So, here we are, one day into the two-week period during which NFL teams can place the franchise tag on one (and ONLY one) of their free agents, and in Houston, the anticipation grows — when will the Texans place their franchise tag on defensive end Jadeveon Clowney?
Once it inevitably happens, this would only be the second time that the Texans have been down the franchise tag road. Back in the 2009 offseason, the team used the tag for the first and only time on cornerback Dunta Robinson. For the record, that tagging went over like a fart in church with Robinson, who's probably best remembered by Texan fans for his defiant scribbling of "Pay Me, Rick" (targeted toward former Texans GM Rick Smith) on the heels of his shoes. Good times!
Whether the Robinson fiasco, and wanting to avoid anything similar again, has anything to do with the Texans adopting a "no franchise tag, extend players a year early" philosophy for the next decade or so, only people involved in those decisions really know. The fact of the matter is that, once Clowney is tagged, it will be just the second time the Texans have done it, with a full decade in between the two, and ironically, with two South Carolina Gamecocks being the tag targets (ironic, because South Carolina was the alma mater of the late Bob McNair, too).
This doesn't mean that eschewing the tag was always the right choice for the Texans. In fact, there are three times in recent history that I would say, with varying need for hindsight in each case, the Texans should have used the franchise tag as a means to extend a relationship with a departing free agent. It doesn't mean these are the only departures the team would like to have back, just that these are the three where a franchise tag, even with full hindsight, would have been reasonable. (In other words, yes, Brandon Brooks became a Pro Bowler, but a tag of $13.7 million in 2016, and the need for him to develop into a Pro Bowler as a Texan, not an Eagle, cross him off the list.)
Here are the three, including what would have been their one year tag figures, and the amount of hindsight needed to justify the decision (1 being nearly no hindsight, 10 being full hindsight):
3. MARIO WILLIAMS, DE/OLB, 2012
Franchise amount in 2012: $16.5 million
Hindsight needed (1 to 10): 9.4
Texan fans will roll their eyes at this one, and that's why the hindsight rating is nearly a 10. I get it. When hitting free agency after the 2011 season, Williams was coming off a season in which he played only five games because of a torn pectoral muscle. Despite his absence, the Texans finished the 2011 season as a top five defense, in part due to the pass rush generated by Williams' replacements, Connor Barwin (11.5 sacks) and Brooks Reed (6 sacks). (Crazy side bar — J.J. Watt, a rookie like Reed, finished 2011 with 5.5 sacks... yes, LESS than Brooks Reed had.) So, at the time, allowing Williams to walk for free agency riches in Buffalo — he became the highest paid defensive player in football — was logical. In retrospect, though, a one year franchise deal at $16.8 million (a 20 percent raise over Williams' 2011 salary), would have made sense, had you known Barwin (3 sacks) and Reed (2.5 sacks) would combine for fewer sacks than Reed HIMSELF had in 2011. Williams wound up with three straight double digit sack years from 2012 through 2014 in Buffalo, and two Pro Bowl berths. Williams, along with 2012 Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, would have been a superior combination in 2012 to even Watt and Clowney in 2018. Those with intimate knowledge of the Texans' cap situation in the 2012 offseason would protest that "Hey, they were strapped, so strapped they had to cut Eric Winston and promote a green-as-hell Derek Newton at right tackle!" True, but perhaps they could have (and should have) waited one more year, until the 2013 offseason, to extend Arian Foster.
2. GLOVER QUIN, S, 2013
Franchise amount in 2013: $6.8 million
Hindsight needed (1 to 10): 5.2
Yeah, this one hurts, not just because the Texans let Quin go, only to watch him turn into a Pro Bowler two seasons later in 2014, but because they backfilled his spot with the absurd signing of Ed Reed. We know that the signing of Reed was, ironically, as much about leadership as it was skill (Spoiler alert — Reed brought neither to Houston.), but if the Texans were fully sold on the potential of Quin becoming what he ultimately became in Detroit, they would have at least rode it out one more season with him at a reasonable $6.8 million price tag, which was just a couple million less than Reed stole from them for seven games worth of work.
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1. A.J. BOUYE, CB, 2017
Franchise amount in 2017: $14.2 million
Hindsight needed (1 to 10): 1.2
This was another strikeout looking by the Texans. Bouye was about as great a homegrown prospect story as you can find over the last five years, undrafted in 2013, and progressing through some trying times to become one of the top cornerbacks in the AFC. Bouye, coming off of his 2016 season, his last in Houston, was really the classic poster case for the franchise tag, which would have given an undrafted player life changing money and given the team one more season to make sure his progression was sustainable. Instead, the Texans decided to let Bouye walk (inside the division, no less!) and bank on Kevin Johnson living up to his first round billing. Bouye would up making the Pro Bowl as a Jaguar in 2017, and Johnson has more concussions than interceptions over the last two years.
Let's just say, in each of these cases, with all three of these players becoming Pro Bowlers elsewhere, the Texans chose poorly....