MIB: Men in (Def.) Backfield

May 8, 2004
MIB: Men in (Def.) Backfield

by Keith Weiland

The Texans made it a point to upgrade their defensive backfield this offseason. Dead last in the American Football Conference in total passing yards allowed, the team knew it needed an upgrade and an infusion of youth.

After missing out on signing free agent cornerback Antoine Winfield, the team made sure to walk away with a top college defensive back during last month’s draft. Not only did the team accomplish that goal, but they also told South Carolina’s Dunta Robinson that he would become an immediate starter at right corner, pushing an incumbent Marcus Coleman to free safety.

On paper, the pick appears to have upgraded two of the four starting positions in the secondary. Whether that plays out on the field remains to be seen.

At free safety, the Texans picked up Marlon McCree on waivers last September. Once he was inserted into the starting lineup, McCree performed to expectations, which is to say he was a major upgrade over the previous starter Matt Stevens.

As for Coleman, his 2003 season may have been the best of his career, especially considering the time starting left cornerback Aaron Glenn spent off the field with injury. Coleman tied for the AFC lead with his seven interceptions, and, dating back to 2002, he had amassed a whopping 53 passes defensed. For his efforts in helping the Texans establish a 2-2 record last September, Coleman was named the conference’s Defensive Player of the Month.

So pardon me if I question for a moment how slotting a rookie in at right corner and moving a veteran player to a new position is an upgrade for the 2004 season. The Texans seem to be treating Coleman like a rumor, recognizable only as déjà vu and dismissed just as quickly.

The allure of Coleman as a cornerback begins and probably ends with his size. At 6’2” tall and 210 pounds, his frame is fast becoming the necessity for covering the new generation of supersized wide receivers. So perhaps because of that prototypical size, Coleman has had to live up to expectations that may have been too far out of his figurative reach?

Toss in some disappointing play – like his now infamous pirouette with Titans wideout Drew Bennett to allow a game-deciding touchdown last season – and Coleman’s physical style of play has not been enough to consistently win over the hearts of fans and the kudos from coaches.

Something else the Texans may keep in mind as they evalute Coleman this year will be the financials of his situation. He will be entering the final year of his contract, the same one the Texans inherited from the Jets as part of the expansion draft. Coleman’s cap figure for 2004 is an estimated $4.3 million, with roughly $3.1 million of that total stemming from his base salary.

Despite the hefty base figure, Coleman does not figure to be a June 1 cap casualty, but he is well-compensated as a second corner behind Glenn. As a free agent next year, however, Coleman’s salary does place him in an interesting slot.

At 30 years old later this month, this will be Coleman’s last big contract to negotiate. The Texans have yet to use their franchise tag in franchise history, but Coleman may in fact be the first legitimate candidate they will have had to slap it on when next February rolls around.

To recap, the franchise salary tag is the average of the top five salaries at a position, or it is 120 percent of the player’s previous salary, whichever figure is higher. And the operative word here to look at in this definition is “position”.

Using last February’s tags as an example, the franchised cornerbacks were stuck with a $6.8 million salary (which includes no signing bonus). The figure will undoubtedly increase for 2005, but even if it didn’t Coleman would be getting better than a 50 percent jump in pay if franchised as a cornerback.

So that ain’t gonna happen.

But what now, following his switch to safety? For 2004, the top five salaries averaged amounted to just $4.1 million in comparison. As a franchised safety, Coleman would figure into a more palatable scenario where he would receive a 20 percent one-year increase if tagged.

Players don’t like to get bitch-slapped with a franchise tag, so if Coleman did become a target for one, I don’t imagine him being happy. Not that a 20 percent increase in one-year’s pay is such a bad thing.

No, a bad thing would be throwing an intergalactic kegger down on Kirby near Richmond, then getting your ass hauled to the city pokey for a night of mug shots and incarceration. And that’s just what Coleman did in the wee hours of last Thursday morning. His arrest comes on the heels of a somewhat clandestine one-game suspension last year when he was allegedly found asleep in his car on Highway 59.

That DWI incident last week could expedite matters to let Coleman walk in the offseason, but McCree will also be a free agent as well. So the process to groom Robinson has been accelerated. Long term, Robinson has the potential to be a Pro Bowl corner, and he may even provide an immediate impact this fall, so I don’t intend to slight him.

It’s just that I get the feeling that Robinson wasn’t drafted to be Glenn’s new partner at cornerback, but instead to be his replacement.

General manager Charley Casserly was part of a Redskins front office that selected Darrell Green in 1983, and there may be a little of Green’s longevity in Glenn. That notion though came into question last fall though when Glenn was sidelined with a groin injury that kept him out of five games and parts of several others. Contract-wise, Glenn is locked up in Houston for the remainder of his career, but no one, not even Glenn, really knows how much longer that will be.

While the Texans could very well go to a defensive back yet again in next year’s draft, the rest of the guys in the secondary will make for good competition in training camp this summer. Leading the pack of nickel corner candidates may well be Demarcus Faggins.

Faggins, who will be entering his third year this season, played alongside Cowboy Terrence Newman at Kansas State. He possesses natural cover skills. At 5’10”, he’s more of noisy cricket than big gun like Coleman, but he tallied three passes defensed in his first career start last season in Week 17. It wasn’t just against any receiver either. Faggins stood in with Colts receiver Marvin Harrison to set the tone of a quiet day for the perennial Pro Bowler before succumbing to injury.

Faggins’ healthy return could mean reduced playing time for incumbent nickel corner Kenny Wright. Standing at 6’1”, Wright is a taller corner that made five starts last season filling in for Glenn until also joining him on the injured list. Wright did snare three interceptions though, second most on the team.

So for a team that was so porous in pass defense last year, the Texans in 2004 appear ready to protect the endzone from the passing scum of the league. 2005 might be a whole other story.

Keith Weiland makes this look good.