Jack Easterby

AFC South Rumors: Texans, Watt, Colts

Although the breaking point for Deshaun Watson came when the Texans did not keep him in the loop on their hires this offseason, he shared his frustration to coaches and management after last year’s DeAndre Hopkins trade. Then-Texans GM Bill O’Brien assured Watson he would be kept abreast on big-picture decisions going forward, according to Mike Sando, Aaron Reiss and Jason Jenks of The Athletic (subscription required). Watson voicing those concerns following the Hopkins swap also led to the no-trade clause in his Texans extension. However, the quarterback became further disillusioned with the franchise as the regular season progressed. After the Texans’ losses piled up and Cal McNair fired O’Brien, Watson questioned the team’s direction, per The Athletic. Shortly before Watson signed his extension, he said he “loved” the McNairs, the organization and Houston. The Texans have insisted they are not interested in trading Watson, but several teams are interested. And the three-time Pro Bowler has shown no indication he will back down.

Here is the latest from the AFC South:

  • Watson’s longtime teammate, J.J. Watt, has been on the market a week. He has been connected to a few teams, including the Titans. After GM Jon Robinson confirmed the team had engaged in discussions with Watt, Mike Vrabel — Watt’s former defensive coordinator in Houston — addressed the possibility of a signing. “You mentioned J.J. Watt, and there will be other veteran players that become available that we’ll have discussions on, and we have had discussions on J.J. Watt,” Vrabel said during a call with season-ticket holders. “… There’s a lot of things that go into bringing in free agents, certainly ones that are past 30 or in the back half of their career.” Vrabel was the Texans’ linebackers coach from 2014-16 and DC in 2017. The Titans signed ex-Vrabel charge Jadeveon Clowney last year, but he is on track for free agency. And Tennessee’s pass rush remains in need of bolstering.
  • Although Matthew Stafford viewed the Colts as a possibility during his time on the trade block, Indianapolis did not offer its first-round pick for the 12-year Detroit starter. Washington and Carolina offered first-rounders and change, while the Rams won out with their monster proposal. The Colts, though, were a bit concerned about the 33-year-old quarterback’s level of play and whether it would end up being worth a big trade package, Stephen Holder of The Athletic notes. Frank Reich‘s history with Carson Wentz undoubtedly played a key role in the Colts taking a gamble on the longtime Eagles starter, and the team ended up retaining its 2021 first- and second-round picks in doing so.
  • The Texans are hiring former Lions character coach Dylan Thompson for a similar role, Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle tweets. A former UDFA quarterback who moved to an off-field NFL role, Thompson is a friend of embattled Texans executive VP Jack Easterby‘s, Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk notes. His relationship with Easterby helped lead to his job in Detroit and previously with the Charleston Southern basketball program.

Extra Points: Smith, Easterby, Ogunjobi

Perhaps the best story of the unprecedented 2020 NFL season was the improbable return of Alex Smith. Not only did Smith shockingly return to the starting lineup for Washington, something nobody in their right mind saw coming, he also went 5-1 as a starter and led them to a playoff berth. He didn’t always look too mobile, and a calf injury to the same leg he had his devastating infections in cut his season short prematurely. But if you were expecting Smith to ride off into the sunset after his incredible triumph, you might be in for a surprise. In a recent interview with the Rachel Ray show, the quarterback certainly didn’t sound like someone dead-set on retiring.

For me, this year was such a crazy rush to be out there, practicing out there every single day. To be able to put on my cleats and helmet. But for me, the crazy thing was how well my body responded to that. I just feel like I continued to get stronger and stronger and better and better,” the Washington signal-caller said. “I still feel like I’m kind of a kid right now headed into the offseason. I’m excited for this offseason to see what I can go do — football and everything else. Skiing, snowboarding — I plan on doing as much as I can. I had such an amazing time playing. I felt so good out there. It was crazy after that first game how comfortable I felt back out on the field.”

If Smith does want to keep playing he might have to do it with a new team, as Washington appears to be looking to upgrade at the position. They reportedly were aggressive in going after Matthew Stafford, offering their first-round pick and then some. Smith is under contract for two more seasons, but Washington can get out of it fairly easily this offseason. No matter what happens next, Smith has already shattered all expectations and can hold his head high.

Here’s more from around the league:

  • If you were a Texans fan hoping that controversial exec Jack Easterby would quietly slink into the background after all the Deshaun Watson drama, you might be disappointed. “Easterby is still making calls to agents on behalf of the team and is very much involved in football side,” Lance Zierlein of NFL.com hears (Twitter link). As Zierlein points out, that would conflict with Houston’s stated spin that Easterby is merely a pastor and ‘character coach’ of sorts. He seems to be very much involved in football ops alongside new GM Nick Caserio. For whatever reasons, Easterby seems to be sitting pretty in his role and clearly has a great deal of influence with owner Cal McNair. We haven’t heard the last of him, and this saga has no end in sight.
  • The Browns are coming off an incredibly successful season that saw them make it back to the playoffs for the first time in nearly 20 years, but there will still be changes coming in Cleveland. One of the biggest could be the departure of defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi. Ogunjobi will likely be allowed to hit free agency and the Browns “probably won’t want to pay him what he can get on the open market,” Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com writes. Ogunjobi has been a very solid player for Cleveland, starting at least 15 games each of the past three seasons, but with Sheldon Richardson still also manning the middle and fellow defensive tackle Andrew Billings set to return from COVID opt-out in 2021, Kay Cabot thinks he’s expendable.
  • Chiefs OC Eric Bieniemy has gotten a lot of attention for getting passed over for head coaching jobs, but Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians is similarly upset about the other offensive coordinator coaching in the Super Bowl. “I was very, very pissed that Byron [Leftwich] didn’t at least get an interview this year for the job that he’s done,” Arians said, via Jenna Laine of ESPN.com (Twitter link). “I get way too much credit and so does Tom Brady for the job that Byron has done.” Strong words from Arians in support of his OC, the former quarterback who spent 10 years as a player in the league from 2003-12. Leftwich got his coaching start as Arians’ quarterbacks coach with the Cardinals in 2017, and was then hired as his OC when he took the job in Tampa in 2019. If the Bucs have this kind of success again in 2021, Leftwich probably will start to get some serious head coaching buzz next cycle.

Texans Had Offered Omar Khan GM Job Before Hiring Nick Caserio

We’ve known for a few days now that the Texans’ process in hiring Nick Caserio didn’t sit well with Deshaun Watson, and as we get more details it’s not hard to see why.

It appears owner Cal McNair acted quite erratically, disregarding the advice of the search firm he paid hundreds of thousands of dollars. The situation is even more bizarre than that though, as he had apparently already offered the job to Steelers exec Omar Khan before changing his mind at the last minute and pivoting to Caserio, a source told Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com. Florio adds the team was even in the midst of negotiating a contract with Khan at the time the decision was made.

Apparently, controversial executive Jack Easterby got McNair’s ear one last time before things were finalized, and convinced him to backtrack. The whole thing appears to be dysfunctional, which is Watson’s main source of frustration, and may cause him to demand a trade. Florio notes that agent Bob LaMonte represents both Caserio and Easterby, and a source told him LaMonte placed a phone call to McNair that also helped swing things.

LaMonte reportedly told McNair that Caserio was going to become GM of the Panthers if he didn’t hire him. Florio also reports that Texans team president Jamey Rootes is very upset with how everything has played out, and people around the league think he’s on the verge of an exit.

One source said Rootes already has tried to resign, but that he’s been convinced by McNair to hold off in order for the team not to look too chaotic right now. Given everything that has been trickling out, that might be impossible.

Caserio: Deshaun Watson Is Our Quarterback

Star quarterback Deshaun Watson is not happy that the Texans failed to truly involve him in their search for a GM despite being told that they would do so. That has led to speculation that Watson could request a trade from Houston, but in his introductory press conference, new general manager Nick Caserio tried to quash any such rumors.

“[Watson is] our quarterback,” Caserio said. “I can’t tell you how much respect and admiration I have for him as a player” (Twitter link via Field Yates of ESPN.com).

That’s all well and good, and a trade might be difficult to pull off anyway given that Watson just signed a massive extension that runs through the 2025 season (though there would likely be no shortage of teams willing to take on Watson’s contract and give up significant draft capital to land him, and the dead cap charge on Houston’s books would be a relatively modest $21.6MM). But as Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle writes, Watson remains highly upset, and the team has been unable to get in touch with him. He is on vacation, but it doesn’t sound as if that has anything to do with the lack of communication. Wilson says that Watson is in no mood to hear from the team right now, and that it will be some time before he is ready to talk about his unhappiness.

At today’s presser, owner Cal McNair said the following: “I’ve come to understand [Watson] feels left out of the process. … [H]e and I had several visits and I understood his point of view before meeting with candidates. I’ve reached out to Deshaun and I look forward to him getting back to me when he returns from his vacation” (Twitter link via Mark Berman of Fox 26).

That statement jibes with yesterday’s report that McNair and Watson did indeed meet to discuss GM candidates, but the problem is that McNair did not even consider the names that Watson — who was reportedly representing a large group of his teammates — endorsed. Watson did not necessarily expect McNair to choose one of his candidates, and he does not have an issue with the Caserio hire in and of itself, but he feels as though he was given little more than lip service before McNair charged ahead with the exec he has been eyeing for a long time.

So one of Caserio’s primary orders of business will be to smooth things over with Watson — whenever Watson is ready — and he will also need to find a new head coach. Of course, Watson was also told that he would have input into the team’s HC search, and the fact that the Texans will not so much as interview Chiefs OC Eric Bieniemy — who was said to be one of Watson’s top choices — is surely contributing to the quarterback’s displeasure.

Another nugget to come out of the press conference is that executive VP Jack Easterby will remain with the team. Some say that Easterby, who was brought in to improve the club’s culture, has only made it worse, and that he has an inordinate amount of sway over McNair (a notion buttressed by Easterby’s relationship with Caserio, which dates back to their days with the Patriots). However, as McNair has stated previously and reiterated today, Easterby — who had been serving as interim GM after Bill O’Brien‘s dismissal — will return to some of his earlier roles (Twitter link via Wilson). Caserio will have full control over the roster, the draft, and free agency.

As Wilson notes in a separate tweet, Caserio had plenty of positive things to say about Easterby. “Jack and I have had a special relationship,” Caserio said. “He’s helped me a lot personally. He’s someone I’ve always leaned on. I have a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for [him].”

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Texans Notes: Easterby, Kelly, Cobb

While Texans executive VP Jack Easterby will not become the team’s next GM, recent reports suggest that he will have a significant say in determining who the next head coach will be. And in a comprehensive piece detailing Easterby’s unconventional and sometimes controversial rise through the NFL front office ranks, Jenny Vrentas and Greg Bishop of SI.com suggest that might not necessarily be a good thing.

The article is well-worth a read for any NFL observer, but especially Texans fans. Some of the authors’ sources say that Easterby, who was brought in to improve the club’s culture, has only made it worse, and that he has secured his lofty position within the organization thanks largely to the inordinate amount of sway he has over owner Cal McNair. Indeed, one source said McNair is “blinded” by Easterby, who has also been accused of undermining other key figures — like former head coach Bill O’Brien — and who is said to have been a driving force behind the lopsided DeAndre Hopkins trade (for which O’Brien has shouldered most of the blame).

Of course, Easterby — who declined the authors’ invitation to tell his side of the story — has plenty of supporters as well, and it will be fascinating to see how his role will impact Houston’s HC/GM search and the team’s fortunes moving forward.

Now for more from the Texans:

  • If quarterback Deshaun Watson has it his way, the new Texans head coach will retain current offensive coordinator Tim Kelly, as Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports writes. Kelly has been with the organization since 2014 and was elevated to OC last year. Amidst an otherwise difficult 2020 campaign, Watson is enjoying a career year, and he gives his 34-year-old coordinator a great deal of credit for that. We previously heard that McNair would consider Watson’s input with respect to the HC search, so it stands to reason that he would also value his star QB’s opinion on his OC.
  • The Hopkins trade, along with assorted injuries and suspensions, have decimated Watson’s WR corps. Randall Cobb has been on IR since late November with a significant toe injury, and according to Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle, surgery is a possibility. Cobb, 30, has an outside chance of returning this year, but with the Texans well out of the playoff picture, it probably makes more sense for him to start preparing for 2021.
  • The Texans selected cornerback John Reid in the fourth round of this year’s draft, but even after the Bradley Roby suspension and with Houston already looking ahead to next year, Reid is unlikely to see more defensive snaps, per Wilson. Defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver confirmed as much, saying that while he believes Reid has a great career ahead of him, he is not quite ready for a larger role. Reid has played just 60 defensive snaps on the season, and 32 of those came in Week 1.
  • LB Reggie Gilbert and DL Willie Henry are visiting the Texans, per Wilson. Gilbert and Henry were recently cut by the Jaguars and 49ers, respectively, and Houston will see if they can get anything out of two defenders who at one time showed they might be worthwhile pieces of an NFL roster.

GM Notes: Texans, Saleh, Peters, Smith

The next several weeks will bring extensive news on the GM front, with four teams having fired their top front office executives this season. Other teams may create additional vacancies, and Washington remains in the mix to add a top decision-maker to its front office. Here is the latest from the GM circuit ahead of what will be an unusually busy marketplace:

  • Despite Texans owner Cal McNair declaring executive VP Jack Easterby will not rise to a GM role, the current Texans power broker is expected to have plenty of input as to which exec the franchise hires to replace Bill O’Brien, Dan Graziano and Jeremy Fowler of ESPN.com note. Easterby has emerged as a key voice for a Texans franchise in transition, outlasting O’Brien in the Houston front office despite the lack of a personnel-related background.
  • Houston, however, remains high on New England exec Nick Caserio, Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports notes. Should the Texans circle back to Easterby’s former Patriots coworker, it would continue an off-and-on two-year saga. The team tried to hire Caserio in 2019, but a unique clause in his Pats contract prevented a move. The long-coveted GM prospect is now on a new Patriots contract. However, the Giants — who also have a high-profile ex-Caserio coworker in power (Joe Judge) — have interest as well, should they fire Dave Gettleman.
  • Robert Saleh figures to receive consideration to be a head coach again, and early buzz has emerged he is interested in pairing with a familiar face if he lands a job. The 49ers defensive coordinator is interested in bringing the team’s vice president of player personnel — Adam Peters — with him to his next destination, according to Fowler and Graziano. The 49ers hired Peters in 2017, the same year they brought in Saleh, and he has helped the franchise rebuild from one of its lowest points.
  • Rick Smith is set to interview for the Falcons’ GM role, but La Canfora adds that the ex-Texans GM is expected to meet with at least one other GM-needy team. The Jaguars and Lions are the current teams in need — discounting what would seemingly be an untenable Texans reunion — though Smith was connected to Washington last year. Washington did not hire a GM but may look to do so in 2021. Smith served as Houston’s GM from 2006-17.
  • George Paton has been on the GM radar for years — most notably this year, when the Vikings assistant GM backed out of consideration for the Browns job — but has remained in Minnesota. If Paton is to leave a job he is clearly quite fond of, La Canfora notes it may have to be for a West Coast franchise. A UCLA alum, Paton was in contention for a 49ers GM job that went (out of nowhere) to John Lynch in 2017. That said, JLC speculates the Bears could be interested. It is not certain they will fire Ryan Pace, but this has certainly not been a good year for the exec that traded up for Mitchell Trubisky.

Texans Won’t Keep Romeo Crennel As Head Coach

Texans team president Jamey Rootes said that Jack Easterby won’t be the team’s next general manager. CEO Cal McNair also said that Easterby won’t be given the GM job. Now, Jason La Canfora of CBSSports.com hears that Easterby isn’t actually interested in the position, which should put the speculation to rest. Meanwhile, JLC also hears that interim head coach Romeo Crennel won’t be considered for the HC role in 2021.

[RELATED: Texans Owner Meets With Deshaun Watson]

Easterby’s rise through the Texans’ organization has been well documented and he’s held more sway with Houston than he ever did with New England. Apparently, he’s plenty happy in his current position as the EVP of Football Operations, a role that pays more than $3MM per year, according to La Canfora.

Crennel, 73, has been viewed as a placeholder for 2020, though we heard previously that he would be given a shot at the “permanent” post. That doesn’t seem to be the case, and it’s not immediately clear whether he’d be given a chance to stay on board in a different capacity. Before Bill O’Brien‘s ouster, Crennel served as the Texans’ assistant head coach to start the 2020 season. And, in 2018 and 2019, he carried the defensive coordinator title. To date, Crennel is 30-58 as an NFL head coach.

Texans’ CEO: Jack Easterby Won’t Be GM

The Texans will not appoint Jack Easterby as their next GM. That’s what team president Jamey Rootes told reporters earlier this week, and that was hammered home on Thursday by team CEO Cal McNair.

Let me reiterate: Jack will not be our general manager,” McNair said when asked about the club’s Executive Vice President. “But, he will have a significant role in helping shape our future here within the Texans…(Easterby) is going to be an incredibly valuable part of our franchise moving forward as he works with our next general manager and head coach. I want to build something that our fans, players and staff are proud of. It’s okay to be under construction right now.”

The Texans kicked off their construction in earnest earlier this year by firing head coach/GM Bill O’Brien. The process has been a trying one for Texans fans, who watched running back David Johnson go on IR while DeAndre Hopkins added an all-timer to his highlight reel for the Cardinals. On the other side of the ball, cornerback Gareon Conley has been ruled out, leaving the Texans paper thin in the secondary. On the plus side, interim head coach Romeo Crennel has them in the win column, which is more than O’Brien was able to do. The Texans will look for win No. 3 this week against the Patriots.

Texans Won’t Hire Jack Easterby As GM

The Texans’ next GM remains TBD. But, no matter what, the title will not go to leading executive Jack Easterby (via Matt Young of the Houston Chronicle).

Jack would be the first person to tell you he’s not a personnel guy,” Texans president Jamey Rootes said. “Jack will not be the General Manager of the Houston Texans. Jack realizes we need personnel expertise to put together the best football team. He doesn’t have enough time in the day. He’s working on sports science, working on nutrition. Spread the word. Jack has no intentions of being the General Manager.”

The Texans plan on naming their next GM in January. They’ll also be hiring a new head coach who, reportedly, will not be the same person as the GM. Bill O’Brien filled that dual role for the Texans up until his dismissal, and ownership would prefer to split the jobs. Romeo Crennel, the team’s 73-year-old interim head coach, may be considered for the “permanent” post, though the Texans have also been connected to Eric Bieniemy. The Chiefs’ offensive coordinator is a favorite of quarterback Deshaun Watson and his recommendation should carry some significant weight.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Coaching Rumors: Crennel, Quinn, Fitzgerald

The Texans fired head coach/general manager Bill O’Brien last month following an 0-4 start, and interim HC Romeo Crennel has righted the ship a bit. Under Crennel’s watch, Houston is 2-2, and while those two wins came against the lowly Jaguars, the Texans came within an eyelash of toppling the Titans in Week 6.

Crennel, 73, has been viewed as a placeholder for 2020, but he could retain the gig through the 2021 season, as Ian Rapoport of NFL.com writes. COVID-19 restrictions will probably not permit a traditional in-person search this offseason, so teams hiring a new HC could be committing a boatload of money to a person they have never even met. As such, the Texans might stick with Crennel next season and seek their long-term answer the following year. If that happens, VP of football operations Jack Easterby may continue serving as GM.

Of course, the team has been connected to Chiefs OC Eric Bieniemy, who is a favorite of QB Deshaun Watson. Bieniemy is widely expected to secure a head coaching job this offseason regardless of travel restrictions, so if Houston wants him, it might need to take a leap of faith. And John McClain of the Houston Chronicle says the Texans will indeed hire a new GM and HC at season’s end, while fellow Houston Chronicle scribe Aaron Wilson says the search remains active (Twitter links).

Now for more a few more coaching rumors:

  • The Falcons parted ways with HC Dan Quinn earlier this season, but it doesn’t sound like Quinn will be out of work for long. Per Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports, several teams have made it known that they would like to have Quinn on their staff in 2021, and coordinators who might become head coaches next season have tapped Quinn as their first choice for defensive coordinator. La Canfora says Quinn could rejoin the Seahawks given Seattle’s defensive struggles this year, and he could also end up as the 49ers‘ DC if Robert Saleh gets a head coaching job.
  • Given the financial toll that the pandemic has taken on college athletic departments, top college coaches have become increasingly receptive to a jump to the NFL, as La Canfora details in a separate piece. Names like Lincoln Riley, Jim Harbaugh, and Brian Kelly, who frequently come up in offseason coaching rumors, will again be at the forefront of the discussion in 2021.
  • Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald has drawn interest from NFL teams in the past, and as of January 2019, he indicated he was not interested in NFL opportunities. However, COVID-19 might make him more receptive to an HC job in the pros, and his hometown Bears could come calling. La Canfora says Bears ownership is high on Fitzgerald, and if Chicago moves on from Matt Nagy, Fitzgerald might be on the top of the team’s wish-list.