3rd Annual: The Way I See It

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February 11, 2007
3rd Annual: The Way I See It

by Keith Weiland

Fate, she can be a bitch.

Every March, the Texans come out of the first week of unrestricted free agency smiling like a baby who just farted, and after every March, it’s been the Texans fans left to smell the lingering stink of it all.

Seriously, if you can imagine an alternate history in which the Texans never made a significant free agent signing over the past three or four offseasons, you’d be able to envision a team without an estimated $15 million in dead money on the 2007 cap alone. It’s a pleasant thought, isn’t it?

Well, the Texans seem to go through this same daydream every offseason, thinking there’s no chance they could possibly repeat the same big money blunders as the previous March, and every March they give another mega-buxxx contract to some veteran who fails to live up to his contract.

I guess then we should take some solace from an owner who seems to have finally learned from those past mistakes. Bob McNair told the Houston Chronicle last week that “we’re not going to go out and get a player and pay more than he’s worth.”

Brilliant! What a novel concept, paying no more for a commodity than what that commodity is actually worth. This is sound financial advice here for billionaires and non-billionaires alike!

“We have to get fair value for what we spend,” McNair continued. “We have to allocate these dollars very prudently.”

With all this level-headed fiscal responsibility coming from the man who once let Charley Casserly hold onto his purse strings as if they were melting his hands, you might think I’d be applauding these comments with tears of joy welling in my eyes.

But I’m not.

The problem is the Texans have been blowing their Christmas cash on less-than-stellar veteran talent every March, not the crème de la crème. Until the Texans start producing playoff wins, they will have to pay a little more than fair value to add the top free agents. That’s okay. They just need to do a much better job of finding the talent on which to overspend.

The Texans have overspent on average talent hoping they magically transform midway through their pro careers into something better. The lesson here is to only overspend on the best talent available, or don’t overspend it all.

So as I’m piecing together my third annual self-indulgent offseason manifesto in which I craft what the Texans would do if they were smart, er… if they let me call the shots, I center my entire efforts leading up to March 2nd to ink Nate Clements to the richest contract ever given to a cornerback.

Wait, let me take a step back for a moment and set some ground rules. This is going to be a long article, so pack your diapers, astronauts (rubber hoses not needed, ‘kay?). I’m not making any more pit stops until this is done.

First, I’m not operating in some cash-free, consequence-free vacuum. I’m taking the best (unofficial) Texans cap data on these interwebs and keeping my estimated spending within the confines of both league rules and reality (whoops, we just lost the Redskins).

Second, Gary Kubiak has already told us what he sees as priorities this offseason in improving his football team. Since I don’t want to arm wrestle him in some ego-tripping power struggle, I listen up when he says things like not counting on injured players to contribute (Charles Spencer, Domanick Williams), needing to get more pressure on the quarterback, wanting to find some playmakers on offense, and, oh yeah, evaluating the play at the quarterback position.

So back to Clements and me dropping a bunch of I.O.U’s at the doorstep of his new home in The Woodlands. I know that Kubiak hasn’t officially mentioned cornerback as a pressing need. And I know even McNair failed to list the cornerback position among his many top priorities last week. But make no mistake, finding another cornerback is a pressing need this offseason, one that would certainly go a long way toward helping the front seven pressure the quarterback. Trust me as your football people on this one, Mr. McNair.

The Phillip Buchanon tragedy is over, and while I like Petey Faggins, I like him even better when he’s playing mostly on nickel and dime situations. Several of those big plays he lost in coverage last year had as much or more to do with the subpar play at safety than with him, but there’s no substitute for a lockdown corner like Clements.

And yeah, no kidding Clements won’t come cheap. The key isn’t fitting Clements into the cap, it’s whether Clements has Houston on his March 2nd itinerary. He’ll want to become the highest-paid corner in the league, and given that more than half the teams in the league have roughly $20 million or more in cap space, he should be able to sign a long-term contract for that kind of money.

But how’s this for precedent: the current richest corner in the league, Champ Bailey, received his big contract from the Broncos while both Kubiak and the team’s actual general manager, Rick Smith, were still in Denver. These are guys that know the value of a top notch corner.

Bailey signed a seven-year, $63 million contract in 2004 with a reported $18 million signing bonus. It’s a lot of money, but consider that the league’s salary cap has grown by roughly 35 percent since the time Bailey signed that contract, and it will grow another 8 percent versus 2004 next year. If Clements were really going to sign a Bailey-like contract in today’s dollars, it would include a $24 million bonus on a seven-year deal.

Figure then Clements, at 27 is a bit older than Bailey was at the time, will sign his own six-year deal with maybe $20 million in hard and soft guarantees. In spite of Bailey’s huge contract value, it was structured so that the Broncos could ease into the higher cap figures in later years. So if the deal I give Clements is structured somewhat like Bailey’s and adjusted for the overall growth in the salary cap, the cap hits the first two seasons might look like this:

Year Bailey ’04 Clements ’07? 1 $2.5 million $3.4 million? 2 $3.3 million $4.5 million?

His cap value will certainly jump by 2009, but Clements won’t even turn 30 until December that year. And remember, the league cap just keeps growing, too. Just so I play if safe in this exercise though, I’ll count Clements $4.5 million against the cap in 2007, but really, it could be a bit lower if it needed to be.

Pairing him with another young and talented corner, Dunta Robinson, could boost the Texans into becoming the league’s best pass defense and make a talent like Mario Williams all the more effective. Adding a corner with the ability of Clements might catapult this defense to a dare-I-say-it? playoff-ready unit.

Can you believe I’ve gone a thousand words into this article and have yet to even address the highest profile item of the offseason? Well, the quarterback situation is officially in limbo. Kubiak at times last season appeared to have lost confidence in David Carr, and parting ways with him might be best for everyone involved. There have been indications that the Texans might be ready to move on without Carr, especially if they find another passer they think can step in immediately to improve their team.

Jake Plummer might be that quarterback, assuming the Broncos cut him first. Denver, big brother to guys like Kubiak and Smith, would like to take advantage of Houston’s Baby Broncos, getting them to give up something in a trade for Plummer. Fate, still that same cruel bitch, will probably see to it that it happend this way, but I’m not so desperate. This is my manifesto, not the Broncos’, and in my fantasy manifesto, the Broncos blink first. They don’t want to pay Plummer another $5.3 million to be a backup, and freed from his old contract, I make the move to sign Plummer to a new contract with more reasonable terms.

Some recent benchmarks for those terms? Drew Bledsoe signed a three-year deal with the Cowboys two years ago for a modest total contract value reported to be worth about $14 million. Plummer, 32, will likely demand more though. The Redskins gave Mark Brunell a bigger bonus of $8.6 million, but they also spread it over a mind-numbing seven years. To prove again I’m playing fair, I’ll give Plummer $10 million on a four-year contract and base salaries at roughly double the vet minimums for someone with his tenure.

Trading Carr won’t be easy though. Like Plummer, Carr still has some high base salaries left on his contract, so I’ll settle by giving him up to a team that will trade me a conditional draft pick in 2008, starting as low as a fifth, but one that could be as high as a second based on achievable performance targets if he starts most of 2007. Cap-wise, I can defer $2 million of his $4 million in dead money to the 2008 cap if I get crunched for space.

While adding Clements and Plummer ought to make for quite a busy offseason, I’ll still target two more young, mid-level players, both of whom happen to be from the Buccaneers. The key is that after Clements, the big spending should really stop, but I’m targeting these other two because they might be had for fair market value and they could each address some key positional needs I might not get out of the draft.

First, to bolster the pass rush, I’m going after right defensive end Dewayne White. In doing so, I’ll let Antwan Peek test the market. White, a second round pick in 2003 with all sorts of production in college, has been mostly a reserve in Tampa playing behind Simeon Rice. The Bucs will reportedly keep Rice next season, making it seem possible that I could outbid them for White. In bringing him to Houston, I’ll be reuniting White with new defensive line coach Jethro Franklin, who coached him in Tampa last year. White has pass rush ability, and proving his flexibility, the Bucs even used him as an under tackle in some situations.

Second, I’ll make a serious offer to swipe offensive lineman Sean Mahan from the Bucs as well. I noted in last year’s article that I wanted to sign Mahan when he was a restricted free agent, but that was before he was given a first round tender. Without the worry of draft compensation, Mahan is mine this time. Undersized and able to move well, he’s a good fit for the zone blocking scheme, and he is flexible enough to start at both guard positions and possibly center, too. You can thank me now for intensifying the camp battles for playing time.

Key Free Agent Signings Pos Player ’06 Team CB Nate Clements Bills QB Jake Plummer Broncos G/C Sean Mahan Bucs DE Dewayne White Bucs RB Ron Dayne Texans OT Ephraim Salaam Texans

There are other free agents I’d consider but ultimately pass. Tight end Daniel Graham of the Patriots fits that dual role of blocker and receiver quite well, and he would make for a nice pair with Owen Daniels. Only trouble is Graham is injury-prone. Tight ends can be cap-friendly contributors, but I’ll let another team bid for a player that has yet to play a full season.

I’m skipping the elite linebackers out there because I’ve prioritized Clements over them. Lance Briggs of the Bears might be labeled with the franchise tag anyway. I’m also keeping my ear to the ground on safeties like Deon Grant of the Jaguars and (Houston-born) Michael Lewis of the Eagles, but spending big money on safeties just doesn’t feel right.

The Texans still have a few of their own free agents to sign, and the two I want to see in Houston again for sure are running back Ron Dayne and offensive tackle Ephraim Salaam. When healthy, Dayne proved he could still push for good yardage at the end of last season. It won’t take starter’s money to keep him, either, since no other team is wanting him to start. Salaam filled in admirably at left tackle after the loss of Spencer. While he should not be considered to start, I want him back as my swing tackle.

Enough talk of free agency. Let’s move to the draft. Remember, we’re still more than two months away (as I type this pre-Combine), so projecting who will be available when the Texans are on the clock is a futile guessing game.

With the #8 pick, I’ve still left the team with question marks at left tackle and running back. Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson would be a stellar choice for this system, but mine is not a perfect world, as another team is likely to draft him before I even get the chance.

Trading for another running back is possible, as players like Willis McGahee of the Bills and Clinton Ports of the Redskins might be available for the right price, but it’s probably a price I’m not willing to pay. The Texans have so many needs to fill, so I refuse to move up high enough to select Peterson, and I don’t make any blockbuster trades for a starter-quality back.

Round Pick Position Player 1 8 LT Levi Brown 2 39 FS Brandon Meriweather 3 73 RB Tony Hunt 4 104 WR Jason Hill 5 135 CB Travarous Bain 6 169 OLB Dallas Sartz 7 200 MLB Zach Latimer

The Texans almost caught a huge break last year in finding a left tackle in Spencer during the third round. With Spencer’s return to full health in question, it’s time for the team to finally invest a first round pick on the offensive line, easily the weakest position group over the life of the franchise.

I realize Penn State’s left tackle Levi Brown is not going create any deafening applause from most people, but I like his chances as a pro. Brown lacks the upside of the league’s elite left tackles, but he is solid both as pass and run blocker. He moves very well for a man his size (6’5” and 320 pounds). Penn State used him effectively in their offense, moving him around to lead block and allowing him to swallow his man when protecting the passer. I consider him a bust-safe pick in that if for some reason he can’t handle the elite rushers, then he still has a future at either right tackle or guard.

In the second round, I finally give this team the free safety it has desperately lacked since Marlon McCree left town. Meriweather has first round talent, but a couple of off-field issues have dropped him in the draft. I’m guessing here, but I have a sense they’re behind him now. Meriweather is skilled in coverage like a corner, and in joining Robinson and Clements, this might just be a dream secondary.

In the third round, I go back to Penn State and select Tony Hunt. While the success Dayne and Chris Taylor enjoyed down the stretch last year was encouraging for Kubiak’s offense, I’m not comfortable forgetting the team’s struggles against the better run defenses they faced earlier in the season. Hunt is adept running downhill and between the tackles, and he was frequently used as a receiver in college, making him a solid fit for this offense.

Moving to the second day of the draft, I select receiver Jason Hill to be the future #2 for the Texans. Eric Moulds has the wits of a veteran, but he has lost a step with age and is no longer the playmaker he once was. Hill won’t be noted for his speed, but he gets separation and has consistently good hands. As an added bonus for a #2 receiver, he blocks well downfield.

In the fifth I find Travarous Bain, a fast ballhawking corner. A small school player (he becomes the team’s third player from Hampton!), he will need time to learn the pro game. Maybe he’ll be ready to challenge Faggins as the nickel corner in a year or so. To finish the draft, I look for linebackers with potential in Dallas Sartz and Zach Latimer.

I’ve noticeably bypassed this year’s quarterback class. A couple guys intrigue me, but with Plummer and Rosenfels on board, I just found far bigger needs to address in the middle rounds of the draft. Maybe next year.

Or maybe not. Take that, fate!

So with the draft and major free agency moves done, let’s summarize the roster and cap estimates:

Quarterbacks: Jake Plummer, Sage Rosenfels, Bradlee Van Pelt
2007 cap: $5.96 million
Plummer-for-Carr results in almost a wash to this year’s cap. I realize he is not going to be measurably better than what he did under Kubiak when both were in Denver, but what Plummer did in Denver is better than anything the Texans have had to date. I’ve come to like Rosenfels, but he is a career backup (and a good one at that).

Running backs/Fullbacks: Ron Dayne, Tony Hunt, Chris Taylor, Vonta Leach, Jameel Cook
2007 cap: $4.13 million
Does Domanick (Davis) Williams have anything left on that knee? I’m guessing not, but swap him out for Taylor, and a trio of Hunt-Dayne-Williams might be fun.

Wide receivers: Andre Johnson, Eric Moulds, Kevin Walter, Jason Hill, Jerome Mathis
2007 cap: $13.12 million
I wasn’t forced to do extend Johnson’s contract yet, but it might not be a bad idea to get it done sooner than later.

Tight ends: Owen Daniels, Jeb Putzier, Joel Dreesen
2007 cap: $2.54 million
It will be interesting to see what progression Daniels makes in his second year.

Offensive linemen: Levi Brown, Chester Pitts, Steve McKinney, Sean Mahan, Charles Spencer, Fred Weary, Eric Winston, Ephraim Salaam, Drew Hodgdon
2007 cap: $13.5 million
Veterans Zach Wiegert and Mike Flanagan have been released, and with Mahan added, there is now healthy competition at all of the interior line positions.

Defensive linemen: Mario Williams, Anthony Weaver, Seth Payne, Jason Babin, Dewayne White, Travis Johnson, Anthony Maddox, N.D. Kalu
2007 cap: $19.17 million
Fans shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss Payne. If he’s healthy again, he’s still the team’s best run stopper. Johnson isn’t going anywhere either, and he showed some improvement last year. Maddox was a supersub last year, and if I can find the roster room, I’d try to bring back DT Cedric Killings, too.

Linebackers: DeMeco Ryans, Morlon Greenwood, Kailee Wong, Shantee Orr, Charlie Anderson, Troy Evans, Dallas Sartz
2007 cap: $12.3 million
Failing to find a stud linebacker to pair with Ryans is easily the biggest gap in my offseason plan. With improvements in the secondary and a healthy D-line, my hope is finding that next linebacker can come next season. Should the Texans look to spend money to fix it this year, Wong may become expendable.

Defensive backs: Nate Clements, Dunta Robinson, Brandon Meriweather, Glenn Earl, C.C. Brown, Demarcus Faggins, Travarous Bain, Chris McKenzie, Jason Simmons, John Walker
2007 cap: $11.7 million
Simmons, like Evans, always seems to find a way to make the final roster. This position group will get expensive fast once Robinson is due for a new contract and Clements’ mega-contract kicks in the higher base salaries, but buying an elite level of pass coverage like this would be worth it.

Special teams: Kris Brown, Cameron Muro, Bryan Pittman
2007 cap: $2.7 milllion
Chad Stanley hasn’t been re-signed, so Muro is the best punter on the roster right now. Pittman remains the team’s deep snapper.

Amazingly, even when you toss in the dead money, incentives, and workout bonuses, I still have somewhere between $6-8 million left on the salary cap. Forward that unused money to next year when it can help pay for Clements’ increasing cap figure, and this is a team that will be set for a deep playoff run by 2008.

Keith Weiland doesn’t want to know how heavy your astronaut diaper became sitting through this entire article. Nate Clements Nate Clements Home

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