Cap Space as of today: Less than $5 million. (All monetary figures courtesy of Over The Cap.)
Unrestricted Free Agents (11): Andrew Gardner, Garrett Graham, Jarvis Green, Ryan Harris, Greg Jones, Elbert Mack, Joe Mays, Daryl Sharpton, Antonio Smith, Wade Smith, Ben Tate
I don’t think there is any doubt that Ben Tate is walking, both because of Houston’s salary cap situation and because they’ve already invested in Arian Foster. While I generally applaud the idea behind most of Houston’s moves over the past two years, they could not have handled Foster and Tate’s success any worse than they did in retrospect. Foster is a versatile, above-average back when he’s healthy. I don’t know how many backs you can say that about, but my guess is something under 15. In their rush to reward Foster for playing a good soldier with the NFL’s salary guidelines, they gave him a fair deal for the player he was at the time. The (well-documented) problem is that running backs often don’t stay the same, and now there is legitimate concern about Foster rebounding to that level after he missed most of last season. I wouldn’t want to be the team signing Tate anyway — I feel like his pure physical explosiveness overwhelms people to the fact that he’s a total non-factor as a pass-catcher (-60.6% DVOA on 49 passes) and that he has poor vision — but since your roster is ultimately about measuring production versus cap figures, it would have been interesting if the Texans used the two as more of a tandem than they did, so as to keep both of them from accumulating the kind of stats that would make them believe they were worthy of Foster’s deal.
Garrett Graham is an interesting case for me. Overall, he had brutal numbers. -21.3% DVOA was the second-worst among all tight ends. 55 percent catch rate was the lowest of any qualifying tight end besides Marcedes Lewis. But my hypothesis is just that he struggled with Case Keenum under center. From Week 7 on: -28.1% DVOA, 50 percent catch rate. He was at -4.9% DVOA and a 68 percent catch rate before Matt Schaub’s injury led to his benching. Keenum’s underneath game and checkdown ability were, to put it kindly, a work in progress. To put it realistically, they were abysmal. I think the latter figure is more of an estimate of Graham in a competent offense: a decent pass-catching No. 2 tight end that can be an adequate first option on a team with a stacked receiving corps. I’d like to see Houston try to lure him back, but I also wouldn’t go giving him more than two million a year out of desperation.
Antonio Smith had essentially the same season he’s been having ever since he’s hit Houston: somewhere between a second or third banana pass rusher, neutral-to-bad as a run defender when he doesn’t shoot a gap to disrupt the play. That’s a fine player to have next to J.J. Watt when your outside linebackers are providing pressure. When they aren’t … well, you get the 2013 Texans. I’m open to him coming back, despite his crazy-ass antics and tendency to pick up silly penalties, but I think he’d need to come at a discount to really interest me.
Wade Smith has been a step slow for two seasons now. It was really noticeable because in 2012, he was the one springing Tate and Foster with all those incredible blocks. So in a way, I feel like I’ve been hard on him. In another, more accurate way, he’s an average run-blocking guard that can’t pass-protect to save his life. And that’s not the kind of guard a rebuilding team holds on to unless he’s coming at the vet minimum.
The rest of the guys who saw actual time: Mays, Sharpton, Jones, and Harris, didn’t really do much in my book to eclipse “just a guy” status. And even that might be a step far for Sharpton, who is the least instinctive zone defending linebacker I’ve seen play for the Texans.
Restricted Free Agents (5): Bryan Braman, Lestar Jean, Deji Karim, Terrell McClain, Earl Mitchell
I don’t see much of value here. Braman is a solid special teamer. Earl Mitchell finished his fourth year of being ready to take a big leap (according to Gary Kubiak) by being nothing more than an effort guy with some good preseason tape. Assuming the original-round tender holds close to the $1.33 million it was last year, I think it’s an actual debate in both cases, and I’d try to haggle down from there.
Franchise Tag Candidates: None of the free agents on this team have the trade value or talent to merit it.
Release/Restructure Candidates: Owen Daniels ($4,500,000 saved against 2014 cap), Danieal Manning ($4,500,000), Matt Schaub ($3,625,000), Derek Newton ($1,389,000)
Daniels and Manning are the two most intriguing calls on this roster. Daniels has been a good — not great — tight end for a long time. Houston also has very little to offer in the way of established talent at the tight end spot right now outside of Ryan Griffin, since Graham is a free agent. But Daniels just can’t stay healthy — he’s missed games in each of the past five seasons, and he has finished exactly one of the last four seasons with a DVOA over 0.6%. Much as I’m a fan of his, I think they’d be justified in releasing him. Manning will turn 32 before camp starts, missed most of last season with a fractured fibula, and didn’t exactly set the world on fire when he was healthy last season. I think the argument for keeping him goes something along the lines of “look at the current safety depth chart and despair.” I’ll appreciate him being one of the two credible safeties the Texans have ever employed, but I think you can argue the window is closing on that and I wouldn’t be disappointed if he was chopped.
Matt Schaub is only a candidate because it hasn’t happened yet. What Gary Kubiak did with him last year has made him toxic to the area. I feel bad for him to the extent I can feel bad for anyone who is dealing with the fact that he’s no longer qualified for his job, but he’s gotta go.
I don’t actually think Derek Newton will get cut, but I don’t think the Texans could find much worse ways to spend $1.4 million. When the hope coming into the offseason is that an injured draft pick from last year (Brennan Williams) can make a player irrelevant, that’s a pretty sure sign said player should consider himself lucky to have played as much as he did.
Overview: I think the Texans are in for another offseason of austerity.
Even if they do free up money from the Daniels/Manning/Schaub triumvirate, they just have too many holes to fill to make a splashy signing. Quarterback, tight end, left guard, right tackle, defensive end, outside linebacker, inside linebacker, nickelback, safety. It’s a pretty daunting list even before you realize they’ll have to clear up the money to sign J.J. Watt long-term at some point in the near future. Johnathan Joseph, Chris Myers, and Arian Foster are definitely not locked in past this season — and I wouldn’t even be totally surprised to see Joseph cut this offseason, though I wouldn’t do it. The Brian Cushing contract is probably here for the long haul, as it provides actual cap hits rather than savings until 2016. Duane Brown is going to be here for awhile, and there’s no use in predicting decline for Andre Johnson because Andre Johnson will keep being Andre Johnson for all of his remaining days.
The rest of this roster feels totally up for grabs. And the worst part about that is that outside of Watt and Kareem Jackson, nobody has really stepped up and proven themselves worthy of any sort of extension at this point. The Texans are riding a long streak of missed mid-round picks (Brandon Harris, Brooks Reed, DeVier Posey, Sam Montgomery) back to the middle of the pack. Brandon Brooks looks like he could be a solid starter, and it’s too early to be completely down on D.J. Swearinger, but where other teams have found stars or foundational players, the Texans have only come up with back-of-the-roster fodder. As much as I feel like Rick Smith has drafted better than those picks for the most part, a bad result is still a bad result. This roster is a bad result. I think the coaches earned more than their share of the grief for last season, but this is hardly a roster that is capable of a 12-win quick-fix barring a superstar No. 1 quarterback selection and an easy schedule.
(But … that could very well be what happens.)