In the category of "Silver Linings to Disastrous Situations", Ryan Mallett’s season-ending pectoral injury may be a blessing in disguise. I – along with most Texans fans – had lofty dreams of Mallett leading Houston to an improbable 11-5 record and a division title. Alas, that was not meant to be. Instead, with Ryan Fitzpatrick back at quarterback, the Texans are likely relegated to finishing somewhere in the 8-8 range, which will stick them with a mid-round draft position. As disappointing as that outcome may be, Rick Smith may yet be able to turn Mallett’s injury into an opportunity to keep the core of this team together.
As of today, the Texans have a very small amount of cap space at a measly $2 million due in large part to having over $20 million in dead money on the books. At the start of the next league year, all of that dead money will be cleared, leaving Rick Smith with a much more forgiving $12.2 million buffer zone. Furthermore, should the team decide to part ways with veteran corner Johnathan Joseph (who will be 31 next season), the Texans will have a whopping $20.7 million to work with at a minimum, depending on how much the salary cap increases next year. Considering that Mallett and star cornerback Kareem Jackson will both be free agents after this season, all of that available cash will likely come in handy during the annual March free agency frenzy.
If the reports of Houston’s interest in bringing Mallett back for 2015 are true, one can assume that Mallett and his agent will be looking for a one or two year "prove it" deal to set up a monstrous payday down the line. Looking at other similar "prove it" quarterback contracts over the past few years, including Alex Smith’s one-year, $5 million deal in 2011, Matt Flynn’s three-year, $20.5 million contract in 2012, and Kyle Orton’s two-year, $11 million deal in 2014, one can assume that Mallett’s salary in a comparable deal will hover somewhere between $5 and $7 million dollars. For the sake of compromise in this post, I will settle at a one-year, $6 million deal as a springboard to allow Mallett to work for something substantially higher in 2016. After Mallett agreed to that contract, the Texans would then have just under $15 million left, assuming that Joseph is let go.
Cornerbacks with top tier salaries are going for around $12 million a year these days. Is Kareem Jackson worth that much money? When going off of accolades and national recognition, probably not. When watching the Texans defense with and without Ice Kareem, his value is painfully obvious. According to Football Outsiders – one of the few statistics based websites I actually trust – the Texans are the best team in the entire NFL at stopping opposing "number two" receivers, and that is due in large part to Jackson blanketing them all day long. When trying to slow down "number one" receivers, Johnathan Joseph’s performance has the Texans ranked a disappointing 28th. I have thought for the past two seasons that K-Jax was the best defensive back on the team, but the secondary’s outings against the Eagles, Browns, and Bengals without Jackson have practically shouted "PAY ME, RICK!" on K-Jax's without even needing a marked up shoe. Simply put, the Texans need this guy on their team if they want to survive Andrew Luck twice a year.
I have a hard time believing that Jackson will command $12 million a year despite never making the Pro Bowl or being voted as an All-Pro. Then again, I have an harder time believing that Jackson will command anything less than recent cornerback signings like Alterraun Verner ($6.4 million per year) and Keenan Lewis ($5.1 million per year). Splitting the difference, I think it is perfectly reasonable to expect something in the range of a five-year, $35 million deal ($7 million per year) with incentives thrown in for Pro Bowl and All-Pro appearances. After signing Jackson in this scenario, that would leave another $8 million dollars available to sign other role players back to the team, like Brooks Reed, Tim Jamison, and even Derek Newton. Hell, Rick Smith could even take that money and go after a few well known 2015 free agents like Sean Weatherspoon, Terrance Knighton, Karl Klug, Brandon Marshall (linebacker), Shane Vereen, Tashaun Gipson, or Devin McCourty.
This year may end up in soul-crushing disappointment, but in the NFL there is always a bright side to everything. For Texans fans, that bright side is next season…again.
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