In advance of March 9, the start of free agency in the NFL, Pro Football Rumors will detail each team’s three most glaring roster issues. We’ll continue with the Houston Texans, who are fresh off their third straight nine-win season and second consecutive AFC South title. After a 27-14 victory over the injury-plagued Raiders in the wild-card round, the Texans’ season ended at the hands of the Patriots in a 34-16 divisional romp.
Pending Free Agents:
- Oday Aboushi, LG
- A.J. Bouye, CB
- Quintin Demps, S
- Akeem Dent, LB
- Ryan Griffin, TE
- Jonathan Grimes, RB
- Don Jones, S
- Shane Lechler, P
- Nick Novak, K
- David Quessenberry, LT
- John Simon, LB
- Antonio Smith, DE
- Devon Still, DE
- Vince Wilfork, DT
Top 10 Cap Hits For 2017:
- Brock Osweiler, QB: $19,000,000
- J.J. Watt, DE: $14,500,000
- Duane Brown, LT: $9,650,000
- Brian Cushing, LB: $9,547,500
- Kareem Jackson, CB: $9,000,000
- DeAndre Hopkins, WR: $7,915,000
- Jeff Allen, RG: $6,500,000
- Lamar Miller, RB: $6,500,000
- Whitney Mercilus, LB: $6,050,000
- Derek Newton, RT: $5,500,000
Current Projected Cap Room (via Over the Cap): $25,757,451
- Twenty-fifth overall pick in draft
- Must exercise or decline DE Jadeveon Clowney‘s fifth-year option for 2018
1.) Once again, find a quarterback: The Texans thought they solved their long-standing quarterback woes last offseason when they released 2015 playoff goat Brian Hoyer and signed ex-Broncos backup Brock Osweiler to a big-money deal in free agency. Instead, all they did was make their situation under center much worse. Osweiler was an utter disaster in his first year as a Texan, leading head coach Bill O’Brien to bench him in favor of unexciting reserve Tom Savage toward the end of the season. While Savage was far from special in three showings, he was more effective than Osweiler and would have remained the team’s starter if not for a Week 17 concussion.
Savage’s injury forced O’Brien to pivot back to Osweiler for the playoffs, and he was decent enough in the Texans’ win over Oakland. Unsurprisingly, though, Osweiler couldn’t handle Super Bowl-bound New England, which held him to a microscopic 4.93 yards per attempt and intercepted two of his 40 passes in a game the Texans could have made interesting with a better signal-caller.
Osweiler’s showing against the Pats was all too typical of his 15-game regular season, in which he completed 59 percent of passes, recorded a paltry 5.8 YPA and tossed 15 scores against 16 picks. Those numbers wouldn’t have been satisfactory for a starter with a guaranteed $3.7MM on his contract, let alone the $37MM Houston handed Osweiler.
Moving forward, the good news for the Texans is that they won’t be tethered to Osweiler for the life of his four-year, $72MM accord; on the negative side, his contract will once again be an albatross next season. Even if the Texans were to designate the 26-year-old as a post-June 1 cut, he’d cost them $19MM in dead money in 2017. Regardless, they’re going to have to search for a superior QB this offseason and hope Osweiler’s successor does a better job complementing Houston’s abundance of talented performers on both sides of the ball. That includes superstar receiver DeAndre Hopkins, whom Osweiler managed to render somewhat ordinary (by Hopkins’ spectacular standards) in 2016.
Having spent his entire career in Texas to this point, soon-to-be ex-Cowboy Tony Romo seems like a natural fit for a win-now team like the Texans as he approaches his 37th birthday. However, along with his age, there are other obvious concerns regarding Romo, including what he has left in the tank after missing the majority of the past two seasons because of injuries and a demotion. There’s also a question of whether Cowboys owner Jerry Jones would deal Romo to Texas’ younger franchise. And whether he comes as a trade acquisition or gets his release and signs as a free agent, Romo figures to be pricey next season. That, of course, wouldn’t be ideal for a Houston club which will have Osweiler occupying a massive amount of spending room.
Salary notwithstanding, there may not be a better match than the Texans for Romo. He’d reportedly like to go to the Broncos, but they’re inclined to roll with a younger, homegrown option. Teams like the Bills, Jets and Bears could chase Romo, though none are as close to contention as Houston.
If we’re to assume the Redskins will either re-sign Kirk Cousins or place the franchise tag on him, the free agent market won’t offer much in the way of proven options. And if the Texans are going to bring in a veteran via the open market, it’s hard to imagine them pinning their hopes on another backup — Mike Glennon, Landry Jones or Matt Barkley, for instance — given how poorly the Osweiler experiment has gone.
More established signal-callers like Tyrod Taylor, Jay Cutler and Colin Kaepernick might end up on the open market, too, if their teams release them (or if Kaepernick opts out of his deal). While Taylor is the most intriguing of the three, his potential availability looks increasingly unlikely. Cutler isn’t far removed from a respectable 2015 in Chicago, though he’s coming off a poor, injury-riddled season and was on the verge of losing his job to Hoyer. Kaepernick bounced back to a degree in 2016, meanwhile, but teams that explore signing him will have to make multiple determinations: 1. Is he a legitimate starter anymore? 2. Are they on board with having such a politically polarizing player in a prominent role? As shown in a late-August poll of various club executives, Kaepernick’s outspokenness hasn’t exactly endeared him to decision-makers within the league.
The trade route could represent a possibility for QB-needy Houston, too. Considering both his potential and his minimal salary for next season, Patriots backup Jimmy Garoppolo would seem to make sense as a target. New England is open to moving Garoppolo — and, for what it’s worth, O’Brien is friendly with Patriots head coach Bill Belichick — but his presence on the trade market would perhaps spark a bidding war. Thus, the Texans would once again have to ask themselves whether it would be worthwhile to spend valuable assets on a largely untested signal-caller who has played second fiddle to an all-time great. It hasn’t worked with Osweiler, Peyton Manning‘s former understudy.
There’s also the draft, in which the Texans hold the 25th overall selection, but many scouts regard this year’s class of passers as among the worst in recent memory. Plus, the highest-ranked QBs in the 2017 crop — in some order, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky and Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer — should all be off the board when the Texans’ pick arrives. No one else even ranks among NFL.com draft guru Daniel Jeremiah’s top 50 prospects, while Texas native and ex-Texas Tech star Patrick Mahomes (No. 50) is the only QB outside the Watson-Trubisky-Kizer group on Bleacher Report prospect expert Matt Miller’s latest big board.
2.) Upgrade at right tackle: Derek Newton had been a longtime stalwart at right tackle for Houston until he tore both patella tendons in late October, thereby putting his career in question. Even if optimism surrounding Newton’s future eventually proves warranted, the Texans certainly can’t go into 2017 banking on him to play a substantial role. Nor can they count on swing tackle Chris Clark, who allowed an unsightly 67 QB pressures and took 13 penalties this season (per Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus). Unfortunately for the Texans, it doesn’t appear there will be copious options to replace Clark in either free agency or the draft.
The Ravens’ Ricky Wagner is the standout when it comes to pending free agents at the position, and he could garner around $10MM per year as a result. That would likely price him out of Houston’s range. Riley Reiff (Lions), Mike Remmers (Panthers), Austin Pasztor (Browns) and Jordan Mills (Bills) are the best of the rest when it comes to veterans, though none are anywhere near as appealing as Wagner. As far as younger choices go, Jeremiah has just three OTs in his top 50 — Wisconsin’s Ryan Ramczyk (14), Utah’s Garrett Bolles (28) and Alabama’s Cam Robinson (40). Only Ramczyk (30) and Robinson (40) are on Miller’s list, on the other hand, so it doesn’t seem as if there are going to be a cavalcade of early round-caliber tackles in play for the Texans come draft time.
3.) Address the secondary: Few teams excelled more versus the pass in 2016 than the Texans, whose defense finished anywhere from second to seventh in the league in yardage surrendered, yards per attempt against, DVOA and quarterback rating allowed. One of the driving forces behind that success was A.J. Bouye, a once-anonymous cornerback who’s coming off a stellar fourth season and is now set to cash in with free agency looming.
Bouye only intercepted one pass in his age-25 season after combining for five picks over the prior two years, but he set a career high in passes defensed (16) and essentially turned opposing QBs into Osweiler when they challenged him. Bouye yielded completions a measly 54.5 percent of the time on balls thrown his way and limited signal-callers to a 73.1 rating (right in line with Osweiler’s 72.2). As a result, Pro Football Focus ranked Bouye the league’s third-best corner among 112 qualifiers.
Bouye’s brilliance could lead him to sign a mega-deal on the open market, especially considering the Texans might not have the cap room to place the ~$14.297MM franchise tag on him. He’d like to re-sign with the club that picked him up as an undrafted free agent in 2013, but the contracts awarded in free agency to corners in recent offseasons indicate it’s going to be quite difficult for the Texans to retain him.
An untagged Bouye could head to the open market and secure a pact in the neighborhood of the ones Josh Norman, Darrelle Revis, Janoris Jenkins and Byron Maxwell nabbed over the previous two free agency periods. That would mean anywhere from $63MM to $75MM in total worth, $10.5MM to $15MM in yearly value and $25MM to $39MM in guarantees.
Speculatively, Houston could help create spending room for Bouye by cutting fellow corner and franchise linchpin Johnathan Joseph, who will turn 33 in April. Joseph isn’t under contract past next season, though, so the Texans wouldn’t find any cap relief beyond then by releasing him. If they do anyway, it would open up $6.5MM for 2017. Otherwise, the team could let Bouye walk because of his price tag and ride out next season with Kareem Jackson, Joseph and 2015 first-round pick Kevin Johnson as its top three corners.
In addition to Bouye, strong safety and fellow integral secondary cog Quintin Demps is without a contract as March nears. That’s good timing for Demps, a journeyman whose ninth season was his best. Demps, 31, tied a career high in starts (13) and amassed a personal-best/safety-leading six INTs. He also graded as PFF’s No. 12 safety among 90 qualifiers. Given his age and position, Demps won’t be nearly as tough to keep as Bouye, though the Texans could theoretically let the safety walk and replace him with an Andre Hal–Corey Moore duo.
Hal and Moore played notable roles this season and fared respectably in the process, but the latter didn’t flash much playmaking ability in his first full campaign. With that in mind, the Texans may well target a safety early in the draft – ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. forecasts Washington’s Budda Baker to Houston at No. 25, while Rotoworld’s Josh Norris has the team landing ballyhooed Michigan product Jabrill Peppers with that pick.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.