Off Season Review Part 2 – Free Agency

The Texans must add defensive talent via Free Agency whilst facing a number of decisions required on extending players on both sides of the ball. It poses a complex situation to navigate now the luxury of Watson’s rookie deal is nearing its end.

How Aggressive can the Texans afford to be?

Correcting an ailing defensive unit whilst balancing the procurement of homegrown talent, will not be an easy balance to find. As of March 15th, $52.5mill in cap space, the Texans defensive personnel available must improve, particularly at the most premium spots of its depth chart – pass rusher and pass coverage. The reality of the 2019 Texans defensive frailties were clear to see, they could not rush the passer and they cannot be even an adequate unit, until this is addressed. The adage is often the rush is married to the coverage, but the Texans left their corners, depth of talent aside, on an island when only a minuscule percentage of players have the abilities to play this way. Personnel changes are needed, undoubtedly, but quite how they can improve both spot in one off season, remains to be seen.

The absence of their top three draft picks, over the next two season, may force free agency as the only means addressing their needs. Anthony Weaver, in his first season as a play caller will need to be given re-reinforcements, if his unit ins’t a hindrance to the team’s goals. However, these positions cost money and require investment if an impact player at either position can be found. Finding edge or interior rushers will likely lead to a team paying beyond market value and for a player isn’t extended by its former employer. But it would appear routes to a solution are limited, as true top-tier talent, rarely hits the market at either DB or EDGE.

The Texans have decisions and projections to make on how the cap will rise, post the newly voted through players union agreement. So much of this year’s free agency decision could be based upon projection of the next two to three years. Their view on this will likely underpin how aggressive they will be and what segment of the market they will look to to address needs.

Looking after their own:

If the pending, in-house extensions are to be secured this off season, of their left tackle and quarterback are likely to eat into cap space in the region of £25-30million. The departure of cap guru, Chris Olsen, has left the task to his long time lieutenant, Kevin Karovojic, to negotiate market defining deals for both Tunsil and Watson. A great problem to have, of course. But leaving in the region of c,$25million remaining, once the smaller scale deals are tied up.

The Texans do have the option to defer the Watson deal for the year, if both sides are content to hold until the new TV deals lands, that could work in the Texans and the Watson camp’s favour. Of course the Pat Mahomes extension will influence heavily. Though, the Texans couldn’t afford to let Laremy Tunsil and his newly acquired agent extension discussions, run beyond this off season, as the leverage already sits towards the player, based on draft capital invested.

But there are some immediate considerations the Texans need to consider before the free agency window opens.

In House Defensive Contracts:

Can the Texans have two double-digit earners at inside linebacker & Re-Sign Zach Cunningham – at c.$12.5mill APY.

Dec 2, 2018; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Texans inside linebacker Zach Cunningham (41) runs with the ball for a touchdown during the second quarter against the Cleveland Browns at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

After falling to the Texans in the 2nd round in 2017, from Vanderbilt, Cunningham has proven to be the modern day inside linebacker, showing a level of improvement each year, leading the team in tackles in last two seasons in. Zach is a piece they cannot allow to walk out the building. After forging an complimentary partnership in the middle level of the defence with Benardrick McKinney, he is within the Texans top three in-house targets. Rumours have swirled around a potential move of McKinney to make space for this deal but they may, at least, have a final chance to partner in 2020. The Texans could opt to defer as inside ‘backer has slipped down the pecking order of premium roster spots, as the passing focus of the league continues, but they Texans would be best placed to extend and secure their future at the position.

The New Equilibrium of the Cornerback Market – Re-Signing Bradley Roby  – c.$13.5mill APY

Dec 1, 2019; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Texans cornerback Bradley Roby (21) runs after intercepting a pass from New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) (not pictured) pass in the first quarter at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Roby, was the Texans best corner last year, when healthy. The former Ohio State product, struggled with a hamstring injury that kept him out for prolonged periods. A big question, besides health, would be if he can piece two solid back-to-back years, which has eluded him thus far and the primary reason leaving Denver.

Where will the cornerback market be after last years downturn, is an unknown factor. Justin Coleman’s deal with Seattle of $9mill APY was the pinnacle of long-term contracts signed last off-season. Hence, why Roby opted for the 1 year $10mill – prove it deal. A market re-set, similar to last year, where over $14mill APY was paid out to safeties, across multiple deals, may well occur. But based contracts handed to Aaron Colvin and across the league – Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson may fuel the front offices hesitancy.

The Texans, may be best placed to set a number which then may lead to Roby testing free agency. But only if they feel there are upgrade options available at a slight premium. A tough call but further turnover at that corner spot, isn’t likely to be a positive for Houston in 2020.

Does a Team Pay DJ Reader his as interior Pass Rusher – c. $13mill APY

All teams want to extend their draft picks and Reader’s rise from a 2016, 5th rounder has embodied everything you’d want from a player in the later rounds. After declining an offer, pre-2019 season, DJ seemed to be making the Texans regret that choice, early last season, as he’d developed as a pass rusher. Although, the rush production faded, his two down ability against the run and to hold blocks cannot be questioned.

Interior pass rushers are a rare breed in today’s NFL. Reader isn’t quite in the bracket of a three-down player, who consistently gets pressure. But he will have aspirations to be paid as such, or even within those realms. Unfortunately, it’s a common situation that occurs, for a player who likely has further growth in his game ahead. But it appeared from before the first game of last year, DJ was set to leave.

The pitfalls of free agency – no team ever wins in March

It’s has to be remembered, any player who hits free agency, has reached the stage where their contract exceeds their value, they weren’t viewed worthy of an extension or they disagree on players current value. That value may have been falsely inflated by the influence of an agent looking to maximise their clients worth, in an industry surrounded by uncertainty for most of its playing staff. But none the less, player x will be available, come Monday, due to the player’s talent not aligning with that perception of their value, from the front office that knows them best.

Value, is a variable that is decreed by perceptions. But in a league based around cost control, under the banner of parity, teams tend to have similar perceptions and for the most part. It’s a fan-base-appeasing, bold job saving moves that lead to front office exec’s offering beyond that value, to correct previous draft busts or injuries.

Also consider that it’s very conceivable notion that all these deals have already been, proposed, counter proposed, further negotiated and then agreed prior to the “legal tampering” window of only two days. These deals have been in the works, unofficially of course, for weeks leading up to this point. The tampering slot is only to ratify and consider if teams are willing to stump the already aligned offers on the table.

Free agency can be split into a few distinct segments:

Day 1 Phase 1 – Headline Big Splash – marquee names

These are players who’ve not agreed an extension with their current club’s perceived value, therefore they desire to test the their market value. The players contract demands will leads to a team overpaying due to time pressures of free agency. These moves are often to lift the fans and for those in a ‘win now’ or in significant cap space position.

Value, versus cap dollars, is likely is to be low when shopping for a very specific need on your team. Look no further than Brock Osweiler, Denver and the Texans duly outbid one another leading to a stimulated value of the player. Based on the Texans in-house contract requirements, it would be plausible would think they won’t be major players in this segment of the market. Although, if Roby was to walk, it would likely necessitate the Texans going after a corner. Any pass rushers at this segment would likely to price the Texans out the market.

Players to watch at corner CB – James Bradburry a player O’Brien called out the in press conference post the Carolina game but is more of a zone-system corner. Chris Harris who could solve their multi-year search for an answer at slot-corner. He is 31, so time may not be on his side and pose a risk, at a position that players are year-to-year in terms of athleticism allowing production.

EDGE – most likely are franchised tagged or traded prior to deadline. But the Texans were high on Dud Dupree in the draft process, who had his best year last season as did Arik Armstead. One year production guys, present a buyers beware tag. But the Texans would be remiss not to at least enter the race.

Day 1 Phase 2 – Projection Pays – based on fit and upside

This grade of player is recognised in league circles as a player with potential and to have all the tools, but not considered in the elite category. Though they can be difference makers on a Sunday and are worth the money if they fit your team. JD Clowney is the perfect example, doesn’t get the double-digit sack numbers, so people discount him. He will likely get paid based on his ability to give a defensive front flexibility and that value is big in certain schemes. Alas, this is exactly where the Texans need to be buying to help add to their pass rush.

Clowney is a unique example and will be paid in phase 1, but a player similar to the impact Z’darius Smith had on the Green Bay Roster, last off-season would help this team. Perhaps viewed as an over-pay as the players stock stands today, but the fit to the scheme and assigned role may allow the player to realise their potential.

Dec 31, 2017; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos defensive end Shelby Harris (96) celebrates his sack in the first half against the Kansas City Chiefs at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

DT: Shelby Harris from Denver – career high TFL’s, in 2019: 9 Passes Defended, 6 Sacks, 8 Tackles for Loss, 6 QB Hits, 49 Tackles. An older player at 29 but hasn’t played much football and a three-year-deal could provide an Antonio Smith type. Teams often pick up players who put strong tape against them and Harris did just that last year.

DE: Leonard Williams – it’s difficult to fault a player for not performing in New York. But after his trade across the hallway to the Giants, would he be looking for a fresh start? A player who was a top-10 pick, out of USC, he’s got high upside and would justify as beyond current value deal if he hits the market.

Day 2 – Mid Tier – Fresh start needed

Often is the case, the situation can be no fault of the players and the team aren’t in a position to pay them and everyone in the building has nothing but praise. Or likely the player hasn’t lived up to their draft billing due to poor form, fit with system, mesh with their position coach or luck in the injury room.

Oakland Raiders’ Karl Joseph (42) makes an intecerption catch against the San Diego Chargers in the second quarter of their NFL game at the Coliseum in Oakland, Calif., on Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016. (Josie Lepe/Bay Area News Group)

Investment at the Safety position could help this unit – Karl Joseph hasn’t been healthy enough and a 1year $8mill may be able to provide a back-up. Just as Jarran Reed from Seattle may be able to help plug a need for Defensive tackle reinforcements. Looking at the impact and break-out year Shaq Barrett, leading the league in sack’s after being buried on the depth chart in Denver.

Day 3 – Bargain Basement or Aging Veterans

There are of course exceptions to the rule and a mid to lower level role player can be found late in the process, exceed expectations and augment a team roster nice. Prime example of that being Quentin Demps in 2015, who lead the team in interceptions that year.

The release of Linval Jospeh from Minnesota would, a player who may have a limited market and help the defensive unit sure up the middle. The Texans, under O’Brien have added players such as Grease Picket and Vince Wilfork. This would provide help, but not serve as a solution.

Unknowns and New GM at the helm – no outcomes are off limits

There are so many variable and facets to be concluded, but with such glaring needs, it would be hard to see the Texans not making moves on defence. Quite how the Texans proceed, based on the unknowns of future cap-projections, in-house deals being concluded. Now with Bill O’Brien making all the calls, there will be no-one more of the view that last off-seasons errors and lack of aggression at addressing glaring needs, cannot be repeated.

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