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Does Matt Schaub Hold All The Cards?

HOUSTON, TX - DECEMBER 18:   Matt Schaub #8 of the Houston Texans sits on the sidelines during play against the Carolina Panthers at Reliant Stadium on December 18, 2011 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX - DECEMBER 18: Matt Schaub #8 of the Houston Texans sits on the sidelines during play against the Carolina Panthers at Reliant Stadium on December 18, 2011 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Last week I focused mainly on the receivers. This week, I want to talk a little about the quarterback situation the Texans face in the future years, because I don't think it's necessarily on solid long-term footing.

Matt Schaub is heading into this season in much the same way Mario Williams came into the 2011 season. Schaub finished the year on IR. When healthy, Schaub is a very good quarterback, but not an elite one. There are noticeable flaws in his game. And, most importantly, his contract is up after this season and the Texans have not really had any public discussions about a long-term deal with him.

I guess the best thing I could say about Schaub at this point is that if he can continue to be the player he's been the last few seasons, I do believe the Texans can win a Super Bowl with him. But the question going forward is how many years of that Schaub are left -- and just how badly the Texans need them.

The big problem with betting on Schaub is that very few non-elite quarterbacks have been able to maintain his level of play well into their 30s. If I dig out a list of Football Outsiders' similarity scores for Schaub's last three years, it is rather unique due to two factors:

1) Schaub missed the last six weeks of 2011 with his Lisfranc injury, making it harder to compare his total numbers to healthier players. (This is a recurring problem with our Schaub projections.).
2) The passing game around the league has clearly taken off over the past few years, skewing things towards today's players.

That is a roundabout way of saying that Schaub's most similar comp over his last three years is Joe Montana ... but at only a 606 score out of 1000. I believe, subjectively, that it makes sense to kick these older players from his similarity scores list because the game has changed a lot since the franchise quarterbacks of the 70's and 80's were roaming. Also, because plainly Matt Schaub is not Joe Montana. If you asked 10 impartial observers to make a list of the top 10 quarterbacks in the NFL today, I think Schaub would place as high as sixth or seventh on some of them, and be left off others entirely.

So let me kick those guys out of his top 10 most similar players. Here is who we're left with:

Mark Brunell 1996-1998 (508)
Marc Bulger 2003-2005 (506)
Jake Delhomme 2004-2006 (453)
Jay Cutler 2009-2011 (423)

Obviously it's hard to gauge Cutler's ultimate fate, but he is an interesting contemporary for Schaub in so much as he's middle-tier and has dealt with injuries (and sacks). Delhomme missed most of 2007, then had one year game-managing the 2008 Panthers to a 12-4 record despite very pedestrian stats before imploding against Arizona. Bulger bounced back and had an extremely fine 2006 season, then was beaten down over the 2007 and 2008 seasons as the Rams ran out of talent. Brunell continued to be acceptable for a number of years afterwards, but he was much younger than Schaub was in those seasons.

I feel fine about Schaub for this coming season, but I'm with Rick Smith in that I don't think negotiating a new contract for him should be a priority. Let's say he comes back as the Schaub of old -- what is that worth in today's market? My guess would be that his fair value would be about ~$10 million a season. Maybe $12 million if he gets to free agency and you're bidding against other teams. Once you decide that, you have to figure out the odds that he can keep repeating vintage Schaub years as he nears 35. I would not want to have him on a very long deal, and the state of the Texans' cap precludes the old "franchise a player for more money than he's worth just to keep him on a short-term deal" gig. Essentially, I feel like this year will tell us a lot more about Schaub, but my guess is that he has about a two or three-year window where he is the Schaub of old before his skills start to deteriorate and he becomes a backup-caliber quarterback.

So can the Texans rely on anyone else to provide play like Schaub? That leads us to T.J. Yates ... I'm also not sold on T.J. Yates. Again, this year is going to be very instructive as to his value going forward, but if you asked me today if I'd want to enter the 2013 season with Yates as the starter ... I dunno. Probably not. Here's his closest one-year similarity scores via Football Outsiders:

Jay Cutler 2006 866
Tarvaris Jackson 2008 812
Matt Moore 2009 796
Charlie Frye 2005 779
Dave Wilson 1983 756
Stan Humphries 1990 756
Shaun King 1999 756
Steve Fuller 1981 755
Tim Rattay 2003 754
A.J. Feeley 2002 749

Boy, that list started out exciting ... then it got drab in a hurry. Before we go around saying that Yates is the next Cutler, I think we should pay attention to the pedigree with this list. Cutler, Wilson, and Fuller are the three first-round picks, and Wilson/Fuller are hardly instructive today anyway. Outside of Cutler and Humphries, there just isn't much to get excited about here. Even considering them, the overall ceiling of the list tends to be pretty limited. I don't think Yates is necessarily a bad player -- finding a reputable backup quarterback/mediocre starter with a fifth-round pick is quite an accomplishment -- but I also don't think there's any evidence at this point that says he is a star-in-waiting. Hang the Cutler comp to the wall if you did feel that way watching him, but I didn't see much Cutler in his game. He's a little too mistake-prone and was that way in college as well. I don't feel comfortable with the thought that he'll improve with more time in the system.

That's really the big dilemma when it comes to re-signing Schaub. As I've mentioned a time or two, this has become a passing league, and you have to be able to pass to win. The Schaub of the last three years throws at a high enough level to win a title as long as the Texans surround him with plenty of other good pieces. They finally managed to do that in 2011 before he got hurt.

Here's the thing though: if the Texans can't count on Schaub to stay at that level, and they also can't count on Yates to become that kind of player, what does that mean as the 2013 offseason hits?

And that leads me to believe that unless Schaub totally faceplants this year, there is going to be a lot of pressure to re-sign him after the season. Even quarterbacks of Schaub's stature rarely hit the free-agent market unless they have known maladies (see: Manning, Peyton, neck; Brees, Drew, shoulder). Turning the team over to Yates would be really bold unless he makes massive strides this season. Worse yet, with the running game and defense looking solid going forward, and Yates playing well enough to earn a "game manager" label, perhaps, it'd be hard for the Texans to adequately punt a season to find a franchise quarterback via the draft.

We've spent a lot of virtual ink discussing the possibilities of re-signing Duane Brown and Connor Barwin, but this delicate dance is going to be Rick Smith's greatest challenge yet. Sign Schaub for too much money (or too many years) and it could really harm the chances of keeping a few of Houston's top-line free agents. Let Schaub walk, and it could lead to a scenario where the team treads water while they try to find a new quarterback to take them to the top.

I came into this piece thinking that the Texans had a lot of leverage over Schaub due to his age, skill set that is perfectly suited for their offense, and relative talent to other teams. I leave thinking that he may get more money than I thought.