Houston Texans Offseason Previewby Jonas Clark March 3, 2021 1 comment
The Houston Texans quickly went from being a near perennial playoff contender to revealing an actual foundation as stable as a house of cards. Bill O’Brien will be remembered as the captain that went down with his own Titanic. He steered a roster flush with some of the most talented players in the NFL right into an iceberg that wasn’t even there.
Houston didn’t have much of a choice but to fire O’Brien, but it did little to help things. In December, J.J. Watt called out his teammates’ effort in a postgame interview following a loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. After finishing the season 4-12, Deshaun Watson voiced displeasure with the direction of the franchise, and requested a trade. Thanks to a no-trade clause that was part of the contract Watson signed under O’Brien, the Texans have almost no control in where they can trade him.
With a new front office and a disgruntled franchise quarterback, change was on the horizon for Houston this offseason. En lieu of this, Watt piled on and requested for a trade, but was later granted a release. The team is reluctant to do anything toward moving Watson, making managing free agency that much more difficult.
Pending Free Agents
The Texans have a large number of free agents, and not a lot of money to go around. One of the areas of importance this offseason is the cornerback position, with a pair of starter-level players looking for new deals. The team has already released Josh McCown, Watt, Nick Martin, and Duke Johnson Jr. With a new management team, there’s no telling how interested they’ll be in retaining any players from the O’Brien era.
Will Fuller IV, Wide Receiver
Fuller has had a problem staying on the field throughout his first five seasons. Often injured, he actually missed the end of the 2020 season due to suspension for a failed PED test. With the suspension, he will miss the 2021 season opener as well. Just 26 years-old, Fuller has shown a lot of promise. He has become a reliable downfield receiver, especially in Tim Kelly’s offense. Houston’s quarterback question, however, is likely to impact the receiver’s interest in coming back.
Gareon Conley, Cornerback
A young player with a bit of baggage, Conley has only played two seasons’ worth of football across his first four years in the league. He spent the entire 2020 season on the injured reserve list for the Texans. A solid pass-defender when on-field, Conley had his best season in 2018 with the, now Las Vegas Raiders. That season he intercepted three passes and recorded 15 defended passes. Now that his ankle has had the entire season to heal, there are still question marks about his durability. However, new defensive coordinator Lovie Smith could surely use his talent in the secondary, if the front office can get him at the right value.
Vernon Hargreaves III, Cornerback
After dealing with injuries early in his career, Hargreaves has seen the field consistently the last two seasons. He played 15 and 16 games in 2019 and 2020 respectively, including 88.6 percent of defensive snaps in 2020. It’s a good thing that he’s remained healthy, but since he’s been on the field, the former top-15 pick has been a disappointment. Opposing passers are completing 69.6 percent of their passes and have a quarterback rating of 107.3 when throwing his way since 2018. Unless he’s willing to sign for super cheap, the Houston Texans likely aren’t interested in bringing him back.
Tyrell Adams, Linebacker
Adams played 73.4 percent of snaps in 2020 for the Texans, and the team would surely like to decrease that number a lot. Adams easily played the most games in a season throughout his career last year, appearing in all 16 games while starting 12 of them. Not much of a pressure generator, Adams recorded two sacks. In pass defense, he struggled greatly, with passers completing 78.7 percent of their attempts when targeting him. A sure tackler, the odds are high that he returns to Houston on special teams.
Potential Cap Casualties
Nick Caserio has a tall task ahead of him to try and replace the talent that O’Brien traded away along with the Texans’ valuable draft capital. Just having DeAndre Hopkins still would potentially make the Fuller question easier to answer, even if trading the receiver had netted a first-round pick or two.
Because the Texans have just $16 million in cap space, it wouldn’t be too far out there for the team to continue to cut players. As previously mentioned, management has already released three starters from last season’s team. If Caserio sees this situation as a rebuild, there’s still a lot more talent that can be trimmed.
Darren Fells, TE ($2.3 Million Saved)
Without a pick until the third round, the Texans will need to scrape together what money they can to repair the damage done by O’Brien’s old deals. At 36 years-old, releasing Fells could save the team $2 million in cap space this season. The move would also clear up a roster spot for someone younger.
Keke Coutee, WR ($920K Saved)
Another casualty of cleansing the organization of the old regime, Coutee could be a cap casualty less for the money and more for the extra roster spot. Coutee’s stats did see an uptick last season, where he saw his stats increase across the board, showing the former fourth-rounder has potential yet. The unfortunate part for Coutee is that he hasn’t been able to stay healthy, playing just 23 games across three seasons. A free agent after the 2021 season, Coutee may be saved because his cost is so low for his production.
Open Market Free Agent Targets
A number of positions are soon to be reduced to a player or two on the depth chart, or zero as in the case of left guard. That said, the Texans would like to be active in free agency. With just $16 million in cap space to spend, the players acquired may not be the biggest. That doesn’t mean, however, that the team won’t try to splash a little, especially if they clear more room.
Allen Robinson, WR, Chicago Bears
Despite throwing to Brandin Cooks, Randall Cobb, Coutee, and Fuller, Watson still completed 70 percent of his passes to lead the league with 4,823 yards, 33 touchdowns, and just seven interceptions. Watson showed that he’s more than the cast around him, but to add Robinson to his arsenal would be huge. Of course, that all comes at a price.
Corey Linsley, C, Green Bay Packers
What Watson accomplished statistically while being sacked 49 times is respectable. The fact that he still started all 16 games is amazing. If the team wants to repair the relationship, protecting Watson’s body might be a good place to start. After releasing Martin in February to clear up cap space, going after Linsley is a step in the right direction.
Leonard Williams, IDL, New York Giants
WithWatt’s release, the Texans not only lost a captain and a staple of the franchise, but they officially lost their defensive identity. Fortunately for them, Williams is available to fill that gap, literally and physically. After moving inside on the defensive front last season with the Giants, Williams recorded 11.5 sacks. That’s 4.5 more sacks than his previous career-high. Williams would be a great addition for a Texans defense that ranked at or near the bottom of the league in every category. The team would likely need to clear more cap space.
Aldon Smith, EDGE, Dallas Cowboys
A defensive identity doesn’t have to come through free agency for the Texans, and great help can be found in-state by making a pass at Smith. After being out of the league for multiple seasons due to suspension, Smith returned on a small contract with the Cowboys. He had a productive season, despite the Dallas’ defensive struggles, and could look for a raise. His five sacks match Watt’s total from 2020.
Denzelle Good, LG, Las Vegas Raiders
As it currently stands, the Houston Texans don’t have a left guard on the roster. The position is fillable through the draft, especially if the rookie is between Laremy Tunsil and Linsley. Instead of relying on a rookie, Good would be a decent fit, and the team can still draft a guard. Good was a primary starter in 2020 for the Raiders’ offensive line that helped got Josh Jacobs to a Pro-Bowl selection.
Previewing the Draft
When O’Brien started trading away talent the last few years, the returns that he got were what confounded analysts more than anything. In 2019, Jadeveon Clowney was traded for a third-round pick and some players of decent former top picks that were under-performing. Then O’Brien traded Houston’s first-round picks in 2020 and 2021, as well as this year’s second-round pick and a couple of players, for Kenny Stills and Tunsil. Finally, O’Brien traded Hopkins and a fourth-round pick in 2020 for Johnson, a second-round pick in 2020, and a fourth-round pick in this upcoming draft. Without a pick in the first or second round of the 2021 NFL Draft, the Texans may try to trade picks and/or players to have a shot at the better prospects.
Round 3, Pick 67: Wide Receiver
Whether the Texans sign a free agent, re-sign Fuller, or do neither, the team is going to need to start building depth at wide receiver. Receivers that are around in the third round aren’t usually expected to be impact players. With the amount of talent at the position early on, however, there could be a sleeper or two when the Texans make their first pick.
Early 2021 Expectations
The expectations for the Texans rely entirely on how the situation resolves with Watson. Assuming that the team continues to hold its current position, Watson will be with the team for 2021. Further assuming that Watson plays, this team really isn’t as bad as it may seem. To make another assumption, that the play calling will remain with Kelly, the offensive production should be the same or better. That could further be aided by some free agency moves on offense. Of course, that’s reliant on a lot of assumptions. They could just as easily be picking in the top 10 in the 2022 NFL Draft. At least they’ll have their first-round pick then.