Bill O’Brien and Rick Smith have a dilemma on their hands as the annual March free agency frenzy approaches – what the hell do they do with Jared Crick? While J.J. Watt generally gets most, if not all of, the credit for the success of Houston’s defensive line, Crick has been a reliable and unheralded run stopping five-technique defensive end for the Texans since the start of the O’Brien era. His contract is set to expire next month, which could leave a gaping hole on the depth chart if the front office does not feel that Christian Covington, Jeoffrey Pagan, or Devon Still are up to the task of replacing him on the cheap. If Crick is retained, expect that deal to be somewhere in the Mike Devito range of contracts, which would put him around $4-5 million per year. Meanwhile, Covington, Still, and Pagan all currently make less than $2 million per year combined.
However, Crick’s future contract potentially being on some other team’s books means that the Texans have a rather unique opportunity to go after the truly big fish in this year’s free agent pond. When looking at the hulking frame of current Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson, he might be the biggest fish of them all. Huge, long, strong, and completely overwhelming at the point of attack, Wilkerson has been among the very best 3-4 defensive ends in the league from the moment he entered the NFL in 2011. This past season was arguably his best yet, when he set a new career high in sacks (12.0) before breaking his leg in a Week 17 loss to the Bills. He was even named second team All-Pro for the second time in his career and reached his first (long overdue) Pro Bowl.
So why would Gang Green let such a dominant player at a premium position just walk away? Well…because they can. Unlike the vast majority of NFL teams, the Jets have more defensive linemen than they know what to do with. Damon Harrison, who is also a free agent, is arguably the best nose tackle in the league, Sheldon Richardson is a monster at the other starting defensive end spot, and amazingly enough, rookie Leonard Williams was just as good as any of them while being rotated in throughout the season. The Jets are widely expected to use the franchise tag to keep Wilkerson around, but I am personally not buying that narrative quite yet considering such a move could eat up nearly $16 million of the Jets’ projected $20 million in cap space. New York still has to find a way to re-sign Harrison, Chris Ivory, and Ryan Fitzpatrick, and in all honesty their fearsome front seven did not lose any productivity whenever Wilkerson was on the sidelines. They are all just that good. It is hard for me to believe that a savvy general manager like Mike Maccagnan would use the vast majority of his available cap space on a player that is shockingly replaceable by currently available personnel.
If the Texans do make a play for Wilkerson once he hits the hypothetical market, grouping him with J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus, and Jadeveon Clowney would create a pass rush so ridiculously potent that I do not think it could even be properly quantified. Offensive lines already had their hands full with Watt and Mercilus alone in 2015, let alone the added athleticism of Clowney and the interior destructiveness of Wilkerson. There is literally no offensive line in the entire league that could hope to stop that amount of pass rushing firepower – none. To get that monumental deal done, though, sacrifices will have to be made.
The NFL salary cap is expected to be somewhere between $150 and 153 million in 2016. As it all stands now, the Texans have $128.7 million in contracts on the books for next season, leaving them somewhere between $22 and $25 million available for free agency. If Arian Foster, Rahim Moore, and Brian Hoyer are all released as expected, that will add an additional $13.5 million in available funds. If the vastly underperforming Garrett Graham is also released, that number jumps up to nearly $16.7 million, which would put Houston’s total cap space in the ballpark of $38 to $40 million . That much cash firmly puts them in the discussion for every major free agent on the market, Wilkerson included. Assuming that Brandon Brooks, Ben Jones, and Chris Clark suck up $9-$10 million of that cap collectively, that still leaves Rick Smith and Bill O’Brien with around $30 million to play with.
Wilkerson will want to be paid like the franchise player that he is, which means whoever signs him should probably expect to pay north of $14-$15 million a year based on the new market standard that Watt himself set a couple of years ago. Houston has the cap space and the tax law on their side (hurray for no Texas state income tax!) to get a deal done, but they will still have to contend with cap space heavyweights like Oakland and Chicago to get their prize. After Wilkerson is hypothetically signed, that would leave another $15 million in space for rookie salaries and re-signing lesser priority free agents like Eddie Pleasant, Jonathan Grimes, and Charles James.
This can be done, people. We can have our cake and eat it, too. It just takes one little gamble and one giant sales pitch. Let Jared Crick walk, swing for the fences to get Muhammad Wilkerson, and bask in the terrified looks of Colts fans everywhere as they contemplate Andrew Luck’s imminent demise. This cannot be that hard…right?