Vets on Defense in Jeopardy!

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October 12, 2004
Vets on Defense in Jeopardy!

by Keith Weiland

Someone check to see if the buzzer is still working for the Texans defense.

They rank 30th in average points allowed per game thus far into the season, and they are next-to-last in their conference in average yards allowed per game.

Talk about your Double Jeopardy.

A quick history lesson: Charley Casserly assembled a veteran core for Dom Capers’ defense before the 2002 season began. After an inspiring inaugural campaign in which the group single-handedly kept the team in more games than they should have, the unit struggled through a 2003 season in which they were ranked next-to-last in the league in just about every category, including Potpourri and Four-Letter Words.

Now things don’t appear to be all that improved in 2004. I know, I know… the Texans have started as many as three rookies on defense this season, so some lapses are to be expected, but in many respects the Texans are paying the price for putting a veteran defense on the field in 2002.

It’s hard to imagine the team winning any games during their expansion year if they hadn’t acquired that veteran talent, but this transitional period the defense is going through two seasons later is the price to be paid.

Alex, I’d like “Veteran 3-4 defense” for a grand… a grand tour of what lies ahead, that is.

To sift our way through it, I’ll go in rough chronological order of which veteran players may become a factor first when evaluating cap and roster situations for each. Given the shroud of secrecy in which Casserly protects his team’s financials, the numbers are estimates in some cases, so tread lightly, but they’re close enough for this study.

So let’s being, shall we?

As everyone knows, Marcus Coleman made a switch from cornerback to safety following the first round selection of Dunta Robinson. What makes the move especially interesting is how the shift in position could cost Coleman some dollars next offseason.

Coleman, 30, will be a free agent once the 2004 season is over, and as I first noted in an article I wrote earlier this year, Coleman could be a possible franchise tag target as a result. Top safeties on average do not earn what the top corners earn, so rather than risk losing Coleman in free agency with nothing in return, Casserly could tag him to keep around. In doing so, he could either have a safety for at least the 2005 season, or he might try to acquire some value for him in a trade.

Though if Coleman keeps blowing deep zone coverages like he did against the Vikings on Sunday (not to mention blowing 80-proofs into more breathalyzers), the Texans may decide to let him walk regardless and try to keep around Marlon McCree or find free safety help elsewhere.

Defensive tackle Seth Payne will also be a free agent after the 2004 season. Returning from a torn ACL injury he suffered early in the 2003 season, Payne, 29, has much left to prove this year before being in a position to sign a big new contract.

Given the recent hefty signings of Robaire Smith and Gary Walker in March, the team has already tied up significant coinage of their salary cap to the defensive line. As such, the odds of Payne coming back to the Texans in 2005 appear slimmer than Mary-Kate Olsen unless he signs for way less than what his market value might be next spring. Expect the Texans to look for help at his position in the draft instead.

While Coleman and Payne will be the potential unrestricted free agents under the most scrutiny once this season is over, there are a handful of other vets with deals expiring between 2005 and 2007 that will also play a major factor in how the original Texan defensive core will survive.

Kailee Wong, 28, was the team’s first big free agent signing for the defense in 2002, and despite collecting 3.5 sacks five games into the 2004 season, the gamble to make him a 3-4 outside linebacker has produced lukewarm results overall. His four-year deal was for $12 million, and it included a $4 million signing bonus.

Wong isn’t scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent until after the 2005 season, but the final year of his contract will balloon his salary by $600,000 over his 2004 base. That might mean that his $4.4 million cap hit in 2005 could look a little rich if he isn’t still the starter.

Jamie Sharper has been the most consistent performer in all three seasons for the Texans defense, but his contract will also be up after the 2005 season. The Ravens made him available to the Texans in the expansion draft because of the amounts they promised him from 2002-05, but despite the sizeable increases, Sharper has been earning those lofty dollars with every tackle he has made in the middle of the defense.

A contract extension for Sharper next season seems possible, and probably smart, especially if the Texans are in need of any additional cap space. Sharper will, however, hit that magical age of 30 before the 2004 season is over, so extending him a year early does invite some additional risk.

Strong safety Eric Brown, who will also turn 30 before the 2005 season, inked a contract last year worth $10.5 million that will run through 2007. He has missed significant time due to injury this season, and he is in clear and present danger of losing his starting job to rookie Glenn Earl.

Brown’s deal is backloaded in the final two years. If he is a backup after the 2005 season, he won’t be around for 2006 under the current structure of that contract. In fact, things could prove even more dicey for Brown if Ramon Walker returns to full health and proves capable of being Earl’s backup next year.

Like Brown, Jay Foreman also signed a backloaded contract. The five-year, $12.1 million deal he signed runs through 2007, but the last two seasons’ cap figures are roughly $3.1 million and $3.95 million, respectively. There is almost no chance Foreman will see the final year of his contract under that deal, and because of his relatively small $2.2M signing bonus, cutting him before the 2006 season is a distinct possibility.

Foreman’s play of late has been improved from prior seasons, and there’s little doubt that he’ll still be around in ’05 regardless of whether he’s still the starter. His base salary won’t really start escalating until 2006, and even if he doesn’t start, he could provide some veteran depth. He will turn 29 during the offseason.

Time for Final Jeopardy, and the category is 2002 Pro Bowlers. The Texans have wagered big cap dollars on a Daily Double of veterans sustaining their level of excellence deep into the twilight of their pro careers. This is where the Texans can really feel the aftertaste of that expansion season.

Aaron Glenn signed a 5-yr extension in the fall of 2002 for $27 million which included a $7 million bonus. Glenn, 32, will be carrying cap values of roughly $5.4 million in 2005, $5.6 million in 2006, and $6.9 million in ’07. Those figures are fair for a quality veteran starter at cornerback, but Glenn has shown telltale signs of decline in battling both injuries and birthdays.

Thinking of cutting him? His prorated bonus would cost about $1.4 million per year left on his extension. If things get ugly, it could make Glenn a potential June 1 cap casualty in 2006.

Speaking of things getting ugly, Gary Walker agreed to a 6-yr contract in March that has the potential for G-Funk to put the G-Stunk on the team’s cap situation. Walker, 31, signed a biggie for $36 million before the 2004 season, and it included a whopping bonus worth an estimated $11 million.

Oh boy. The Texans were relieved at the time of the signing, given the team’s thin depth on the D-line, but seeing Walker get hurt again on Sunday is a double-wincer. Though it remains to be disclosed how exactly the team will be booking Walker’s bonus (plus the bonuses of other free agents like Smith and Todd Wade), the good news is that defensive linemen tend to age more gracefully when compared to their counterparts at cornerback. Still, that bonus looms heavy in the future.

So to put my answer to all of this in the form of a question: “Who are we drafting for the defense next April?”

Keith Weiland would own Ken Jennings in an episode of Jeopardy! if he had these categories: 80s Music, Famous Skywalkers, PEZ, Uses for a Tight End in the Run n’ Shoot, and TiVo.

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