Of the three major sports that we have here in Houston, the NFL is the one that does the offseason the best, and the Houston Texans are easily the team in whose offseason fans are most interested. It helps that, this offseason, general manager Brian Gaine has a first and two second round picks with which to work (after having none of either of those things last year), as well as almost $80 million in salary cap space to spend.
A big chunk of cap space is expected to be occupied by Jadeveon Clowney, possibly through a long term extension, but more likely with a one year franchise tag designation for around $18 million. And thus begins the first REAL period of the offseason — starting tomorrow, and for the next two weeks thereafter, teams can designate ONE of their own pending free agents with a franchise tag or transition tag.
For a refresher on what exactly that means, here you go:
Non-exclusive tags are most commonly used. It means a team will pay the tagged player no less than the average of the five highest salaries at the player’s position, or 120 percent of the player’s cap number from the previous season, whichever is greater. The player is allowed to negotiate with other teams, but his current team can match any offer sheet. If a player's current team declines to match another team's offer, it will be awarded two first-round draft picks as compensation.
Exclusive tags are more rare. Only Broncos linebacker Von Miller (2016) and Saints quarterback Drew Brees (2012) have received the exclusive tag since 2012. The salary is calculated the same for players issued non-exclusive tags. The only difference is that the tagged player cannot negotiate with other teams.
Transition tags pay a player the average of the 10 highest-paid players at his position. A tagged player is allowed to negotiate with other teams. The player’s current team can match any offer given to a transition-tagged player, but the team will not be given compensation if it decides not to match.
One thing worth noting — while the franchise and transition tags each have a designated amount dictated by math, the franchise tag is actually the higher of the designated amount OR a 20 percent raise over the previous year's salary. That's relevant for, say, DeMarcus Lawrence, who played on the tag last season.
As a Houston Texans fan, here are the six players whose tag cases are most interesting:
Le'VEON BELL, RB, PIT
Over the last two weeks, speculating on Bell as a Texan has turned into its own sport, with multiple national pundits slotting Bell as a free agency pickup for Gaine and company. I don't see it happening, as the scuttlebutt on Bell doesn't line up ideally with O'Brien's "good guy, good teammate" mantra, and big free agency money on a running back doesn't feel like the chess Gaine move, although to be fair, we've only had one Gaine offseason so far. My opinion — I wouldn't sign Bell, if I were Gaine, but as a radio host in town, it'd be AMAZING from a content standpoint, if the Texans did decide to bring him in. In the end, it feels like splurging on a franchise RB with this putrid offensive line is like building a home theater, while having no running water.
DEMARCUS LAWRENCE, DE, DAL
Lawrence played last season on the franchise tag, so if the Cowboys want to tag him again, they're going to pay through the nose. Still, the talk out of Dallas is that the Cowboys are ready to do that again. Any situation involving a Pro Bowl defensive end or "double digit sack guy" (which Clowney cannot say he has ever been) should be of interest to Texans fans, as that would impact the market for Clowney's ultimate extension, which will come someday (just probably not 2019). So while we're on this....
DEE FORD, OLB, KC
....Ford is another one. In his fifth season, Ford made a Pro Bowl and had 13 sacks for a Chiefs defense that was not very good, and survived on big plays from Ford and forced turnovers. The one thing Ford has in common with Clowney: a proclivity to line up offsides in really unfortunate situations. If Ford had lined up onside on what would have been a Tom Brady interception in the AFC title game, the Chiefs would have been in the Super Bowl.
LANDON COLLINS, S, NYG
The Texans are presumably trying to bring back one (or both) of safeties Tyrann Mathieu and Kareem Jackson. I would expect them to bring back one of them, likely Mathieu, but if they don't, Collins would be a fun player with whom to backfill. I think the Texans FINALLY have a general manager that realizes the importance of good safety play, and won't be treating that as a dumping ground for low salary, shortcut guys.
DONOVAN SMITH, T, TB
The Texans need a left tackle, like human begging need oxygen. Julien Davenport was statistically and aesthetically the worst left tackle in the league last season, leading all left tackles in penalties and pressures allowed. Smith is a guy O'Brien knows a little bit, having coached him at Penn State back in 2012 and 2013. Filling left tackle WELL in free agency is nearly impossible, as good left tackles hit the market only slightly more frequently than quarterbacks, but if Tampa Bay decides to let Smith hit the market, the Texans may pounce.
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JADEVEON CLOWNEY, DE, HOU
Then there's Clowney, who almost assuredly will get hit with a defensive end tag. We will be digging more into this as the days go on, but the latest rumors and innuendo related to Clowney come from Peter King of NBC Sports, in his Monday column:
1. I think, as usual, what appears to be a lucrative free-agent market with a ton of money to spend will be denuded soon after the ability to tag players begins Tuesday. Pass-rushers like Frank Clark (Seattle), Dee Ford (Kansas City) and DeMarcus Lawrence (Dallas) are very likely to get franchise-tagged. Houston is likely to do the same with the super-talented Jadeveon Clowney entering his sixth NFL season (he’ll play 2019 at the young age of 26), but I’m skeptical of the Texans reaching a long-term deal with him because he’s not the worker bee some others on that defense are. But that could change. Clowney is very productive, and if he stays that way making a million a game on the tag in 2019, Houston could change its tune.
Buckle up, it's gonna be a bumpy one!