Hard to believe, but we are heading into our fourth offseason with Bill O'Brien at the helm of the Houston Texans, counting the 2014 offseason in which he was, technically, the franchise's first big maneuver. This time last year, the organization was seeking a solution at quarterback, as it's been doing pretty much since Matt Schlub's career went off the cliff in 2013.
They went through the Senior Bowl, the NFL Combine, evaluations of personnel they had internally already, and determined that the best course of action was to give Denver's backup, Brock Osweiler, a four-year, $72 million contract ($37 million guaranteed). In the array of available solutions, and given the desperation inherent in finding a franchise QB, this move was certainly a defensible one by the Texans brass. At a bare minimum, the thinking went, the Texans would at least have a respectable QB solution in place to manage games and win them with defense and running the football.
Unfortunately, we had no idea how far Brock Osweiler could push the depths of the "bare minimum." We had no idea "bare minimum" meant a slew of interceptions, a complete disconnect with the team's franchise receiver, and a total inability to complete passes more than 15 yards down the field. Indeed, the Texans are right back where they were when Brian Hoyer walked off the field a 30-0 loser to the Chiefs in the playoffs a year ago, searching for a starting quarterback, only instead with an existing quarterback whose contract is nearly uncuttable and untradeable for at least one more year.
The failure of Brock Osweiler and the attached cap hit in keeping him around have pushed many of the team's offseason story lines into a dark place, where contracts will need to be restructured or jettisoned, where free agency is a dicey proposition and where coaches have already been fired. (Bye-bye, George Godsey.)
As the offseason gets underway, let's nail down the key story lines for your Houston Texans...
10. Locking down Romeo Crennel
I said multiple times in this space and on my radio show, Romeo Crennel was the most valuable employee in the Houston Texans organization this season. If they have a picture for Employee of the Month in the lobby at NRG Stadium, Crennel's picture should be on there for September, October, November, December and January. O'Brien was asked Monday about Crennel, whose contract is up as of the end of the season, coming back in 2017:
"I think that Romeo has done a great job. I know that we would love to have him back. I know that. But I haven’t even sat down with any of the coaches yet or anything like that. But I can tell you Romeo is a great football coach and just means a lot to me personally. We would love to have Romeo back here.”
It's a no-brainer to bring Crennel back, and I hope he feels the same way. I can't imagine that Crennel wouldn't want to take a crack at coaching a defense that has a healthy Jadeveon Clowney and a healthy J.J. Watt together for the first time since Clowney was drafted in 2014. This deal should get done in fairly short order, and if it doesn't, I would imagine linebackers coach Mike Vrabel is the DC-in-waiting.
9. Hiring an offensive coordinator
As for the coordinator on the other side of the ball, that slot was vacated on Monday. Just a few short hours after semi-dodging the question on whether or not George Godsey would be back as the OC, O'Brien issued a statement saying that his longtime friend, Godsey, and the team had "chosen to part ways." So now the team is presented with an opportunity to remake its 30th-ranked (in DVOA) offense. A lot of names will be rumored and bandied about, but ultimately I'm more about structure than I am the candidate. My hope is O'Brien hires someone good and delegates him to run the offense, the same way he delegates Crennel to run the defense. O'Brien needs to be more of a CEO, and less hands-on with the offense. A system change would be welcome, too. As long as you're changing the guy running that side of the ball, you may as well tweak the architecture of the machine, too.
8. DeAndre Hopkins's contract extension
Last summer, the team's refrain from giving Hopkins a long-term extension led Hopkins to hold out for one day to start training camp. Behind the scenes, the team put Hopkins's fears to rest, assuring him that if he put his head down and played well, there would be a long-term deal awaiting him. However, I'm sure Hopkins didn't foresee the issues he would have synching up with Osweiler in 2016, and certainly didn't foresee a season in which he fell below 1,000 yards receiving, despite playing all 16 games. If I had to guess, the team probably has an offer ready for him, but I doubt it's in line with the upper upper crust of receivers in the game (Green, Jones, Bryant...$14-$15 million per year). If it's not, could Hopkins dig in and play out his deal and dare the team to franchise tag him in 2018? This could drag into the summer again if the two sides are far apart come beginning of the league's business year in early March.
7. Offensive line makeover
At the franchise's on-field peak, back in 2011 and 2012, one of the team's signatures was its consistency along the offensive line. For 2011, they had the same five guys (Brown, Smith, Myers, Brisiel, Winston) start virtually every game. Then, in 2012, they had three of those five return and a consistent quintet again for most of the year. They need to get back to that level of reliability, but there are so many moving parts, thanks to injury and underperformance. Duane Brown is likely penciled in at left tackle after a remarkable return from a quad injury in 2016. Nick Martin returns from IR to take over at center, and my guess is Greg Mancz could wind up taking a guard spot from Xavier Su'a-Filo or free agent bust Jeff Allen. Then there's right tackle, where incumbent Derek Newton blew out both patellar tendons and backup Chris Clark was a matador filling in. I would imagine tackle will be a focus spot in the first two rounds of the draft. Fixing this group is a must if the offense is going to improve.
6. Progression of Will Fuller and Braxton Miller
Overall, it was a rough year for the rookie class, as three of the six drafted rookies wound up on injured reserve, and fourth rounder Tyler Ervin may as well have, as little impact as he made. Nose tackle D.J. Reader made some nice strides, but the overall worth of this class will be determined by the development of first round WR Will Fuller and third round WR Braxton Miller. Again, whoever the new OC is, that guy has to figure out a way to get Fuller more involved downfield, and has to figure out a way to take advantage of Miller's multifaceted skill set. For their respective parts, Fuller should spend the entire offseason with a JUGS machine, catching 500 balls a day. Miller should get with fellow former Ohio State QB-turned-WR Terrelle Pryor and follow him around to his workouts. Whatever that guy was doing, it worked.
5. Veteran contract cleanup
This is where the pain of carrying Brock Osweiler and his $19 million cap hit comes back to roost. Like every team in the NFL, the Texans have free agents they want to keep and moves they want to make (Hopkins extension, possible Clowney extension), and they need cap space to do it. According to Spotrac, the Texans are operating right now with an estimated $25 million or so in cap space heading into the offseason. They'll likely need more to make their moves and sign their rookies, especially if there's a reasonably impactful follow-up plan to last year's signing of Osweiler at QB, which we can now officially call a failure. Among the veterans most likely to be asked to take a pay cut, restructure their deal or leave altogether are LB Brian Cushing ($9.5 million cap hit, $4.2 million dead money), CB Kareem Jackson ($9.0 million cap hit, $4.5 million dead money), CB Johnathan Joseph ($7.0 million cap hit, $0 dead money), Chris Clark ($3.25 million cap hit, $500,000 dead money) and Tony Bergstrom ($3.25 million cap hit, $375,000 dead money). I could also see Derek Newton ($5.5 million cap hit, $2.25 million dead money) getting let go if his injuries are too serious, and Brandon Weeden ($2.15 million cap hit, $0 dead money) cut loose if they need a couple million bucks to close deals with free agents.
4. Free agency checklist
Heading into the 2016 season, it didn't appear as though there would be any major in-house free agents to contend with when the season was over, largely because the 2013 draft class (which is coming off of their four-year rookie deals) was so lackluster for this team. Hopkins and TE Ryan Griffin are the only players left from that draft class on the 53-man roster, and Hopkins is locked in for another year. However, the rapid, unforeseen ascension of CB A.J. Bouye threw a wrench into things (in a good way, because he was one of their three best defensive players this season), so now the Texans are likely dealing with having to offer upwards of $10 million per year to keep Bouye. Other unrestricted free agents I could see the Texans wanting to keep, so long as the market stays under reasonable control — P Shane Lechler, S Quintin Demps, OLB John Simon, RB Jonathan Grimes, G Oday Aboushi and Griffin.
3. Return of J.J. Watt
O'Brien was asked about Watt's condition at his postseason press conference on Monday, probably in part because all of us media outlets miss the J.J.-related clicks we've gotten for the last three years, and here's what he had to say:
“No idea about the timetable for the offseason but I can tell you he’s doing well. He’s in there working very hard to get better. He’s been in there every day. You can see him out on the field running, you can see him doing different things in the weight room. So to no one’s surprise, I’m sure that he is ahead of schedule.”
So naturally, the viral headline for that quote was "Watt Ahead Of Schedule In Comeback." Hey, like pretty much everybody around the NFL (that doesn't have to actually face the Texans defense), I'm pretty geeked to see Watt paired up with Clowney, and Whitney Mercilus cleaning up the scraps. But beyond that, I'll be most intrigued by seeing Watt adapt to playing in a defense where he may no longer be the best player. There's a decent chance Clowney is better than a surgically repaired Watt, at least initially. How will J.J. adjust to a new sheriff in town? This might be what intrigues me the most of anything I've written about here...but I love fabricated drama.
2. The Bill O'Brien saga
For the last three weeks or so, it feels like we've discussed Bill O'Brien's future in Houston as much as we've discussed the team's performance in the present. I don't think it's an accident that O'Brien's reported disillusion with his current job structure leaked to the media, and I also think that too many reputable people were reporting it for it to be fabricated. That said, nearly everyone has some level of dissatisfaction with SOME facet of his or her job, and many of those people STILL love going to work. So is it so hard to believe that O'Brien could be simultaneously perturbed about parts of his job and still enjoy coaching the team? It shouldn't be. I see these last few weeks of O'Brien smoke the same way I see Hopkins's holdout — just a brief notification to the world that he isn't entirely happy with his situation. It will be interesting to see if this is the last we hear of O'Brien's angst.
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1. The QB conundrum
This is easily the biggest, most important story surrounding this team in the offseason. We start out with the hope that the Texans concur that Osweiler is not the answer under center. From there, they should not cut off any discussion about how to get a quarterback, nor should they hang up the phone on anyone who has one to offer. Tony Romo's name has and will come up, but I don't know how I feel about paying eight figures to an injury-prone guy who hasn't played extended snaps in nearly two years. Philip Rivers's name will come up, as rumors of his dissatisfaction with the team's move to L.A. abound. I just don't know how they move their franchise QB when they're getting ready to move to a new city and are trying to sell season tickets. Drafting a quarterback in the first two rounds is probably the most sensible (and, thus, non-Texans) thing to go ahead and do, and without trading up, I'd take DeShone Kizer, Brad Kaaya or Patrick Mahomes. (Deshaun Watson will be long gone by the time the Texans pick.) The most interesting part of the whole QB stew will be whether or not they choose to keep Osweiler around. Yes, it is theoretically a bigger cap hit (by about $6 million) to let him go outright, but given the black cloud of his performance, it could be a relief just not having to see him anymore. A post-June 1 release spreads the cap hit out over two seasons in the exact same fashion as the team would get hit by keeping him for 2017, and letting him go after 2017.
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.