Thus far, the NFL's free agency period has been pretty quiet for the Houston Texans, too quiet for the fans' tastes, at least. They've signed safety Tashaun Gipson and cornerback Bradley Roby to replace the departed Tyrann Mathieu and Kareem Jackson. They signed cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun on Friday as some depth at that position. Other than that, activity has been sparse.
However, on Monday business picked up, with reports of three visitors to NRG Stadium, and report of interest in a free agent that could swing the Texans' offseason grade significantly at this early juncture. We will start with the one of the three visitors who actually signed on to be a Houston Texan in 2019, former Cleveland Browns tight end Darren Fells, who reportedly signed a one-year deal Monday afternoon.
Fells was released by the Browns earlier this month after they were unsuccessful trying to trade him to another team. Fells got a late start on a football career, having played basketball collegiately at UC-Irvine before switching to football and signing his first NFL contract with the Seahawks in 2013 at age 26. He made his first regular season experience with the Cardinals the next year, and has played in 70 games with Arizona, Detroit and Cleveland.
Fells' strength is as a blocker, a desperate need for the Texans out of the tight end position with rookies Jordan Akins and Jordan Thomas still learning in their rookie season in 2018, and with Ryan Griffin never really acclimating himself to blocking in the NFL. In fact, this move just might signal the end to Griffin's six year Texans career, as he has one year remaining on his current contract, with a cap savings of around $2.7 million and no dead money if the team were to cut him.
Fells will also help with pass protection, as his 72.9 pass-blocking grade in 2018 was 16.9 points higher than the best Texans' tight end. In fact, Fells has only posted a pass-blocking grade under 70 once in his five-year career.— PFF HOU Texans (@PFF_Texans) March 19, 2019
By the end of the season these two TE sets, usually with play-action, were super effective for CLE. Fells directs Suggs right into some trash, Mayfield has all day to throw. pic.twitter.com/QmezUlSrnZ— Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) March 19, 2019
The other two players to schedule visits to NRG Stadium on Monday were tackle Jordan Mills and quarterback A.J. McCarron. Mills' visit is the first visible attempt for the Texans to shore up the offensive tackle position in this class of free agents. He's been a three year starter in Buffalo, starting all 16 games in each season from 2016 through 2018. Texans GM Brian Gaine was on the personnel staff in Buffalo in 2017, which explains, in part, the familiarity and interest in Mills.
As for McCarron, he is probably best known for being the national title winning quarterback at Alabama back in 2012, at least that's the case if you ask Brent Musberger:
McCarron has had a few good moments in the NFL, as well, having started three games for the Bengals down the stretch in 2015, going 2-1 and nearly winning a playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. A year ago, McCarron signed a two-year contract with Buffalo — what's with all these former Buffalo guys? — but was traded to the Oakland Raiders before the start of the 2018 season. He spent 2018 backing up Derek Carr, and was released by the Raiders a few days ago.
McCarron would represent a noticeable upgrade over Brandon Weeden at the backup quarterback position for the Texans, and his visit to Houston is, at the very least, a tangible indicator that the Texans are looking to improve that spot on the roster. McCarron would be certainly in the upper half of backup quarterbacks in the league, and could likely win a game or two, if Deshaun Watson went down with a minor injury. (If Deshaun Watson goes down for the season, the Texans are probably screwed, regardless of who the backup may be.)
Finally, according to Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle , the Texans are among the teams showing interest in tackle Donald Penn, who, like McCarron, was recently released by the Raiders. Penn, who came into the league as an undrafted free agent in 2006, had been an ironman up until 2018, starting 158 of a possible 160 games from 2008 through 2017 for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Oakland Raiders. Unfortunately, a groin injury cut his 2018 season short, with Penn playing in just four games. Oakland's signing of Trent Brown to the richest contract for a tackle in league history made Penn expendable. Penn was a Pro Bowler for the Raiders in 2016 and 2017.
Penn will be 36 years old when the 2019 season begins, so any deal with the Texans (or any NFL team, for that matter) will likely be a short-term deal for one season, two at the most. Penn's signing with the Texans would provide two important facets — first, he would be a welcome veteran in an offensive line room that is still relatively inexperienced by NFL standard and second, Penn's presence would ease the transition for whatever tackle the Texans choose in the first or second round of the NFL Draft, preventing the texans from being forced to throw a rookie tackle into the grease before he's ready.
At this point, the Texans' offseason has been probably about a "C" grade, nothing special really. At this point, there may not be enough juice left in the market to get to an "A," however, if they're able to sign Penn, McCarron, and another veteran on the offensive side of the ball — RB, WR, or OL — then I think they can top out at a "B" or "B+".
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