Our look at the Texans’ defense wraps up with the secondary, another well-performing unit from last year that faces a major decision about one of its best players.
- Johnathan Joseph, 33, signed through 2017, $6,906,250 cap hit in 2017
- Kareem Jackson, 29, signed through 2018, $9,000,000 cap hit
- Kevin Johnson, 25, signed through 2018 (team option for 2019), $2,740,749 cap hit
- Robert Nelson, 27, signed through 2017, $690,000 cap hit
- Denzel Rice, 24, signed through 2017, $615,000 cap hit
- A.J. Bouye, 26, Unrestricted Free Agent, 2016 cap hit: $1,671,000
Even though the Texans have two first-round draft picks and a major free agent signing at cornerback, it was the former undrafted free agent who had the best season of all in 2016. In his last year before hitting unrestricted free agency, A.J. Bouye played his way into the starting lineup, and then into being one of the best cornerbacks in the league, period.
Bouye is going to command a large contract this season, and the biggest question for the Texans is whether or not they give him the contract or another team does. Bouye is expected to make somewhere around $12 million a year on his next contract; the Texans can afford it, but with three good cornerbacks already on roster, they may deem the money better spent elsewhere.
They talk like they want him back, though, and I think they will make every effort to re-sign him. Assuming they do, they can take some steps to offset the downsides of the decisions. To clear up both the logjam at cornerback and some more salary-cap space, the most likely decision is to trade or release Johnathan Joseph, despite a good 2016 campaign from him. He’s 33 next season, and his play could fall off at any time at that age; he also takes up almost $7 million of cap room, but leaves no dead money behind if traded or released.
Even though in a vacuum, I think Joseph is overall a better player right now than Kareem Jackson (who comes with a bigger contract to boot), the difference in age and dead money mean that moving on from Joseph is the more sound decision for the short and long-term. Of course, depending on who the Texans add and how they spend their money, they may not need to move on from any of them — though given how infrequently the Texans ran four cornerbacks on the field last season, that seems like a waste of resources.
All this is, of course, assuming Kevin Johnson returns healthy. The team’s first-round pick in 2015, Johnson had a promising rookie campaign but saw his second season cut short by injury. If he’s back at full health and stays on the field, he should slide back into a starting role.
Robert Nelson filled in as the fourth cornerback as needed, though the team often went with a third safety in its dime packages (usually Eddie Pleasant or Corey Moore). He’ll presumably return to the role, or perhaps the team will use a later draft pick on a rookie they think has more upside. Denzel Rice is a practice-squad player.
- Andre Hal, 25, signed through 2017, $1,814,281 cap hit in 2017
- Corey Moore, 24, signed through 2017, $540,000 cap hit
- Eddie Pleasant, 28, signed through 2017, $1,114,000 cap hit
- Lonnie Ballentine, 24, signed through 2017, $701,474 cap hit
- K.J. Dillon, 24, signed through 2019, $598,734 cap hit
- Kurtis Drummond, 25, signed through 2017, $616,668 cap hit
- Quinton Demps, 32, Unrestricted Free Agent, 2016 cap hit: $1,470,000
- Don Jones, 27, Unrestricted Free Agent, 2016 cap hit: $436,764
Andre Hal and Quinton Demps were the starters last year, so the question of whether or not the Texans will re-sign Demps or look elsewhere also looms (though not as large as the same question regarding A.J. Bouye). At Demps’ age, he seems unlikely to warrant a long-term deal, and he carries the danger that his play could decline sharply at any time. This would be a good position for the Texans to address in the draft; even if they re-sign Demps and he plays well for a season, they’ll still need a long-term replacement for him. If they don’t, they might look at replacing him with a free agent. Tony Jefferson of the Arizona Cardinals is the big prize, but it’ll probably take a substantial contract to woo him. Other veterans like Barry Church or Jonathan Cyprien might make more sense at a lower price.
Corey Moore and Eddie Pleasant both filled in at safety. They are adequate backups, but again, using a draft pick on the position would help solidify the lineup and give it more long-term potential. The others are occasional special-teamers or practice squad players.
Of course, there’s the off-chance the team could take a swing at a star, since this safety class is deep with playmakers. Ohio State’s Malik Hooker and LSU’s Jamal Adams stand a reasonable chance of being top-10 picks, so the Texans won’t get a crack at them without trading up. Washington’s Budda Baker will probably be available at 25, though, and he’s a good playmaker. In the second round, I’d look at Obi Melifonwu of Connecticut, and in the third, Lorenzo Jerome of St. Francis (PA).
While the safety position could benefit from an upgrade, and indeed might be one of the top targets for the team in the draft, making that upgrade is not urgent. The real urgent decision comes with A.J. Bouye’s contract. Though the Texans would likely land a third-round compensatory draft pick for losing him in free agency, the better play long-term would be to give Bouye the contract he seeks and release Johnathan Joseph. If the Texans can do this, they should have a solid cornerback lineup for some years to come.
(Ages are as of the start of the 2017 regular season, September 7. Contract and cap information taken from spotrac.com.)