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2021 Houston Texans Free Agency: Cornerback Targets

Pro Football Focus’s list of corners offers some potential Texans.

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NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

When your passing defense is one of only three in the NFL to cough up over 4,000 yards in a season, it’s clear something needs to change. The Texans entered the 2020 season with Gareon Conley, Bradley Roby, and Vernon Hargreaves IIIas the projected starters; that’s not exactly a fearsome threesome.

Conley was immediately added to the PUP/IR list at the start of training camp and never sniffed the field in 2020. Bradley Roby, along with Will Fuller V, was suspended for the final four games of the season for taking a banned substance. Both Roby and Fuller will continue that suspension for the first game of 2021. Vernon Hargreaves III is... well, Vernon Hargreaves III.

In a year where one of the greatest corners in NFL history, Charles Woodson, is hitting the Hall of Fame, Houston has no one on the roster who has any chance of following in Woodson’s footsteps. According to OverTheCap.com the Texans are currently $13,414,930 in the red for 2021. However, with rumors that J.J. Watt has played his last snap as a Texan, the $17.5 mil hit from Watt won’t land on Houston’s books, which immediately puts them $4.1 mil in the black. Subtract David Johnson’s $8.5 mil and it jumps to $12.6 under, and so on. Nick Caserio should have no issues freeing up cap space to bring in some secondary help for new defensive coordinator Lovie Smith. Either way, new secondary coach Dino Vasso will have his work cut out for him.

While the Texans can’t expect a player like Justin Reid to free fall to the third round where they finally get to pick in the upcoming 2021 NFL Draft, they should have a shot at some solid veterans and maybe a diamond in the rough rookie or two as well. Unfortunately, this isn’t a year full of great free agent cornerbacks. Most are either past their prime or guys marred with inconsistent play. However, the hope is a guy like Vasso can get them coached up and Smith puts them in the right place at the right time. Keeping Bradley Roby around will help, as well.

So who is expected to hit the free agent marketplace?

Free Agent Cornerbacks the Texans Could Sign

WillIam Jackson III

Houston had great luck the last time they signed the #1 cornerback from the Cincinnati Bengals (Johnathan Joseph), so maybe lighting can strike twice. In a similarly mediocre defense, Jackson earned a 71.4 overall grade from PFF in 2020. He participated in 14 games, playing 532 coverage snaps, 11 passes defensed, 45 combined tackles, 38 solo takedowns and 1 interception.

Here’s what PFF had to say about him:

William Jackson III is the No. 1 corner on our free agent board, but even he comes with some question marks after posting a 53.6 overall grade in 2019. He’s graded in the low 70s both in 2020 and 2018 with his best work coming as a rookie with a 90.2 overall grade in 2017. Jackson has all of the tools and previous production to be a No. 1 corner.

Desmond King II

With Roby anchoring one side of the field, the Texans need another outside corner and desperately need help in the slot. Enter Desmond King III. Like Jackson, King has endured career ups and downs. In 2018, he excelled in coverage with the Los Angeles Chargers, landing a 91.1 PFF grade. In 2020 that number fell to 60.9 as a Tennessee Titan. How much of that is scheme and how much is player remains to be seen. King works well in a Cover 3 system, which means he should work well in a modified Tampa 2, with the right supporting cast in place.

Here’s PFF’s take on King:

King is another player who had a solid career trajectory with two outstanding grades of 85.7 and 88.6 to start his career, but he’s come back down to earth over the last two years, including a mediocre stint in a new system in Tennessee. At his best, King is one of the better slot corners in the league and, like Sherman, a good fit for the Seattle cover-3 system in which he’s familiar.

Shaquill Griffin

Another Cover 3 option is Seattle Seahawk Shaquill Griffin. In 2019, Griffin posted a 77.0 overall grade and a 76.0 in coverage. In 2019, Griffin played 14 games, had 13 passes defensed, 65 combined tackles and 45 solo tackles. In 2020, he was only available for 12 games, but had 3 interceptions - tying the entire Houston defense...

Here’s what PFF had to say about Griffin:

Griffin, [Quinton] Dunbar, [Ronald] Darby and [Xavier ]Rhodes are all examples of outside cornerbacks who have had high-end seasons, but they’ve failed to stack them back to back in recent years. That inherently makes them risky signings, but there’s at least a high end to chase.

Now, let’s look at potential draftees who might fall to the Texans in the third round.

Tay Gowan

There once was a day when a player from UCF had no chance of getting picked in the early to middle rounds of the NFL Draft. But, that’s all changed and now the small school routinely puts out NFL caliber players. Tay Gowan is no exception. While the star corner opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19, he landed an 81.0 overall score from PFF for 2019, with 2 interceptions, 1 fumble recovery, 31 total tackles and 22 solo stops. At 6’ 2”, Gowan also brings a big, physical presence the Texans need in the defensive backfield.

PFF:

Gowan is a special mover at his size. For a small-school corner, he brings an NFL-level starter skill set to the table. Gowan’s profile ticks a lot of boxes. Size, length, speed, production — you name it. The biggest red flag is the fact that we’ve seen him for only one year against AAC receivers. Even then, he was running a lot of NFL-type coverage concepts, seeing 81 coverage snaps in press man in 2019. It really is a shame he didn’t receive a Senior Bowl invite because he could really use the tape against some top competition. There’s very little that suggests he wouldn’t more than hold his own.

Jevon Holland

The Oregon Duck has everything former head coach/general manager Bill O’Brien would have wanted in a player. He’s tough, smart and brings his work pail in every day to get the job done. With #FireEasterby and Nick Caserio in town, it’s a good bet the O’Brien lens will still apply to potential roster additions.

PFF:

Jevon Holland signed with the Ducks in December 2017 as a consensus four-star recruit and California’s No. 2 overall athlete. He was named the 2017 San Francisco East Bay Player of the Year following his senior season at Oakland’s Bishop O’Dowd High School. Holland played defensive back and wide receiver (and returned punts) in high school, recording 1,012 receiving yards and 12 receiving touchdowns as a senior. He amassed over 100 tackles and 18 passes defended on the defensive side of the ball over the course of his preps career. He fielded close to 20 total scholarship offers and picked Oregon over Notre Dame, UCLA and Washington, among others.

Holland was Oregon’s starting safety as a true freshman in 2018 before manning the slot for the Ducks in 2019. He’s graded exceptionally well at both, as he’s been tremendously assignment sound. The biggest question mark with him will be his athleticism. He doesn’t have anyone special trait to hang his hat on. That’s no death knell by any means but likely keeps him out of the early-round conversation. It didn’t stop him from picking off nine passes and breaking up 11 more in his two seasons of play. That type of slot/safety versatility is perfect for today’s NFL.

Holland is a high-floor player with the way he sees the game and should be an immediate starter.

Thomas Graham Jr.

Like fellow Duck teammate Holland, Graham Jr. is a perfect candidate for Bill O’Brien/Patriots South roster building. The former Rose Bowl star is a height-length-strength guy who put up an 80.9 overall PFF grade in 2019 before opting out of 2020 due to COVID-19.

PFF:

A consensus four-star recruit out of the powerhouse that is California’s Rancho Cucamonga High School in 2017, Thomas Graham Jr. received more than 20 scholarship offers from top programs around the country, including Notre Dame, Alabama, USC and LSU, among others. He ultimately picked the Ducks and started in 21 games as a true freshman. As a senior at Rancho Cucamonga, Graham was a Los Angeles Times’ All-Star selection and recorded 45 tackles, seven pass breakups, two interceptions and one defensive touchdown.

It was a bit of a surprise when Graham returned to school this year in the first place after his monster Rose Bowl performance the season prior. He’d been starting ever since his true freshman year and had put up enough quality film to likely warrant Day 2 consideration. It’s not as if the biggest thing holding him back — his lack of long speed — was ever going to change. He went to the Senior Bowl, showed no rust whatsoever and performed to the level we’ve come to expect. You can chase higher-end athletes in this class, but Graham may very well end up being one of the more reliable corners taken.

While names like Patrick Peterson and Richard Sherman are big splash signings, odds are Peterson and Sherman won’t play for the Texans, and both are on the backside of their careers.

Hopefully, Vasso can coach up the existing players, Caserio can land a few of the guys above, and Houston’s secondary can rise from horrible to average in 2021.

Who do you want to see the Texans target to rebuild the secondary?