In advance of March 14, the start of free agency in the NFL, Pro Football Rumors will detail each team’s three most glaring roster issues. We’ll continue this year’s series with the Houston Texans, who finished 4-12 after posting a 9-7 record for three consecutive seasons.
Pending Free Agents:
- Angelo Blackson, DE (RFA)
- Alfred Blue, RB
- Chris Clark, T
- Andre Ellington, RB
- Bruce Ellington, WR
- Breno Giacomini, T
- Marcus Gilchrist, S
- Ben Heeney, LB (RFA)
- Jelani Jenkins, LB
- Josh Johnson, QB
- Johnathan Joseph, CB
- Ufomba Kamalu, LB (ERFA)
- Shane Lechler, P
- Greg Mancz, C (RFA)
- Corey Moore, S (ERFA)
- Brian Peters, LB (RFA)
- Eddie Pleasant, S
- Tom Savage, QB
- Xavier Su’a-Filo, G
- Jordan Todman, RB
- Marcus Williams, CB
- T.J. Yates, QB
Top 10 Cap Hits for 2018:
- J.J. Watt, DE: $15,000,000
- DeAndre Hopkins, WR: $14,000,000
- Jadeveon Clowney, DE: $13,846,000
- Kareem Jackson, CB: $9,000,000
- Brian Cushing, LB: $8,840,625
- Jeff Allen, G: $7,375,000
- Lamar Miller, RB: $6,750,000
- Whitney Mercilus, LB: $5,956,250
- C.J. Fiedorowicz, TE: $5,156,250
- Andre Hal, S: $3,750,000
- Projected cap space (via Over the Cap): $56,665,767
- No first-round pick
- Must exercise or decline 2019 fifth-year option for CB Kevin Johnson
1) Rebuild the offensive line: The Texans’ porous offensive line didn’t play a role in rookie sensation Deshaun Watson‘s torn ACL, as the first-year quarterback suffered the non-contact injury during a practice session. However, if Houston wants to protect its investment under center for the long-term, the club needs to do something about its front five, which ranked among the league’s worst and traded away its best player — left tackle Duane Brown — at midseason.
Nearly every individual and team metric was down on the Texans’ offensive line in 2017. Football Outsiders ranked the unit 20th in adjusted line yards and 30th in adjusted sack rate, while Houston finished dead last in pressure rate allowed. The club allowed 54 sacks (second-most in the NFL), while no Texans offensive lineman received a grade greater than 45 (on a 100-point scale) from Pro Football Focus. Players such as Breno Giacomini, Xavier Su’a-Filo, Greg Mancz, Jeff Allen, and Chris Clark — none of which are household names — garnered at least 45% playtime in what became a lost Houston season.
As such, the Texans are looking at a complete offseason revamp of their front five: Giacomini, Su’a-Filo, and Clark are all free agents and don’t figure to attract much interest, while Mancz is a restricted free agent and Allen is a candidate for his release. However, Houston will have to do nearly all of its offensive line rebuilding through free agency, as the 2018 draft lacks impact lineman (and the Texans don’t own a first- or second-round pick, anyway).
The free agent tackle class doesn’t offer many special options, either, but Texans head coach Bill O’Brien‘s Patriots connections could make Houston a player for Nate Solder, Cameron Fleming, or LaAdrian Waddle. Solder is clearly the prize among that group, and given that he’s far and away the best blindside protector on the open market, Houston would have to outbid several other clubs in order to land him. With nearly $60MM in cap space, the Texans have the ability to do just that, but Fleming and/or Waddle could also be viable solutions at cheaper cost.
The only other free agent tackles worth considering are the Giants’ Justin Pugh and the Steelers’ Chris Hubbard, but each come with concerns. Pugh has generally played guard and right tackle at the NFL level, so he could be stretched if asked to play on the left side full-time, while Hubbard had never started more than four games before last season. Other free agents at the tackle position include Greg Robinson, Donald Stephenson, Garry Gilliam, and Andre Smith, none of which would represent significant upgrades over the Texans’ current line.
Unrestricted free agency isn’t flush with left tackles, but the Texans could take an unorthodox approach and pursue Redskins restricted free agent Ty Nsekhe. Nsekhe isn’t a conventional pickup, as he’ll turn 33 years old during the 2018 season and has started only 11 games during the course of his career. But Nsekhe was incredibly successful as a fill-in for Trent Williams in 2016, and Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus told me last spring that Nsekhe has the “kind of power and athletic mix that makes him a fit for any scheme.” Andy Benoit of TheMMQB.com, meanwhile, called Nsekhe a “good North/South run-blocker” who is “athletic enough to contribute in an outside zone game.”
One other tackle who could potentially help Houston is already on the club’s roster: Derek Newton tore both patella tendons in October 2016 and hasn’t been on the field since, and while there’s been no recent update on his health, Newton was reportedly optimistic at this time last year that he’d be able to play again at some point. Medical professionals have called Newton’s injury a “once-every five year” outcome, so there’s no guarantee Newton will ever return, let alone play at the same level. The Texans have more information than the general public on Newton’s status, and their offseason moves at right tackle should reflect their opinion of his health.
While Houston may not be able to use free agency to pick up a starting tackle, the team should make hay in the free agent guard market, which offers more serviceable options. Andrew Norwell figures to land the largest contract among the group, and the Texans should be interested, as signing the former Panther would allow the club to correct its mistake in signing Allen two years ago. Weston Richburg could be another interesting addition, although his presence would force Houston to move either him or incumbent center Nick Martin to guard.
Other guard/centers that could require multi-year contracts include Josh Kline (Titans), Jack Mewhort (Colts), and Ryan Jensen (Ravens), but the Texans could also ink a few older players to one-year pacts in an effort to solidify their front five. Given Watson’s cheap contract and the overall weakness of the AFC South, Houston should try to compete immediately, so signing veterans for a single-season run isn’t the worst idea. Among the candidates for such a deal could be Brandon Fusco, Matt Slauson, Alex Boone, or Jahri Evans.
2) Bolster the secondary: The Texans were still in the mix for cornerback A.J. Bouye in the spring of 2017, but eventually lost him to the division-rival Jaguars after not using the franchise tender. Granted, Houston entered last offseason with only $25MM in cap space, so the club didn’t have unlimited funds to use on re-signing Bouye, but his absence was felt last year. None of Kareem Jackson, Johnathan Joseph, nor Kevin Johnson played well, and the Texans ranked 24th, 30th, and 24th in DVOA against No. 1, No. 2, and slot receivers, respectively. Overall, Houston surrendered the second-most passing touchdowns and yards per attempt in the NFL in 2017.
Joseph (33) and Jackson (29) aren’t part of the Texans’ long-term plans, and neither may be on the team’s roster next season. Joseph is a free agent, and given his recent lack of production, it probably doesn’t make sense for Houston to re-sign him. According to the 2018 Pro Football Focus Free Agent Guide, Joseph ranked 88th among 126 qualified corners with a 99.1 passer rating last year, and finished 105th in yards allowed per coverage snap (1.45). Jackson also struggled in 2017, and given that the Texans can save $6.75MM by cutting him in the coming weeks, he could be a cap casualty.Read more