Back in the day, when I used to have oodles and oodles of idle time on my hands during prime game-show watching hours (that's code for "back in college"), Wheel of Fortune was a staple of my game-show dance card. (For the record, Tic Tac Dough, Joker's Wild and The Price Is Right -- the Sopranos of game shows -- were also on the agenda.)
While it was always comical to watch seemingly literate adults play glorified Hangman and the emotional swing of the occasional "BANKRUPT" spin brought many a seminal moment, I was always intrigued by the shopping spree at the end. (Kids, back in the day, when Wheel of Fortune was still awesome, you could spend your prize money on gifts right there in the studio!)
Would the winner splurge on one big gift, or would they spread it out trying to attain the value of multiple pretty good gifts? Riveting stuff.
NFL free agency starts Tuesday afternoon at 3 p.m. local time, and the easiest thing to equate it to, for me, is old school Wheel of Fortune.
The currency is cap space (and, to a lesser extent, draft picks to fill in holes free agency didn't), and the prizes are players.
So with that in mind, let's take a gander at our Houston Texans as they begin this year's Wheel of Fortune style foray into free agency.
(SIDE BAR I: If you had to pick one Texans player to represent the team on Wheel of Fortune who would it be? I think for "maximizing winnings" purposes I'd take Chris Myers, for "entertainment" purposes I'd take Antonio Smith, and as a fail safe I'll put J.J. Watt as my wild card based on the fact that he is a superhero and destroys at everything.)
(SIDE BAR II: How intriguing would Gary Kubiak be on WOF? Any chance at all that he ever pushes the envelope and tries to keep spinning and picking off letters even after the answer to the puzzle becomes obvious? None, right? Would anyone be more petrified of the BANKRUPT slice of the wheel than Kubes? This needs to happen.)
CURRENCY PROFILE As of this typing, here are the financial weapons the Texans have to go to battle with as they try and go shopping. My subjective assessment, they have the Wheel of Fortune bankroll-equivalent of a person who got in on the back end of a mostly finished puzzle and scooped like the last three letters, like this guy:
Salary Cap Space (as of 3/12/13): $10,342,693 **
(** UPDATED to reflect the release of Kevin Walter)
1st rd (27) 2nd rd (57) 3rd rd (89) 4th rd (121) 5th rd (153) 6th rd (185) 7th rd (217)
** NOTE: The Texans have yet to find out what additional compensatory picks they will receive for losing 2012 free agents like Mario Williams, Mike Brisiel, etc. Consensus seems to be they will get an additional third round pick (Williams), and a handful of sixth round picks. The compensatory picks cannot be traded.
PRIME RESTRUCTURE/PAY CUT CANDIDATES If you have any desire to see the Texans a) re-sign any of their own primary free agents (mostly Glover Quin), b) improve in any substantial way via free agency, or c) take care of some of their 2014 retention early (oh hi, Brian Cushing...), then chances are there will need to be some restructuring of current Texan contracts, either by turning some 2013 salary into bonus money and thereby mitigating cap ramifications by spreading that money out over future years (players LOVE this!), or from literally reducing pay or outright cutting players (players HATE this!).
Keep in mind that all the "restructuring via bonus money" option does is push off cap obligations to future years. Every real dollar that goes out the door will be counted against the cap at some point, this year or in the future.
Here are your prime candidates to see some sort of amendment to their existing contract (in no particular order):
7. ANDRE JOHNSON 2013 Base Salary: $9,500,000 2013 Cap Figure: $14,652,918 Signed through: 2016 (4 years remaining) It's practically inherent that the highest paid player on a team, particularly one with so many years remaining on his existing deal, is at least a candidate for discussion of restructuring. Andre has already redone his deal a couple times, and with four years left, could they open up four or five million dollars by turning a chunk of his 2013 salary into bonus money? Sure. But Dre's cap numbers (and base salary numbers) are so ridiculous in 2015 and 2016 (a time when his deal will almost need to inevitably be reworked with a straight pay cut), how much of a salary cap time bomb are you creating by going "credit card" on this particular player?
6. JOHNATHAN JOSEPH 2013 Base Salary: $7,500,000 2013 Cap Figure: $11,250,000 Signed Through: 2015 (3 years remaining) Big money guy who's redone his deal before. Again, like Andre, the numbers will always make him a talking point on something like this.
5. ANTONIO SMITH 2013 Base Salary: $6,000,000 2013 Cap Figure: $9,500,000 Signed Through: 2013 (1 year remaining) Smith is one guy who has been constantly bandied about this offseason as a restructuring candidate, and with free agency looming for him next season, the time may be right to get the productive defensive end signed onto a dual purpose (cap relief/lock him up) extension anyway.
4. OWEN DANIELS 2013 Base Salary: $4,000,000 2013 Cap Figure: $5,750,000 Signed Through: 2014 (2 years remaining) I really like Owen Daniels, but I think there are legitimate questions over how to view his contract. Is he a restructuring candidate? Absolutely. Is he a candidate to be asked to take a pay cut? I don't think so, but is it totally out of the question? Cutting him outright would result in a $3.5 million cap hit, and therefore a $2,250,000 cap savings. Garrett Graham is signed through this season at a very reasonable cap number of $750,025 (although his concussions and injuries have to be a concern). I doubt OD taking a pay cut happens, I really doubt they'd cut him outright to safe a few bucks, but who saw Eric Winston's getting cut coming last offseason?
3. KEVIN WALTER 2013 Base Salary: $3,500,000 2013 Cap Figure: $4,500,000 Signed Through: 2014 (2 years remaining) No chance that Walter is back at a cap figure of $4,500,000 and with a dead money cap hit of $2,000,000 there's a decent chance that Walter has played his last down as a Texan.
(UPDATE -- As of 12:35 p.m. Tuesday, as alluded to as a likelihood above, Kevin Walter was released by the Texans, freeing up $2.5 million in cap space and freeing Walter up to sign with any other team in the league.)
2. DANIEAL MANNING 2013 Base Salary: $4,000,000 2013 Cap Figure: $5,500,000 Signed Through: 2014 (2 years remaining) Like Owen Daniels, another coin flipper candidate, especially if they bring back Glover Quin on a new deal. I'm guessing Quin's return is a needle mover on Manning's status in some fashion in that if he comes back, Manning may need to restructure or on an outside chance he could be let go ($3,000,000 cap hit versus $5,500,000 cap figure to keep him in 2013), and if Quin leaves can you imagine the Texans having to replace both safeties? I can't. Quin unwittingly is holding the cards on his safety-mate.
1. WADE SMITH 2013 Base Salary: $3,000,000 2013 Cap Figure: $3,750,000 Signed Through: 2013 (1 year remaining) Smith's relatively paltry $750,000 cap hit for cutting him versus his relatively hefty $3,750,000 make him a prime candidate for something (restructure, pay cut, release). I'd have a hard time seeing the Texans just let Smith go after all of the issues on the right side of the line last season (not to mention Smith was pretty good last season), but on a pure numbers basis, Smith represents the easiest $3,000,000 in cap space to open up on the roster if jerking around with current players becomes necessary.
SHOPPING LIST Going through the Texans current list of players signed for 2013 (and just as importantly, 2012 Texans NOT signed for 2013), and based on playing time last season, here are the positions currently on the Texans shopping list, either through free agency retention, new free agents, or eventually the NFL Draft (2012 primary Texan at that position in parentheses): 8. Safety (Quin) Quite simply, the Texans' highest priority on the free agency board -- re-signing Glover Quin.
7. Outside linebacker (Barwin) Lots of moving pieces here -- the development of Whitney Mercilus, the possible move inside for Brooks Reed, the perceived worth of Barwin, the possibility of drafting this position again. If Barwin comes back, it'll be on a short-term deal because he wants to be here and thinks he can regain his 2011 form. If someone is willing to pay more than that, and Barwin wants to go, he will go.
6. Wide receiver not named Andre (Walter, Jean, Posey, Martin) Unlikely to be filled in free agency in any meaningful way. More likely a draft thing.
5. Fullback (Casey) The only way Casey is back is if he takes fullback money, and I think someone will pay him as a tight end. Variable in this equation is the aforementioned treatment of Owen Daniels' contract. If you could do a Graham/Casey tight end tandem for, say, $2 million less in cap hit in 2013 than Daniels/Graham, would you do it?
4. Nose tackle (Cody) Cody's back issues are troublesome, and I think Earl Mitchell is ready to eat more on his plate. I will miss Cody's hilarious "On The Nose" videos on Texans TV, though. That alone made him a relative bargain.
3. Nickel cornerback (McCain) McCain is an underrated important re-signing for this team, assuming he's healthy. Do you want a full season of Brandon Harris, nickel corner?
2. Punter (D. Jones) Jones was one of the bright spots on a dismal special teams unit last season. I'm good with him coming back at the right price or Shane Lechler taking a hometown deal.
1. Cheaper options for guys who may get cut loose in a cap-triggered purge We will have to wait and see who this entails, if anybody.
So there you have it. Now let's watch Gary Kubiak and Rick Smith, cash in hand, go shopping. And let's hope that they don't become a Wheel of Fortune cautionary tale, like this poor gal....
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 Yahoo! Sports Radio from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays and nationally on the Yahoo! Sports Radio network Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon CST. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.
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