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Houston Texans Free Agents: The Connor Barwin Conundrum

Connor Barwin presents an interesting situation. Should the Houston Texans re-sign him or let him walk? If you let him walk, how do you replace him?

Even Barwin doesn't know what to make of this situation.
Even Barwin doesn't know what to make of this situation.
Jonathan Daniel

Unlike safety Glover Quin, the situation around Houston Texans outside linebacker Connor Barwin is murky. Cloudy. Fuzzy. Hazy. Nebulous. Perplexing. Puzzling. You get the idea, right?

Determining a market value for the former Cincinnati Bearcat is difficult because there are so many questions surrounding him. Was 2012 a fluke season or was 2011 the fluke year? How much are you willing to gamble on that? Is Barwin going to be paid as a defensive end or a linebacker? Pass-rushing tends to get overpaid, but is Barwin a pass-rushing linebacker? How can you give millions and millions of dollars to a player who has a total of 19 sacks in four seasons? Where does he rank among pass-rushers, especially free-agents-to-be?

Again, this is not an easy situation, but let's try and spell it out to find a solution to our riddle.

First thing's first. Throw out the franchise tag idea. Not only should it be reserved for Glover Quin, should a deal not get done, but Barwin's price tag is too rich for the cap-strapped(?) Texans. Even though he would be tagged as a linebacker, due to two seasons as such, the number is too high. The 2013 franchise tag is tentatively set to be $9.455 million. That money could be put to better use, if the Texans have it to spend, like on a wide receiver and/or nose tackle and/or third safety.

As for the defensive end versus outside linebacker argument, it's hard to say. Some 4-3 team could determine Barwin is a defensive end and offer him as such. I don't believe he is. Barwin has a linebacker's body, has been playing there for two seasons, had his best season at the position, and last played defensive end regularly in 2009. I also think the defensive end route is a limited market. There are better options out there in free agency and the 2013 NFL Draft is stocked with talent. With more teams moving to a 3-4 and fewer big target free agents, I think you'll see Barwin stick in the outside linebacker category. That's how I would view any negotiation with him.

As I did with Quin, any negotiation has to have parameters set by similar players. With only one good season to his credit, it is hard to really pinpoint a group of outside linebackers similar to Barwin, but there are a few names out there if we look at the past few seasons. The chart below shows two-year averages (2011 and 2012, numbers rounded up to the nearest mark) of linebackers with similar statistics and their contracts.

Name/Stat Tackles (Solo) Sacks Forced Fumbles Fumbles Recovered Interceptions Passes Defensed Contract (year signed)
Connor Barwin 45 (35) 7.5 1 1 0 6 ???
Ahmad Brooks 48 (35) 7.0 2 0 1 5 6-years/$37M ($8.25M guaranteed); 2012
Tamba Hali 59 (46) 10.5 3 0 0 1 5-years/$57.5M ($35M guaranteed); 2011
James Harrison 65 (49) 7.5 2 0 0 0 6-years/$51.75M ($10M guaranteed); 2009
Cameron Wake 48 (38) 12.0 2 0 0 2 5-years/$34.53M ($17M guaranteed); 2012
LaMarr Woodley 39 (27) 6.5 1 1 1 2 6-years/$61.5M ($22.5M guaranteed); 2011

It is important to note that Harrison signed his deal after a monster 16-sack season. His deal then was large, but now falls in line with these other 'backers as he misses games due to suspension slows down. Also note the wide discrepancy in average salary despite statistically similar lines. You have a range of $6M to $11.5M with 22.2% to 60.8% of the contract guaranteed. Now we have an understanding of why this is a complex situation.

Honestly, I wouldn't gamble a ton of money on a player with two extreme seasons. It's too risky, even if I believe Barwin's more the player his averages show than the extremes. In an ideal world, general manager Rick Smith, Barwin, and Barwin's agent would be honest, recognize Barwin's value could be a lot higher after one season, and agree to a one-year deal worth $3-5M and bet on Barwin producing. Due to injury risks and short careers, that is a pipe-dream.

If Barwin declines a one-year offer, the deal I would be comfortable offering him is similar to Ahmad Brooks'. The numbers are similar, they're similar types of players (high motor, capable, and a plus-piece to a defense, but not the star), and that deal seems fair. Let's be honest: Barwin is not a Wake, Hali, or Terrell Suggs and probably never will be. The $8-10M guaranteed minimizes risk, but I would probably reduce my offer to a four-year deal worth between $20 and $26 million. Barwin would get paid and have an opportunity to cash in again at 30 while he still has value. An near-identical Brooks deal wouldn't be so bad but, as with Quin, you may win over Barwin with an opportunity to double-dip contracts in his prime years.

I know some of you are saying he would never agree to such a franchise discount because everyone presumes to know what will happen. If Barwin gets to free agency, all he needs is one pass-rushing hungry team to show him an average of $8-10M. Some desperate GM will ignore this past season and gamble that Barwin is young and that 2012 is the fluke. If Barwin re-signs in Houston, it will primarily be because he wants to be in Houston. It's pretty obvious he loves the city, so that's possible.

If Barwin stays, it frees up another draft pick for Houston to use on depth or use as ammunition to move up in the draft. If he leaves, people assume Wade Phillips will draft another outside linebacker since the Texans probably couldn't afford Anthony Spencer or Shaun Phillips in free agency. Instead of retread ideas, I'll throw out another one as a replacement: Dallas free agent Victor Butler.

Soon-to-be 26, Butler, a Wade Phillips drafted player, has been the top reserve to Spencer and DeMarcus Ware for his entire career but has shown some pass-rushing capabilities. With Dallas moving to a 4-3, he also may be schemed out. There are some talks of inconsistencies, but maybe a reunion with Wade in a new place could be what the doctor ordered. With no real statistics to pump up his value, Butler likely could be had with a low-risk three-year deal to compete with Whitney Mercilus and Brooks Reed while potentially freeing up a higher draft pick, again, should Barwin leave.

What happens with Connor Barwin will be the most interesting Houston free agent situation to watch since it will reveal a lot about the braintrust's thought. We'll get to see how Phillips and Smith react to a disappointing season from a free-agent-to-be and see if Phillips believes linebackers a product of his system and not the other way around. Barwin could not receive an offer, receive a short/low-amount offer, or make a decent buck or two in free agency. It's a conundrum that has no easy answer.