What competition means for the Houston Texans

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Something that became very evident in the pre-free agency scuttle for the Texans is that they believed heavily in the idea of “competition.” It’s something that David Culley preached in his latest presser, when he said “Competition makes everybody better, and you’re always trying to do that through free agency. You do that through the draft, and that’s a yearly thing, and that’s something that we’re trying to do right now.” It’s something that became apparent via Nick Caserio’s interview with Sean Pendergast and Seth Payne when he said that he was aiming for “singles” and “doubles” in free agency.

A feeling I am getting from a lot of the fanbase is that they are somewhat miffed that the Texans aren’t being given more credit for their moves. They want to talk about improving the culture and, to Houston’s credit, they’ve done a good enough job selling the idea of competition that several fans have begun parroting that idea to me. It’s a nice little dopamine hit to make real changes! I certainly don’t think anybody can be “upset” at what has happened in free agency. I have my idea: I would rather have signed a young player with some room to grow like a William Jackson or Carl Lawson than eight special teamers. But what we don’t know — or I should say, what we only know implicitly — is how free agents with actual options viewed the Texans.

https://texanswire.usatoday.com/2021/03/23/chris-conley-texans-david-culley/

So let’s make a distinction then: My major issue with the Texans offseason is that I think they should have hoarded money to sign more guys like Desmond King and Phillip Lindsay — guys who slipped through the cracks of real free agency — instead of spending in advance of free agency on David Johnson, Justin Britt, and Mark Ingram. They pre-determined their strategy and it felt like they got caught off-guard a bit by the market.

As I write this on Sunday night, Jadeveon Clowney is still a free agent. I know he comes with warts, and you should too, because he is unsigned in free agency after a few weeks for a reason. But he’s only 28, has shown the ability to be a core player for a team in the past, and could rebuild value here. I felt the same way about Sammy Watkins before he was signed on Friday night. Malik Hooker and Al-Quadin Muhammad are extremely young off rookie contracts. Maybe they see these guys and are trying to pounce — they’ve certainly treated the salary cap like it’s not much of an obstacle so far with the amount of restructures they’ve done. I would have prioritized that over what the Texans did in their opening free agency salvo.

But my main objective to what the Texans have done is that it gets harder and harder to pull someone like that from a salary cap standpoint when you’ve signed five different linebackers/special teams players to have a competition. Likewise, when it comes time to pull undrafted free agents — a place where the Texans can actually potentially sign guys who will matter for four years instead of one — the amount of depth that the Texans have signed may make it hard for them to grab a deep class.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with wanting to have a competition. Bill O’Brien absolutely would have been better served to have competitions at times instead of sticking his favorites in their spots. The Texans will also draft players that will come in and provide extra competition at some of those spots as well. Special teams play will get better as an obvious emphasis point. You’d hope that bottom-of-the-roster play would get better as well, though that’s really about the evaluations.

But the thing about competition in the NFL is that when you do it with veteran free agents it is just a band-aid, and this team as currently constructed, without Deshaun Watson, will not benefit much from all these marginal improvements. They will improve, but they will improve from two wins to three, or three wins to four, or five wins to six with an extremely optimistic outcome as far as coaching and health goes. It’s not exactly what you’re hoping for if, say, your best-case season outcome for the team is to get the No. 1 pick. (I wouldn’t say I’m one of those people, by the way, but you still need a credible quarterback solution if Watson’s allegations do not lead to him somehow starting for this team in September.)

The real problem here — and the reason I would favor just hitting the salary floor this year if I couldn’t load up on the Clowneys and Watkinses of the world — is that once the competition is done here this year, they’re done. This team does not have many current paths to long-term roster improvement because of the Laremy Tunsil trade. Deshaun Watson is only on the roster in spirit, and may eventually give some new players in this box via trade. Outside of that, Lonnie Johnson, Charles Omenihu, Max Scharping, Ross Blacklock, Jonathan Greenard, and Tytus Howard are the only players under 27 with an inside track to a starter role that are guaranteed to still be on the roster in 2022. I don’t think many of those guys have star-level ascensions to come — I think we would have seen more from them by now if they did. That’s not to say that they can’t be very effective players, good starters, and so on. But I doubt there are multiple Laremy Tunsils or DeAndre Hopkinses or J.J. Watts in that group. You might find one, if you’re lucky.

Justin Reid, Jordan Akins (not appearing in this photo because he’s 30 and had a minor league baseball career), Jacob Martin, Keion Crossen, P.J. Hall, Buddy Howell, and Keke Coutee are going to be free agents after the year. That is a major problem with not giving your young players snaps and space to develop and calling it “not a rookie year” and blaming a lack of readiness on not having enough offseason reps like an imbecile. The only young player in this entire free agency class that’s gotten snaps is Vernon Hargreaves, and Hargreaves has proven time and time again he doesn’t deserve them. (That’s something that happened after O’Brien left, too, by the way, when Romeo Crennel continued to make sure young players never sniffed real playing time.) I don’t know how good any of those players are except for Reid. If the ethos is to simply get enough veterans to not rely on young players, well, those players aren’t going to develop.

If I’m Desmond King, why am I here for more than a year if the Texans don’t blow me away with an offer? They’re still fairly likely to not have a good team barring a complete change of heart on the trade stance by Watson. You get an in, and an in is something, but if your team is barren, players understand they’re not actually winning much here. If you can’t offer winning, or stars that promise wins, or youth, anyone with an option off the ship will probably take it unless you overpay them. If I’m Kevin Pierre-Louis, and I turn 30 in October as I’m going 5-12 while having a good off-ball linebacker season, do I want to be back here in 2022 or do I want to try to get a ring while I still can?

So I would prefer to flood the roster with UDFAs, make it more likely that you hit one, and if you do, suddenly, that’s an asset. If UDFAs don’t face a lot of competition to make a roster, by the way, that’s often a selling point to their agents! (The talent level matters too, which is why the Texans will still be attractive to some players, but I think the best way to approach this is on a grander scale, understanding that these things won’t always work out.) The Patriots in recent years have signed J.C. Jackson, Adam Butler, Jacob Hollister, Kenny Moore, Jakobi Meyers, Cre’Von LeBlanc, and Jonathan Jones out of UDFA spots. If Houston could get four or five undrafted free agents out of this class that have starter upside, that would be a huge coup for them.

Now, could that happen anyway? Maybe! But I would argue that priming the pump for that is the best use of Houston’s resources right now. I would argue that a UDFA special teamer who struggles Weeks 1-12 while he learns the NFL speed and comes on in the last month of the season is more valuable than anything Terrence Brooks could give them. That’s no slight on Brooks’ value or talent, that’s just an admission to the way the NFL economic model currently works. By flooding the roster with veterans that will eat offseason reps, the Texans are creating roadblocks for youth that could suddenly step up.

That’s a willful choice, and it’s one that remains consistent from the O’Brien administration. Maybe it works out in a positive way and someone flips a pick for some of these players at the trade deadline. I think a more realistic view of where the Texans are at would show that they would be better served letting the youth on the roster settle how good they are on the practice field and preseason, and then living with the inconsistency for 17 weeks. Trying to buffer the roster into five- or six-win territory doesn’t do them a lot of good as long as the quarterback questions remain unanswered.

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