While the grieving over the Houston Texans' loss to the Indianapolis Colts may continue around water coolers and on barstools throughout the city of Houston, general manager Brian Gaine and head coach Bill O'Brien turned the page pretty quickly over the weekend, as O'Brien revealed on Sunday that both were in the building Sunday "early as hell" to get cracking on improvements for this flawed but ascending (we hope) bunch.
This will be touted in many circles as the "MOST IMPORTANT OFFSEASON IN TEXANS HISTORY," and truth be told, it's certainly on the short list of most important offseasons, but admittedly, the fact that it's the CURRENT offseason makes it the most crucial. As Lou Holtz once said, "the good Lord put eyes in the front of your head rather than the back so you can see where you're going, rather than where you've been." (NOTE: This is two posts in a row in which I've quoted the great Lou Holtz. I promise I'll stop now.)
So where does Gaine begin in executing his plan for 2019? If we're being honest, there really is no true "beginning" to a plan in the NFL, when it comes to the roster. It's a constantly evolving/regressing/improving/infuriating organism. In other words, Gaine and his staff have already been working on things for 2019 going well back to the time Gaine arrived back in Houston a year or so ago.
However, the season's end on Saturday does trigger some specific to-do items for Gaine. Let's take a look at the priorities for him and O'Brien over the next several weeks.
5. Find a new strength and conditioning guru
This past offseason, Bill O'Brien could not stop talking about the grand theft that the Texans pulled off in landing Luke Richesson as the team's head of sports performance (new-age code for "strength and conditioning") from the Denver Broncos. During training camp, it felt like O'Brien mentioned the revamped cafeteria as much as he did the offensive line. (Honestly, can you blame him? I'd do ANYTHING to not talk about the Texans offensive line, if I were him, too.) Well, yesterday, John McClain of the Houston Chronicle was the first to report the following:
So O'Brien and Gaine will now be hiring the team's third strength and conditioning coach in three seasons. Hopefully, for Keke Coutee's sake, this next muscle guy is some sort of hamstring guru.
4. Burn midnight oil scouting offensive linemen — in the building and outside the building
If Texans fans could have one wish for 2019, it's likely that Deshaun Watson isn't regularly running for his life one second after the ball is snapped, that he isn't getting sacked 62 times, and that he has one fewer bruised lung in 2019 than he had in 2018. (Okay, that's three wishes. Whatever.) The only way those things happen is with massive upgrades on the offensive line. The Texans have a first round pick and two second round picks in the upcoming draft. It's a lock that one of those picks will be used for an offensive tackle, and perhaps another one will be used on a second offensive lineman, or used to move up and get one that is higher up on their draft board. The evaluation will start with the guys they on the roster this past season. If I had to guess, there will be at least two, possibly three new starters, which makes for one gigantic built-in excuse if they don't perform early on in the 2019 season. (CHEMISTRY, YO!) One thing that will be interesting will be to see if the Texans extend center Nick Martin, probably their best offensive lineman this season (but that's not saying much). If they feel he has more room to grow, I could see a Whitney Mercilus-like moderate extension for him, where they feel like they're buying a growth stock, and they nail down Deshaun Watson's center for the next half decade or so.
3. Take inventory in the secondary
For a position group with a lot of name power, this is a group that needs a facelift, or at least an upgrade of top end cornerback talent. Let's start with the things we know. Justin Reid will be a safety for this team for the next ten years, Andre Hal will be part of the mix in 2019, and Johnathan Jospeh will be back for what could be his final season as a pro. Also, Aaron Colvin will be back because it's more expensive to cut him (around $10 million in dead money) than it is to keep him (around $9 million cap hit). So that's four bodies, not including the low salary special teams types like Johnson Bademosi and A.J. Moore. The big question centers around bringing back Tyrann Mathieu and Kareem Jackson, and whether or not the team can afford to bring back both. If I had to guess, if the market is correct on both, and they have to choose between one or the other, they'll keep Mathieu, but that's purely a guess. You could argue Kareem Jackson had the much better 2018 of the two, but he's four years older than Mathieu, and 2018 was a total outlier for the Texans' 2010 first round pick out of Alabama. Then there is CB Kevin Johnson, who missed almost the entire season with a concussion. His fifth year option is exercised, but not guaranteed, for $9 million. I'd guess he may be done as a Texan, but who knows? One thing I would be fairly certain of — this team will either draft or sign a top end speed guy to play cornerback. You just can't count on Johnson.
2. Assess the books before free agency gets here
Looking at the rest of the roster, what other salary cap house cleaning needs to be done before free agency? There shouldn't be much, considering the Texans have among the most cap space in football headed into the offseason, and they have a young quarterback on his rookie deal for two more seasons (plus a fifth year option, potentially). Scouring the roster, I'd say that there may be extension talks with nose tackle D.J. Reader, who has a year left on his rookie deal. He seems like someone they definitely should want to keep around. There could be discussions with Whitney Mercilus, who has a year left on his deal, but 2018 probably won't yield the kind of talks Mercilus may want. I could see a scenario where the team sees Duke Ejiofor as a cheaper version of Mercilus, and might move on. I hope that's not the case, as I'm a Mercilus guy, but his usage was just weird this past season. If this were a year where they needed cap space, the team might move on from TE Ryan Griffin or RB Lamar Miller, but unless they spend big in free agency, the Texans can probably bring both guys back in 2019 for the last year of their deals. WR Demaryius Thomas' contract situation would have been a fascinating one to watch had he remained healthy. Now, I would assume the team just releases him and moves on, despite the fact that they seem to really like him personally. It's not show friends, it's show BUSINESS!
1. The Jadeveon Clowney Situation
Perhaps we got a window into how much the Texans intend to "play ball" with Clowney this offseason when they willingly tacked on another $1 million in compensation for 2018 this week, something they didn't have to do. Clowney's fifth year option was originally under the "outside linebacker" designation (around $12 million in salary), and the team bumped him up to the "defensive end" designation (around $13 million in salary) after he clearly functioned as more of a defensive end than a linebacker this past season. If the team chooses to franchise tag him for 2019, the defensive end designation should be around $2 million more than the outside linebacker designation, so the team is being friendly from a labeling standpoint. How friendly they will be from a "here's a long term contract, JD!" standpoint remains to be seen. Franchise tag designations can be slapped onto players beginning on February 19, in case you're wondering.
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.