With the Super Bowl two weeks in the rear-view mirror, all 32 teams are now making their plans for the offseason, for 2017 and beyond. The next major event on the league calendar is the Scouting Combine, where teams can get looks at draft prospects up close and personal from February 28 to March 6. The league year then begins on March 9, and with it the ability to sign other teams’ free agents.
In this series, we’ll be looking at our home team, the Houston Texans, analyzing their roster and surmising what they might do. The Texans had by and large a successful season, winning the AFC South and a playoff game against the Oakland Raiders before succumbing to the eventual champion New England Patriots. However, the team will still have to make some changes get to the next level and be a legitimate title contender. We’ll look at the team position by position and offer some thoughts as to what they might do, with over $20 million in projected cap space and a full allotment of seven draft picks (though they own Chicago’s sixth-rounder instead of their own).
First and foremost, let’s look at quarterback, the most important position in the team, and the one most in need of improvement.
- Brock Osweiler, 26, signed through 2019, $19,000,000 cap hit in 2017
- Brandon Weeden, 33, signed through 2017, $1,625,000 cap hit
- Tom Savage, 27, signed through 2017, $765,146 cap hit
Brock Osweiler was the Texans’ major free agent signing last year, the franchise quarterback who was going to elevate the team to the next level from the likes of journeymen such as Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brian Hoyer. That didn’t happen, perhaps a predictable result from a quarterback who was benched in 2015 for a version of Peyton Manning who was essentially a brain stuck on a body held together with duct tape. Osweiler was frequently inaccurate, afraid to take chances downfield, and generally played like one of the worst quarterbacks in the league by any measure, to the point where fans cheered when he was benched in week 15 for Tom Savage. Savage wasn’t much better, but he was better, until he was injured in week 17 and the job went back to Osweiler.
Unfortunately, Osweiler’s contract makes it impossible to simply move on from him; his entire 2017 salary is guaranteed, so the team would be responsible for that and the remainder of his signing bonus this year if they cut him now. Doing so would cost the team $6 million more against the cap this year than keeping him would. (Even using one of the two “post June 1” designations allotted to each team by the league wouldn’t help much; it would only push that extra $6 million into 2018.) His 2018 and 2019 salaries are not guaranteed, though, so expect him to be released next offseason.
So, what is the team going to do at quarterback? Well, the talk from owner Robert McNair is that Osweiler and Savage will get to compete for the starting job, but unless one of them takes a substantial (and unprecedented, given their ages and history) leap forward, neither one seems like the long-term answer. (Frankly, college-QB-turned-wide-receiver Braxton Miller might be the best quarterback on the roster right now.) It’s hard to imagine the Texans don’t add a quarterback, either a veteran or in the draft.
I think, due to the need to spend the cap space elsewhere (more on that later in our series) and the money already being spent on Osweiler, the draft is the more likely route for the team to go (something backed up by McNair’s comments). The difficult question is, which quarterbacks will be available? The Texans don’t pick until #25, so anyone that any team sees as a likely franchise quarterback will be gone by then. (This almost certainly means Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky.) I do think this quarterback class is better than the general perception of it in the media; if someone like Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer or Patrick Mahomes of Texas Tech is available at #25, I think they’d be a great value for the team to develop into the long-term starter. If they wait until round 2 and Miami’s Brad Kaaya is available, I like him as a prospect with a lower ceiling but who is almost certainly going to be solid and at least bring a capable level of play to the position.
If they go the veteran route, they have a few options. Tony Romo is the obvious one; he’s clearly going to be available, he can still play at a high level even at his age, and the Texans’ defense is good enough that a quality passing game could make them championship contenders. Of course, fans might balk at the idea of adding the guy who was the star quarterback of the team’s nemesis for the better part of the Texans’ existence, but management shouldn’t let reasoning like that affect their decision.
More practically, the real risks and obstacles here are cap room and health. Romo has a massive contract that makes him difficult to trade; trying to fit his $14 million base salary into the Texans’ cap would preclude many other moves they could make. If Dallas releases him, though, the Texans could find a way to sign him to a deal that defers much of the salary cap hit until later years, likely by offering a large signing bonus but small base salary. Romo also has a significant injury history, and though he may still be able to play well even though he’ll be 37, that only counts if he’s actually on the field. Still, though, he is likely the best option for the Texans if they want to take a shot at becoming title contenders in 2017.
Other Veterans Who Might Be Available
Jay Cutler is almost certain to be released from the Bears, and he could be a more cost-effective option than Romo. I’d still be worried about the injuries that caused him to miss 11 games in 2016, and the seeming decline his play had taken even before he got hurt. He’ll be 34 next year, and if his talent is slipping, he may not be a viable NFL quarterback much longer. (In my research, I’ve found that quarterbacks who play at an elite level can generally continue to do so into their late thirties; quarterbacks who were merely average to above-average, though, begin dropping off at 32 or 33. Remember what happened to Matt Schaub?)
Jimmy Garoppolo is the latest hot name on the Patriots roster to be talked about as a Tom Brady backup who has a future starter elsewhere. The Texans obviously have a history with the Patriots through head coach Bill O’Brien, and O’Brien and general manager Rick Smith have gone to the “former Patriots backup” well a few times to try to find starters, as that’s where they found both Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett. That said … how did Hoyer and Mallett work out? Not only has the “Patriots backup” approach failed twice already, chasing backups who had decent short stretches of play as the starter was how the team ended up with Osweiler in the first place. (Personally, I’ve found that film study of Garoppolo reveals he’s more inaccurate and shaky under pressure than the statistics from his starts would indicate. I wouldn’t recommend going this route.)
Tyrod Taylor and Colin Kaepernick may become available if the Bills and 49ers decide to move on from each respectively, and they’ve both shown the talent of NFL starters, having put together full seasons of high-level play. However, looking at the history of Texans quarterbacks under Bill O’Brien, it seems like they don’t have the traits or style of play he looks for in quarterbacks. Tampa Bay’s Mike Glennon has been talked about as a free agent who might get a starting chance, and Nick Foles is likely to be released from the Chiefs, but they’re strictly backups-- simply having starting experience in the past isn’t good enough to make a player a starter, as the Texans already learned with Osweiler.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at the team’s running backs, a much more stable situation.
Ages listed are as of the first day of the 2017 regular season, September 7. Contract and cap information are taken from spotrac.com.