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When It Comes To Extending Players On Their Rookie Contracts, Rick Smith Can't Win

Contrary to popular belief, Rick Smith makes some good decisions. Unfortunately, even good decisions can have their downside.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Being a general manager in the NFL is an unforgiving task. No matter what you do, you will upset someone and everyone thinks they could do better (myself included). That being said, I think Rick Smith gets an unnecessary amount of backlash for most of the decisions he makes, although in recent times the criticism hasn't been quite as bad. I understand the discontent at some of his drafting, but cap management and roster building are his strong suits.

Extending J.J. Watt two years before his rookie deal expired was is one of the best decisions Smith has ever made. Watt's six-year, $100 million extension in 2014 pales in comparison to some of the deals that have gone to lesser players since. In fact, in terms of average earnings per year, Watt is now the seventh highest paid defensive player in the NFL behind Von Miller, Ndamukong Suh, Muhammed Wilkerson, Fletcher Cox, Olivier Vernon and Justin Houston. Without a doubt, J.J. is better than all of those guys.  His three DPOY awards and multiple All-Pro nods speak for themselves. The fact that Rick got him locked up early, before the market increased, has provided huge savings for Houston's cap space, especially with all of the players we'll need to extend in the near future.

However, since the days of Dunta Robinson demanding a new contract of his own, Rick implemented an organizational policy that said no rookies could negotiate extensions until they had one year remaining on their deal. It avoids any confusion.  Therefore rookies, and their agents, know exactly where they stand:  "Don't bother even asking for an extension yet.  No one gets one until the last year of their deal." 

Except it hasn't worked like that, has it?

It's all well and good saying J.J. is the exception to the rule because he's the best defensive player in the league, but the problem comes when you asking where the line is drawn.  Is DeAndre Hopkins not good enough to make an exception for too, even as the third best wide receiver in the league? The unfortunate precedent set by extending J.J. a year earlier than normal has created a battle for Rick as he fights to show that he will stick to his guns on contract extensions for players on a rookie deal.  By doing that, Smith runs the risk of offending and upsetting players by implicitly saying they aren't good enough to be an exception to his rule.  You can see how that might tick DeAndre Hopkins off.

In a year's time, we'll be facing this situation with Jadeveon Clowney, and that could be equally difficult to handle. Whilst Clowney has not produced the level of play Nuk has, if Clowney continues his upwards projection and stays healthy, waiting until the last year to extend him could be very expensive.  As in, easily in excess of $100 million expensive.  Of course, extending Clowney early could also be dangerous, with Clowney's injury history and the risk of large guaranteed contract numbers. It's a real debate of whether the cap  savings outweigh the risk involved.

Even moving on to future first round picks such as Kevin Johnson, who has already looked great for a rookie cornerback, could result in similar issues. If Johnson continues to improve, he could be a great player.  But will he be worthy of an early extension in Rick Smith's mind?

Rick Smith's policy of refusing to negotiate early was a good rule in principle, but I think now is the time to change it. For Hopkins, Clowney and potentially Johnson, there could be great benefit in extending them early.  Assuming cap savings in excess of $2 million per year for each of those three, we would have more than enough to fit another good rotational player. A possible adjustment to Smith's policy could  be that if you're worth a contract in the top ten, or even five, contracts in the league at your position, you are worthy of negotiating a year earlier than usual. This would be a clear line for agents so they would know when negotiations can start, and it would also save the Texans money in the process.

Despite the organisation's statements on the matter, it's unclear what'll happen going forward.  It is possible the Texans could just be saving face in the public eye and desperately trying to patch things up with Hopkins behind the scenes.  Or maybe it's not even desperate; maybe the team is simply working on an extension for Hopkins as we speak.

What is clear, however, is that Rick Smith just can't seem to win, no matter what he does.