A user’s guide to using Houston’s cap space to make Jadeveon Clowney happy

This offseason has been, if not universally panned, I would say at least mostly disparaged by smart people who happen to like the Houston Texans and are free to talk about it. The Texans are, as of this moment, carrying $41 million in cap space. Free agency as a construct is done. Gerald McCoy is out there as I write this on Thursday afternoon, but probably won’t be when this posts. I still think some of the running backs in free agency would upgrade Houston’s roster. But otherwise you’re looking at trying to rehabilitate the injured/washed — guys like Michael Crabtree and Eric Berry — or just finding a complete unknown.

So the Texans have $41 million in cap space, plus Clowney’s roughly $16 million cap figure. Even if you have hated the offseason they’ve had up to this point, they have a unique opportunity here, it’s something that has precedent in the NFL via both the 49ers and the Jaguars.

via Over The Cap

When re-signing franchise player Jimmy Garoppolo, the 49ers heavily front-loaded the contract. His cap figure was $37 million after the first season on account of a 2018 roster bonus of $28 million guaranteed. His cap figure in 2019 is just $19.3 million. For future years — all essentially option years for the 49ers — he’s around $26-$27 million. That might sound like a lot — remember that Matt Ryan and Ben Roethlisberger have $33 million cap hits in 2020. Aaron Rodgers is at $32.6 million in 2020. Russell Wilson is at $31 million in 2020. Being at “only” $26 million is still quite a discount from the star quarterbacks.

The Jaguars used this strategy successfully with a number of their free agents from their big cap space days. Julius Thomas, to name one player, wound up with a $10.3 million cap hit in the year that he signed, and a $7.3 million cap hit in his second season. If Thomas had actually been good, the long-term contract structure would have helped the team retain him. Instead, it made him a lot easier to get rid of.

via Over The Cap

So what the Texans could do with Clowney, instead of getting wrapped up in his long-term value, is use their available cap space in 2019 to satisfy him without getting locked into a contract that’s onerous long-term. Let’s use DeMarcus Lawrence’s contract as an example, since that seems to be the one every agent is comparing against. Lawrence makes $48 million fully guaranteed on a five-year, $105 million contract — the cap hits start at $11.1 this year, then float into the low $20 million-a-year range starting in 2020.

Let’s frontload that deal. Let’s say we make Clowney’s 2019 cap hit $33 million with a nice signing and roster bonus. Let’s say we aim to make the first three years palatable and fill the last two with unlikely to-be-earned things that could lead to a re-negotiation. That leaves us with something like this:

2019: $33 million
2020: $13 million
2021: $14 million
2022: $22 million
2023: $23 million

Those are cap figures the Texans can work around — the backend of the deal is as good as the middle of Lawrence’s deal, and the front end is beautiful for facilitating contracts like Deshaun Watson’s extension. What else are the Texans going to do with this cap space? Clearly not much. When you wipe out $33 million of the $57 million (cap space plus Clowney’s tag), the Texans still have plenty of available cap space to pursue trades or free agents if they’d like. It’s a win-win that would reward Clowney, help the Texans long-term, and do something with this cap space they’re not using now.

Quick FAQ!

Rivers, do you really think the Texans would consider this?

Haha, of course not. The Texans front office is run like a Madden simulation of a small market front office.

Rivers, do you think Clowney is worth the money?

What is anybody worth, anyway? Only what they’re willing to pay you. I think the better way to ask this question is “Would an NFL team give Clowney more money than this as a true free agent?” and the answer is “obviously.” I don’t see him work every day, and I can’t speak to why Houston might find his various dings more or less likely to reoccur. I do think it’s pretty evident from their actions that they would rather not be committed to him long-term.

Rivers, why not just trade Clowney?

Well, do you like having a good football team? I’m happy to say I think Whitney Mercilus is underutilized by this defense and that he could fill in 70% of what Clowney offers, but that doesn’t mean it’s a for-sure truth. It’s also something a smartly-run defense would be able to do without getting rid of their star edge player who happens to be able to stand up and wreck things as an interior rusher.

Do you remember trading Duane Brown for a second-round pick — more than most players fetch — and watching his cap space sit unutilized while Deshaun Watson took more sacks than any player since Jon Kitna on the Mike Martz Lions? I do. It was Not A Great Outcome. Maybe Lonnie Johnson will make us forget all about it, but I have my doubts. The traditional media and teams, in my view, underrate what above-average NFL play is worth.

Also, you know, the part where they should have traded Clowney like two months ago if they wanted anything back.

Kahale Warring could be special, but he’ll have to fight history to contribute right away

With their final premium pick in the 2019 draft, the Texans spent on another tight end: San Diego State’s Kahale Warring. Warring’s background is intriguing — he barely played football in high school and walked on for the Aztecs. He’s got basketball player attributes that many teams value highly out of the tight end position, and what I saw in watching him with the Aztecs is a player that is a lot more developed than I’d think.

Warring went to the NFL combine and ran a 4.67 40-yard dash, showing well in both jump metrics and both shuttles as well. His only poor time was in the three-cone drill, which does show somewhat when blocking. Warring isn’t great at reacting to quick moves.

As a receiver, Warring is quite polished and should be able to contribute if called upon. I like to focus my study for things that I think I see a lot on Texans tape, which is why it drew my eye that Warring was able to contribute often when the play broke down and he was making it all up:

He had another play like this against Nevada where the quarterback scrambled to the sideline, and Warring was able to dig a ball off the turf. When Deshaun Watson is your quarterback, being able to play outside of the structure of a play is important.

This play actually didn’t count, but get a look at the process that he shows:

I think he shows a lot of well-demonstrated fundamentals as a pass-catcher. He could be a little bit less obvious when he’s blocking downfield, and he could get a little bit better shaking off opponents at the line of scrimmage. SDSU moved him all around the formation, and jamming him was fairly effective.

I do think his blocking is still something in development. He was trusted to make a lot of blocks, including some I think are very common in the Houston offense:

But I felt like technically speaking, as a blocker, he was a little raw. The functional power was there, and he can definitely get his mitts on a linebacker and hold up. But quick NFL linemen are going to be able to shed him without a lot of problems as it stands. Watching these games kind of reassured me that Daniel Fells would have a big role with the Texans this year — don’t get me wrong, Warring has potential, he just might not be ready to go from Day 1.

Where I think he fits in with what the Texans do is that the Aztecs did plenty of combo blocking, and at times Warring would come off and hold a lineman on the backside. No cut blocks that I saw, which I’m guessing is something that the Texans will ask him to learn. He’s somebody that you have to beat with a real move, though. That does factor into the process.

So here’s my devil’s advocate version of why I think this was still a bad pick even though I like the player:

— The Texans literally never throw to their tight ends. Ryan Griffin was the main tight end last year, saw 743 snaps, and drew 43 targets. Jordan Thomas saw 470 snaps and drew 27 targets. Combined, they roughly got 17.3 snaps per target. Even though the target split was fairly even on a seasonal level, most of the time Houston’s No. 2 receiver is the actual target sponge. It just got hidden because of constant Will Fuller and Keke Coutee injuries.

— The only time in the O’Brien era where tight ends were actually a focal point of the offense happened with Brock Osweiler and C.J. Fiedorowicz, and that happened because Osweiler’s first reaction to pressure was to throw over the middle to anybody, no matter how covered they were.

— The Texans already had a receiving tight end they ignored last year despite good limited results: Jordan Akins. Maybe they’re out on him entirely — we can’t read all the way into it from the outside. But it does seem like a waste of resources to just freeze the guy out after one season.

— If the thing was “let’s train a better blocking tight end,” well, you can do that without spending a third-round pick. It’s true. Fells is on the roster, bring in some UDFAs and find one.

That said, look, I get the pick. I think he’s good. I just have my doubts that he can win the uphill battle of Texans offensive history, let alone the battle that most tight ends face to be relevant in their first season.

2019 should be Bill O’Brien’s last chance to get it corrected

The Houston Texans have been granted a major luxury by virtue of their standing in the AFC South throughout Bill O’Brien’s tenure. The teams in the division have often been bad. This has led to a number of easy schedules. The Texans finished with the fourth-easiest schedule in the NFL last year per Football Outsiders’ opponent DVOA numbers, and they finished with the easiest schedule in the NFL in O’Briens inaugural season. Their toughest schedule, in 2017, was 11th-hardest out of 32.

FO’s preseason projections didn’t have a lot of variance with what actually happened — the only meaningful difference in those years was that 2016’s schedule wound up slightly harder than expected. I’m privy to some of the early projections this year, and no matter where the landmark settles, the Texans look poised to have the toughest schedule of the O’Brien era. On a subjective level, I expect things to look even more rude.

I wrote earlier this offseason about the only time the Texans ever successfully corralled a game against a top quarterback under O’Brien — it took a superhuman effort from J.J. Watt, perhaps the best game of his career. This year, the Texans will play Pat Mahomes, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Andrew Luck twice, Drew Brees, Cam Newton, and Matt Ryan. The worst quarterback they’ll play is probably Joe Flacco — maybe Lamar Jackson if he doesn’t improve at all. FO’s projections are sanguine on Houston’s defense, but those projections don’t account for Houston’s enormous defensive splits depending on level of competition. There are no evident Blake Bortles or Zach Mettenbergers to beat up on this year.

So let’s start with that — the conservative ethos of O’Brien is going to be tested. Houston went 2-4 in the 2018 regular season in one-score games where they allowed 22 or more points. One of those wins occurred because Frank Reich refused to settle for a tie in Week 4, and the other came against Sam Darnold. They went 0-4 in those games in 2017, three of which actually came with Watson starting. They went 1-2 in those games in 2016, with another overtime win over the Colts. So over the past three seasons, they’re at 3-10 in close games where they allow more than 22 points, two of which were won in overtime. Want to buffer it out to O’Brien’s early career? Me too. The Texans have played 18 one-score games where they’ve allowed 22 points or more and won three of them.

This is not the only area in which conservative thinking could cost the Texans. An offseason cast in O’Brien’s mold has kept the talent from keeping up with the AFC’s big spenders. The Texans set a dollar threshold they would not pass and it took them out of the running for retaining Tyrann Mathieu (the player they really wanted). More importantly, it cost them a shot at any of the good offensive line free agents. They set a threshold on what they’d give to trade up and it priced them out of picking up a tackle prospect I think could reasonably start on Day 1 in Andre Dillard. While I think the Texans did okay in repairing the holes that free agency and retirement left, I don’t know of a single position you can point to with the confidence that they’ll definitely be better next year — it all is relying on health, jumps in player skill, or projections for non-elite rookies.

O’Brien’s moves have all spelled more than ever that he believes in making Deshaun Watson a pocket passer. Carl Smith was brought in to help Russell Wilson’s play from the pocket more — I don’t believe there’s much left to pare down of Watson’s out of structure game at this point. Watson threw just nine interceptions and had a 69.1% completion rate despite, I would argue, not being an ultra-accurate passer. Watson is not fully controllable in the way that O’Brien would prefer, but O’Brien can still exert a lot of influence as head play caller. These moves have positioned the Texans to play away from Watson’s strengths out of the structure of an offense and with his legs to force a defense to respect him as a runner.

“It’s on me,” is a pretty common O’Brien rallying cry, but never before has it been as true as it will be this year. The top-tier talent the Texans offer can still play with anybody, but this year is going to call for changes in approach away from the normal O’Brien conservative ethos. To his credit, O’Brien has been able to make some terrific in-season changes when pressed. He knew Watson wasn’t ready to run his system in 2017, and the system he created for Watson torched the NFL. He knew that the running game wasn’t playing well down the stretch last year and spent a lot of Week 17 using Watson as a designated runner to great effect.

But this is going to be a year where the ego is going to take a pounding and things aren’t going to come easy. It’s a schedule that calls for quicker adjustments than what O’Brien has done in the past. If they do what they’ve done, the Texans are going to get punched in the mouth. Playoff contention is going to involve winning a lot of close games against good quarterbacks. By the time O’Brien is ready to adjust — at least based on past history — the Texans might be so far behind in a race that it won’t matter.

As I’ve said before, the top-tier talent in Houston is as good as it is anywhere, and that will keep them in games. But I have my doubts that the Texans are going to be coached in a way that unlocks their potential. This team learned nothing from last year. It went out and got more zone cornerbacks and is going to pretend that they can instantly solve problem areas in the draft. It’s too clever by half.

And there will be no running from the blame for O’Brien, just as there wasn’t against the Colts in the playoffs. The quarterback is talented. The defensive pass rush is individually terrific, and the team has discounted cornerback because they want to get by playing zone. They had a chance to fix the offensive line and cornerback and didn’t. They stuck by their player value system and are now carrying roughly $40 million of cap space into the season. The kind of player and price intersection they are looking for is so low-risk that it can only be drafted or developed. No free agent with real options is going to sign with the Texans for what they want to offer — only the ones that have something to prove.

Narratives are an ever-evolving thing in the NFL, and few teams ever truly break out of the stratospheres they’ve been on for years. The more likely result for non-elite teams without great coaching is that they’ll bob up and down as their schedule and injuries dictate. The outside narrative might be different — look at all this talent the Texans have, there’s no way it should be missing the playoffs. Close observers have known O’Brien to be flawed and mostly one-dimensional for some time.

But if the results don’t match the talent, even the notoriously slow-to-act McNair family might have to shuffle the deck. I don’t think seven or eight wins is going to throw O’Brien in the danger window. But anything less than that and, even with three years left on the contract, the seat could get hot.

The more likely scenario is one that Texans fans will dread — a down year, no playoffs, and more excuses.

On Max Scharping, a Texans prospect I actually think is NFL-ready

Again, it was somewhat unsurprising that the Texans would focus on offensive linemen even after getting a tackle in the first round. With their second pick of the second round, the Texans went back to the line in drafting Northern Illinois’ Max Scharping.

Asked to describe the draft class in one word, Brian Gaine told Texan TV’s Drew Dougherty that word is “bigger.” Scharping is definitely bigger. Gaine emphasized Scharping’s body hitting their internal parameters, as well as Scharping’s versatility.

Scharping went to the combine and, like fellow second-round pick Lonnie Johnson, put up a pretty good set of scores given his size. Scharping came in at 327 pounds, but finished average-to-above-average in just about every combine metric he did. Most impressive to me was the 4.69 20-yard shuttle time given how big a part of the tackle skill set that is.

Scharping as a pick hits a few genres I am much more comfortable with than first-round pick Tytus Howard. For one, he’s a four-year starter with an excellent track record. Pro Football Focus’ stat pack has him allowing just five sacks in his NCAA career — that’s in almost 4000 snaps. Their grades are as nice as you’d expect given that, and he tuned down his amount of penalties in his last two seasons, splitting from 8 in the first two to 4 in the second two.

I appreciate how active he is in the run game from the two games I was able to consume. Scharping has the power to set an edge, and there are more videos of him absolutely planting D1 competition than, say, Andre Dillard:

Scharping had a good array of corner blocks and turns to where I don’t think that clip is an unreasonable display of his power. He has a nice anchor when he locks on to his target. Here’s one of him stonewalling one-on-one in the passing game:

Scharping struggled in the games I watched dealing with spin moves and stunts. He’s the kind of lineman that tries to win early in the down by getting his hands on you, and if you can win the hand game against him early, that gives you a good chance. Here’s him getting engulfed by a spin move:

But you look at what he can offer — smart play, terrific anchor, has some hustle to the edge — I think he can be a solid starting right tackle from Day 1. He has the potential to be more than that, and I wouldn’t even necessarily rule him out as a left tackle even though he’d be slow to the edge. It depends on how many reps he’s going to be able to win mentally.

Also, even though I don’t think this specific play is replicable in the pros, I like that he’s got his head on a swivel enough to keep finding people to block:

Scharping is my favorite of Houston’s first three picks and the only one I’m entirely sold on contributing in a positive way in his rookie year. His track record is strong, his athleticism is quite solid for his weight, and he’s got a good mind for the game. The question will ultimately be how far the upside is. Lance Zierlein’s comp was Ricky Wagner, which would be kind of a mid-tier result. He does still have plenty to polish — the hands being too low in his stance is something I noted that concurs with Zierlein’s report — but I don’t think he needs an entire mindset change.

I’d have rather picked him at 26 than Tytus Howard.