It’s a new day in Houston and that is true on any number of fronts. DeMeco Ryans has fans excited about Houston Texans football for the first time in years. The team has extra draft capital in the next two drafts from the Deshaun Watson trade. Arguably the best news is that they have nearly $40 million under the cap before free agency.
$40 million dollars never means you literally have that much to spend. Teams must allocate some of that available cap space for the upcoming draft and there are other rules you have to follow. Over The Cap is a terrific site that will help every casual fan understand the mechanisms behind the cap. Suffice it to say, the 37 million it lists is probably closer to $25 to $30 million in real spending money. At the same time, we have previously discussed cuts the team could make on offense and defense that could nearly double the amount they have to spend on free agents.
So, with that much cap space available, the Texans might be able to add three or four significant free agents to help them bolster their offense and defense next season. We will take some time to evaluate significant free agents at every position and we will start at defensive tackle.
Why defensive tackle? The Texans were not only dead ass last in rushing yards allowed, but they were so far in the cellar that you had to pipe light down to them. They surrendered more rushing yards in a season than any team since the AFL and NFL merger in 1970. Granted, it was over 17 games and their 5.1 yards per attempted surrendered wasn’t the worst in the league, but clearly this team has to defend the run better. So, we will compare the current guys along with the defensive tackles that qualified for NFL.com’s top 51 free agents.
The Texans had more than a half dozen guys suit up at defensive tackle, but three players played enough to qualify as regulars according to PFF. You certainly can’t put all of the blame on the tackles for the Texans’ horrible run defense. It truly was a team effort and simply listing them and their numbers ignores the possibility that better coaching and a better scheme could create improvement on its own. However, we start with their numbers to give us a frame of reference.
Maliek Collins— 37 total tackles, 9 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, 54.1 PFF Run grade, 76.1 PFF blitz grade
Roy Lopez— 36 total tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 1.0 sacks, 53.0 PFF Run grade, 52.3 PFF blitz grade
Kurt Hinish— 23 total tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 1.0 sacks, 55.8 PFF Run grade, 55.5 PFF blitz grade
We should start with PFF and move from there. Essentially, a 60 grade is what you would expect from a rotational player. Starters should be 70 and over. The counting numbers aren’t meaningless, but they always have a context. Different defenses asks different things from their tackles. Some want them to absorb blockers so the linebackers can make plays. Others want them to be more active.
Ryans made it a point in his opening press conference to tell us that he would play to his players strengths and put them in positions to make plays. Moving from rhetoric to reality is never a straight line necessarily, but if he had play makers at defensive tackle he would want them to make plays. Below are the players that might be available via free agency.
Top Available Free Agent DTs
Javon Hargrave (NFL.com #4, PFF #3)— Philadelphia Eagles
Projected Contract— 3 years, $55 million
He signed a three year, $39 million dollar deal with the Eagles and that somehow turned out to be below market value. He comes in with a 47.6 PFF run grade but ranked 12th overall amongst qualified defensive tackles according to PFF. That was largely due to his ridiculous 91.2 pass rush grade. Sure enough, 11.0 sacks and 10 tackles for loss will do that. The Eagles utilized him more in passing situations, but he did put up an 80.6 and 83.4 overall grades before coming to Philadelphia. He will earn at least $15 million per season, so he better be a three down tackle. I can’t imagine the Texans going here because they probably want to spread that available cap room to more than just one or two guys.
Daron Payne (NFL.com #10, PFF #9)— Washington Commanders
Projected Contract— 4 years, $80 million
PFF ranked him 74th out of 127 qualified defensive tackles. Yet, he had more tackles for loss than Hargrave (18) and more sacks as well (11.5). Like Hargrave, the run defense grade is concerning considering it is our primary weakness. His grades in his first four seasons were better, so maybe he returns to that under a new system. He would be an improvement over Lopez and Hinish and maybe on the same level as Collins. If the price is right then it could be a good addition, but he shouldn’t be a break the bank kind of player.
Dre’Mont Jones (NFL.com #15, PFF #21)— Denver Broncos
Projected Contract— 4 years, $58 million
He was in the top 20 in defensive pressures before going on injured reserve in week 14. 6.5 sacks and nine tackles for loss is good and maybe he gets close to eight and 12 respectively if he goes the full 17 games. Like Payne and Collins he would be a nice rotational piece at the right price, but his 41.8 run defense grade might make it harder to see him as a three down tackle.
Zach Allen (NFL.com #19, PFF #23)— Arizona Cardinals
Projected Contract— 3 years, $37.5 million
Allen is a different sort of player than the first three. He isn’t a pure defensive tackle. He is more versatile in that he can play inside or outside depending on the need. Unlike the others he proved good against the run (67.4 PFF) and pass (71.6). He had ten tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. He is better than anyone on the defensive line overall except for maybe Ogbonnia Okoronkwo. Yet, he is not quite a Pro Bowl performer.
Poona Ford (NFL.com #38, PFF #93) — Seattle Seahawks
Projected Contract— 2 years. $12.5 million
In baseball there is the concept of batted ball luck. Essentially, you look at a player’s expected batting average given exit velocity and contact types and sometimes you predict a rebound. Ford’s numbers weren’t good but he was a 4-3 defensive tackle playing in a 3-4 system. The Texans struck it rich last season by adding an under-utilized Okoronkwo. Maybe they could do the same with Ford.
There are a couple of other names to keep an eye on. Dalvin Tomlinson and David Onyemata were rated in the top 50 by PFF, but did not crack NFL.com’s top 50. Either way, when you include those two names it is almost a guarantee that the Texans wind up with at least one of these guys. As bad as the tackle play was last season, I wouldn’t put it past them to add two guys from this list and rotate Collins in on passing situations.