Coming home to a house set ablaze is the feeling that covered me in fire ants last year when I arrived back from Spring Break after camping in Zion National Park: Glover Quin gone, Connor Barwin gone, and James Casey gone, with nothing other than Ed Reed rumors to show for it.
This year, I arrived home from vacation after back country camping in the Guadalupe Mountains with a mellower feeling, despite the same results. At Guadalupe Peak, I sat upon the throne of Texas and gazed upon cars moving like inch worms along a child's play carpet. I scoured a cave dripping with natural masterpieces 750 feet below the ground. After staying unplugged from the mothership like last year, I turned on my phone once the wheels touched down on I-10, only to see 2013 all over again: Brice McCain gone, Owen Daniels gone, Bryan Braman gone, Terrell McClain gone. Later on I received the news that Daryl Sharpton signed with Washington, Joe Mays signed with Kansas City, and Antonio Smith signed with Oakland. All of these departures occurred with nothing other than a Garrett Graham signing to show for the the first wave of 2014 free agency.
Last year, I was befuddled a 12-4 team would stand pat while everyone else made an effort to get better. Now, a year older and wiser, I better understand the way the cap works and know that an offseason of austerity and saving money for next year is a wiser decision than leaving only an inch to breathe underneath the cap. Last year's irrationality turned into wise experience. The dust has settled, and the first part of free agency is coming to a close. Let's go ahead and analyze the departures to take a look at where the Texans have to go the rest of free agency.
Owen Daniels, Brice McCain & Wade Smith: Unemployed
Owen Daniels was cut to create $4.5 million dollars in cap space. This money was then used to sign Garrett Graham (more on this to come later). The rumor on the tweet machine was Daniels had visited Green Bay, where he seems like a natural fit. The Packers may lose Jermichael Finley to the Seahawks, even though nobody knows if the talented yet frustrating Finley will even be the same after having spinal surgery. If Daniels signs with Green Bay, expect for him to receive a two or three year deal in the $3-$4 million range, almost exactly like his previous contract. Alhough Green Bay stupidly gave Julius Peppers three years and $30 million, it's likely Owen Daniels will be utilized as an Aaron Rodgers red zone target and will be Lambeau Leaping come the 2014 season.
Unlike Owen Daniels, Brice McCain and Wade Smith have yet to be courted during free agency. While teams are dancing and throwing millions of dollars around, these two are trading Yu-Gi-Oh! cards outside the gymnasium where the contorted blares act as a soundtrack for their negotiations. They will both probably be in this situation for the majority of the offseason. If I had to lay some chips on the table, I see Smith getting a deal within the month to act as a utility sixth man on the offensive line. McCain will be signed as a camp invite and will smear the ink after injuries occur in preseason.
Earl Mitchell (MIA 4 Years, $16 Million) and Antonio Smith (OAK 2 Years, $9 Million)
Jeff Ireland was fired by the Dolphins after last year's 8-8 team refused to clinch a playoff spot after being handed every opportunity to do so. Shortly afterwards, new GM Dennis Hickey came into his refurbished office with a case of whippets and proceeded to get to work. Miami's starting defensive tackles last year were Randy Starks and Paul Soliai, and both players became free agents at the conclusion of 2013. Hickey decided to keep Starks, lose Soliai to the high seas of free agency, and opted to sign Earl Mitchell in his place to play the one technique in Miami's 4-3. During his four years with Houston, Mitchell accumulated 91 tackles, 3.5 sacks, four passes defensed, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. He did this in a 4-3 and 3-4 one-gap scheme while being a pre-season All-Star and a never good/never bad football player during the regular season. He was just kind of there. Kind of like your copy of Infinite Jest, still sitting unread on your Ikea bookshelf. Despite this, the Dolphins gave Mitchell a four year deal with $16 million dollar contract, with $9 million guaranteed. It's a contract every Texans fan knows is silly to hand to a replacement level player (#WAEM) and it's another case of need + cap room = overpay. The only question that remains here is how long will it take for Dolphins fans to realize what we learned these past four years.
After a subpar 2013, it was pretty clear that fan favorite Antonio Smith would not be spending another year in Houston. In the pass happy NFL, where a pass rush is a necessary counter for the Peyton Mannings and Alex Smiths of the world, anyone who can kind-of-sort of rush the passer will be given a contract. As a result, the Raiders gave Smith $9 million dollars for two seasons because of the premium the market puts on pass rushers. The contract seems like a bit too much on paper, but after seeing Justin Tuck sign for two years and $11 million, Julius Peppers and DeMarcus Ware sign for three years and $30 million, it's, as Goldilocks put it best, just about right. Smith will probably never be more than a five to seven sack a year player, which would make him the Samanosuke of the ninja world--a great player for a short window of time who will be quietly forgotten as time progresses.
Darryl Sharpton (WSH 1 Year, $2 Million) Joe Mays (KC 2 Years, $6 Million)
Bryan Braman (PHI 2 Years, $2.65 Million)
The first two were just another cog in the Texans' crappy #2 inside linebacker machine. May we all bow our heads and hope this will be the last we see a player like Bradie James, Barrett Ruud, Tim Dobbins, Jeff Tarpinian, Darryl Sharpton, or Joe Mays start at inside linebacker next to Brian Cushing.
Like Earl Mitchell, Darryl Sharpton was given every opportunity to play and succeed, but he never played well. Sharpton was consistently injured and every beat writer written article in August with the headline of "Sharpton is healthy and ready to play" was met with LOLs. Actually, now that I think about it, I don't think I even have one memory of Sharpton actually playing. This same trend should continue when he plays for a meek Redskins defense on a one year, $2 million dollar deal.
Joe Mays is a case of specialization. He's the type of player who has made a living doing one thing well, like a corner three draining small forward. In his case, it's tackling. Mays is too slow to cover tight ends or rush the passer, but he can shoot through open lanes created by space-eating defensive linemen and bring down ball carriers. This can be seen numerically by Football Outsiders' run stop rates. He was tenth in the NFL with a run stop rate of 73% on 48 plays while mustering only six defeats. All this means is Mays got to the running back a few times a game, brought down the runner when he made contact, and rarely made plays in the backfield. Kansas City is getting a guy for $3 million dollars per year who can clean up trash in the run game and nothing else.
The locusts weren't satisfied enough with picking the corn clean. They had to devour the potatoes and radishes as well. The Texans even lost their maniacal special team fourth linebacker Bryan Braman to the Eagles. If we thought Joe Mays had a niche, Braman and an even narrower one. Braman was a beard-wearing, hell-raising special teams player who was the only bright spot on Joe Marciano coverage teams. Despite his special teams ability, he was never fully trusted to play on first, second, or third down.
Ben Tate (CLE 2 Years, $7 Million)
Reports came in last season that Michael Lombardi had a soft spot in his Italian belly for Ben Tate and that the Browns would target him in free agency. Lombardi was fired, but even then Tate still made his way up north to Believeland. This may be one of the very few times in our mass information society where a report from a "source" actually came to fruition. The Browns signed Tate on a, hold on let me check my eyes here...two year, $7 million dollar deal. Even if the deal was a steal, Tate was never going to remain a Texan unless they offered him a boatload of money because of his desire to escape the shadow of Arian Foster and the frustration he felt in Houston.
After battling through bruises and broken ribs in 2013, Tate managed to produce 771 yards on 181 carries (4.3) when Foster was lost for the year. The numbers show an adequate back, but the film displays a player who will be better suited in a man/traditional zone scheme. He consistently missed cutbacks and never fully found his way in Houston's zone scheme. Mr. Tate can be a great player in Cleveland. Even if he can't stay on the field, it won't hurt the Browns too much; that team-friendly deal Tate signed exemplifies the small value teams place on running backs nowadays. To put it in perspective, the Falcons signed Chargers back-up running back Michael Turner in 2008 to a six-year, $34.5 million dollar deal without the production Tate had. The only thing that sucks about losing Tate is it's a bummer, man, that Houston only took advantage of Benarian Fostate for one year.
What to do with Schaub?
At the moment, there are allegedly serious talks between Houston and Oakland to trade Matt Schaub. If I'm the Texans, I'd trade Schaub for anything: a bin of David Carr rookie cards, a half-eaten Meatball Marinara, or "Alone in the Dark" on floppy disk. If Oakland is able to take on Schaub's contract, give it to them and move on with your life. If they don't, cut him on June 1st to maximize the savings available.
If we step out of our real comfortable jeans and slip into a pair of steel-toed Oakland combat boots, this trade makes zero sense. The only reason for Oakland to trade for Matt Schaub is to eliminate any possibility Schaub plays football somewhere other than Oakland. Even that reasoning is stupid. It seems Schaub plans on starting somewhere, and Oakland is the only team silly enough to fulfill his wishful thinking. For some reason, they love to cover up their inability to draft a quarterback by taking washed-up vets like Kerry Collins, Carson Palmer, Daunte Culpepper, and Aaron Brooks. In this case, they have all the leverage if Schaub gets cut, so why take on his contract when you can patiently wait for him to get snipped and then sign him for a Charlie Whitehurst esque two-year, $8 million dollar deal?
I almost did not write this just in case Reggie McKenzie was reading. Just to be safe:
Despite Matt Schaub's performance last season, most of his issues can be directly attached to Gary Kubiak's predictive play-calling that defensive coordinators feasted on, like mosquitoes guzzling the blood of sugar infested children. With three more years of club control and for the price of a seventh round pick, Matt Schaub is a steal for a team that currently has a roster to compete, but won't be able to with either Terrelle Pryor or Matt McGloin at the helm. Even if it does not pan out this year, the Raiders have plenty of cap room, can take on Schaub's cap hit, and if it does not work out, they only eat $7,000,000 in dead money next year. If Schaub is your guy, why wait? You never know what can happen. The Texans may draft Khalil Mack or Jadeveon Clowney, then look to the left at Schaub's dead money, look to the right and at Keenumania and T.J. Yates, and decide to keep Matt for another season. Or Schaub may work out for a few other teams and decide to back up a contender for a chance to leave his fingerprints on the Lombardi Trophy. The rest of the AFC West became better this offseason, and the Raiders need Matt Schaub to compete against the Chiefs and Broncos in 2014. Additionally, only eight wins were needed to clinch a wild card spot last year. The Raiders could pull eight wins off easily with Schaub and end their eleven year playoff drought. WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR, OAKLAND?!?!?!
If the Raiders do trade for Schaub, it does not help the Houston Texans very much when it comes to signing players during this free agency period. These savings would happen after all the top players are gone. However, it does open the door for the chance to resign J.J. Watt or Kareem Jackson before they hit free agency next year. The savings will allow the impossible to become possible; they could re-sign either one without having to manipulate the deal with back-loaded guaranteed money.
Joking aside, there is maybe, just maybe, a chance the Raiders could not only put an end to the Schaub era, but do so in the most advantageous way possible for the team in Houston.
Garrett Graham (HOU 3 year, $11.25 Million)
The one signing made by the Houston Texans in 2014 was resigning Garrett Graham to a three-year, $11.25 million dollar deal. After cutting Owen Daniels to save $4.5 million, the Texans had a hole and quickly filled it by signing Graham like a binge drinker replacing his recently departed beer with more beer. At the moment, Graham's career numbers look like this:
The Texans re-signed a player who is tough to gauge because he was a back-up for the majority of his career. Then when he finally started, he played with Case Keenum, who lacks the word "intermediate" in his personal dictionary. Despite this, Garrett Graham is a good pass-catching tight end who can attack the seams. Unfortunately, he blocks like he's playing patty-cake. The problem that arises is that you don't pay a player like Garret Graham around $4 million dollars a year when you have a suitable starter in Ryan Griffin behind him. With the smorgasbord of compensatory picks, they could have just as easily found a tight end to be the third head of a Griffin/Zach Potter hydra. Instead, the Texans decided to replace their savings with another debt in the form of pretty good Garrett Graham. This signing is not a disaster. Yet there were better ways for the Texans to manage their tight end situation.
Where do they go from here?
At the moment, Houston's depth chart looks like this:
QB Matt Schaub
RB Arian Foster
WR Andre Johnson
WR DeAndre Hopkins
TE Ryan Griffin
TE Garrett Graham
LT Duane Brown
C Chris Myers
RG Brandon Brooks
RT Derek Newton
DE J.J. Watt
OLB Whitney Mercilus
OLB Brooks Reed
ILB Brian Cushing
FS Danieal Manning
SS D.J. Swearinger
RCB Johnathan Joseph
LCB Kareem Jackson
The roster currently looks like a third-generation pair of jeans worn by a child who gets buttermilk with a dash of pepper and white bread as a snack. To fill out the rest of the roster, Houston has two options: draft for need or sign veterans to fill in the voids. I assume the Texans will fill out a few of these needs with veterans scattered around the country and then use the draft to take care of the rest. They currently have a need at running back, left guard, quarterback, defensive tackle, defensive end, and inside linebacker with $9,270,000 in cap room and plenty of players out there whose wives are tired of their husbands sitting at home and are ready for them to find a job. So how about we scour through the available players and give Rick Smith and Bill O'Brien (who are reading this right now!) some options to fill in the roster until the draft begins?
LeGarrette Blount, New England
Knowshon Moreno, Denver
Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville
Paul McQuistan, Seattle
Brian Waters, Dallas
Travelle Wharton, Carolina
Michael Vick, Philadelphia
Josh Freeman, Minnesota
Matt Flynn, Green Bay
Terrence Cody, Baltimore
Aubrayo Franklin, Indianapolis
Shaun Rogers, New York Giants
Peria Jerry, Atlanta
Brett Keisel, Pittsburgh
Shaun Phillips, Denver
Johnny Jolly, Green Bay
Robert Ayers, Denver
London Fletcher, Washington
Jonathan Vilma, New Orleans
Nick Barnett, Washington
Dan Connor, Carolina
In the second wave of free agency, after the big, splashy, grotesque contracts are handed out, there is still value to be had. The majority of these players are vets who can still play even if they are at the end of the career or guys looking to sign a one or two year deal to produce and quickly head back into free agency for he big bucks the first part of free agency entails. Nearly all of these players will sign the type of contract the Texans can afford--a short term deal in the $3-$4 million dollar a year range. The key here is that even if the Juilian Edelmans, DeMarcus Wares, and Josh McCowns of the world have found new forever homes, it does not mean there are not commendable players available left to the help the 2014 version of the Houston Texans.
2013 and 2014 are nearly identical, except Houston did not make a disastrous mistake by letting a player in his prime go for a safety who played like a cartoon character hobbling away from a monster in a Wes Craven movie. None of this is particularly surprising or frustrating. Either Rick Smith reads my work or this Texans offseason was fairly easy to predict. You can decide for yourself. I've picked nearly ever roster move correctly thus far except for a Danieal Manning cut (who has to be healthy).
Although we knew a thumb-twiddling strategy was impending, it still has been a disappointing offseason from a fan's perspective. What's been discouraging isn't the exodus, but seeing the Texans remain stagnant while the AFC's top 13% get richer. The Texans have not been able to improve and we, the fans, still have no idea what this team is going to look like. We all thought by now Houston would have made one or two signings to fill holes and unearth the tomb of their draft strategy.
Nope. Even that has not happened in another offseason of austerity. Oh, well. At least next season, the Texans finally get a tax refund check and can go willy-nilly to let the dollars rain like a Lil' Wayne song. Until then, be on the look out for a veteran signing or two. The real intrigue comes in the second week of May.