February 14, 2005
The Way I See It…
by Keith Weiland
With the Pro Bowl out of our way, the NFL Combine and onset of the free agent signing period are both within the crosshairs in the coming weeks. Fun, fun, fun!
It is a blessed time to be football fan because it allows us to daydream about what changes lie ahead to our favorite team’s roster. (Okay, I may be a little different here… I’ll admit I play the Madden franchise mode on PS2 just to get to the offseason activities. Maybe there is a support group somewhere for people like me with this affliction.)
So, this lengthy article is going to spell out exactly how I would handle the upcoming offseason for the Texans, including both free agency and the college draft. Note that I don’t intend to predict the future here, but I am merely offering one humble opinion on how I would want reality to unfold for the Texans if I were running things at Reliant Park.
Oh, and I don’t postulate here in a vacuum… I’ll spell out the cap ramifications to my musings before we’re all done here so there’s no funny business.
Some reference material may be needed to keep up here, too. A couple weeks back, I pieced together an unofficial salary cap for the Texans. Contrary to popular belief, the Texans aren’t strapped for cap space, but they aren’t flush with it either. The Texans do have a large number of free agents (of all varieties), so that does give them (and me) ample flexibility to reshape the roster this offseason.
Also, there are a couple other points to bear in mind. I highlighted three key areas the team should focus on as they prepare for the offseason in my article after the Browns game. It would be negligent of me to ignore my own list here, so I won’t. In summary, the need areas are:
1. Pass protection
2. Pass rush
3. Offensive philosophy/gameplan
So let’s get going. Starting with free agency, there are three basic kinds everyone should know about: exclusive rights free agents (ERFA), restricted free agents (RFA), and unrestricted free agents (RFA). There is plenty of legalese to go with each definition that I don’t want to put here, but basically the ERFAs can only sign with their old team if tendered an offer, and the UFAs are free to sign with any team. The RFAs fall somewhere in between, with a sliding scale of compensation (i.e. future draft picks) if the old team tenders an offer and loses that player because they fail to match a competing offer from another team. More on this scenario in a bit.
The only notable ERFA that the Texans should tender an offer to is long snapper Bryan Pittman. They have a few other ERFAs that will also receive offers from the Texans, but most (and perhaps all) of them will have a hard time making the final roster cut this year. The ERFAs do have one big thing going for them though: they are dirt-cheap when it comes to the salary cap.
The Texans’ RFAs should all get tendered offers as well. As opposed to the ERFAs, however, I can see most of the RFAs sticking to the final roster. The one-year offers will be an estimated $656,000 apiece, and they’ll go to players such as FB Jarrod Baxter, OL Milford Brown, and RB Jonathan Wells. Should the Texans fail to match competing offers on any of these players, they will receive a draft pick equal to the round each was selected, which respective to the three listed above would be a fifth, sixth, and fourth rounder. Don’t worry, there won’t be any competing offers here.
There is one RFA, however, that I would consider tendering an offer at greater than the minimum. Cornerback Demarcus Faggins, a sixth round selection, could draw considerable interest from other teams. The Texans should play it safe and make him a first round tender. The salary owed to Faggins would be roughly double the RFA minimum (it was $1.368 million in 2004), but should any other team make an offer to Faggins for starter’s money, the Texans would get a first round pick in return as compensation for the loss. This move ensures that Faggins is around Reliant at least one more season.
The remaining free agents to discuss are all unrestricted as of March 2nd. The biggest name atop that list for the Texans is defensive tackle Seth Payne, one of the few remaining players from the expansion draft three years ago. The market for his services is unstable thanks to a recent string of injuries, including a torn knee ligament in 2003 and now a torn hamstring he suffered at the end of last season. While Payne is expected to make a recovery in time for training camp, his health has been put into serious question.
Payne’s heart, however, is never in question, which is why it is difficult for me to let him test the free agent waters and possibly lose him before making an offer. It is just too risky, especially since the Texans have already got an aging, oft-injured, high-dollar defensive lineman on the roster by the name of Gary Walker. If no one offers him big money, I’ll have some cap space to bring him back as a veteran reserve.
In Payne’s place, I’ll make a serious run for Jets free agent defensive tackle Jason Ferguson. At 6’3” and 305 pounds, Ferguson is a seven-year veteran that can be the two-gap player the Texans need on the defensive line to replace Payne. Transitioning to the Texans’ version of the 3-4 would be easier for him than it proved to be for last year’s big signing on the line, Robaire Smith, since the Jets play a hybrid of the 3-4 scheme.
The question here is how much Ferguson will fetch on the open market. Desirable free agents tend to receive offers for more than one might normally expect. There are very few bargains to be had. So, maybe Ferguson will get a five-year offer with a $6 million signing bonus? Just a guess. Since the earlier contract years tend to have smaller base salary figures than the later ones, I estimate Ferguson would have about a $1.9 million cap hit in 2005 with that kind of offer.
I would also let quarterback Tony Banks test the market before re-signing him. He was once a starter, and now he wants to be one again. Good luck with that.
Wide receiver Corey Bradford is another player that I would not re-sign for the same kind of contract he had previously. He’s also keeping younger players with more upside off the field if he stays. I imagine Bradford will get a better offer elsewhere.
While I like both free safety Marlon McCree and reserve cornerback Kenny Wright, I think both could receive better offers from other teams as well. The Texans will have other defensive backs they can develop in their place without much of a drop in production, if any.
I would make minimum or near-minimum offers to the remaining unrestricted free agents, including offensive lineman Marcus Spears, defensive linemen Jerry Deloach, Junior Ioane, and Corey Sears, linebacker DaShon Polk, defensive backs Jason Bell and Jason Simmons, and fullback Moran Norris. Aside from Norris, who will enter camp at the top of the depth chart at his position, the others will be left in a dogfight to keep their jobs this summer.
While the Texans do not openly intend to make a splash in free agency, there are a couple players in particular I would target to address my offseason priorities from above. Most importantly, to address the pass protection, if the Seahawks’ brickhouse Walter Jones is not franchise tagged, then I go after him with cash in hand.
Jones, who has been tagged by Seattle for almost the entire millennium, has previously demanded a huge multi-year salary with a reported $18 million signing bonus. The Seahawks, meanwhile, countered with bonus amounts reportedly ranging from $12-14 million. I offer to split the difference at $16 million. Don’t tell Jones’ agent, but I might even be willing to go up from there.
Crazy money, yes, but buying “Carr insurance" is like buying peace of mind. David Carr has suffered with a rookie at left tackle for two of his first three seasons, and while I expect that Seth Wand would show considerable improvement next season, I’m not willing to risk my star quarterback on it if I don’t have to. Spotty line play has not only been detrimental to the Texans offense putting up big points, it has retarded the development of the team’s greatest and most expensive asset. If Jones is available, then it would be foolish not to pursue him.
I would also include Rams left tackle Orlando Pace as a free agent target as well, but he has been slapped with the franchise tag before the Texans could ever get to him. While Pace may be available via trade, it would likely cost the Texans a first round pick to consummate the deal. That trade may be worth doing, but if Jones is a UFA, then I’m going after him first.
The final big free agent target I would pursue is another Jet, running back Lamont Jordan. As written in this space awhile back, the Texans have had both reported and rumored interest in Jordan previously.
Jordan addresses my concern over the team’s offensive philosophy. Rather than expect head coach Dom Capers to change his disposition, I am choosing to appease it with a runner capable of pairing with Domanick Davis to fashion a formidable one-two punch out of the backfield. Davis had a hot second half in 2004, but he was unable to prove his durability to carry the full 16-game load all by himself. Keep in mind, too, that Davis could be a RFA in 2006 and a UFA in 2007, and he may not be quite so affordable to keep around.
Jordan, at 5’10” and 230 pounds, is a power runner with good hands that is ideal for Capers’ pound-pound-dumpoff gameplan. While Jordan has been stuck behind a future Hall of Famer in Curtis Martin and has yet to be the starter, he will still command a nice sum by any team that pursues him next month. Fortunately, there is a glut of talented free agent running backs that could be hitting the open market though, so maybe it won’t take a premium to sign him. Make it a five-year contract for say, $20 million, resulting in a $3 million cap hit in 2005.
Enough of free agency. Let’s talk a little bit about the draft. It’s tough to project who will still be available when the Texans are on the clock, so take these selections with a grain of salt.
Round Pick Position Player 1 13 LB Derrick Johnson 2 47 DL Anttaj Hawthorne 3 73 LB Demarcus Ware 3 78 CB Darrent Williams 4 108 OL Dan Buenning 5 142 TE Joel Dreesen 6 173 QB Derek Anderson 7 204 DL Darrell Shropshire
Derrick Johnson would be an immediate starter at inside linebacker if my wildest dreams were realized and he lasted all the way to the Texans’ pick. He would need the guys up front to keep the center and guards off of him, but if they did, Johnson could be a force in this defense, capable of being a playmaker in the middle. If Johnson doesn’t last, maybe take defensive end Marcus Spears instead and go for linebacker Kirk Morrison in the second round instead.
Hawthorne would figure into the line rotation slowly as he learned the 3-4 scheme. Given time to develop, he could help eventually collapse the pocket and stuff the run. In drafting Ware, the Texans make their annual investment in finding an undersized collegiate end to mold him into being an outside linebacker.
Williams, who like Ware, impressed me during Senior Bowl week. He becomes my dimeback just below Faggins on the depth chart. In taking Buenning, I realize that the interior of the offensive line needs help. Perhaps center Jason Brown is taken if Buenning is gone? Dreesen can make big plays downfield, and who knows, he might save a spot on the roster as the long snapper, too.
I know the Texans have shown a penchant for drafting quarterbacks, so I’ll take one as well. Anderson is a big thrower not unlike Dave Ragone. A bit erratic, Anderson can learn to make better decisions under a teacher like offensive coordinator Chris Palmer.
I’ll finish up the draft by selecting a defensive linemen. Shropshire shined in reports out of practices at the East-West Shrine Game. If he’s gone, Marcus Jasmin is would be my next pick. A Texas A&M product, he already has some familiarity with the 3-4 scheme.
That’s a lot offseason activity to digest, so to make it easier to see, here’s a breakdown by position of who I think makes the final cut after camp. I’ve also included an estimated cap hit by position as well. Keep in mind only the top 51 salaries impact the cap, so a couple of these guys are freebies.
Quarterbacks: Carr, Ragone, and B.J. Symons.
2005 Cap: $7.90 million
Anderson is sent to the practice squad, though I give him and Preston Parsons both a decent shot at making the cut. Cap-wise, this is Carr’s option year, so watch for something to happen there.
Running backs: Jordan, Davis, Wells, and Tony Hollings.
2005 Cap: $4.75 million
Wells or Hollings could be cut, but I had a hard time removing either one of them. Hollings could be used to return kickoffs, and Davis could be the team’s primary kick and punt returner.
Fullbacks: Norris and Baxter.
2005 Cap: $1.10 million
Unless Wells, who contributes on special teams, also proves to be able to handle fullback duties, both of these guys should be back for one more season.
Wide receivers: Andre Johnson, Jabar Gaffney, Derick Armstrong, Kendrick Starling, and Sloan Thomas.
2005 Cap: $3.63 million
I don’t pursue anyone to bolster this position because it would (1) be a waste of a resource as long as Capers is setting the offensive tone for the gameplan, and (2) it would prohibit further development for this young, talented corps. Starling could fight returns punts since returner J.J. Moses is gone.
Tight ends: Billy Miller, Bennie Joppru, and Dreesen.
2005 Cap: $2.16 million
I am still optimistic about the return of Joppru, and if he does make it back, Mark Bruener could be the odd man out if someone like Dreesen is drafted and makes the roster. Bruener would have a dead money cap hit of roughly $266,667 though.
Offensive linemen: Jones, Todd Wade, Wand, Chester Pitts, Zach Wiegert, Steve McKinney, Todd Washington, Milford Brown, Buenning, and Fred Weary.
2005 Cap: $19.27 million
The Texans are getting the least bang for their buck here with a couple of their linemen. If they need cap room down the road, this is a good place to look. Also, say your goodbyes to Marcus Spears and Garrick Jones.
Defensive linemen: Smith, Walker, Ferguson, Deloach, and Hawthorne.
2005 Cap: $8.69 million
A sixth lineman could be added if Dreesen can be the long snapper or if only three running backs are retained. In addition to Payne who, if he could be signed for less than market, would be welcomed, this list is missing guys like Ioane, Sears, and Jason Davis. Shropshire (or Jasmin) makes the practice squad.
Linebackers: Jamie Sharper, Jason Babin, Johnson, Kailee Wong, Antwan Peek, Jay Foreman, Charlie Anderson, Ware, and Tim Cheatwood.
2005 Cap: $16.43 million
That might be one too many linebackers for the final cut, but there’s a good nucleus of talent forming here that’s worth saving. It also means saying goodbye to some decent special teamers and reserves, guys like Troy Evans, Polk, and Shantee Orr. D.D. Acholonu might make the practice squad. If cap space is needed, extend Shaper’s contract to lessen his heavy $6.125 million figure.
Defensive backs: Aaron Glenn, Dunta Robinson, Marcus Coleman, Glenn Earl, Faggins, Williams, Eric Brown, Ramon Walker, and Jammal Lord.
2005 Cap: $16.98 million
Utilitymen Jason Simmons and Jason Bell finally miss the cut, while Wright and McCree move on to other teams. Williams is a rookie, but he could also fight to return punts.
Special teams: Kris Brown, Chad Stanley, and Bryan Pittman
2005 Cap: $2.71 million
Aye, long snappers. Can’t live with them. Can’t live without ‘em.
So there you have it. I’ll go to battle with this group, and after counting the top 51 salaries (plus dead money), I’ve spent roughly $83.6 million on the 2005 cap. Assuming the league sets the maximum at about $85.5 million, I’ll still have close to $2 million to spare on the cap for unforeseen emergencies.
Piece of cake, right?
Keith Weiland would be shocked if anyone read this entire article to make it all the way down here. Demarcus Faggins Home