The Houston Texans entered free agency with $72 million in cap space, a franchise quarterback on a rookie contract, no one they just had to resign after franchise tagging Jadeveon Clowney, and infinite hopes. A week later they have $46.9 million in cap space, and ugh, a lot of work still to do. A week ago the possibilities seemed infinite, and now today, with so many seats filled, it makes me wonder if Brian Gaine wishes there was a reset button in some desert tomb he can squish his thumb onto, or some previous saved game he could load.
The first thing Houston did was resign Angelo Blackson and Joel Heath, and tender Brandon Dunn. They gave Blackson 3-years $12 million, and Heath to a one-year deal that will be for less than $2 million. Christian Covington was the odd man out, and ended up signing a one year contract with Dallas where Rod Marinelii will cast his spells, hop on his griffin, and probably conjure Covington into something better.
All four of these players are pretty much identical. All are similar ages. They each are competent run defenders and offer nearly nothing as a pass rusher. On a front seven with two of the best edge defenders in football, Benardrick McKinney, Zach Cunningham, and D.J. Reader, being a competent run defender really doesn’t mean much at all. It wouldn’t have mattered if Houston let all four of these players move on elsewhere. Each one is replaceable.
Instead the Texans kept three of the four. Last season the pass rush was all J.J. Watt and Clowney. Together they accounted for more than half of Houston’s pressures, quarterback hits, and sacks, and If they weren’t winning their individual matchups the secondary was a cat carcass plucked apart. Despite having two players that combined for 80.5 pressures, 46 quarterback hits and 25 sacks, the Texans ranked 21st in pressure rate and 13th in adjusted sack rate. With this being a weak cornerback free agent market, the best way to improve the pass defense was by improving the pass rush.
Houston didn’t do this. They kept three mass produced easily replicated bodies, and didn’t find anyone who can improve the rush. With the edges locked up they needed an interior rusher. The two best options were Malik Jackson and Sheldon Richardson. Jackson is a perfect complementary player who you can run stunts off of and collapse the pocket with. He’s great at filling in pass rush vacancies to convert a chaotic pocket into sacks,and can bat passes away like the Coyote at the line of scrimmage. Richardson is best at rushing one gap and winning pass rushes on his own.
Jackson signed a three-year $30 million contract with Philadelphia with $17 million guaranteed. It’s a contract the Eagles can get out of after two seasons. Jackson will be used like how he could have been used in Houston. Stunting and creating open pass rush lanes for Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, and others. Richardson signed a 3-year $37 million contract with Cleveland with $21 million guaranteed. His dead cap hit drops from $15 million to $5.3 million next season. The $4 million given per year to Blackson would have been better used on either of these two players, and filled a substantial need in the defense the Texans have. Instead, they are stuck with the same problems, with problematic options to choose from. This seems like an inconsequential move in March, but the money could have been better allocated elsewhere, and will be consequential once Houston has the same pass rush issues in September.
As of right now, the best option the Texans have to improve their rush is to properly utilize Whitney Mercilus. Last season they snapped him of his strengths. He played too much 4-3 outside linebacker, and rushed as a wide edge rusher too often. Mercilus has never been like Dee Ford. He’s not a speed rusher who bends the corner. He creates pressure with his hands and rip. It’s the type of rush that needs to start off at the tackle’s outside shoulder, not way way out wide. But with Watt and Clowney rushing the end blocker’s outside shoulder, Mercilus was stuck turning corners in a rounded fashion. If the Texans take turns giving Clowney and Watt interior rushes, and let them deal with the bruises that comes along with it, Mercilus will no longer be an afterthought.
The free agent interior options are bleak as free agency continues. Muhamed Wilkerson is there. He broke his leg last season in Green Bay on a one-year contract, and spent his last two seasons in New York (J) deciding he didn’t really want to play every down. Ndamukong Suh is brutal, but his play his spotty, and Timmy Jernigan is primarily a run defender when healthy. Regardless, either one would be a better a source of inside pass rush than Blackson, Heath, Dunn, or D.J. Reader can produce. Hopefully Houston atones and makes a run at one of these three players to jolt the rush up.
The Texans also tendered Brennan Scarlett and Kai’imi Fairian, and resigned DeAndre Carter. Scarlett is a fetch type of player. It’s just never going to happen. He’ll have one game a year where he produces a 94.7 Pro Football Focus rating, make some special team tackles, pick up a vulture sack, but over the course of a season, he too offers nothing as a rusher. The Texans would be better off giving any Scarlett snaps to Duke Ejiofor. He has potential, and some actually pass rush moves instead of running right into a kick-sliding tackle. Fairbairn received a second round tender and will make a little more than $3 million. He made every kick from 40 yards or less and led the best kickoff unit in football according to Football Outsiders. Carter was a great emergency slot receiver and can return kicks and punts. He accepted the minimum to stay in Houston.
The sole source of drama came from Tyrann Mathieu’s decision to sign with the Kansas City Chiefs instead of the Houston Texans. It seems like Brain Gaine has an average yearly salary for every player he refuses to go over. Houston was willing to give Mathieu $9.5 million a year, a number they didn’t want to go over. The Chiefs offered him 3-years $42 million and $26.8 million guaranteed, lol, and will pay him $14 million a year.
During last season I felt Gaine was too smart to give Mathieu a super contract. Him even offering Mathieu $9.5 million was surprising, and was way too much for a mediocre player. Mathieu is a competent tackler who brings down ball carriers but doesn’t extinguish them and prevent additional yards, can play alright man coverage but smart teams were able to single him out and beat him out on his own (see Nelson Agholor, Zach Ertz, Nyheim Hines, Eric Ebron, T.Y. Hilton), and his playmaking is overrated. Last season he had two interceptions off dropped passes and four sacks on free unhindered rushes. All of the yapping and flexing is a facade. At even $9.5 million, the player needs to make everyone around him better, and must make plays on his own. Mathieu doesn’t do this. The Houston Texans are 100% better off without signing him for $9.5 million a year, let alone $14 million per year. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.
In his place Houston signed Tashaun Gipson, a central to figure to Jacksonville’s enormous 2017 free agency spending spree, and 2019 cap casualty to clear room to sign Nick Foles. Gipson is a good player. He spent his time in Jacksonville predominantly covering the middle third of the field. He’ll start at free safety for the Texans in 2019 and Justin Reid will play strong safety. Andre Hal will provide assistance whenever Houston decides to bring either one closer to the ball in three safety sets. The decision to not overpay Mathieu and sign Gipson for 3-years $22.5 million and $11.3 million guaranteed was the correct one.
The Texans made a similar one for one swap at cornerback. The Denver Broncos gave Kareem Jackson 3-years $33 million and $23 million guaranteed. Unlike Mathieu, Jackson has an elite talent. He’s one of the best tackling defensive backs in football. I aready miss watching him evaporate bone and squish vital organs. He obliterates ball carriers when he meets them, and is a great run and pass blitzer. Unfortunately for Jackson, cornerback injuries forced him from safety back to cornerback, where he once again struggled in man coverage. If the Broncos play him at safety he’ll have the opportunity to do what he does best.
At the end of last week they made two additions to improve their cornerback group. They signed Bradley Roby from Denver, and Briean Boddy-Calhoun from Cleveland. Roby is a former first round pick who had a great 2017, and saw his play drop off last season once the loss of Aqib Talib gave him more responsibility. Boddy-Calhoun has been Cleveland’s fourth corner back for the previous three years. The numbers provide one picture—pretty bad—but cornerback play can’t be summarized numerically with the information I have up in the attic. I’ll need to keeping eating the tape. I still like the approach however. Without top talent available sign a couple of players and get a couple of spins at the wheel. I would have liked to see a run at Ronald Darby too, who resigned with Philadelphia for one-year $8.5 million and was great until he tore his ACL, it just looks like Houston put a value on health.
Their cornerback group is currently Aaron Colvin, signed to play the slot after playing with A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey, was injured for most of 2018 but was crappy even when he was healthy, Johnathan Joseph, old and creaky, can get beat deep, but still is dependable at reading and reacting in a short zone, and now Roby and Calhoun. It’s better, but it still isn’t good. Houston is still going to have trouble against teams who can throw the ball, and will once again rely on their pass rush to limit passing offenses.
That kind of takes care of Houston’s biggest hole this offseason. Yet, and strangely, Houston hasn’t done anything to improve their offensive line. The line is more talented than last year’s performance indicated. The unit played better once they finally came to a starting lineup that made sense. However, it’s still a group that needed another starter or two, and competition across the line at a minimum. All Houston did was resign Seantrel Henderson, who has never had a good professional season, and watched Kendall Lamm walk away to Cleveland.
The Texans still have Juli’en Davenport at left tackle, Senio Kelemete at left guard, Nick Martin at center, Zach Fulton at right guard, Henderson at right tackle, Greg Mancz as an interior backup, and Martinas Rankin, who I have no idea what they’ll do with. The tackle market was absurd this year, as it always is. Trent Brown received 4-years $66 million, Donovan Smith resigned for 3-years $41.25 million, Ja’Wuan James received 4-years $51 million, and Bobby Massie resigned for 4-years $32 million. Both Brown and James aren’t going to be worth what they got. And Houston never had the chance to sign either Smith or Massie. The Texans were correct to not chase the top tackles. It looks like they’ll use a first or second round pick to improve the position.
The free agency heart break came at guard. Houston made a run at Rodger Saffold. The Titans, with less cap space, outbid the Texans for his services. Tennessee gave him 4-years $44 million and $22.5 million guaranteed. Saffold is the perfect outside zone blocking guard. He can make every block you need to make: reach the outside shoulder, block the second level, overtake the block as the uncovered lineman, and he knows when to leave and when to stay on a block. The Texans haven’t been able to block the second level since 2015. Martin can’t do it. Kelemete can’t do it. Fulton is whatever at it. Saffold would have been an impact player who improves the interior and provides Lamar Miller the opportunity to break tackles. Of all the players to go elsewhere, this one hurt the most.
Houston still has potential matches. There are the interior rushers I mentioned. Jeremy Parnell was an underrated decent right tackle for the Jags who was cut this offseason. He could provide right tackle competition between him and Henderson while a left tackle competition goes on between a rookie and Davenport. Stefen Wisniewski started at left guard for the Eagles in 2017, and would be better than Kelemete. I still feel the Texans haven’t swung at cornerback enough. Morris Claiborne could provide depth and at a minimum be a fourth cornerback. I still like T.J. Yeldon even if he is an outside zone runner and competent receiver, and is pretty much just a worse version of Miller. No one knows what D’Onta Foreman can contribute. And Dontrelle Inman was great to end last season in Indy, and is a competent possession receiver who can pick up first downs. The Texans need Will Fuller V insurance.
Free agency is far from over. One week has come and gone. Houston has the second most cap space available. But at the same time, the Texans aren’t a team who should have been this frugal last week. The time to become something more than a Divisional Round knockout is now. Watson is on a rookie contract. Watt and Clowney are finally healthy at the same time. DeAndre Hopkins is one of the three best receivers in the league. They have the best run defense in football. Free agency was an opportunity to get substantially better and the Texans haven’t so far. There’s still time, but the bottom of the glass is filling up, and the top talent has all been displaced across the league. Someone needs to tell Gaine you don’t pay what a player is worth in free agency, you pay what it takes to get them to to your franchise.
Author: Matt Weston