The Houston Texans face two paths this offseason. They can take the left trail, hold onto Deshaun Watson, and continue to tell themselves that he is the quarterback of the Houston Texans. They can take the right trail, press the restart button, and see how scorched the Earth can be.
This is what new general manager Nick Caserio signed up for when he took the big job—Daddy loves you lots!!!—after a previously unsuccessful summer fling, that was ruined by his strict daddy and a locked window in the summer of 2019. That was the inflection point for the Houston Texans. Without adult supervision, left to their own devices, Bill O’Brien and Jack Easterby worked together to trade Jadeveon Clowney, trade for Laremy Tunsil, trade DeAndre Hopkins, go 4-12, and now, after unfulfilled promises, Deshaun Watson wants to be traded.
For however long it takes for these words to travel along the highways of your brain, imagine you are Nick Caserio, and I’m Nick Caserio, and we are all Nick Caserio, and together, we can envision the Houston Texans offseason from this vantage point, and trample down both the left and the right paths.
As the saying goes, the early bird humps the rabbit, and Caserio has been riding that rabbit all morning long. He’s quickly made a rash of moves to pick up from. Houston released J.J. Watt, Senio Kelemete, Duke Johnson, Nick Martin, and Peter Kalambayi. He resigned Buddy Howell, and is expected to resign P.J. Hall, Pharoah Brown, and A.J. Moore. The Texans now have $15.9 million in cap space as a result of these moves.
No matter what Houston decides to do with Watson, outright releasing Watt is absurd. From Watt’s point of view, the greatest player in franchise history, a man who gave up his entire body to the Texans business operation, releasing him was the right thing to do after he asked for it. Yet, this is supposed to be a football team, this isn’t Anchorman. Being classy is cute, but it doesn’t make a football team that is already facing an arduous task any better.
Watt signed a two-year $31 million contract with $20 million guaranteed in Arizona. He was under a one-year $15.5 million contract before he was released. For a team lacking draft capital, or any team for that matter, releasing Watt and getting nothing for him is an outright failure. The contract wasn’t an issue. Houston could have traded him to a team like Arizona for example, for a second or, hell, even a third round pick, and Watt could have signed a one-year extension under the same dollar amount anyways. It wouldn’t have been too difficult to orchestrate a trade that Watt could dictate.
If Houston tries to coerce Watson into playing football for Houston again, releasing Watt removes the ability to add another possible competent player on a rookie contract. With Laremy Tunsil and Watson set to make $35.34 million this year, and $61.5 million next year, anyone on a cost effective contract is valuable.
If Watson is traded, the future is all the Texans have. The immediate afterlife is what the megachurch provides as solace. There is nothing that can be done to appease the current suffering. Releasing Watt fails to extract anything from one of the few assets Houston had. It dulls the pearly gates. It plucks feathers from the angels’ wings. Even the most eternal optimists should be concerned by this decision.
Like all things regarding this team, the only theory that makes sense as to why Houston released Watt, instead of attempting to trade him, is that it removes the drama a potential trade could have created. Failing to meet Watt’s demands leads to reports from unnamed sources. Jack Easterby speaks in tongues and contorts and cantors before kick off. Cal McNair plays Tony Hawk Pro Skater with infinite grind and manual on. The list goes on and on of what could have came out. It’s yet another example of the Texans not being a football team, but some strange vehicle for Easterby to maneuver, while Cal, empty, drooling, and dumbfounded, obliges to his every word.
First and foremost, if I was Nick Caserio, I would have traded Watt, and let the consequences sizzle and fade as the turmoil continues to boil and the froth out of NRG stadium. Based on his talent, contract, and demand, a second round pick should have been squeezed out of another franchise.
The rest of Caserio’s decisions I can get behind. Saving $6.25 million to get rid of the average Martin, who always was a liability in the run game is the correct decision. I love Duke Johnson, he’s a beautiful third down back, but what he does didn’t match the contract. The $5 million cap savings was warranted. Senio Kelemete was depth, below average, and often injured. Keeping restricted free agents P.J. Hall, boom or bust but a fine rotational piece, Pharoah Brown, good blocking tight end and yards after catch barbarian, and A.J. Moore, fourth safety and special teams player, are all perfectly fine since each player has a role that works. It’s reasonable to expect these signings take up $4 million in cap space. The rest of the smaller decisions don’t matter too much. As a result, Houston has $12 million in cap space.
Take the left path first. Houston has failed Watson every step of the way. Whether it was their failure to go all in and build around his rookie contract, or the offense O’Brien placated him, or ignoring his wishes of a cultural change, or leaving promises unfulfilled, or hiring David Culley, the Texans turned a cheat code into a horror show.
The easy decision would be to fire Jack Easterby. Gone. Out of here. He can take his sermons to FM 91.7. He can change lives elsewhere. This is the only real way to appease Watson. Keeping Tim Kelly doesn’t, signing Will Fuller to a long term contract doesn’t, hiring David Culley, whose meeting with Watson changed absolutely nothing, a complete shocker, also doesn’t. Firing Easterby would. Getting rid of the man in charge of the culture that Watson despairingly pleaded against following a week 17 loss would be the first step in resettlement. From there, it would be time to finally build a team around Watson, something the Texans failed to do the previous four seasons.
There are other cuts to be made. David Johnson, bad, old, slow, doesn’t break tackles, can’t be the main running back, saves $6.4 million. Brandon Dunn, who provides nothing as a pass rusher, and played nose tackle on one of the worst run defenses in the league, saves $3.15 million. Zach Fulton, the turnstile you walk through on the way into your local horse racing track, saves $3 million. Darren Fells, a redzone option, who doesn’t do anything else well, saves $2.3 million. Eric Murray, a jack of no trades, saves nearly $1 million. Whitney Mercilus, an aged glutton who steals calories and snaps from younger players, would give Houston a dead cap hit of $15 million, and take $3 million off the salary cap. This puts Houston at $24.85 million in cap space.
I love Benardrick McKinney. My Chemical Romance eye black. Leather studded bracelets. A complete mauler between the tackles with the strength to take on guards head on, allowing Zach Cunningham to chase and make plays from the backside. He’s a linebacker who plays the role of a defensive tackle.
He does have a cap hit of $7 million, and removing him saves $6.4 million though. He creates for Cunningham, and I’d argue he’s the better player, but Cunningham’s contract is rocks in Houston’s guts. The other problem is he offers nothing in the passing game. He struggles in the flat and in short hook zones. His best skill, stopping the run, is the least important core component of football. There are plenty of teams who need adequate linebacker play, but I don’t think Houston could wring a draft pick out of McKinney even if it’s in the later rounds of the draft. His release gives Houston $31.25 million.
Brandin Cooks is the only complicated decision remaining. He has three years left on his contract, but none of it is guaranteed. He’s owed $12 million this year, $13 million in 2022, and $14 million in 2023. He’s no longer a true deep threat. He struggled to win his vertical routes down the sideline, and when he did, it came against injury replacements and the bottom of the depth chart. Because of his small hit box, and head injuries, he isn’t a good option in the short passing game. The yards after the catch are limited since his speed has already started to decline. Most of his receptions came on deep crossing patters on play action passes that take a while to develop. Completions made because of how ludicrous Watson is.
That being said, he has connected well with Watson. There is more to dig up from the play action passing game. There’s a small possibility his drop off in speed was the result of a calf injury that limited him in week one against Kansas City.
$12 million is too much for him though. It’s a deep free agent class. He wouldn’t be able to get this on the open market. If Randall Cobb didn’t have a $10.4 million cap hit, that doesn’t create cap space this season, Houston could work to restructure his contract to keep him around. Instead, I’d dictate a trade to move Cooks to a place he wants to be. A third round pick would be more than enough for a wide receiver needy team with cap space like the Chargers.
Will Fuller is the next wide receiver to discuss. Unlike Cooks, Fuller is a true deep threat, and the talent finally won out last season. In his first fully healthy season he had 879 yards, averaged 16.58 yards a catch, and led the NFL in receiving DVOA. Teams aren’t bad because they pay great players too much, they’re bad because they pay bad and mediocre players too much—see Eric Murray.
With the wide receiver class available, his injury history, and suspension, paying Fuller the franchise tag at $16.4 million is too rich. Instead I’d transition tag him. It gives Houston a chance to meet any offer greater than $14 million, which is unlikely. It’s probable that a one-year prove it deal at $14 million would be enough for another season of Fuller. For the purpose of this simulation, Fuller stays with a $14 million hit for 2021, and Houston has $29.25 million in cap space.
This is the hard part. The Texans have a little bit of cap space, needs at cornerback, safety, defensive line, and linebacker, and have one of the three worst defenses in the NFL.
Since this is a Lovie Smith defense, which will never not be funny, safety is just as important as the cornerback position. Cornerbacks sit and squat, use their size to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage, chase and tackle the crossing routes, and play the vertical with their body while their eyes play the shorter routes. Safeties have to be able to play from the deep middle to the sideline. This range is vital to this defense.
There are two players worth looking at to play safety: Keanu Neal and Malik Hooker. There isn’t speculation surrounding Neal. He smashes at the safety position. He has the range required, but because he’s more of a sure thing, with only his injury history holding him back, he should receive a multi-year contract that pushes him out of Houston’s price range.
I don’t love Hooker. His brain prevents him from making plays on the ball. Julian Blackmon was immensely better than Hooker ever was. But Indy’s cover seven defense is complicated to play in. Hooker has the range to play single high, and could gallop around the field in two high, without worrying about man-match responsibilities. One-year $4 million to play with Justin Reid. $25.25 million in cap space.
At cornerback, I’d move to Lonnie Johnson Jr. back to this spot. He’s been one of the worst man coverage cornerbacks in football since he was drafted. Last year he stood with his hands in his pockets at deep middle. But he did improve as a tackler. This short zone coverage may work out for him. Plus, this removes Vernon Hargreaves III from the conversation.
It does leave a hole at the slot corner position. It’s a difficult task, and a lot of guessing, to find competent discounted play at this position. The best I could come up with is D.J. Hayden. He was a fine slot corner in 2018 and 2019 in Jacksonville, before a hamstring injury zapped his 2020 season. At age 31, this isn’t ideal, but there aren’t many options available, and anything is better than Hargreaves III. One-year $3 million should do it. Houston has $21.25 million left. I heard Aaron Colvin is still around if it doesn’t work out.
The Texans have a need at linebacker. Cunningham flailed playing the strong side linebacker without Benardrick McKinney in the lineup, and was torched even playing his usual role before his injury. Houston needs a strong side linebacker to let him chase and tackle.
Eric Wilson and Alexander Johnson, if Denver doesn’t tender him, make the most sense. Anthony Walker is another option if Indianapolis releases him. Wilson is competent in the run game, can carry the seam, cover the intermediate middle, and anchor down the pass game. Johnson is a better run defender and blitzer than Wilson, but doesn’t have the same coverage acumen. Because of the defense, and the importance of the position, I’d give Wilson two-years $10 million, a high going rate for an inside linebacker in this economy. There’s $16.25 million left.
Any bit of pass rushing help is crucial. Houston no longer has J.J. Watt to carry an already horrendous pass rush, that is now being paired with a defense that relies on front four pressure. Houston needs another level from Charles Omenihu and Jacob Martin, they need to become something more than interesting. Ross Blacklock and Jonathan Greenard have to do something, anything. With the cap problems they have, there isn’t a world where even competent pass rushing production is possible.
Adam Butler and Duwaune Smoot both have my heart. Butler has played with Cunningham back at Vanderbilt, is great at stunts, and is a really good outside zone defender. Smoot can play inside and outside in both the run and pass game, and after having only one good season, he could be had for a bargain. There’s only enough room for one. I’d pick Smoot because he’s more versatile, that dirty little word. He’d be the big defensive free agent at two-years $12 million.
Offensively, everything is pretty much in place. Without Brandin Cooks, and Fuller facing a one game suspension, there’s a hole at outside wide receiver. I love Cam Sims. He’s tall, a demon with the ball in his hands, and is still young and raw with potential that hasn’t been fully discovered. The Texans don’t have a possession receiver like him. One-year $2 million is enough to give him a chance to spring board into something greater.
With $8 million left, everything is pretty much set for the draft. With picks added from the Watt and Cooks trade, Houston has the following selections: Round 2 (Team X), Round 3, Round 3 (Team X), Round 4, Round 4 (Arizona), Round 5, Round 6, Round 6 (Miami), Round 6 (New Orleans), Round 7.
Because of the limited information of this draft, without the NFL combine, interviews, and a short NCAA season, this draft should be about trading down and accumulating picks. The keys would be to add a starting running back, interior offensive line help, and anything and everything on defense: cornerback, run stopping defensive tackle, pass rushers.
After the draft, Houston has the chance to figure out their offensive line. They would have holes at center and right guard, but would have the tackle positions filled out. Kansas City is the model. The Chiefs consistently sift through interior offensive line options, and still make out okay, because of their scheme, the talent they have at quarterback, and their bookend protection. The summer would be about finding competition on the interior, and an understanding that it’s going to be up to the quarterback and the passing offense to make up for it. The future of the Houston Texans is Watson operating from empty backfields, not the run game and offensive line.
Hopefully, after slicing the tail off the devil, and putting together enough talent around Watson, with some vision of what the future could look like, this would get Watson in the building for training camp, and ready to play for the 2021 season.
If it doesn’t, Houston would be better off paying Watson not to play, then trading him right before the 2021 season. You can’t trade Watson without knowing what the draft picks you receive back would be worth. Moving Watson to another team would plummet the draft capital Houston receives. Fighting the culture war would be the correct move.
The interesting decision at this point would be whether or not to try and go for it with a backup quarterback, or raze it to the ground before the season starts.
Personally, I would go with the latter. The Texans were unlucky last season because of Watson’s performance. He somehow kept them in games. He carried them entirely on his own. These offseason decisions merely give a Watson led team a better chance of making the postseason. Someone else couldn’t walk in and make this team competent.
I’d deal everyone I could—see the right path—bottom out for a top five pick, and then look to move Watson in 2021. At least you could sell it to the fans that this is a situation past saving. Dealing Watson this offseason, right here and right now, is a more difficult poison to take.
It doesn’t matter who the quarterback is. Matt Barkley, Tyrod Taylor, Colt McCoy, C.J. Beathard, who cares. It’s all about going 1-15, 2-14, 3-13, while David Culley keeps on smiling, and taking the team to Pizza Hut after the game. Remember, football it isn’t about winning games, it’s about the friends and memories you make along the way.
The right path provides a complete and total rebuild. There is one easy decision, fire Jack Easterby, followed by a difficult decision, and then numerous easy ones.
First and foremost, there isn’t a trade package for Watson that makes sense. Pick a team, come up with something, put it together, and it still doesn’t work. There are two options, trade him for draft capital to get a quarterback this year, or use him to rebuild the defense and then figure out the quarterback position in the future.
The Panthers are interesting from a burn it all down perspective. You could turn Watson into two first round picks, Derrick Brown, Yetur Gros-Matos, and Brian Burns. This would give Houston the draft capital and defensive rejuvenation needed for the future. This offseason is still the same. Eviscerate. The difference is their isn’t the high pedigree young quarterback in this reality.
I’d look to move him to New York. Give me four first round picks, two this year and two next year thanks to the Jamal Adams trade, and two second round picks. That’s enough draft capital to make it happen. I don’t have a preference between Justin Fields and Zach Wilson yet, but either one of them would be the move to make. I wouldn’t start either one in 2021. They’d sit the bench and watch while Beathard is fed to the lions.
It’s time to sharpen the knife and gut it up. Watt, Watson, Cooks, Laremy Tunsil, and Bradley Roby would be traded, with Tunsil moved for a first round pick, and Roby moved for a third round pick. Cobb, McKinney, Da. Johnson, Murray, Dunn, Fulton, and Fells would be released, to pair along with the same players discussed earlier. This would leave Houston with $48.1 million in cap space.
This would run in combination with the following picks: Round 1 (New York Jets), Round 1 (New York Jets), Round 1 (Team X), Round 2 (New York Jets), Round 2 (Team X), Round 3, Round 3 (Team X), Round 4, Round 4 (Arizona), Round 5, Round 6, Round 6 (Miami), Round 6 (New Orleans), Round 7. The goal would be to find a quarterback at #2 overall, and then trade down and accumulate picks from there.
The plan in free agency is to find someone to mentor Fields or Wilson, and then find players with potential, high growth stocks for the future.
It doesn’t matter who you sign to play quarterback. Andy Dalton, Tyrod Taylor, Jacoby Brissett, blind fold me, spin a dart, tell me what their character is, I don’t care. They’re here to guide a young man, and most importantly, lose football games.
The rest of the roster is all about glints. Little glimmers reflecting off the surface. It’s also imperative to not spend too much as well. Every dollar of cap space can be rolled over to 2022, when the league should see a salary cap boost thanks to increased ticket sales in a more vaccinated world.
I still love Butler, Smoot, and Sims in a rebuild. Gus Edwards, Ricky Seals-Jones, Matt Skura, Le’Raven Clark, Larry Ogunjobi, Poona Ford, Solomon Thomas, Jeremiah Attaochu, Malik Hooker, Keanu Neal, Chidobe Awuzie, and Artie Burns, are all examples of players Houston would purse. Again, it doesn’t really matter. It’s all about 2022 and beyond at this point. The big decision was already made.
Even after all the ones and zeroes have finished bouncing around the circuit boards running this simulation, none of this matters at all. Because at the heart of it, the Texans aren’t a football team. They are a business operation led by an insidious spirit filling up an empty vessel. The football gets in the way of the drama, and the turmoil, and the dysfunction, that has all been created in the name of culture. It isn’t about bringing in good football players. It isn’t about talent, scheme, and winning football games. No. That is all too Molochian. Turn the Taurus into a Pisces. Yes, that’s what matters.
One day, the offseason can be enjoyed as a time for hope to come bubbling out from our electronic hearts. In the meantime, this is all an excursion, a dream that takes us back to a previous level of normalcy that we all used to be kind of annoyed by.