Nick Caserio dumps Brandin Cooks and Laremy Tunsil bags another big contract

The Texans news-dumped the two biggest pieces of news of their offseason Sunday morning, unloading Brandin Cooks to the Cowboys for a fifth-round pick this year and a sixth-round pick next year, then signing Laremy Tunsil to a three-year, $75 million extension with $50 million in guaranteed money. I have rational takes on each of these moves, and I also have emotional takes on each of these moves.

Laremy Tunsil gets the bag yet again

Rational: I think where I start with is: Thank goodness Caserio actually paid somebody.

I started writing a post about Houston’s foray into free agency — I want to give it some more time — and one of the major bits I came up with was “because of this team’s lack of any commitment to anyone, the 2024 and 2025 caps are absolutely barren.” Even after Tunsil re-signed, the Texans still lead the NFL with $150 million in cap space in 2024 and are second to the Patriots with $225 million in estimated 2025 cap space. Those numbers will, obviously, go down a lot before we actually get there. There will be more draft picks made, if nothing else. But as it stands Tunsil is the only player on the 2025 cap sheet that isn’t on a rookie contract or just eating money because of a void contract.

Tunsil the player has kind of always been a weird concept for me to grasp. I’m not quite as invested in the narrative of “young quarterbacks must be protected” as some that I read — I think the quarterbacks themselves are more important on most plays. In the games that Tunsil has missed over the last three years, I wouldn’t say the team has struggled without him in a material way. Tunsil does his job and he does it well, though I think even his biggest boosters would have to admit he’s a much better pass protector than a run blocker. Regardless, there’s no reason to believe he’s going to decline suddenly and offensive tackles tend to hold their age well, so I see it as a relatively safe contract to hand out. I would say Tunsil is in the top five tackles in the NFL on talent.

I don’t quite see this move as a no-brainer. Tunsil’s stock has risen a lot in the last year because he played a full season. But in 2021 he played just five games and the idea of him coming back to play with what was described as a hand injury was sort of left in murky unanswered question territory, and if I am recalling the discourse of the time correctly, there were many Texans fans that wanted to move on. I don’t think if the Texans tried to trade him after that season, they would have gotten quite what they could have gotten this offseason, which makes me see this as a potential opportunity. But on its face, is handing a great tackle a lot of money a good move? Sure.

I also think the contract structure is fairly favorable to the Texans overall, unlike the last one that kind of forced a move here. They can move on after two seasons if they’d like, and if not he’s probably playing well enough that $28.85 million a season is a reasonable expense.

Emotional: This free agency market has been fascinating to me.

C.J. Gardner-Johnson just got a one-year, prove-it deal after a massive season in which he led the NFL in interceptions. For free agents, if you weren’t in the first wave of the market, you probably took a bit of a haircut from what you were expecting, and this is despite the fact that the cap actually went up unlike the weird situation we had with the COVID-influenced cap. Mike McGlinchey and Jawaan Taylor got major money … but Orlando Brown did not.

Brown turns 27 in May. Tunsil turns 29 in August. Tunsil now makes $25 million a season. Brown makes … $16 million. There’s reporting from Aaron Wilson that the Chiefs were in contact with the Texans, though Ian Rapoport said that trade talk on Tunsil was never “real.”

Now the Texans would have had to overpay Brown to get him here — I think it’s very clear in free agency that there is a loser tax that must be paid. But would the Texans be better off with Tunsil for $25 million a year, or, say, Brown for $20 million a year and some Chiefs draft assets? I think that’s a real question, and I don’t know if Tunsil’s market was fully explored but that probably hints at the true opportunity cost of this contract. I also wouldn’t have been too concerned about moving on from Tunsil and whiffing at this period of time because I wouldn’t mind seeing what Tytus Howard could do with a large sample at left tackle before he hits free agency.

The other thing about this contract is that it feels eerily like the Cooks contract that blew up in Caserio’s face. A three-year extension with a lot of guaranteed money up front for someone who is reaching the twilight of their prime years. Now, Cooks straight up wanted out, which I don’t think is a real risk with Tunsil. But a phrase that Caserio used in his Payne and Pendergast interview of “thread[ing] the needle” while doing contracts leads me to believe this isn’t exactly a long-term contract so much as something to sustain the value for now.

Ultimately there’s not actually a reason to be upset with the contract and Tunsil deserves the money. My only concern is that it stands firmly against a depressed market and there might have been a way to go about it that got you more value.

The end of the Brandin Cooks Culture Era

Rational: This is a massive loss for Nick Caserio and there’s not really a way to spin it otherwise. He was the one who brokered this extension. I don’t know that I would entirely pin the fault on him, depending on what he knew and when he knew it, because I doubt he would have fired Jack Easterby on his own and started the Culture Rebellion of 2022. It’s not his fault that Cooks reacted the way he did to that.

But in the player empowerment era — Texans fans, you may remember something about this, a certain franchise quarterback you were trying to forget about — you have to weight the cost of the relationship against the damage it can potentially do the business. Here’s what Ian Rapoport said about the trade:

Here’s what my ears focused on out of this: “He wanted his say, he wanted where he wanted to go, there was a lot here going on.” This is starting to happen a little more than you’d expect. Jalen Ramsey’s trade was much the same way — how do you trade two firsts for a guy and then wind up with a third-rounder for him a few years later? Well, you do it because that’s where Ramsey wanted to go and he got a lot of new guaranteed money out of the trade. The Dolphins didn’t have a ton of assets to offer. The player picked the trade more than the team did. And I think if you read between the lines here, that’s kind of what happened.

Picking up any salary at all and still only getting this paltry return leaves a bad taste in my mouth. If you listen to Caserio talk about it, I think it’s pretty clear that even he knows he didn’t get great value. He hems and haws about “experts” and says that at some point you have to make deal:

At the end, it kind of feels like the Texans just got worn down and they were tired of waiting. And so, they pulled the trigger. I’m not telling you Caserio got fleeced because, well, we don’t know the whole story here. This isn’t something I’d hold against him, and it felt like a lot of it was circumstances out of his control. But it’s not a return that sparks joy.

The emotional: As I talked about with Tunsil, the market as a whole in free agency and in trades has been very slow. Allen Lazard, Jakobi Meyers, and JuJu Smith-Schuster all got paid reasonable deals, but nobody got a Christian Kirk contract. Lazard only really got his deal because Aaron Rodgers exists. Darren Waller fetched a third-round pick, but not a second.

You still have a DeAndre Hopkins trade waiting to happen. The Broncos have shopped both Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton. You still have Mecole Hardman and Odell Beckham Jr. hanging around in free agency. The market of teams willing to spend has been capped to some extent and they are waiting things out.

I don’t know how real it is that the Texans had a second-round pick on the table from the Cowboys for Cooks at the deadline if they ate more salary. I’m not entirely sure how much of that to believe, though I’ve heard more than one person report it. But I do think at the very least, Caserio is guilty of mistiming the market. Let’s say the two was a three, or better than anything you got in this trade by two rounds. I think it’s much easier to get someone to pay in-season, when football teams really do become prisoners of the moment, then it is in the offseason when there are unlimited possibilities. The Steelers got a second-round pick for a bad team from Chase Claypool. There’s absolutely no way that would have happened this offseason, especially after the Bears reeled in D.J. Moore as part of their trade down. There’s no way the Bills would give up a fifth-round pick for Nyheim Hines today. Those are prisoner of the moment trades, where someone talked themselves into this being the best available option they had right now. In much the same way that in dynasty football leagues, my draft picks matter a lot more to me in the offseason than they do when I’m one game behind the leader and need a better running back.

And I do think there was an opportunity to do more of that with Dallas, though I wouldn’t get hung up on the idea of the second-round pick. I’d also happily eat more money for a better pick because, well, the 2023 Texans have much more of a chance to be good than the last two years in my opinion … but it’s not a high enough chance to make me not want better draft picks.

Ultimately, and this may be a little vindictive by me — if that was the best return I could get, Cooks is free to just sit out the season. I’m already eating 1/3rd of the contract anyway. I get the need to do right by the player, and I’m not going down the locker room cancer discourse that his teammates have already vociferously defended him from. But if Cooks is such a good locker room guy, such an excellent culture fit, perhaps he can get over it and deal with the fact that this is a new team, with a new offense, likely with a better quarterback, and he is making $18 million so he better show up? Because there’s no way this trade makes the Texans better. It just doesn’t. This is just a trade to get rid of a headache.

Caserio mentioned that quote-unquote better deal in his comments on Payne and Pendergast — he also noted that they had conversations with Cooks after DeMeco Ryans was brought on board. I respect that. But I don’t see a real downside to keeping him if that’s all I’m getting … unless he knows something that I don’t, which could very well be the case.

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