Here is the crux of a discussion that ensued on last Friday's edition of my radio show "The Triple Threat" (weekdays, 2 to 6 p.m. on SportsRadio 610) between me and Ted Johnson — if there were a way to quantify good feelings about a city's sports teams, would Houston have the highest score of any American city right now?
The Astros are the defending World Series champions, so it's impossible to score higher on their emotional scale. The Rockets are, by record, the best team in the NBA this season and have beaten the Warriors twice, pretty good there. What about the Texans? Yeah, they went 4-12, but Deshaun Watson has infused much of the fan base with optimism for 2018, pointing the Texans' arrow up overall. Hell, add in the Dynamo, too, as they come off a season of high-scoring overachievement in 2017.
However, Ted and I both conceded that this is a gigantic week coming up for the Texans, specifically for new general manager Brian Gaine. The Watson-fueled optimism should be there in some quantity heading into minicamp and OTA's, but the only thing that can douse it would be a poor showing in free agency and the draft. With no picks until the third round of the draft, the Texans' path to fixing, at least partially, the roster is through free agency, which happens to begin (looking down at the date on my phone) — oh, TODAY!
This is a huge week for Brian Gaine, as he goes shopping with one of the biggest bankrolls of salary cap space in the NFL, a top six or seven bankroll, for sure. So as the period in which teams can begin phoning agents of free agents from other teams starts this morning at 11 a.m. local time, what are the key questions surrounding the Texans these next few days? (Note: Actual signing, pen to paper, of other teams' free agents can begin this Wednesday afternoon at 3 p.m.)
5. What do the Texans do with their own free agents, once other teams can start talking to them?
We covered this in fairly extensive detail a week or so ago, but a few things have changed since I gave out odds on each of the Texans' 16 unrestricted free agents returning to the team. One of the 16, punter Shane Lechler, as we all suspected, is being brought back on a ridiculously inexpensive one year, $2 million deal. (Seriously, someday this team will have to replace Lechler and it will be harder and more expensive than you think.) The others that I suspected would be back were CB Johnathan Joseph, S Marcus Gilchrist, and WR Bruce Ellington. Of those three, the only one whose situation may have changed slightly is Joseph's. The Panthers moved CB Daryl Worley to the Eagles last week in a trade, opening a depth chart spot for a cornerback. The Panthers are as close to a "hometown team" as the native South Carolinian Joseph would have, so there is competition for the Texans, who are believed to want to bring Joseph back. Beyond that, I'd be anywhere from mildly surprised to shocked to see anyone in the rest of the Texans' unrestricted free agent list return. (NOTE: The Texans re-signed their exclusive rights free agents, S Corey Moore and DE/OLB Ufomba Kamalu, to one year, $630,000 deals last week, as well.)
4. Will the Texans get in on this Cleveland-fueled trade market at all?
Man, how crazy was this past Friday afternoon, with new Cleveland GM John Dorsey going all hyperactive-fantasy-owner in his continued rebuild of the Houston roster? If you weren't scoring at home, here is a summary of what he got done in 24 hours:
Browns’ 24-hour tally:— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 10, 2018
QB Tyrod Taylor
WR Jarvis Landry
CB Damarious Randall
Packers’ 4th- and 5th in 2018.
Patriots’ 3rd in 2019.
2018 3rd-round pick
QB Deshone Kizer
2018 4th- and 5th.
DT Danny Shelton
Add in the Aqib Talib trade from the night before, and the release of Richard Sherman, and the pre-free agency market was popping Friday! The number of top notch secondary players on the move had to frustrate Texan fans, especially because the draft capital being thrown around — a fifth round pick for Talib! — was VERY reasonable. However, with no first (we love you, Deshaun!) and no second round pick (screw you, Brock!) in the wallet this year, the Texans are likely hesitant to swap out anything that will get them cost-controlled rookies to supplement what is going to be an expensive core, especially expensive after Jadeveon Clowney gets paid.
3. Which headliners will the Texans actively pursue?
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. Graham and Lewis are sort of wildcards, with the potential to raise the ceiling of a Watson-led offense even higher.
2. Will they seek a new backup quarterback in free agency, and if so, whom?
They better! Two names that factions of Texans fans were eyeing are both going to be off the market — former Texan Ryan Fitzpatrick, who is expected to re-sign with Tampa Bay, and Tyrod Taylor, who was one of the gaggle of players traded to the Browns on Friday. The real variable now is how many teams with starting QB openings view the members of this free agent class as capable starters, and how many may just move on to drafted rookies, not wanting to get into a 2017 Mike Glennon or, worse, a 2016 Brock Osweiler situation. Names to keep an eye on this week, Texan fans —- Teddy Bridgewater, Josh McCown. Sam Bradford, A.J. McCarron, Matt Moore, and, yes, Case Keenum, to name a few. A few of those names will NOT be coming here as a backup, but they may take a chair in the starting QB musical chairs game that could force backup status onto another wannabe starter. And honestly, the biggest domino to affect all of these guys is Kirk Cousins and his decision. My ideal pick of this group? Keenum, if he gets squeezed by the market, then Bridgewater. I'd take Bradford, too, but I feel like some team will idiotically pay him again, Denver and Arizona being the most likely. IN short, if Cousins picks the Vikings, the Texans should do what it takes to get one of the three guys being forced out in Minnesota.
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?
If you listen to my radio show, you know where I stand on the "Bob McNair — is he a racist owner?" issue. I truly believe that if McNair had just properly articulated the analogy "inmates running the asylum," instead of his unfortunate malaprop "inmates running the prison," in that meeting with league officials and player reps, the whole McNair-generated brush fire that stormed through the league (and the Texans' locker room) back in October doesn't happen. I'm not trying to put words in the players' mouths as to how they feel about McNair — I have no idea how they felt before that quote became public — but I don 't think it becomes the public issue it became, with Texans players even protesting their owner's comments before their game that weekend.
Unfortunately, for McNair and the Texans, the issue arose again last week, with McNair doing nothing but sitting idly, as Jerome Solomon's article in the Houston Chronicle titled "Texans would miss out if they aren't interested in players who protested" cited the following:
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.
And then nebulously, and pretty recklessly, speculated the following:
There are many who believe if McNair could field a team with all-white, all-conforming all-pro talent, he would.
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Attributing a belief that an NFL owner would field an all-white team in a sport with 75 percent African American players to a cryptic "many" — basically using an anonymous faction of people to accuse McNair of having an out and out racist heart — is a pretty ballsy, irresponsible thing to do, especially considering McNair's hiring and retention practices (hello, Rick Smith) throughout the organization run contrary to what "many" believe.
But 2018 being what it is, there will be those now tracking the Texans' interest in pregame protesters, a list which ironically includes nearly the entire Texans' roster, the majority of whom, as I mentioned earlier, protested McNair's comments before the Seattle game on October 29. It's a list that also includes newly signed 49er CB Richard Sherman, whose whirlwind courtship apparently included interest from... wait for it, THE HOUSTON TEXANS, that according to Sherman himself.
Should be an interesting week around here, for sure.
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.