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2019 Houston Texans Offseason Preview: If I Was Brian Gaine

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What would you do if you had the big seat and the big job? This is what I would do.

Miami Dolphins 2008 Headshots
We definitely need more photos of this nerd.
Photo by Getty Images

The 2018 Houston Texans’ season review has kind of sort of come to an end. There were podcasts and season rewards, and an enormous numbers post. A quick excursion out to West Texas to pierce my belly button on the thorns of the Ocotillo, give Larrea Tridentata smooches, dream by spring streams, and sleep under that big fat stupid look at me and not the galaxy moon took away the time for me to look at the safeties, Lamar Miller, and chart the Texans’ sacks. I didn’t forget your requests. You have my heart. They’ll just have to be worked on tonight now that the offseason has unofficially officially begun with the franchise tag window cracked open.

Before Brian Gaine can beat me to it, this is what I would do if I was him. This is not what I think he will do. These are two different things.

He already moved his pawn before I could. Two weeks ago the Texans released Demaryius Thomas. The Texans second half plucked veteran wide receiver from Denver was added to replace Will Fuller V. When I say replace I mean it in the blandest of terms. It’s like when you’re making salmon patties and are out of bread crumbs and have to go with oatmeal instead. Thomas was a whatever wide receiver number two, but prevented a full blown DeAndre Hopkins and nothing else situation. This happened anyways after Thomas blew out his Achilles on a screen pass against Philadelphia.

Thomas is 31 years old. He just suffered a traumatic injury. He was due $14 million if left on the roster this year. This was an easy decision. Yes, I would have done the same.

We are in uncharted waters now. There is no, THEN, there is only, NOW. Just us pushing along this imaginary ocean. In these dreams the Texans are operating with $78 million in cap space for the 2019 offseason. They have their first round pick (23rd overall), two seconds, a third, a fifth, and a sixth. Unlike last offseason, which was pick and pull booger flicking, this offseason, the Texans actually have the resources and draft capital to make somethings happen.

Houston does need to get better this offseason too. With the schedule they face: AFC South, New England, Baltimore, AFC West, and NFC South, they probably won’t be able to win close games against teams that have to run the football. To beat out the Colts again, who have $107 million in cap space, a Jaguars team that will probably bounce back, and the mediocre Titans, they can’t expect for 2018 to happen all over again under the same terms and conditions. This offseason isn’t maintenance. It’s about progress.

To start, the Texans can create a little bit more cap space. They can save $9.069 million by releasing Kevin Johnson, $6.25 million by releasing Whitney Mercilus, $6.203 million by releasing Lamar Miller, and $2.69 million by releasing Ryan Griffin.

Johnson would be gone. He can’t stay healthy, and even in those brief fleeting moments he’s been horrendous. The same burst to break on the ball isn’t there. He can’t tackle. When he’s on the field he’s oscillating between turning and chasing and not finding the ball and sliding down the legs of ball carriers. Aside from the roster spot he carried, the fifth year option extension was a zero risk decision. It didn’t work out. Houston can release him and use that same money to take a swing on a free agent who can actually do something well in the secondary.

I wouldn’t release Mercilus, more on him in a second. But I would release both Miller and Griffin. I don’t see the point of a taking a $7.2 million hit for a running back who doesn’t break tackles and create enough on his own end. This isn’t entirely his fault. Houston finished 26th in second level adjusted line yards the last two seasons, and 16th in 2016. Since he’s been here the team has been horrendous at getting a helmet on a linebacker. The opportunities haven’t been there. Regardless of blame, I don’t see this changing this year. Pending a monomaniacal white whale chasing focus on the outside zone to get Miller where he’s more comfortable, the 4.19 yards an attempt (minus the 97 yard run) and 27th in DVOA is where we are at. The money just isn’t worth it. I do think in a different offense, let’s say Los Angeles (R), Miller could look like the man he was in Miami, the Texans just failed in how they used him.

Griffin should have been released last season. He should have never been resigned. He’s like Garrett Graham, if Graham was more beloved by this coaching staff. Griffin can’t block the run or pass, he’s a limited athlete who can’t generate separation, and his hands aren’t adhesive enough. Plus he drinks up the milk that should go to the babies Jordan Thomas and Jordan Akins, who, unlike Griffin, actually have some athleticism and upside.

With these cuts the Texans now have $96 million.

Back to Mercilus, I would look into trading him. Houston moved on from running primarily a 3-4 defense and went to more of a 4-3 look with J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney at defensive end and Brandon Dunn/Christian Covington/Angelo Blackson/Joel Heath and D.J. Reader at defensive tackle. In pass rush sets they moved Mercilus way out wide, as a super jet rusher, something that he never has been. Coming off a pectoral tear Mercilus somehow was third on the team in pressures 30.5 and 14 quarterback hits, and had 4 sacks. I can’t remember any of these plays however.

Mercilus isn’t done, he’s not suddenly an awful player, but he’s in a crappy situation. Houston no longer utilizes him as he should be used. He’s an outside linebacker edge setter, and tight five edge rusher. Mercilus has never been a speed rush bend and rip guy, he’s been an outside half punch, extend and rip rusher his entire career. Unless the Texans want to move Watt and or Clowney inside full time on rush situations there isn’t really a point for him to be here.

Green Bay, Los Angeles (R), Baltimore, both New York teams, and Tennessee are all 3-4 teams who could use an outside linebacker like Mercilus. If Houston traded him they would save the same $6.2 million as cutting him. The Texans could add another second round pick potentially, or leverage their cap space into taking on an expensive contract and use Mercilus’s salary to mitigate the rest. The team’s biggest needs are at cornerback, offensive line, and inside pass rusher. Maybe they could turn Mercilus into veteran cornerback help like Aqib Talib, Jimmy Smith, or Brandon Carr, or turn Mercilus and a second round pick into a devastating interior rusher like Kenny Clark. It can’t hurt to ask. And at a minimum it looks like they could turn him into a second. This would be better than churning him out there to create unproductive pass rushes, or cutting him for nothing I need a leagye forever desperate for pass rushing.

Houston has to at least call about Patrick Peterson. They have an extra second round pick. Peterson was a top ten cornerback last season. His cap hit is $11.8 and $13.1 million the next two seasons. The Cardinals are rebuilding. They would save $10.6 million this year by trading him, and could use that money to help their putrid offensive line. If this doesn’t work, Houston could also dangle that pick elsewhere to take on some other high dollar contract they can eat with the cap space they have. Look for this to possibly happen this offseason.

The Texans have their own players to worry about though. They have 19 free agents this season. I would write them all down, but I could just take a screen shot from Overthecap.com. This is what there site has for the Houston Texans.

The biggest, and most important one is Jadeveon Clowney. That monstrous witch doctor is only 26, had 47 tackles, 16 tackles for a loss, 35.5 pressures, 9 sacks, and 21 quarterback hits last season. This is despite missing an entire training camp and doing absolutely nothing in the first three weeks of the season. This is the problem. It’s not a talent or production question with Clowney. He’s stats good and football good now. That lingering injury history is still there. He’s gone to bed early and ate his vegetables the last three seasons, but with the amount given to Watt too, I don’t think Houston can afford to devote that much space to two players who can miss time at any moment, who’s health status is always wait and see.

I would franchise tag Clowney and let him make the $17 million estimate or whatever it will be. If he’s dominant again, give him the $18 million a year for four years and pay for his prime. If he isn’t, you can probably buy lower. The one benefit of the big contract is that by paying him now, you can front load it, and benefit from Deshaun Watson’s rookie contract. I love Clowney. He’s the best run stopping defensive end in football, and if he ever figures out how to rush the passer after his first move is popped, he can be a top edge defender in football. I just wouldn’t go all in on it, not just yet anyways.

At the safety position the Texans currently have Justin Reid and Andre Hal. Reid can do a little bit of everything. He tackles as well as long as he’s wrapping up and not trying to hit stick Alshon Jeffery. He can cover tight ends, chase and tackle, and play the shallow zone. Hal is a free safety who can play from center field to the sideline.

They aren’t the only two safeties the Texans primarily employed in 2018. Kareem Jackson moved from cornerback to safety, a move some of us here have been calling for over the years, and it worked. Jackson was no longer forced to do the thing he’s the worst at doing, play man coverage, and could blitz, clean up the run game, and run downhill to smash defenders. Unfortunately, cornerback injuries took him back to cornerback where he finished 95th in success rate according to Football Outsiders NFL Charting Data.

Tyrann Mathieu was brought over on a one-year nobody wants me long term prove it deal. Mathieu is only 27. He was fine last year. He isn’t great at anything though. Reid makes the plays Mathieu wishes he could make. He wants more than anything to force the fumble, have the 102 yard interception return for a touchdown, but instead he picks up free rush sacks, picks off passes that bounce off the running back, and misses sacks in the endzone as he goes for the strip sack touchdown instead. Mathieu is a fine tackler. He can cover some. The cornerback injuries had him playing more man than he should have, or the Texans wanted him to, but in coverage he was exposed by smart teams like Indy. Overall, his 2018 was more yapping than masticating.

With Jackson, Reid, and Hal, Houston would have a safety trio with three distinct skill sets. Mathieu doesn’t have a trait the others don’t have. He’s mediocre, and redundant. Last year’s decision to sign Mathieu was a great one. This year’s decision to resign him would be a silly one. The Texans would be better bringing back Jackson to a 2-year contract worth $16 million or so than keep Mathieu around.

The Texans currently have zero inside rushing presence except for when the Texans move Watt or Clowney inside. Blackson, Reader, Dunn, and Covington were all indistinguishable and neither could provide any consistent quarterback havoc. With Clowney and Watt, and Benardrick McKinney and Zach Cunningham anchoring the front seven, a player’s run defense doesn’t matter much. It’s pretty easy to play one gap with those four around. Having an interior rush is more important. You can spin a wheel to pick between Heath, Blackson, Dunn, or Covington to keep around for depth purposes, there isn’t much a difference between any of these men. I like Blackson the most though, and I think some dumb team will give Covington like $3 million a year. It really doesn’t matter. Pick one for just in case purposes.

Lastly, I’d resign Kai’mi Fairbairn. Houston actually was a great kickoff team this season. He didn’t miss a kick less than 40 yards. He missed only two extra points. Give him some three-year contract with an average hit of $3.75 million a year.

Looking at free agency, based on these resignings, the Texans would have $65 million in space assuming 2019 cap hits of $17 million, $8 million, $3.75 million, and $2 million for Clowney, Jackson, Blackson, and Fairbairn.

Free agency doesn’t really match the Texans needs this year. The best players are edge defenders, players Houston already has, and like last year, there aren’t immediate tackle fixes, or cornerback fixes. There’s a lot of logs to turnover here.

At tackle, I’d still be good with Juli’en Davenport at left. Give him an entire training camp and season there. Don’t screw him around and swap him from left to right like tonsils, and chip when you need to here and there. Especially since Trent Brown would probably be a mess in Houston. A big, strong, slow footed tackle blocking for a quarterback who holds onto the ball for awhile, and struggles at getting to the second level is a no thank you. Ju’Wuan James has been inconsistent. He’s either too high, or his hands are too bad. Donovan Smith will probably stay in Tampa. Daryl Williams tore his MCL and screwed up his patella in training camp last season, and it’s always impossible to trust Carolina offensive tackles leaving that scheme. Everything else here is blah.

Houston does need competition at tackle. Kendall Lamm is one of the worst run blocking right tackles in the game, and despite his one year jump, I don’t see how you can keep him around. I would wait and see who gets released this offseason, and move from there. This is the part where I have to say I really liked Cameron Fleming in 2017 New England, and he delivered in Dallas when subbing in for Tyron Smith, and I still believe in Martinas Rankin playing right tackle even if he never gets the chance.

I do like the interior options more though. Senio Kelemte was a lot like he was in 2017 when playing in New Orleans. He just blocked in a worse situation. The hands were still an issue, he still fell down at the second level. Zach Fulton was like all the other offensive linemen to come to Houston, worse here than where he was previously. He’s still a competent right guard, and the same can be said for Nick Martin at center.

Houston could pay big for a left guard though. Rodger Saffold is a perfect outside zone blocker, and was spectacular at splattering inside linebackers. Ramon Foster is a big strong power running mauler, and a voracious puller. It really depends on what run scheme Houston decides to use. It changes every year, it changes midseason, it changes all the time. Also, Kelechi Osemele is a potential cut in Oakland, and Ronald Leary is a potential cut in Denver. Oakland would save $10.5 million and Denver would save $7.5 million by releasing them. One is rebuilding, and the other is holding on. The scheme would depend on where I’d spend this money. Kelemete and Greg Mancz would be fine depth players. Let’s assume $9 million a year for either Saffold, Foster, Leary, or even Osemele, who’d probably go for more.

On offense I’d fill in the backup quarterback position by signing Tyrod Taylor. Brandon Weeden is 36. We are all going to die one day. It would be nice to have a backup quarterback who could run the same offense as the starting offense. Let’s do that. Hell, even Blake Bortles would be fun here. He could stand in the shotgun and throw quick drags to Keke Coutee and scramble for first downs. My pick would be Taylor with anyone with athleticism as a second and third option.

I’d take a look at D’Onta Foreman’s leg, than look to sign T.J. Yeldon as an outside zone back/pass catcher. He’s pretty much a cheaper Lamar Miller. Theo Reddick could be released by Detroit and would be a swell third down back. There’s always running backs in the later rounds of the NFL Draft Michael.

Houston needs insurance at the wide receiver position too. Will Fuller V tore his ACL. Keke Coutee’s hamstring was never perfect, and he was always limping. They need someone who can play the slot, or out wide, and run far down the field to take advantage of the safety help DeAndre Hopkins receives. I’d love John Brown for these reasons after a red rubber ball 2018. Rishard Matthews is a great blocker, runs a nice post route, and would be like having Thomas all over again, despite an unfortunate 2018. Jordan Matthews can run deep. There’s a lot of guys who can catch screen passes and return kicks like De’Anthony Thomas. My pick would be Brown for $6 million a year, mainly so I can scream John Brown’s body while I listen to Titus Andronicus’s The Monitor.

At tight end, I’d also like a veteran presence to teach the Jordan rookies. Dwayne Allen has become an awesome run blocker in New England, because of course he did, even if he doesn’t do anything in the pass game, and Austin Seferian-Jenkins was playing really well until he was lost for the rest of 2018. Jordan Reed could also be around with his injury history. Washington would save $6 million. Cameron Brate could be released for $7 million if Tampa wants to depend entirely on O.J. Howard. Both are better, more dynamic options.

On defense I’d go all in on an interior rusher. The cornerback talent just isn’t here. How do you feel about Steven Nelson, Justin Coleman, Ronald Darby, or Bradley Roby? Probably not great. Neither do I. Joe Haden, Logan Ryan, Chris Ryan, Talib, and Marcus Peters, are all potential cuts. I like them all more than the current unrestricted free agents except for Peters. The interceptions don't outweigh Peters’s nonsense and his refusal to tackle. Ew. Cuties. Who knows who will be available. I’d take a swing at Nelson I guess. He’s pretty good as long as the referees allow a physical game. Clairbone is better than you think he is because of how his rookie contract went, and would be nice outside cornerback depth too.

Like last season, the front seven will once again be the focus of the defense in 2019. They can’t have Watt and Clowney creating nearly 60% of their pass rush. Houston needs production on the interior. Grady Jarrett and Sheldon Richardson are unrestricted free agents. Malik Jackson, Michael Brockers, and Gerald McCoy maybe released. Everyone except for Brockers had similar seasons. Low sack numbers, a little more than 20 hurries, a little less than 20 quarterback hits. If McCoy is released he’d be the guy. Then Jarrett, because of his age, elbow brace, and dominant flashes. Jackson and Richardson have been great on great defenses, but can’t be the best player on a defense, fine compliments for a team with Watt and Clowney. And Brockers is a buy low option coming off a crappy year. Whoever it is, the way this free agency group is shaping up, it looks like interior rusher is the position where Houston can have the greatest impact on its defense.

The Texans could also opt to play Watt and Clowney inside more than occasionally, just as they should. If they blitz Clowney as a linebacker consistently and give him 4i rushes, and let Watt rush as a ‘3’ instead of just putting him against a team’s right tackle, Houston can find grab a pure edge rusher. Brandon Graham is a free agent, and despite turning 30 this year, was dominant last season. Also Shaq Barrett is a the type of pure speed edge rusher the Texans wanted Mercilus to be. Barrett still has it, he was just bumped down the depth chart for Bradley Chubb.

The contracts here aren’t important. Nothing is. It’s all make believe. But with a $65 million estimate after previous releases, and extensions, going big at left guard, filling in the holes on offense, spreading it out at cornerback unless there’s a crazy surprising cut, and finding an impact interior rusher is the way to use the money. Additionally, the Texans don’t have any big free agents in 2020 they’d have to worry about resigning. Those free agents are Miller and Mercilus, who could be replaced in 2019.

In the NFL Draft, I don’t know, it’s early. I still haven’t grabbed a tray at the tape buffett. Draft a bunch of cornerbacks. Draft a right tackle. Draft a midround running back who you have more use for than just returning kicks. Draft more cornerbacks. Draft more cornerbacks. Draft more cornerbacks.

There is no more NOW. All we can do is wait. There is only what’s next.