For years we watched the Texans football team with multi-colored control cables connected to Rick Smith’s pointy fingers. Twelve years to be exact. During that time, we sat back and ridiculed or praised the decisions he made. Some decisions were easy and dumb to cough up our guts at: Ed Reed>Glover Quin, Jeff Allen>Brandon Brooks, not franchise-tagging A.J. Bouye, re-signing failed draft picks like Jay Prosch, Ryan Griffin, C.J. Fiedorowicz, and Garrett Graham, shoddy resource allocation after the [NAME REDACTED] trade, and failing to do anything about the quarterback position for years. Others were easy to celebrate after time passed: the 2011 free agent class, drafting J.J. Watt, staying put and taking Jadeveon Clowney, trading up for Deshaun Watson, and other great first round picks that kept him perched in the front office for as long as he was.
Now that time is gone. No longer do we get to compare what we would do to what Rick Smith would do. There is a new stepdad in the house. He says coffee with an -AW- instead of an -OFF-, and he won’t stop talking about how beautiful Maine is in the summertime. Now we get to compare ourselves to Brian Gaine and go through the first Smithless offseason since the internet was connected to only PCs and Poptart-sized wireless retrievers.
Gaine comes into an interesting situation. He has a franchise quarterback, a top five front seven when healthy, a top five wide receiver, and a shoddy group of tight ends, offensive linemen, and defensive backs. Houston went 4-12 last year because they no longer had a defense that could win with a bottom-feeding offense once their high-flying offense crumpled with Deshaun Watson’s ACL. The Texans don’t have the talent of a 4-12 team. This isn’t a rebuild situation. This is a team that suffered because of bad luck after bathing in Fortuna’s golden light the year before. They have the talent, but they need to make galactic decisions to claw and scrap with the rest of the AFC South and get back into playoff contention. This isn’t an offseason to hang back for the future. This is an offseason to make dramatic improvements.
Additionally, Houston has an interesting set of resources to spend this year. Rick Smith is a brainiac. The main reason why he was comfortable trading Houston’s first two selections in this year’s draft was because the Texans have the cap space to go after free agent talent this year. Real forward-thinking. He hit “2018” on Over The Cap and realized he could act boldly.
Right now Houston has $63,802,367 in cap room after cutting Brian Cushing (which every member of our species would have done). They have three third round picks (68, 80, 98), a fourth round pick (103), three sixth round picks (177, 211, 214), and a seventh round pick (222). It’s an eclectic bouquet.
The amount of cap space Houston has this offseason is far from settled. It’s your stomach an hour after a plastic pizza buffet. $7.99 if you want a drink. There are multiple players the Texans can cut to shed some skin, create more cap space, and improve the team by removing from the books. Houston can save $6,750,000 if they release Kareem Jackson, $4,875,000 if they release Jeff Allen, $4,750,000 if they release Lamar Miller, and $2,468,750 if they release Ryan Griffin.
If I was the man with the big mahogany desk and skyline window view, I would drop two of these guys and maybe one of the others. First off, I would move Jackson to strong safety. This needs to happen now. It should have happened last year. Jackson is a great tackler. He can make some plays, but he no longer has the athleticism to play cornerback. He has never had great feet, and he has always struggled with finding the football. At age 29, Jackson no longer has the athleticism to make up for his tap dancing octopus feet.
Additionally, Kareem is the perfect type of player to pair with Andre Hal. They can have a strong safety who can actually pick up a receiver passed off to him, play in the box, keep Hal deep, and cover tight ends occasionally. The Texans haven’t had a consistent starting strong safety since Danieal Manning. That needs to change.
Allen is interesting as a possible left tackle. He was competent enough during the three games he saw action there last year. It depends on how Julie’n Davenport looks, though. If his body is spreading out and he’s able to pick up heavier weights and put them back down, Houston would be better off sticking with and developing Davenport at left tackle and letting Allen walk. As a guard, Allen has offered nothing. He hasn’t been physical enough. There are Spaghetti-Os in his belly button. His feet have been sloppy, and he’s been too slow to get to the second level. And from this meaner position, he’s been devoured by pass rushers. Allen is interesting as a depth offensive lineman who can play multiple positions, but he isn’t worth paying $7,375,000 this year. He should likely be gone.
Lamar Miller’s future depends on head coach Bill O’Brien. The reasons why have been pointed out over and over again here at this site. To sum it up, the Texans turned a tackle breaking, space bursting, open field scampering track athlete, into...Alfred Blue. Instead of doing the smart thing by limiting Miller to 15-20 touches a game and using him in a variety of ways to recapture that Miami magic, O’Brien had Miller gain weight and tossed him into the interior of the offensive line like muddied water. His rushing DVOA in 2014 and 2015 in Miami was 17.8% (3rd) and 1.7% (18th). His rushing DVOA in Houston the last two seasons was -10.5% (32nd) and -2.9% (26th). With Xavier Su’a-Filo and Allen leading the way, Miller has gone from one of the most exciting and efficient backs in football to one of the most plodding.
If Gaine and I shared the same pair of earrings and our souls switched bodies, I would sit down with Mr. O’Brien. If he had a plan to correctly use Miller and confessed the errors of his ways, I would keep Miller. Miller is still a good back. He is a great pass catching back; his problems have stemmed from the Texans’ offense. If O’Brien wanted to keep shoving Miller into the center of the line of scrimmage, I would move on. D’Onta Foreman is a possible RB1. I still like Tyler Ervin as a third down back. You can always find running backs in the mid rounds of the NFL draft. Plus, Rex Burkhead, Dion Lewis, and Jerick McKinnon are out there as free agents. There’s no reason to pay Miller $6,750,000 to flounder at a rate of 3.7 yards a carry.
The Ryan Griffin decision is an easy one. Release him. He’s a whatever receiver. He can run into the flat and catch four yard passes for one of the worst offenses in football. That’s all he does well. Overall, he struggles to get open after five yards and looks like a junior varsity defensive end playing scout team offensive line in the run game. Scrap him and move on.
After these cuts, Houston would have somewhere between $69.56 and $73.83 million in cap space. Based on everything I’ve seen, I would cut Miller. I have a newfound love of running backs. Alvin Kamara, Todd Gurley, and Melvin Gordon are some of my favorite players in football. I’m pro-paying those guys. But Miller isn’t in the same ecosystem as these guys, O’Brien has a history of misusing him, and he just isn’t worth his salary. I would release him and drink very heavily once he runs for 1,200 yards in Indianapolis or wherever he ends up.
With $73.83 million, it would be time to look internally at the pending unrestricted free agents. Johnathan Joseph, Marcus Gilchrist, Chris Clark, Breno Giacomini, Xavier Su’a-Filo, Shane Lechler, Andre Ellington, Bruce Ellington, Eddie Pleasant, T.J. Yates, Tom Savage, Alfred Blue, and Corey Moore are the Texans’ notable pending free agents.
There isn’t a man in this group I would 100% bring back. Joseph is fine at playing short passes. He can sit seven yards off the line of scrimmage, read the route, and react. He’s a liability against deep passes. One one one, outside, strapped to a chair in isolation, he has too many gray hairs to deal with the athleticism of wide receivers. The average pass against J-Jo traveled 13.4 yards down the field last year, which ranked 24th in the NFL. If, and only if the pass rush is rocking can can Joseph play meaningful snaps. I do feel confident about Watt, Clowney, and Whitney Mercilus kicking down doors again. So if Joseph can be brought back on a one-year, $4-5 million deal, I would be for it.
Xavier Su’a-Filo gets slandered more than he should. He’s gotten big enough to tilt the Earth. He’s a good first level blocker. Moving defensive tackles and ends all on his own isn’t a problem. His biggest problem has been the same inerrant sore he’s had since he arrived from UCLA. Houston’s starting left guard can’t punch and grab the chest. He can’t stick to blocks at the second level. Instead he shoves, which limits second level yards. In the pass game, this leads to him controlling less blocks than he should. When he whiffs, he whiffs horrendously. This is easy to see on Sundays. This is is all everyone sees. The good parts of XSF’s game have to be scoured through like 1849 northern California river sediment. He’s a fine player. Bringing him back is all about the contract.
The rest can leave. Gilchrist can’t play the middle third of the field. Boom, roasted. Clark was a whatever swing tackle, but is no longer a capable enough pass blocker to routinely play. Boom, roasted. Giacomini played 100% of Houston’s offensive snaps in 2017 yet he may not play a snap anywhere in the NFL in 2018. Boom, roasted. Lechler has been the constant on a terrible punt unit; bring in someone undrafted and young and see what happens. Boom, roasted. Andre Ellington was once released in favor Chris Johnson. Boom, roasted. Bruce Ellington’s time was overrated because of the New England game; he averaged only seven yards an attempt and had a catch rate of 50% with Watson at quarterback. Boom, roasted. Pleasant has been with Houston since 2011; he’s the grassy knoll of the Texans and doesn’t have a role here with Zach Cunningham around. Boom, roasted. Nobody is party rocking anymore; Yates shouldn’t throw a football in the NFL again. Boom, roasted. Savage is worse than [NAME REDACTED]. Boom, roasted. Blue is jealous of Miller’s 3.7 yards a carry. Boom, roasted. Moore was benched for Gilchrist. Boom, roasted.
The last free agent the Texans kind of have is Greg Mancz. He’s a restricted free agent. I would slap a right of first refusal tender on Mancz. Since he’s undrafted, Houston wouldn’t receive compensation if another team signs him, but there’s no point in spending money on an original-round tender, and he isn’t good enough for a second or first round tender.
Mancz is a fine player. He’s an odd fit in Houston though. He would be better at center than guard, and Nick Martin is the only definite starter Houston has on the offensive line. Mancz can play guard for an outside zone team. In power schemes, he’s too undersized. The Texans should go back to making this play the staple of their run game. Davenport, Mancz, Martin, and Miller would be perfect in this scheme, but no one knows what O’Brien will do. Mancz is worth matching any short-term deal he would probably receive because of his past performance, Martin’s ankle history, and versatility.
For the purposes of this hypothetical, let’s say I, in Gaines’s body, sign Joseph for 1 year/$5 million, Su’a-Filo to 3 years/$15 million, and match a two year/$6 million deal for Mancz. All contracts are without large amounts of guaranteed money. That leaves Houston with a maximum of $60.8 million once free agency starts.
When Smith made the decisions he made last year, he did it knowing Houston would have cap space. But what he didn’t realize was this free agency class was going to be butt. Take the $60.8 million available and try to spend it. It’s a constant headache. It’s like trying to eat chalupas with a loose tooth.
I’d be wary of the top players available. Andrew Norwell is going to get at least $11 million a year. Trumaine Johnson will get around $13 million a year. Sometimes these deals are disasters right away, and often they end up being heavy weight to carry around after two seasons. I would look at the second tier guys to fill out the roster because of the holes Houston has.
In real life, Houston has needs at defensive back, wide receiver, tight end, offensive line, and backup quarterback. All of those positions can use a boost in talent. In this made up reality, which all reality is anyways, Houston needs a cornerback, right guard, right tackle, wide receiver, and backup quarterback.
At cornerback, I love Kyle Fuller. He had a knee injury in 2016 and bounced back this season. The former first round pick and turnover creator was fifth in success rate and 12th in yards allowed per pass. Instead of giving Johnson $13 million, I would look at giving Fuller $10 mil or more. Also, defensive back Morris Claiborne is underrated because of his awful first few years in the NFL with the Cowboys. Since then, he has turned into a competent player. Claiborne is 28, and a two year-$12 million deal would probably be enough to get him to Houston. Fuller, Claiborne, Joseph, Hal, and Kevin Johnson being even below average would be more than a competent enough secondary.
At offensive line, I like Josh Sitton more than Norwell because of the contract. $3-4 million could be saved by going after Sitton instead of Norwell. However, I would scoff at both price tags. Instead I would bounce that piece of rubber shaped like a dragon’s tooth into Derek Newton’s knees and see if he could play right guard. Newton, Mancz, and a third round pick would be a good battle for a starting spot. At right tackle, I’d be all over Cameron Fleming. His play will probably drop off some being away from the immortal Dante Scarnecchia and New England, but he’s an above-average tackle and is only 25 years old. He’d be worth the going rate for an above-average starting tackle, which is in the $7-$9 million range. If that doesn’t work out, Miami may be looking to dump Ja’Wuan James rather than pay his fifth-year option. He’d be worth a look on a one-year, prove it deal.
At wide receiver, I would move on from Ellington. I’d also be interested in playing Will Fuller V in the slot more often to allow him to attack the seam. This would be unfair against zone coverage, and the safeties he’d draw inside would open up more sideline space for DeAndre Hopkins on the outside. Terelle Pryor had twenty catches last year...sad! But he’s a possibility depending on the contract. I also like Dontrelle Inman as an outside receiver to put Fuller V in the slot. If Fuller V stays wide, I like Albert Wilson and Marqise Lee as nice YAC guys to play slot receiver. The Braxton Miller experiment is out of baking soda.
Stephen Anderson is the best tight end on the roster. Getting open is something he can actually do, unlike the rest of the tight ends. His blocking leaves a lot to be desired, though. Trey Burton is the big sleeper this year and may get around $6 million. That would be fair depending on the offense. I wouldn’t pay that much. I would like Austin Seferian-Jenkins or Tyler Eifert as TE2 in Houston; Seferian-Jenkins of course would be the lower cost option. Combined with Anderson, the Texans would actually be able to run two tight end sets again.
The Texans can’t go from 34.6 points a game to 13 points a game without Watson. They need a backup quarterback who can make Houston the 20th best offense in football. I don’t think you can find a quarterback that matches up with Watson’s skill set in this backup free agent group. Lamar Jackson shouldn’t be there in round three, even though I am lusting over some Jackson/Watson Super Bowl copycatting dueling banjo backfields. Tyrod Taylor is too expensive and should start somewhere. Even if Teddy Bridgewater could be signed as a backup, I wouldn’t allow it. He’s too perfect and pure to be a backup quarterback. I couldn’t live with him sitting on the bench, prevented from getting a chance to start. My favorite at backup quarterback is Matt Moore. He’s pretty good! He should have started last year for the Dolphins instead of Jay CUTLA. Moore can hold down the fort for a few games and bust out the rabbit’s foot to win the knuckle-biters.
If we go with Fuller at $11 million, Claiborne at $6 million, Fleming at $8 million, Inman at $3 million, Seferian-Jenkins at $2 million, and Moore at $1.5 million, that leaves Houston with $29.5 million left to spend. Yes, I know there would be guaranteed money involved and it will spread out across the years of the contract; these are just rough estimates.
If Houston stays where they are in the 2018 NFL Draft, it would cost an estimate of $4,967,186 to sign their class per Over The Cap. I don’t know anything about the draft right now. I don’t know who I would rush to select. What I would do is stand still. Use all three of the third round picks. Add another defensive back, offensive lineman, and another pass rusher. If trading up is something you are dying to do, giving up two of those sixths to jump into the fifth, or even trying to get back into the fourth, would be something I’m here for. Those third round picks would stay in Houston. Overall, the draft is a lottery. I would take as many swings I can.
Lastly, extend Jadveon Clowney. Just do the damn thing. The Texans need to sign their draft class with at least $20 million leftover. $5 million for depth signings and disasters and $15 million to sign Clowney. In this world, Houston would have $24.5 million available for these purposes and to make Clowney the highest paid defensive player in football, or whatever it is he wants. Front-load the deal because the cap space is available to pay the bulk of it now. He’s the best run defender in football and is a necklace made of human ears personified.
Yes, Clowney failed to break ten sacks again. Yet he still finished 11th in pressures with 42. He also did this while being the only pass rusher in Houston last year, and he took on the brunt of the blocking without Watt and Mercilus around. No one else in Houston had more than ten pressures, and Clowney can still improve in this regard. He has the athleticism, but still doesn’t have the intricacies, especially the strategy, of pass rushing down. Too often he relies on his swim, so blockers sit on it, and once it gets enveloped, he doesn’t have an out from there. Better players around him, and more time, can lead to a Defensive Player of the Year trophy.
See, Brian? That’s how championships are won. Listen to me. Don’t go into your first year as general manager and make the same mistakes Rick Smith. Read this.