With your Houston Texans consummating their long, long courtship with new general manager Nick Caserio, the future is slowly starting to come into focus. However, embarking on a sojourn to accurately predict what the Texans will look like in April is fraught with peril. There are simply far too many variables still in flux to know which way the team will go with the type of offense and defense, who is staying/going player-wise, and what sort of cap space the Texans will have when free agency begins. Not to mention the all important question: Whether or not Houston keeps J.J. Watt and his $17.5 mil cap hit in 2021.
All the unknowns in the universe never stopped any of us from making bold football predictions way too far in advances, though! The folks at Pro Football Focus are just as guilty of that as anyone else, with their latest Top 100 Free Agents for 2021 piece. While they don’t say much about the Texans, the piece has three bits of speculation that affect the H-Town faithful.
12. WR WILL FULLER V
Will Fuller has the all-important “speed you can’t teach,” which will always elevate him beyond where his production would otherwise rank him. It was clear even when the Texans had DeAndre Hopkins as their No. 1 receiver that Fuller made a material difference to the offense just by being on the field. Defenses needed to respect that deep threat on every single snap. He has yet to top 1,000 receiving yards in a season and has missed a lot of time with injuries throughout his career, but he will still be in his mid-20s when free agency rolls around. And his speed threat is transformative for an offense that doesn’t have it.
For a player who struggled badly with drops in college, Fuller has largely kept those under control at the NFL level, with just 19 total in his career — 14 of which came in two separate seasons.
Contract Analysis: Houston seemingly put itself in a precarious position by not trading Fuller to the Packers at the deadline. Fuller was having a career year and seemed destined to command top dollar in a crowded wide receiver free agent class, but a six-game suspension for PEDs cut his 2020 season short. In situations like this, the range for the next contract is very wide.
Prediction: Packers sign Fuller for five years, $87.5 million ($17.5M APY): $25 million signing bonus (generally all the Packers guarantee).
Despite Deshaun Watson’s insistence the Texans need to keep Will Fuller V around for the good of the future of the franchise, those of us who roll around in mile high piles of Benjamins earned writing about football can’t seem to wait to deal him away. If Fuller does end up in Green Bay, a landing spot many thought the speedy wideout would see prior to the trade deadline expiring, that will leave Brandin Cooks, Randall Cobb, Keke Coutee, and [insert player here] as targets for Watson’s 2021 campaign.
Despite the chemistry Fuller has with Watson, if Nick Caserio shares Bill Belichick’s mindset, a player who gets injured all the time and then gets suspended for a PED violation isn’t a guy you hand money to anytime soon. As sad as it is, we’re with PFF on this one.
70. S KEANU NEAL
A former first-round pick, Neal found his home immediately as a traditional strong safety in the Falcons’ Cover 1/Cover 3 scheme. He made an impact from Day 1, flying around the field in the run game and showing good range against underneath routes when playing zone. Unfortunately, injuries limited Neal to just 213 snaps across 2018 and 2019, but he was healthy once again in 2020, grading out at 68.2 overall. Neal is a classic box safety who does his best work around the line of scrimmage and in the middle of the field, and his future team should look for him to play a similar role.
Contract Analysis: Neal is set to hit free agency coming off his $6.466 million fifth-year option in 2020, and he’s fortunate Atlanta stuck by it. He was able to play a full season and provide quality snaps down in the box as well as in the slot, and a versatile safety who lurks near the line of scrimmage could be just what a few teams need this offseason.
Prediction: Texans sign Neal for two years, $10 million ($5M APY): $6 million total guaranteed, $3.5 million fully guaranteed at signing.
Giving Justin Reid some help in the back end of the defense is an absolute must this offseason. Unfortunately, Houston needs far more help in the cornerback room than the safety room, so Neal (or another talented safety) may or may not find their way to H-Town in the next few months.
In less exciting yet related news, PFF had this to say about a Houston free-agent--to-be cornerback.
89. CB GAREON CONLEY
A former first-round pick, Conley has had his ups and downs, grading out at 64.5 and 64.0 in his two full seasons. He missed all of the 2020 season. Conley is better in man coverage, as he’s graded in the 69th percentile in single coverage compared to just the 37th percentile in zone since entering the league. He’s also forced incompletions on 22.2% of his targets, the second-best rate in the NFL since 2017. Conley is worth a look in a man-heavy system.
Contract Analysis: The former 2017 first-round pick of the then-Oakland Raiders was traded to the Houston Texans for a third-round pick after just two seasons. Conley is a perfect candidate to be 2021’s Ronald Darby, as he profiles very similarly — and that’s what he should be selling to potential suitors.
Prediction: Texans sign Conley for one year, $2.5 million: $1 million fully guaranteed at signing.
Taking a cheap flyer on Conley isn’t the worst idea, as long as he isn’t expected to be CB1 or CB2. Houston needs to bring in a solid CB1 to pair with Bradley Roby; Conley can pick up the slack as they send Vernon Hargreaves III to the free agent market.
Of the other players mentioned in PFF’s Top 100, Houston should take a hard look at guards Brandon Scherff and/or Joe Thuney, center Corey Linsley, cornerback Shaquill Griffin, wide ut T.Y. “If You Always Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em Because They Should Pay You” Hilton, edge Jadeveon Clowney, defensive tackle Shelby Harris, and possibly a few others.
It all depends on how the pairing of Caserio and Easterby fills the coaching staff and who they perceive to be a good “culture fit” for the Texans going forward. We certainly can’t have anymore of those pesky All-World wideouts mucking up the place, can we?