Bill O'Brien and Jack Easterby, collectively as sort of a two-headed GM monster (sometimes a monster that works for good, and sometimes evil, if you ask Texans fans), have been urgently active over the last year, trying to put together a team that is seemingly designed to TRY to win in 2020, and then worry about subsequent seasons later.
Their salary cap is going to be snug, to say the least, once Deshaun Watson gets paid, and the 2021 NFL Draft is going to be quite uneventful until sometime deep (well, hopefully deep) into the third round, after trading their first and second round picks in the Laremy Tunsil trade. Getting value from the deals they've been doling out over the last season and the contracts they've been inheriting in trades is essential, if the team is to make a deep playoff run.
Here are five players, in particular, who must live up to their 2020 salary cap hits, in order for O'Brien to achieve his goals for this team:
WHITNEY MERCILUS, OLB
2020 SALARY CAP HIT: $12 million (12th among OLB's)
Mercilus has quietly become the longest tenured current Houston Texan, outside of J.J. Watt and Jon Weeks, and has had one of the longest Texan careers in the history of the franchise. He's done it through consistency and unselfishness. You know what you're getting with Whitney Mercilus. The problem is that now he is getting paid a salary that demands MORE than what we know we get with Whitney Mercilus.
The Texans are paying for the player who had 5.5 sacks before Watt went out with an injury halfway through last season, not the relatively invisible player who had two sacks the rest of the way. At 30 years old by the time the season arrives, it's tough to envision a massive leap for Mercilus, but he's only had one season marred by injury (2017), so he'll be out there trying to earn his $13.5 million per year, for better or worse.
DUKE JOHNSON, RB
2020 SALARY CAP HIT: $4.1 million (17th among RB's)
Part of the appeal of trading a conditional third round pick for Johnson before last season was actually his contract, which runs through 2021 with modest cap hits.... ASSUMING YOU ACTUALLY USE HIM. When Johnson got touches, he was very productive, averaging 4.9 yards per carry and almost 10 yards per catch. The problem is that he only had 44 catches, and I doubt that number goes up with the arrival of David Johnson. So why do I have Duke Johnson on this list? Well, for one, the running back position is going to be crucial for this team, and I just think it's a near impossibility that David Johnson lives up to his $11 million cap hit, so my focus shifted to Duke Johnson. Second, I'm not sure how reliable David Johnson is going to be, since it's been three full seasons since he was last productive. Duke Johnson is the next man up right now. At the very least, Duke Johnson needs to live up to his $4.1 million cap hit this year, or he won't see his $5.1 million cap hit in 2021.
LAREMY TUNSIL, LT
2020 SALARY CAP HIT: $14.1 million (7th among LT's)
You may be looking at Tunsil's cap hit for 2020 and saying "Wait, Sean, I thought he signed a $22 million extension this offseason. What gives?" Well, he did, but it was added onto his already existing contract for 2020 (around $10 million). So you crunch the numbers and you arrive at a very reasonable $14.1 million hit. That said, regardless of cap figure, Tunsil is protecting the most important athlete in the city of Houston, Deshaun Watson, so by definition, he belongs on this list. (NOTE: He will REALLY, REALLY belong on this list when his cap hits go to $19.4 million, $21.1 million, and $21.75 million for the next three seasons.
ERIC MURRAY, S
2020 SALARY CAP HIT: $4,390,625 (27th among safeties)
Justin Reid's third safety-mate in three seasons comes in from Cleveland as a relative unknown, having bounded from Kansas City to Cleveland in his first four seasons, before signing a three-year, $18 million deal with the Texans this offseason. There isn't a lot of high level depth in the secondary after Reid, Bradley Roby, and maybe Gareon Conley, so Murray's consistency as a regular in the secondary rotation will be crucial. His cap figure jumps a god but the next two seasons at $6.75 million for both 2021 and 2022. Murray should contribute on special teams, as well.
BRADLEY ROBY, CB
2020 SALARY CAP HIT: $9,312,500 (16th among CB's)
Speaking of Roby, I think it was a bit of a surprise to some that Roby decided to come back to the Texans on a three-year deal without really testing the free agency market. The deal was for just over $10 million per season, which is very reasonable if you're getting the 2019 version of Roby for a full season. Hamstring injuries pet him out of about six games. Roby is the clear cut No. 1 cornerback on this team, and like safety, cornerback is not a deep position. Right now, the Texans are one misstep from Phillip Gaines being thrust into the rotation.
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