Houston enters the year with three pressing free-agents-to-be: quarterback Matt Schaub, left tackle Duane Brown, and outside linebacker Connor Barwin. The news came out yesterday that they are trying to negotiate extensions with both Brown and Barwin. For Brown and Schaub, I am comfortable with the idea of a long-term extension. Brown has become one of the best left tackles in the NFL, and Schaub, for all his warts, plays quarterback at a level that the Texans are going to require if they are serious about contending in the short-term.
Barwin is in a different scenario. I don't necessarily mean that as a slam on him or his (evident) talent, but there are a few mitigating factors around a potential extension for Barwin. I'm not exactly sure if it's a wise move -- but I'm also not exactly sure that signing him now wouldn't be a stroke of genius. With Barwin, more than with Brown or Schaub, a lot of the future ramifications of a possible extension depend on projection rather than the known performance.
Barwin was excellent last season, but it was just one season
That's the biggest issue both in the affirmative and the negative for a potential extension for Barwin. He showed some flashes of pass-rush ability in 2009, during the days where many thought that Bernard Pollard's emotion alone was enough to turn the pass defense around. In 2010, Barwin was lost for the season in Week 1 against the Colts. Last year was the first year that he was a full-time starter, and while Barwin (obviously) had a great season, he wasn't nearly as consistent as you might like. A four-sack explosion against the Blaine Gabbert/Luke McCown Jaguars buoyed his overall numbers and made them sexy, but this is a player who spent an entire month (between Week 5 and Week 8) sackless, which is something a lot of people got on Mario Williams about.
On the other hand, Barwin's 26 hurries (tied for 16th in the NFL, via FO) indicate that his talent is legitimate, and if the idea is that he's only scratching the surface of his natural talent, signing him before the season might be a way to keep him on a relatively team-friendly contract. If he blows up this season and posts 12 or 13 sacks, someone is probably going to find a way to give him near-Mario Williams money on the open market. The Texans can't match that, and the franchise tag would be prohibitive considering how close against the cap they'll be.
What it really comes down to is...
Rick Smith's stolen 20-70-10 philosophy
You may remember a Monday Morning QB featuring Texans GM Rick Smith. Remember this quote?
One that he's adopted is former GE boss Jack Welch's 20-70-10 philosophy: the top 20 percent of your employees are standouts and must be nurtured. The majority, the 70 percent, are the working class -- needed but still able to move if the right situation arises. The lowest 10 percent have to be churned and replaced, because a company always is looking for ways to get better by importing new blood." If you have a 53-man roster, maybe you've got 10 or 11 core players,'' Smith said, "and then 25 to 30 roles players, and then you're always looking to churn the bottom of the roster.''
That looms large over the Barwin discussions, because where you feel his place is -- in that 20 percent or in that 70 percent -- is going to dictate how important it is to re-sign him. I would argue that the following Texans are for-sure core players: Matt Schaub, Arian Foster, Andre Johnson, Duane Brown, Chris Myers, J.J. Watt, Brian Cushing, and Johnathan Joseph. That leaves room for two or three more "core" guys -- and I think you can make arguments for players like Glover Quin, Danieal Manning, and Antonio Smith as well as Barwin.
I'm not necessarily sold on Barwin being in this tier, even despite the importance of an upper-echelon pass rusher in today's NFL. With how close the Texans are to the salary cap, you could argue that if they don't view him as a core player, they can't even afford to make him a lowball offer. If Barwin were to leave, of course, the Texans would segue nicely into my next point...
The Texans have a first-round replacement lined up for Barwin's departure
This has colored my thinking on the subject more than anything else. Pass rush is vitally important in the NFL, but even still, you don't see many players get drafted in the first-round primarily for their ability in sub packages. Perhaps the Texans have Brooks Reed as a disappointment in their own book and are planning for Whitney Mercilus to usurp snaps from him, but I think Occam's Razor looks at the Mercilus selection, notes that Barwin is on the last year of his deal, and draws the conclusion that Mercilus is either leverage or the long-term replacement.
The Texans have definitely worked very hard to develop quality depth, and it has showed, but between Mercilus and the preseason/blowout contributions of Bryan Braman, I think you can argue that they are deepest at outside linebacker. This lowers Barwin's relative value to the team, and gives the Texans, in my mind, more of a reason to value someone like Quin over Barwin.
Is re-signing Barwin a good idea?
My conclusion is that the Texans probably have a much deeper read of the situation than we do. They see the practices. They know how comfortable they are with their backups. Asked to choose as an outsider, I would say that Barwin is both the most replaceable of the three stars entering their contract year and the one with the weakest track record. I'm not saying that signing Barwin long-term would be a mistake -- mostly because I think if Houston views him as a core player, there is probably more raw talent than we saw in his numbers last year. If they believe that is the case, they should absolutely try to lock him in before he goes out and has another great season.
But between the injury, the track record, and the potential of his probable replacement, it's not a contract I'd be comfortable handing out.