So once again, let me talk about my misgivings with the coaching staff plan before I get into exact position-by-position specifics. That way I can better showcase the difference between what I’d recommend and what I think Houston will do.
In 2018, I thought this unit had matchup issues against a certain type of team: They were called the Indianapolis Colts. (Rimshot.) But, no, it could just as easily have been the Chiefs had the Texans advanced further in the playoffs. Houston was primarily a zone-coverage team, and they refused to take advantage of their depth in pass rushers to really create havoc because Crennel decided to get ubercute with Whitney Mercilus. As I detailed for The Athletic, Mercilus was relegated to this sort of awkward chess piece role — it was kind of like putting a bishop on the board and pretending it was a knight.
Mercilus had to play zone coverage. He had to play outside on standard downs against two tight-end or two-back sets. He sometimes spied the quarterback. The easiest solution to all of Houston’s problems was putting Mercilus, Watt, and Clowney on the line of scrimmage and saying “stop it.” But they rarely did. My guess — purely an informed guess, not anything I’ve heard from a source — is that the Texans and J.J. Watt wanted Watt to play only on the outside to keep his back healthier. While Clowney sometimes stood over the interior line, it wasn’t an every down look. Houston could have put Watt inside, where he has been at his best throughout his career, and put Mercilus and Clowney outside. They never really did. That means something.
The ripple effects of this decision are going to run clear throughout this piece, so let’s get it on the board early.
EDGE: J.J. Watt (star contract minus salary cap growth), Jadeveon Clowney (free agent — will be tagged), Whitney Mercilus (midscale contract), Duke Ejiofor (rookie deal), FA/Draft
This is an offseason where I expect the Texans to move on from one of Whitney Mercilus or Jadeveon Clowney. Clowney with a franchise tag would probably command more in the trade market if a team decided to believe in him. Mercilus would be less messy to jettison, though, and with a year left on his contract and coming off a bad statistical season, might be the kind of player a bargain-hunting team would come for. (Yes, he’s going to be a Patriot, that’s what I’m saying.)
I would keep them both. You can never have enough pass rushers in today’s NFL and I think the pieces fit better together than the Texans used them last year. But at the end of the day I expect one of them will be gone. If I had to guess, it would be Clowney. But again, I want to be clear I have no source on that. Clowney, to me, is worthy of getting of a five-year, $100 million dollar deal in the near-Khalil Mack range. His interior play as a pass rusher was the most consistent trick Houston had all season to generate pressure.
J.J. Watt had a fabulous season and should have won Comeback Player of The Year in my opinion. But it is what it is. He’s the boringest great player in the NFL, and even his press clippings are so sweet and kind that they just fade into the background of our consciousness. We had a full season of content at The Athletic Houston between two writers and barely even touched on how great he is. It’s expected. He’s become the player where it’s only a story if he’s not dominant. With three years left on his deal, he’s not a priority re-negotiation and I think well worth his contract as long as he’s repeating 2018. I am worried about the potential of a weakened Watt heading into the last two years of that deal, because this city and this team rightfully loves him and I think he’ll get whatever he wants. I’m never going to bet against Watt, but long-term back injuries are not a great investment. I’d want to keep him on this deal as long as I could, maybe with some token guaranteed money added as necessary ala Julio Jones last offseason.
Duke Ejiofor showed enough in his limited looks that I would be happy to have him as a developmental pass rusher going forward. If the Texans do move one of Clowney or Mercilus I imagine he will not be playing the full Mercilus role from last season, but he’s shown well and has enough of a draftnik profile that he was on the radar of the Top Prospects lists I do for ESPN/FO. If one of Mercilus or Clowney gets moved, I expect pass rusher to be in play for a Day 2 pick. Again, take this with a grain of salt because I’m not sure where NFL consensus will end up, but I am personally a big fan of Louisana Tech’s Jaylon Ferguson and could see him make it to the second round.
Interior linemen: D.J. Reader (final year of rookie contract), FA/Draft, Brandon Dunn (FA), Carlos Watkins, Joel Heath
One thing that I could see getting interesting this offseason is how the Texans value D.J. Reader. The nose tackle has been the key to one of the best run defenses in the NFL — the No. 1 run defense in the NFL statistically last season — over the past couple years. Nose tackles are limited in the scope of their value, but Reader contributes more as a pass rusher than most of them. The two contracts he’ll be looking at (as of now) are Damon Harrison’s $24 million in guarantees and Star Lotuleilei’s $25 million in guarantees. Something like a 5-year, $50 million deal with $28 million in guarantees could be in play over a three-year guaranteed term. I think I’d pass on that price and try to recreate Reader in the draft while I had bargain help in free agency afterwards. I think the Texans might sign up for that deal, especially if they trade Clowney. Personally, love to have my defensive tackles actually kick ass instead of being Jeff Zgonina
The interior is one of the most free-agency heavy areas of the team, with Christian Covington, Angelo Blackson, and Brandon Dunn all up for new deals. My personal opinion is that Heath and Watkins have flashed enough in those roles that I’d be comfortable letting the market terms dictate who comes back. I think Covington will catch on elsewhere as someone else will believe in his pass rush numbers. Dunn and Blackson I could see coming back on short-term deals. Maybe something like $8 total million over two years with one-year guarantees would be about where I’d stick in the mud for either of them. I expect the Texans will prioritize bringing back Blackson.
I could see a drafted player at this position as well, but it won’t be a priority fix so I won’t even pretend to know a fifth-round target. Perhaps the Texans will just try to recreate Dunn and Blackson, whom they found cheap in free agency. That would also be a smart play.
Off-ball Linebacker: Bernardrick McKinney (star contract), Zach Cunningham (rookie contract), Dylan Cole (UDFA rookie contract), Brennan Scarlett (RFA), Peter Kalambayi (rookie contract)
This position seems pretty straight-forward to me. Bernardrick McKinney is your tacklebacker who has the speed to cover but not necessarily the instincts. Zach Cunningham is your speed linebacker who plays good zone coverage but isn’t who you want to see man-to-man on Darren Sproles outside. Dylan Cole makes great reads but isn’t as athletic as Cunningham and thus will likely only retain spot work. Only Cole’s contract is up before 2020, and Cole will be an RFA at that point. I expect this rotation to mostly hold until Cunningham becomes a free agent. I will note that long-term I’m not sold on Cunningham because I don’t trust his instincts in man coverage, but I also don’t think he can’t improve on that with another year to develop.
Brennan Scarlett was quite impressive for the Texans last year as a core special teamer and bit player on defense. He showed a lot of versatility in coverage, in run defense, and on the line of scrimmage. I wouldn’t call him a must-keep as an RFA, but I think he’s worth a tender and possibly even a match on a cheaper deal. Scarlett is never going to overwhelm with physicality, but is smart, instinctive, and plays the system well. If you keep him, I think you close the door on Brian Peters, because Peter Kalambayi played well enough to also retain a core special teams role next season. As an incredibly experienced veteran, Peters simply will cost more on the veteran minimum than most rookies. Hopefully for his sake the Texans keep him, because I don’t think there’s anything wrong with his play. The way these things tend to play out with special teamers is either they get signed instantly or they bum around waiting for injuries. You could see either outcome with Peters.
Cornerback: FA/draft, FA/draft, Johnathan Joseph (cheapie contract), Kevin Johnson (fifth-year option), Aaron Colvin (star slot contract), Deante Burton (UDFA rookie contract)
Let’s talk about what to do at the position that was slagged the most last season. I think the easy way to go about this is to acknowledge that the answer of rookie addition or free-agent addition is simply “yes.”
In free agency, my unquestioned No. 1 cornerback would be Ronald Darby, however, he’s so far ahead of the other cornerbacks that even coming off an ACL tear I expect him to get a contract way over where I’d put his actual value. He’s not a No. 1 cornerback to me. If for some reason he’s available for less than $25 million in guaranteed money and less than a three-year commitment, that’s probably worth pursuing.
The two free agents I like the most in this class are Jason Verrett and Morris Claiborne. Verrett is always hurt — that’s why he’s made it to free agency — but he’s been empirically impressive in pretty much every season he survives. He’s sort of the Tyler Eifert of cornerbacks at this point. He’s off a Torn Achilles and a torn ACL in 2016. Obviously he’s not a good bet to stay healthy and be healthy on Day 1, but I like the idea of a team with a lot of one-year cap space just offering him a contract and seeing how training camp goes.
Claiborne has been a reliable journeyman corner for a few seasons. I don’t think of him as any great shakes, but he’s got the size and speed to deal with players that Johnathan Joseph can’t, and he’ll give some buffer room for the development that I think is inherent with rookie corners.
Joseph comes into 2019 as a zone-heavy corner who could be platooned in serious cases. That means rookies and Deante Burton could both get called upon for more serious work against the fastest of the fast in certain packages. I expect the Texans will just let him keep his spot on seniority, and fair enough, but it’s going to cost them some big plays.
This early on in the draft process it doesn’t mean much, but for my money, Deandre Baker of Georgia is a perfect fit of player and team with the Texans. I’ve seen him mocked around the middle of the first round all the way to the end of the first, and the only thing he’s really missing is size. I have a thing for players who play bigger than their actual size, and I think Baker fits that bill. Otherwise, look, pretty much every cornerback in the draft will be linked to the Texans at some point.
Aaron Colvin remains on the roster after a 2018 debacle of a free-agency season solely because the Texans can’t clear money by releasing him. I think he deserves a fresh start this year at slot corner, and he’s not terrible in that role historically. He’s not going to earn the contract money, but that doesn’t mean he can’t dunk on his 2018 form. The Texans can regroup on that deal after 2019.
I have no idea what the ruling actually is on Kevin Johnson being able to be cut given he finished the year on IR. If he can be cut, I expect him to be cut. I think Johnson’s salary will pretty much dictate whether the Texans keep one of Kareem Jackson and Tyrann Mathieu or both.
Safety: Kareem Jackson (FA), Justin Reid (rookie contract), Andre Hal (cheapie contract), A.J. Moore (UDFA rookie contract), Mike Tyson (UDFA rookie contract)
Speaking of Jackson versus Mathieu, let’s talk about that right now. How many teams do you know that carry a fourth safety as good as Andre Hal? The Texans sort of got away with it this year because Jackson immediately moved to corner and because Hal was coming off a lymphoma. Here’s a take that goes beyond the statistics that are colored by playing bad quarterbacks: He’s still slow enough at this stage of his career that he needs to be a safety. The Texans will be making a grave mistake if they evaluate last year’s tape and decide he can stick outside in 2019.
Mathieu is a tough subject for me. I think he’s a good player, but the way that safeties have been valued on the free agent market over the past couple of seasons make me feel a bit weird about giving him $10 million a season. Mathieu’s size makes it easy for him to get bullied by bigger tight ends. His football acumen and approach? No questions there for me. I won’t be sad if he’s one of Houston’s safeties in 2019. But I wouldn’t want to be handing him a huge contract given how easily pieced together most safety units are and the fact that Hal is already a more-than reliable third safety. I would choose between Mathieu and Jackson in favor of Jackson because I think he’s just a little more physical up front and I suspect the Texans will be able to pay a bit less to keep him. They’re both good players to me though, so no tears if they’re both back.
Justin Reid‘s rookie season was somehow impressive and yet not quite as good as I think his DROY backer fans took it in 2018. Reid’s tackling and range has him in a good spot to continue to develop into that player, but the Texans got a little burnt over the second half of the season and I attribute that mostly to learning experiences by the rookie.
Depth is good at this position. A.J. Moore was a core special teamer all season, and Mike Tyson played adequately after coming over as a waiver claim. I don’t think this team needs to draft a safety, though I wouldn’t be surprised if they targeted another bargain safety ala Mathieu if the market makes that the play.