If you had told Rick Smith or Bill O'Brien heading into the 2016 season that they'd have a big decision to make on a contractual situation at the cornerback position the following year, they'd probably have politely dismissed you and wondered what the hell you were talking about. (To be clear, O'Brien would have been the less polite, but far funnier of the two.)
Are we going to be looking at extending a rejuvenated Johnathan Joseph? Is there some sort of restructure we need to do with Kareem Jackson? Kevin Johnson will only be two years in, so what gives?
A.J. Bouye, that's what.
In 2016, the Texans placed three players in Pro Football Focus's Top 101 list at the end of the season. In reverse order, they were defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (No. 60), outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus (No. 56), and...yep, you guessed it, A.J. Bouye, who clocked in as the 41st best player in the NFL, according to PFF's scoring system.
How in the hell did that happen? How in the hell did a guy who wasn't even the 41st best player on the team the last couple of seasons become the 41st best player in the NFL?
Well, actually, the signs were there in the preseason, when continually at practice, Bouye was making play after play. (Sidebar — unfortunately, the media will no longer be privy to those sorts of revelations unless we travel to West Virginia for Texans training camp this summer. But I digress...) It continued in the early part of the regular season when Bouye was the designated "tight end" specialty cover guy, holding Travis Kelce to just 34 yards receiving in Week 2.
By the midway portion of the season, with a season-ending injury to Johnson and occasional dings to Jackson and Joseph, along with just sheer outstanding performance, Bouye was a fixture as a starting corner. Teams still tested him, still targeted him frequently, but the fourth-year cornerback out of Central Florida stood up.
In short, other than the pedigree of being undrafted a few years ago, there was nothing fluky about Bouye's performance. The improvement was evident early and continued throughout the season. Now, there will be multiple corner-starved teams that see him as a very sound investment of cap dollars during free agency. The Texans are far from corner-starved, assuming Johnson comes back healthy, but likely want to keep Bouye in the fold at the right price.
As options go, the Texans basically have three, and they are as follows:
1. Get a deal done before free agency "open negotiations" period begins on March 7
I won't reinvent the wheel when it comes to forecasting what Bouye could get on the open market. Instead, I will leave the math and analysis (FANTASTIC analysis, by the way) to Troy over at TexansCap.com. (Read the whole post, if you're into the inner workings of contract amounts.) Basically, keeping Bouye, Troy estimates, would cost the Texans a four-year contract worth $46 million, with more than $22 million guaranteed. When you consider the likelihood of at least a fifth year option, if not an extension for Kevin Johnson coming after 2018, that virtually guarantees the Texans’ having a sizable investment in cornerback for the foreseeable future, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, assuming Bouye is not a one-hit wonder.
Likelihood: 25 percent
2. Apply the franchise tag by March 1 at 3 p.m. Central Time
This one gets dicey from a cap standpoint, because it eliminates the possibility of spreading signing bonus money over the life of a multi-year deal. On the franchise tag, it's a one-year deal with all of the money hitting the cap space in 2017. Last year's franchise tag amount on cornerbacks (the average of the top five CB salaries in the league) was nearly $14 million. The tag would buy the Texans some time (until July 15) to hammer out a long-term deal, or let Bouye play for one year for around $14 million. Using the tag would be less of an issue if the Texans weren't a) carrying a backup QB with a $19 million cap hit, and b) trying to sign DeAndre Hopkins to a long-term extension. The franchise tag route for Bouye could put a pricey veteran on the roster in harm's way of either being released or, at the very least, being restructured. Top candidates for that include Johnathan Joseph ($7 million cap hit) and Brian Cushing (nearly $10 million cap hit).
Likelihood: 50 percent
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3. Let Bouye hit free agency on March 7
The other option for the Texans is to do what they did with Kareem Jackson two years ago — let Bouye test the market and see what the forces of capitalism dictate his value is. Jackson got a four-year, $34 million deal ($20 million guaranteed). Bouye will get more than that, because he is coming off a better season than Jackson had in 2014, and because there are some desperate teams with crazy cap dollars to spend, eight of them with more than $60 million in cap space, including — GULP! — the three other teams in the AFC South. Fun! This is a dangerous option for the Texans, as teams tend to get gaga in free agency over cornerbacks, and at least two of the Texans’ AFC South rivals — Tennessee and Indianapolis — have acute needs at cornerback.
Likelihood: 25 percent
We will take a look at the rest of the Texans free agency class later this week.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.