 13.87% from 2008-2010, but somehow he avoided even making the top 15 Butterfinger list last season.
Another reason Kubiak will want Jacoby back is for his knowledge of the coach's system. In this litigation riddled off-season, that knowledge will be of even higher value than usual. Any free agent receivers brought in will have a greatly shortened training camp to get acclimated to a new QB and offense (if they even have a training camp... or a pre-season... or a season).
Besides, whom would they go after in FA if they could? Kerns covered that pretty damn well a few weeks ago. I agree with his assessment that none of those guys really grab my attention. I would be more interested in seeing Dorin Dickerson give Jacoby a run for his job in training camp... oh, wait.