The press release is out, and at some point here, there will be a press conference to announce Brian Gaine as the Houston Texans' third general manager in franchise history. That day can't come soon enough, as there is plenty of work to do on this roster, work we've covered extensively over the last couple weeks in this space.
The work will not get done in order of importance, as it doesn't work that way in the NFL. The NFL offseason calendar sets your day to day priorities. The Senior Bowl and combine will push scouting to the forefront over the next month or so, free agency arrives in March, and then the draft comes in late April. For the first time in franchise history, the Texans will enter the draft without a first or second round pick in their pocket, which makes the quality of scouting work done at the Senior Bowl and combine of the utmost importance.
However, at one point or another, there are eight things that Brian Gaine is going to have to address this offseason. In order of importance, here they are:
8. Decide whether or not to extend Bernardrick McKinney this offseason
One semi-unpopular opinion that I've espoused both on my radio show and on Twitter is that the new Texans GM should see if there is a trade market out there for McKinney, and try to recoup some of the lost draft equity from the Great QB Search of 2016-2017. If someone out there wants to to give the Texans a second round pick for McKinney, who is entering the final year of his rookie contract, I say you roll with Zach Cunningham, Dylan Cole, and perhaps an older veteran from the bargain bin at inside linebacker. Deal from a position of strength. The Texans won't do it, in part because I don't think anyone will give them a second round pick for McKInney. Instead, I would expect the Texans to give McKinney an extension this offseason in the neighborhood of one of the top 10 or 12 inside linebackers in football (about $8 million or $9 million) a year, which is an overpay, in my opinion, but O'Brien seems to hold McKinney in a "core player" kind of regard.
7. Cut Brian Cushing
I was expecting this to happen after Cushing came back from his PED policy violation suspension, but it didn't happen. Upon his return, over the final four weeks of the season, Cushing was about as invisible and ordinary as he's been over the last couple years. Cushing's value to the team has been more anecdotal fluff from O'Brien about "heart and soul" than, you know, ACTUAL IMPACT FOOTBALL PLAYS. The Texans can save $7.6 million against the cap by cutting Cushing loose. Let's just get this over with, and if they want to use some of those savings to extend McKinney, then sure, whatever.
6. Figure out Kevin Johnson's contractual future
By sometime in early May, the Texans will need to decide whether or not to exercise Kevin Johnson's fifth year option for the 2019 season. If they do that, it means they have him locked up for two more seasons, 2018 at just under $2 million and 2019 at the average of the third through 25th highest salaries at cornerback in the league. (For point of reference, cornerbacks in the 2014 draft picked near Johnson received a fifth year option of around $8.5 million.) There are two problems with giving Johnson the fifth year option. First, the option year is guaranteed for injury, and Johnson has been injured in each of his first three seasons. Second, and more importantly, Kevin Johnson stunk last season. According to Pro Football Focus, he was rated 121st out of 121 cornerbacks. Dead last. One solution for the Texans, if they believe Johnson has a turnaround in him (let's not forget, he was solid to very good his first two seasons in the league), would be to go the Whitney Mercilus route and, instead of a fifth year option, give him a four year extension at what would become a bargain price if Johnson reverts to his old form. Given their lack of depth right now at corner, depending on the guaranteed money, this is a leap of faith I might take, if I were Gaine.
5. Start to formulate J.J. Watt contingency plans
All signs appear positive so far in Watt's rehabilitation from the latest setback, a fractured tibial plateau. Of course, those signs are basically just videos posted on Watt's own Twitter feed, not exactly official doctor's reports. The Texans have Watt on the books for four more years at $57 million, which is a bargain if he gets back to being even 75 percent of what he was before his body began breaking down. The problem is that nobody knows what Watt is going to be when he comes back. Gaine needs to start forming Watt contingency plans based on his physical condition and, in turn, his production this coming season. 2018 will probably be contractual business as usual for Watt, but there need to be the seeds of a "just in case" plan in place for future seasons, a plan both addressing Watt's future directly and the defensive line depth chart as a whole. Given Watt's stature on the team and in the community, nothing having to do with Watt's handling can be done rashly. It needs to be well thought out.
4. Get a real backup QB
Yes, this begins with not bringing back Tom Savage or T.J. Yates. Get real backups, backups that allow you to continue using all (or at least, MOST) of the pages you've added to the playbook for Deshaun Watson. I'd be fine with bringing back Ryan Fitzpatrick as a veteran backup, or if somehow Tyrod Taylor gets cut by Buffalo and then somehow loses the game of "starting QB musical chairs" mourned the league, I'd give him "overpay" backup money. Watson's rookie contract and its $3.4 million average annual salary give you some flexibility. I would also use a late round pick on a mobile college QB like Quinton Flowers from South Florida, and see if you can groom him as the prime backup starting in 2019.
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3. Jadeveon Clowney's extension
It's going to be an interesting offseason for contract extensions for young, foundational defensive players. The 2014 draft class includes Clowney, Khalil Mack, and Aaron Donald, all of whom are expecting new deals. Based on what they've done so far in the league, Clowney is the clear third place behind Mack and Donald, but it would be fascinating to see what the market would say if all three were free agents. I think Donald would still be the clear cut No. 1, but Mack and Clowney play a more valued position, and I could see some teams viewing Clowney as a better asset going forward than Mack. I will say that Clowney picked the perfect season to play all 16 games, and he is going into negotiations fairly well armed. As players already in house go, Clowney's situation is clearly Gaine's first big project, and we will learn a lot about how Gaine philosophically handles big money extensions for existing Texans in his negotiations with Clowney.
2. Fill at least one huge need with a prime free agent
When it comes to available cap dollars for the Texans in free agency, the number that gets thrown around in conversations is "around $50 million." I would direct you to Texans Cap for a tremendous breakdown on what exactly the Texans have in their pockets to attack the free agent market, because there are a ton of little categories of spending we forget about (like setting aside money to replace injured players, grievances, etc.) —- it almost looks like a paystub where, say, gross pay of five grand becomes three grand because of FICA, Medicare, and the taxes. The real number, according to Texans Cap, is more like $29 million. If the Texans are going to use this cap space for help, I'm hoping they use it to focus on the secondary, either at corner or safety. I don't think there's a 2011 Johnathan Joseph out there at CB, but maybe you go for a marquee safety like Lamarcus Joyner and a second tier cornerback. Or maybe you move Kareem Jackson to safety and sign a couple B+ corners. The offensive line free agency class is kind of blah, so I'd rather go with in-house solutions and the draft to fix that position group. Speaking of....
1. Fix the offensive line
Truth be told, they will probably use at least some of that cap money on the offensive line in some fashion. The only guarantee on the 2018 line right now is that Nick Martin will be part of it. After that, all bets are off. I wouldn't have a problem with trying a "Greg Mancz at center, Nick Martin at guard" combo, as you might wind up getting more out of each player in those spots. In-house variables right now include Derek Newton's health, Julien Davenport's development, and a wild card like David Quessenberry or Kyle Fuller making a big leap this offseason. Gaine and his scouting department are going to need to scout the hell out of some prospective rookie tackles over the next two months, and figure out a way to parlay their three 2018 third round picks and that 2019 second rounder from the Duane Brown trade into AT LEAST a starting tackle. That's my prediction as to where and how they find a young tackle that we can feel good about. The positive elephant in the room in any offensive line discussion is the return of Deshaun Watson, whose skills should make a C- group (which would be a massive upgrade from last year's F- group) look like a B- or B.
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