Now that the news of Bill O’Brien’s termination has echoed around the sports world, generating commentary from nearly everyone who has an opinion on such things, the dust will slowly settle and Houston Texans owner Cal McNair will have to begin the plan to drive his team out of the cavernous depths Bill O’Brien steered them into. While the roles of general manager and head coach of an NFL franchise are usually some of the most coveted positions in the sports world, the mess O’Brien left behind is far from enticing to someone looking to succeed. In fact, top candidates might view the Texans head coach and general manager roles as a “set up for failure”.
How can that be, you ask? The Texans have Deshaun Watson, arguably one of the best young quarterbacks in the league, a star player at the most important position in the game. They also have J.J. Watt, one of the greatest defensive linemen to ever take an NFL snap. But as we’ve seen, two guys can’t consistently win games played between a pair of 53-man rosters.
The Texans’ new General Manager has a lot of work to do.
The incoming GM will have to roll up his sleeves and rebuild a roster around Watson quickly. How to do that with an overdrawn bank account of sorts when it comes to roster resources? Houston is projected to be nearly $15 million over the salary cap for the 2021 season. They have dire needs all over the roster. While Bill O’Brien implored us all to “trust the process,” the true results of said process were the loss of a lot of draft capital and a mountain of cap space.
Largest NFL payrolls this year (inc. dead $)— Jason_OTC (@Jason_OTC) October 6, 2020
1. Texans- $253.9M
2. Cowboys- $244.3M
3. Eagles- $242.9M
4. Saints- $241.9M
5. Chargers- $238.8M
6. 49ers- $237.1M
7. Raiders- $225.1M
8. Bengals- $222.9M
9. Vikings- $222.4M
10. Dolphins- $218.7M
To be exact, according to Over The Cap, the Texans are currently predicted to land $14,595,723 in the red next season. Making matters worse, divisional rivals Jacksonville Jaguars and Indianapolis Colts are predicted to have the largest amount of cap space in the league, with the Jaguars having just over $76 million and the Colts $66 million. Some have speculated about the return of Rick Smith, the former Texans general manager and a man who proved more than once he could make lemonade from salary cap lemons, but the Texans have never been in the business of driving while looking in the rear view mirror.
Perhaps J.J. Watt might be interested in re-working his salary into an extension, mitigating the $17.5 million hit he’ll put on the Texans 2021 cap,. There are also some who believe trading Watt might be more prudent for a team that essentially needs to entirely re-tool the defense.
Could J.J. Watt join brothers T.J. Watt and Derek Watt on the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers?
We certainly hope not, but an incoming GM will have to at least explore that option.
David Johnson, Laremy Tunsil and Whitney Mercilus also weight down the cap tremendously, with Johnson most likely an immediate cut for new management; it makes no sense to pay him nearly $8 million a year for below average production. Tunsil’s deal still has wet ink on it, so it would take a seriously savvy GM to pull off a restructure that makes sense for the team and Tunsil. That leaves Mercilus. While Whitney is a home town favorite, his production is hardly equivalent to his $10.5 million cap hit for 2021. If the new GM can bring in another quality pass rusher, both Mercilus and Watt would benefit greatly from the addition. Maybe Whitney gets one more year to show the extension O’Brien gave him late last year wasn’t a total mistake.
While trading is always an avenue to make roster improvements, a good GM either has to have something worth trading for or the ability to convince the other team they need what Houston has to offer. Without knowing who the new GM will be, it’s hard to speculate on how they might horse-trade. In his latest piece, ESPN writer Bill Barnwell touches on what we currently know:
OK, so, with the Texans spending a league-high $249.3 million on players this season while starting 0-4, why not correct that mistake as early as possible and get O’Brien out of the GM chair? For one, they can’t go out and get an immediate replacement. Early reports suggest Houston will turn things over to former Patriots chaplain Jack Easterby, who was brought by O’Brien to Houston in 2019 and became vice president of football operations in 2020. Pretty much every bad move O’Brien has made over the past two years has come with Easterby in the picture, so the idea that Easterby is somehow going to fix the problems left with this organization after O’Brien’s departure seems curious.
Next, we have draft picks. Normally a great way to build a winning roster, any GM is going to need draft picks. Unfortunately, in 2021, the Texans have a 3rd rounder, two 4th rounders, a 5th rounder, three 6th rounders, and one 7th round pick thanks to Bill O’Brien’s reign of roster terror. This is hardly the sort of draft capital that makes a GM excited to come to work. Depending on the ability to sell what they’re offering in a trade, it’s not unthinkable that a new GM could package several of these picks and possibly a player or two to get back into the second round of the 2021 NFL Draft.
How does the lack of premium draft picks affect which coaches might be interested in coming to Houston?
Knowing the incoming GM has to “walk to school both ways in the snow uphill” might wrinkle the nose of head coaching candidates. While Romeo Crennel has been named the interim head coach, his previous tenure in the driver’s seat in Kansas City and Cleveland didn’t pan out. Like many other historically great coordinators, Crennel might be promoted beyond his competency in the role of head coach. On the flipside, there’s a tidal wave of thinking these days that a veteran time head coach is far more desirable than a first-timer. From Andy Reid to Bill Belichick, Tony Dungy to Jon Gruden, the NFL landscape is littered with men who won it all after flaming out in their first stop. Could Crennel do that here? It’s possible. Before that conversation is even realistic, Crennel is going to have to pick this team up, dust it off, swat it on the backside, and get it back to winning games.
He might need to bring in some free agents immediately to do that. Per Over The Cap, the Texans currently have $8,575,156 in cap space, which is more than enough to sign guys like Eric Reid , Damon Harrison, or any number of others on this Top 50 free agent list that fit the Texans schemes, whatever those will be for the remainder of 2020.
If the 73-year-old Crennel is unable or unwilling to take the Texans into the future, it will require a general manager and head coach with the right balance of “challenge accepted” and moxie to pull this team out of the fire. Whomever gets the gigs will have an uphill battle, but as a wise leader once told me, “No one does great things without overcoming great obstacles.”