Free agency’s opening salvo shows the many different masters that Nick Caserio has to serve

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

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The Texans drowned us in a sea of small stakes content over the past few days. The Shaq Lawson for Benardrick McKinney trade struck me as inspired, and I can see ways that some of their signings work out in a positive way.

However, what struck me hardest is the strain that the Deshaun Watson/Jack Easterby dynamic has put on Nick Caserio’s pursuit of re-imagining this team. Limited resources are one thing, but the future of the franchise is effectively in flux and that’s a hard thing to present in free agency to anybody who has a real option on where they want to play next year. In other words: you can overpay free agents who have a choice, or you can watch them sign anywhere but Houston. Here’s a quick rundown of the genres I think Caserio was put up against in deciding this plan:

The Greater Easterby Fellowship

As I have pointed out on this blog several times, Cal McNair (and Bob) have a belief in building-by-consensus. “We needed [interim head coach] Romeo Crennel to focus on coaching the team. Jack Easterby is a great person, a great leader and a consensus builder, so he is who I chose to serve as our interim GM,” McNair told ESPN in November. What that means is that anybody who is in a major position of power for the team has a real vote on what happens. And what that means is, of course, Jack Easterby is allowed to have a say. I want to share the video of Seth Payne and Sean Pendergast’s interview with Caserio and focus in on what he said when asked about bringing David Johnson back:

That abstract start to the answer is nothing new for Caserio, but I think it’s very telling that he didn’t even begin to defend Johnson’s piss-poor 2020 production. He offered “production at different points.” My read of this is that this wasn’t a signing that Caserio actually loved. My read of it is that he got outvoted.

I think anybody who was on the 2019-2020 Texans in a veteran, largely unproductive role has to be looked at with an extremely skeptical eye at this point. That extends to my large amount of frustration that the team will wind up yet again have Vernon Hargreaves at corner. The depth chart in front of Hargreaves is just unsettled enough for him to again wind up playing large portions of the season despite being empirically awful at the job no matter which set of numbers you look at. The Texans have continually defended him in public, be it Anthony Weaver as defensive coordinator or D’Anton Lynn as secondary coach in his few availabilities:

I don’t want to dwell on this too much, because every organization has their favorites and Caserio is not immune to his favorites either. But when a consensus builder literally just failed in a historical way at helping shape the roster that is in place today, he probably shouldn’t have much say! Yet he does! Go Texans!

Layers and layers of players

One thing it was impossible to leave the recent David Culley or Nick Caserio pressers with was a sense that they value quantity over quality.

This is an approach that is extremely weird to me for a team that doesn’t have a lot of finished parts and, in my opinion, lends some credence to the idea that Watson’s dispute with the Texans will take a long time to settle. These small special teams-focused moves and bargain-bin replacements you hope can hold up are finishing touches on a great roster. For a roster like the one that the Texans have right now, they feel tonally off. This team isn’t a fifth-place special teams DVOA from winning anything unless Watson is here, and even then, it’s not like that kept them from being 4-12 last season.

Most of these moves are one-year deals, so the Texans have a lot of space left to pivot to something if the Watson situation gets even worse. But at the same time, if one of these guys vastly outplays his contract, the Texans get no real reward out of it. The player is right back to free agency or in Caserio’s office angling for a big raise.

When you look at the opportunity cost of signing these special teams guys, potential linebacker solutions, Mark Ingram, David Johnson, and Christian Kirksey and put it up against trying to lure an actual talented football player to the Texans and backfilling with younger players who may not do as well, I think it’s a poor choice for a team with this little talent on the roster. This team needs to be embracing the idea that it can manufacture some good value out of youth rather than treating it with skepticism. Their ability to offer young guys a chance in a churn is one of the most valuable things they have right now.

Which leads us to another major point of the shadow that the Watson-Easterby/McNair standoff envelops:

Does anybody actually want to be a Houston Texan if they have a choice?

I listen to the readers and commenters of this blog/Twitter/the greater Texansphere, and I think a lot of you are tired of hearing about the Watson situation. I empathize in that it feels like your fandom is under attack on a daily basis, even if that isn’t a fully rational feeling. The reason it remains a big deal is not just because of Watson’s obvious talent and how badly other people covet it, but also because the perception around the Texans is currently awful. Players want to play with other great players. Watson is one of them. He’s one of them who you literally can’t find a non-hot take artist to say a bad thing about. And he’s holding out. That sets a tone that is hard for free agents to ignore.

Let’s imagine any rational top-of-the-line free agent with multiple suitors looking at what he sees in the Texans situation right now. There’s the state income tax not existing; that’s real nice. But the team finished 4-12 last season and the only reason they didn’t finish 2-14 is currently something you can’t count on being there. Upper management is the biggest joke in the NFL and they essentially exist in a mindset where there is no separation of church and state. David Culley is not a head coach with a long history of success in putting guys in roles to succeed — and because of where he was plucked from, there’s no way he could have that reputation yet. Any one of those things could be a red flag to a guy like Joe Thuney, John Johnson, or William Jackson signing with the Texans. All of them? It’s a death knell. You’re gonna have to overpay them to get their interest.

So when you see a Kirksey signing, a Justin Britt signing, a Mark Ingram signing, all happening pre-free agency and over the minimum, what that tells you is that the market for those guys is limited. Indeed, none of the three of them finished last season in their team’s plans. Britt didn’t even spend any of the 2020 season on a team after his 2019 ACL tear. That doesn’t mean they can’t claw out effective seasons in the right circumstances with the right locale. But it also is indicative of the very real issues those guys had in the eyes of other NFL teams.

Ingram had a 40-yard touchdown run, untouched, against the Texans on fourth down in Week 2. That run outgained or tied five of his 10 biggest yardage days of last season and he didn’t finish the season on the active roster; he’s 31. Kirksey has played 20 games in the last three seasons and will turn 29 before the season.

Maliek Collins, who I admittedly like a little more as an upside play compared to these pre-FA guys, had no sacks last season. The details of this contract don’t even really seem to trust Collins, guaranteeing him just $2 million of the reported $6 million. If they find someone else in training camp, he could easily be cut. We don’t have the details of my favorite signing of Monday’s lot, Kevin Pierre-Louis, but his contract is “up to $7 million,” not $7 million. I like Vincent Taylor and we considered him on the FO Top Prospects List a couple years ago. He’s getting $850,000 guaranteed.

None of these guys are taking minimum deals to play here, they are here because they had sad markets in a crushed offseason. The Texans set them slightly above that.

And what that really means is…

Real talent has to be acquired through trades

The two most talented players added to the roster were added via trade on Sunday. The Texans acquired Shaq Lawson from the Dolphins for Benardrick McKinney, and they acquired Marcus Cannon from the Patriots in a series of pick-swaps.

While I’m somewhat surprised that McKinney reportedly had multiple teams interested in trading for him, I think the Texans did good to fill a real need area with Lawson. Lawson reminds me a lot of former Titans EDGE player Derrick Morgan — he’s not a consistent finisher, but he can generate enough pressure to be a good secondary rusher. Big body, looks the part outside of shorter arm length. It’s not really Lawson’s fault that the Texans don’t have a No. 1 EDGE player, so it’s unfair to judge him in that context. But he’ll deliver some sort of known floor up front.

The Cannon trade price was largely inconsequential to the bottom line unless you believe this is such a deep draft that the 109th pick should be at a premium as compared to the 120th, which I can’t really see as true. Where he plays … that’s a great question. Either he or Tytus Howard will likely move inside to right guard, which makes Zach Fulton, Britt, and Max Scharping fighting to fill two slots assuming perfect health. At the end of the day, he’s a good lineman despite no 2020 to speak of because of the COVID-19 opt-out, but he’s also 33 and is likely not a long-term fixture or a reason to feel good about moving on from Laremy Tunsil or anything like that.

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This isn’t really a column in defense of Caserio’s first day of free agency. I don’t think anything greatly changed for the 2021 Texans Monday, but I don’t think the signings in and of themselves are bad ones. They’re the kind of signings where, when paired with other big moves, you can look at as low-risk stabs at production that had to be chosen in deference to the salary cap. When they are the entire sustenance of the meal? That’s like making the entire plate out of broccoli. I love a good floret or five, but you know what else I like? Protein and starch.

The thing is, there’s no way I can sit here and tell you I believe that all of this is a grand Caserio design. I do think he would have chased special teams guys either way. But beyond that? What can you really do when you general manage these Houston Texans and there’s no clarity on Watson’s future? What can you do about players and roster spots that are clearly Easterby-given? The Texans Cinematic Universe has created a stasis that makes it impossible to compete for free agents with other real options. The only solutions are more money or pre-existing relationships. They might win a medium-sized fish before this is all over, but if they do, I bet it comes because of one of those two things.

Maybe one or a couple of these guys comes out and has a nice season and it can be a bright spot in what is looking more and more likely to be another lost year. I appreciate that as these signings come down they are a dopamine hit for fans and any kind of move is viewed as a “culture shift” and even the older players can be “mentors for young players.” If you wanna get high off of that, I’m not shaming you in the slightest. But the culture has been set by upper management, and it is here to stay regardless of how many pass-rush moves Charles Omenihu learns from Lawson or what Cannon teaches Scharping about bull rushes.

This team is in a state of suspended animation until Watson is traded or appeased. The only people who don’t know it are the owner and Cal McNair.

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