NFL free agency can be a weird deal. The last time the Houston Texans went into free agency with ample salary cap space, before this offseason, was two years ago. That Texans free agency class was highlighted by Brock Osweiler, Lamar Miller, Jeff Allen, and Tony Bergstrom. It was largely hailed as a collective coup by Rick Smith, getting a future franchise quarterback (God, that seems so funny now), a starting tailback to replace Arian Foster, and two solid to good offensive linemen.
Texan fans were impressed, as these were some big ticket signings and they happened with immediacy, basically as soon as free agency began. Well, we all know how it ended — Osweiler was the biggest bust in free agency history, Miller has been just okay, Allen has been a failure, and Bergstrom was cut before he was even one season in as a Texan. In other words, the fastest, sexiest signings aren't always the best signings.
Yet here we are in 2018, and after four or five upper middle to middle-level signings, all likely sensible price performers, it took the team agreeing to a one year deal with Tyrann Mathieu on Friday for many Texan fans to pull general manager Brian Gaine's head off of the guillotine. How quickly we forget 2016.
So, here we are, with the Texans bringing in three offensive linemen (Senio Kelemete, Zach Fulton, Seantrel Henderson), a likely starting cornerback (Aaron Colvin), one of the best special teamers in the league (Johnson Bademosi), and the headliner in Mathieu. They also picked up wide receiver Sammie Coates on waivers from the Browns. They still have somewhere between $30 million and $40 million in cap space. All in all, not so bad.
Now, they also still have a glaring need at left tackle and backup QB, so there is still work to do. Let's see how well they've answered my five burning free agency questions from last week, shall we?
5. What do the Texans do with their own free agents, once other teams can start talking to them?
We covered my predictions on the Texans unrestricted free agents, 16 in all, in a post a couple of weeks ago. At that time, I felt strongly they would bring back four of the 16— punter Shane Lechler, cornerback Johnathan Joseph, wide receiver Bruce Ellington, and safety Marcus Gilchrist. They brought back three of the four, with Gilchrist moving on to the Raiders. The Texans also brought back restricted free agents Brian Peters (who plays special teams, almost exclusively), defensive end Angelo Blackson, and tendered an offer to center Greg Mancz. They will also bring back exclusive rights free agents defensive end Ufomba Kamalu and safety Corey Moore. Among the other dozen unrestricted free agents who played for the Texans last season, only quarterback Tom Savage has found a home, signing a one year, $1.5 million deal with the Saints.
4. Will the Texans get in on this Cleveland-fueled trade market at all?
Predictably and understandably, they did not. The trade market cooled down significantly once free agency started, with the biggest deal going down this past week being a pick-for-picks swap between the New York Jets and the Indianapolis Colts, with the Colts sending the No. 3 overall pick to the Jets for picks 6, 37, 49 (originally Seattle's second round pick), and a second round pick in 2019. It's a good deal for the Colts, who likely still get a player they were targeting at the third overall pick, while picking up three second rounders over a two year period. They now have five of the top 50 picks in this season's draft. (NOTE: Here is where I say, I wish Ryan Grigson was still the Colts' GM.)
3. Which headliners will the Texans actively pursue?
Here is what I said about this question last Monday:
"On the same show in which we discussed the vibrancy of the Houston sports scene, Ted and I also selected the three free agents which we want the Texans to sign (It was really quite a show on Friday!). My three? Left tackle Nate Solder, cornerback Trumaine Johnson, and tight end Jimmy Graham. All three fill a need, and all three would be massive upgrades at crucial positions. I expect the Texans to be in on all three, to some extent. I would expect offensive lineman Justin Pugh, Andrew Norwell and Josh Sitton, cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Aaron Colvin, maybe tight end Tyler Eifert, and running back Dion Lewis to all get phone calls from Gaine. If the Texans don't wind up with at least one of Pugh, Norwell, Solder, or Johnson, I'll be disappointed."
Well, those guys have all been signed by other teams, with Solder being the only one we KNOW the Texans really pursued. So am I disappointed, or am I just a fraud? Well, I'm a little nervous about what they intend to trot out there at left tackle. This was a coaching staff that saw fit to play Breno Giacomini EVERY SNAP OF THE SEASON at right tackle, AND start the season with Kendall Lamm at left tackle, so nothing is out of bounds in the discussion of "Just how BAD could it be?" That said, the acquisition of Mathieu is a game changer, and the return of Deshaun Watson should make the upgrades at other spots on the offensive line that much more noticeable. Gaine claims they're not done making moves yet, and I pray he isn't toying with us.
2. Will they seek a new backup quarterback in free agency, and if so, whom?
Actually, by definition, the Texans can't be done yet, because right now, they have no backup quarterback. That was a spot that looked much easier to fill (a) when you thought Ryan Fitzpatrick might be available, and (b)
before the league went cuckoo over bridge quarterbacks (who all probably SHOULD be high level backups). Case Keenum, Sam Bradford, Teddy Bridgewater, and Josh McCown all got eight-figure deals to play QB. Hell, Bridgewater and McCown are being paid BY THE SAME TEAM! The Browns traded for Tyrod Taylor's $16 million deal. The have-nots in this league have gone bananas trying to find quarterbacks, and will stop at no dollar amount nor package of draft capital to find one. The end result is what would normally be like the five or six highest level backups are all getting starter's reps and cash, leaving a real horror show of available backups in free agency. My feeling since last October has been that the Texans should sign Colin Kaepernick, who remains available and was spotted working out in Houston last week. (As it turned out, he was in town to attend Bob McNair's deposition in Kaepernick's collusion lawsuit against the NFL.) If you're looking for the best available option as a player, there's nobody else close. Which also leads into our final question....
1. Will the (largely unsubstantiated) rumor and innuendo surrounding the Texans' approach to free agency, vis a vis protests-during-anthem, wind up being a thing?
Only the players who DIDN'T sign here have the answer to that question, but my sense is that it was a non-factor, given the Texans' most high profile miss in free agency was a white left tackle who chose to go to New York, reportedly so he could be near his wife's family in Connecticut. If you recall, here was the rumor and innuendo being tossed around in the Houston Chronicle a couple weeks ago:
I spoke with two NFL agents this week who said word is the Texans aren't interested in any players who participated in pregame kneel-downs in protest of police brutality. There is no directive within the organization, but it is considered to be understood that as desperate as the Texans are to bring in talent, the pool of potential signees and draftees will not include anyone who has participated in protests or are likely to.
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Brian Gaine dismissed this notion as inaccurate in his press conference last Thursday. Also, there was this little gem in that Chronicle piece:
There are many who believe if McNair could field a team with all-white, all-conforming all-pro talent, he would.
As of Sunday afternoon, all six Texans signed in free agency from other teams are African-American. "Many" must be so confused.
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