Last week we looked at the Texans’ offense in our offseason series; this week we’ll cover the defense.
The defense played like one of the best defenses in the league last season, and that was without J.J. Watt available most of the season (as well as without starting cornerback Kevin Johnson, but he’s not quite as important as the three-time Defensive Player of the Year). With a unit that performed so well and that’s also getting back players who missed so much time, the team isn’t likely to make many changes. Still, a few positions and free agents will need addressing.
With the 3-4 the Texans run (that occasionally shifts into a 4-3 in passing situations), it can be difficult to determine who’s a defensive lineman and who isn’t, since the outside linebackers are often functionally defensive ends. We’re only going to look at the ones who are listed as defensive linemen on the Texans’ team page; the rest will have to wait until the linebacker article.
- J.J. Watt, 28, signed through 2021, cap hit: $14,500,000
- Jadeveon Clowney, 24, signed through 2017, cap hit: $7,086,863
- Christian Covington, 23, signed through 2018, cap hit: $637,622
- D.J. Reader, 23, signed through 2019, cap hit: $593,845
- Joel Heath, 24, signed through 2018, cap hit: $540,000
- Ufomba Kamalu*, 24, signed through 2017, cap hit: $540,000
- Brandon Dunn*, 24, signed through 2018, cap hit: $465,000
* reserve/future contract or projected practice squad member
- Vince Wilfork, 35, Unrestricted Free Agent, 2016 cap hit: $5,500,000
- Antonio Smith, 35, Unrestricted Free Agent, 2016 cap hit: $811,176
- Devon Still, 28, Unrestricted Free Agent, 2016 cap hit: $675,000
The top five names are the key ones to consider here; they and free agents Wilfork and Smith accounted for the vast majority of snaps at the position. Of course, J.J. Watt’s injury severely limited his snap count, though Jadeveon Clowney filled in admirably, with Covington, Heath, and Smith rotating most of the remaining snaps at end, and Reader and Wilfork splitting the nose tackle duties. Clowney’s performance is particularly noteworthy, as the former No. 1 overall draft pick finally paid off on his promise this season, with a Pro Bowl invitation and an impressive job of, if not duplicating Watt’s production (who could?), at least providing enough pressure and disruption to elevate the defense and soften the blow of losing Watt.
If the two of them are back together and healthy in 2017, look out. (Clowney moved around quite a bit and naturally profiles more on the edge; I wouldn’t be surprised if he played more outside linebacker with Watt healthy.) Clowney can become a free agent after 2017, but I expect the Texans to pick up his fifth-year option and to try to work out a long-term extension with him.
Wilfork is widely expected to retire, based on comments he made after the Texans’ playoff loss to the Patriots (as well as the standing ovation the longtime Patriot got from the New England crowd as he left the field). That means the team will have to find someone to rotate nose-tackle snaps with D.J. Reader. It’s possible the team uses Christian Covington or Joel Heath more in that role — having a healthy J.J. Watt would make such a move possible — but either way, the team needs to find another body. Ufomba Kamalu was called up late in the season and I’d expect him to return to the practice squad if everyone is healthy.
Covington and Heath are mostly reliable players who are young and should grow. Heath going undrafted was a surprise to me, as he’s possessed of good athleticism for his size at a position where athleticism matters. Reader is young as well; the defensive line has had an infusion of talent in recent years. (Reader and Heath enter their second seasons; Covington his third).
Antonio Smith was a longtime Texan who left for a couple of seasons and then came back for one last rodeo. He might retire as well; like Wilfork, he’ll turn 36 during next season, and it’s likely his best days are behind him. Smith was one of the more colorful players in the league — how many players would introduce themselves and list their college as “Shaolin Temple”? — and if he does retire, he’ll be missed as much for his personality as his play.
Devon Still only played 25 snaps last season and is unlikely to be re-signed unless the Texans need a warm body for training camp or an emergency need arises at the position and he’s still available.
I wouldn’t expect the Texans to spend big on defensive linemen in free agency, though getting Wilfork’s $5.5 million salary off the books could help them do so if they chose. If they did, the biggest-name target at end would be Calais Campbell, who has been the prototype 3-4 defensive end for most of his nine-year career with the Arizona Cardinals. At nose tackle, it’s Dontari Poe, who was an absolute beast in Kansas City until a back injury slowed him this season. If he can get his form back, he’s worth splurging, as he’s the rare defensive tackle who can play a full load of defensive snaps — no mean feat for a guy listed at 346 pounds. If the Texans want some value options, two free agents from the Jaguars, Tyson Alualu and Jared Odrick, may be worth exploring.
The draft has some pretty good defensive linemen, but for the most part, it’s strongest at outside pass rusher, which we’ll cover in the linebackers article. It seems unlikely to me the Texans will use a high pick on a defensive lineman, given their other needs and their ability to turn late-round picks at the position into useful rotation players. There are some good players who maybe available on day two of the draft; Iowa’s Jaleel Johnson and Florida’s Caleb Brantley will probably be gone, but it’s possible that the team could land Auburn’s Montravius Adams, Clemson’s Carlos Watkins, Alabama’s Dalvin Tomlinson, or UCLA’s Eddie Vanderdoes. (The best defensive lineman in this draft is Alabama’s Jonathan Allen, but he’ll be long gone.) Some of the names to watch for day three might be Washington’s Elijah Qualls, LSU’s Davon Godchaux, and Michigan’s pair of defensive tackles, Chris Wormley and Ryan Glasgow.
This isn’t a position where the team needs a star, so I don’t expect them to spend big in free agency. Assuming Watt returns healthy, all they really need here are a couple of good-value rotation players, so I’m thinking they’ll probably use a day-three draft pick on a defensive lineman, and perhaps look to get a good deal on one in free agency as well.
Next time, we’ll look at the linebacker crew, including a couple more young building blocks in Whitney Mercilus and Bernardrick McKinney.
Ages are as of the 2017 season kickoff on September 7. Cap numbers are taken from spotrac.com.