If the outset of NFL free agency is a fire hose, then we are most certainly down to the point in the free agency calendar where the faucet has been turned off, and all we are seeing, hearing, and feeling are small droplets from the free agency hose.
And while some teams got soaking wet in the free agency fire hose, the Texans, by and large, handled free agency like they had five umbrellas and a plastic slicker on. They caught a few drops, but still nearly their entire wardrobe is dry and intact. (That's a metaphoric way of saying they still have a BLEEP ton of salary cap space.)
So now, barring a lower level signing here and there, we wait for the NFL Draft to get here on April 25, the night when the Texans will presumably tab their left tackle or cover cornerback of the future. As we wait for the next three weeks to tick away, here are the most pressing questions around the Texans right now:
Are the Texans a better football team now than they were on March 13?
In the end, this is what really matters — are the Texans moving in the right direction? If you look at each of their individual moves in free agency, I think you can make an argument that each of them marks some level of improvement. Swapping out Tyrann Mathieu and KareemJackson for a total of $25 million per year, and swapping in Tashaun Gipson and Bradley Roby for a total of $17 million per year makes sense. I'd be really worried about the implications of having Mathieu on this roster as the highest paid safety in football. Darren Fells should supplant Ryan Griffin as the third tight end. That's good. A.J. McCarron is an upgrade over Brandon Weeden at backup quarterback. The thought of Matt Kalil for 16 starts at left tackle is slightly less terrifying than the thought of Julien Davenport back there again, so I GUESS that's improvement? Anyway, the moves all make sense, but their collective impact doesn't change my concern level that this coming season feels more like 8-8 than 12-4 right now.
Has Brian Gaine placed a big, fat target on himself?
So as we sit there with over $36 million in cap space and with some glaring needs still existing on this roster, there can be no doubt — Brian Gaine is the Texans employee who is under the most pressure right now, and quite honestly, he has chosen the route that's created this pressure by eschewing free agency. The fact of the matter is that Gaine's approach, valuing the draft exponentially over free agency, is probably the right way to approach roster building, but it's the method that creates the most angst in March. If Gaine's first draft in 2018 is any indication (Justin Reid, Keke Coutee, the two rookie tight ends), then we should be excited for the upcoming 2019 draft, in which the Texans have four of the top 86 selections.
Why are they hoarding all this cap space?
As of this typing, the Texans have around $36 million in cap space, according to Spotrac. As highlighted earlier, Gaine's frugality in free agency has been a source of much frustration for Texans fans, but with the Texans having the ability to carry the unused cap space into 2020, fans need to understand the potential shopping list and internal contractual to-do items next offseason:
1. Extensions for DT D.J. Reader and C Nick Martin
2. OLB Whitney Mercilus hitting free agency
3. Long-term extensions for OLB/DE Jadeveon Clowney (assuming he plays on the franchise tag this season)
4. WR Will Fuller's fifth year option (or long-term extension)
5. Retaining CB Bradley Roby, if he turns out to be good
6. A possible rework/extension for DE J.J. Watt
7. Usual upgrading of the roster
I get people's frustration, but there is a big picture at work here that needs to, at least, be acknowledged.
How healthy are the walking wounded?
Say what you will about free agency and the upcoming draft, but the biggest reinforcements for the Texans, at least on the offensive side of the football, will likely come from the trainer's room. Will Fuller will be coming back from a torn ACL suffered in Week 8 against the Dolphins. All reports are good on Fuller, and that's a great thing, what with his efficient, explosive connection with Deshaun Watson (11 touchdowns in 11 games together, 147.2 passer rating when Watson targets Fuller). Keke Coutee showed in limited action (damn you, hamstring!) that he can be the slot receiver that this franchise has never had, including two 11 catch games again the Indianapolis Colts. Finally, all reports on D'Onta Foreman, who came back (sort of) late in the season for a few touches after rehabbing a torn Achilles, are that he is in phenomenal shape and ready to be part of a two-headed RB situation with Lamar Miller. I think the one thing we can all agree on health-wise — we don't miss the J.J. Watt and Deshaun Watson injury rehab "best pals" video series.
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