Thoughts: Nick Caserio’s latest free-agency class

Let’s get out in front of what I’m sure will be the clapback that comes with having an unpopular opinion about Houston’s work in free agency: The team has improved.

Case Keenum, though older, is a good fit in a 49ers-based offense (see work in Minnesota) and should be a safer backup than Davis Mills. Devin Singletary is a damn sight better than Rex Burkhead. The depth at wideout is better. Dalton Schultz is an actual stab at a starting tight end rather than a depth guy stretched out of his current place. Shaq Mason is better than A.J. Cann. Sheldon Rankins and Hassan Ridgeway offer more up front than last year’s Roy Lopez/Kurt Hinish combination. Denzel Perryman (when healthy) is a better linebacker than the team had last season. Jimmie Ward is a much better starter over the course of his career than Eric Murray has been.

These are all things that are true. I would even go as far as to say that the combination of a down free agency market and Caserio pivoting quickly off of the Brandin Cooks contract to snag Schultz showed a deft hand at maneuvering the market in real time.

I have led the column with this because I feel like not saying these things off the bat makes a certain class of fan poster get really grouchy. I do believe Caserio has done a good job at free agency in so far as the way he prefers to run free agency — my qualms with what has happened, as well as my questions about it — are mostly philosophical.

To the extent that I have arguments with posters and commentators about this and they and I have different perspectives, I think it’s mostly about how good each of these players are and what acquiring them really means for the future. As an example, I just said up there that that I think Shaq Mason is better than A.J. Cann. I don’t think Shaq Mason is a fixture for this team in two or three years though.

The Texans didn’t have to give up much to get him — they swapped a sixth for a seventh. They haven’t extended his contract — nor would I advise them to. He’s going to turn 30 this offseason. Two teams in a row have given up on him without finding much of a market for his services in consecutive offseasons. That doesn’t mean he’s not a good player — it just means the NFL doesn’t think he’s a core player. I’ve seen arguments wrapped around something like “the Bucs had to get rid of him,” but those same Bucs were like $50 million over the cap and kept anyone they considered a core player. Lavonte David came back, Mike Evans and Chris Godwin came back, Shaq Barrett came back, Vita Vea and Devin White are back — even Jamel Dean on a huge contract! They probably could have kept Mason if they thought he was one of the ten best players on their team or something. They didn’t.

Anyway, my questions:

Is this team finally going to be good enough for a bunch of one-year commitments to matter?

I don’t think the Texans are going to make the playoffs next year. I think they lack a proven No. 1 receiver, I believe they will be starting a rookie quarterback, and I think there are enough holes on the roster (Center, No. 1 EDGE, places where rookies or younger players are going to be put on the spot to improve dramatically) that a lot would have to go right. Most of the bookies are citing the Texans around 5.5 wins, which is tied for the lowest figure in the NFL with the Cardinals. Their future odds for next season are all drastically behind everyone but Arizona.

But for the first time under Caserio, they look to finally have a good head coach prospect and be headed towards a good starting quarterback prospect. Those are, as they say in the business, “a start.”

My problem with the way Caserio philosophically runs free agency is that it’s hard to generate future value for the franchise out of it. It’s something of a “nothing ventured, nothing gained” idea. The team hands out very few long-term contracts, and also seems extremely comfortable paying veterans as long as they aren’t on the hook for it for many seasons. It is, in my eyes, an underrated factor in how the team has created a roster where there are very few valuable players that aren’t on rookie contracts. Everyone loves to blame the Bill O’Brien contracts for this, but Bill O’Brien didn’t make this team bring back David Johnson in 2021.

Now, to Caserio’s credit, I think he has defied the Nate Tice term “Houston Madden 78s” a bit this offseason. He’s gotten a better class of player than he has the last two offseasons. Maybe they’re close to the Madden 83-85s because of the circumstances of a down market and a more well-regarded coaching staff. And, to Caserio’s credit, I think this team has a non-insignificant chance of competing this season as compared to the previous two offseasons where … well, come on.

But it relies on a lot of instantaneous steps forward in a lot of areas. Like, Nico Collins has to be great. Jalen Pitre needs to be a better tackler. Christian Harris needs to be less lost. The rookie quarterback can’t struggle. The offense and defense have to not have adjustment periods.

On a purely transactional level, there’s not a lot of downside to the way Nick approaches these things. The Texans are not overpaying the market. They’re not in any danger of “losing” one of these transactions. But at the same time, if they aren’t a fringe playoff contender, then none of these contracts really meant anything in the long game. Even the two-year deals they handed out to Woods and Ward come with pretty easy one-year outs in 2024. I philosophically believe the Texans should be playing the long game still — or I guess in general, since they’ve never done that in free agency under Caserio.

If this were the 2012 Texans, or the 2021 Chargers, or the Patriots under Caserio, where a core of good players were locked into place already, this kind of supplementary approach would be … a pretty smart way to run a franchise in my book! But the Texans have almost no core to supplement. They may finally be getting a franchise quarterback this year — we’ll see how that turns out — but they don’t have the kind of up-and-down talent core on the roster that would merit this approach. They haven’t had that for any of Caserio’s offseasons.

To me, this is a situation that calls for a more creative approach than the one that has been taken. They need to unearth core players, guys who will be on the team in three years. And the way that Caserio has approached offseasons — almost no deals beyond two years, no risk — is the exact way that they would never find a core player. Well, except maybe…

Is Dalton Schultz a core player?

This is the offseason’s biggest question, and I want to tell you that I love this signing for a sneaky low-downside reason even if I have my doubts that Schultz is going to be a star: The Texans are 100 percent protected if he stuns me and has a monster year.

Because this is exactly like the Evan Engram situation last offseason. The tight end franchise tag is one of the biggest exploits on the NFL market right now and will remain that way next offseason. I have not seen or read a report that tells me that Schultz is protected from being tagged next offseason. The Dolphins franchise-tagged Mike Gesicki then barely used him in 2022, and tight end is now projected to have the lowest franchise tender of any position in 2024 at $13.6 million. So to me, the major upside in this move is that if the Texans get anything resembling franchise play from Schultz, this isn’t really a one-year deal.

As far as the odds of that actually happening? I’m not sure what to think about that. One thing that stood out to me over the last couple of years is Schultz with and without Dak Prescott in the fold. Schultz played three games without Prescott in 2022 — admittedly, while dealing with a knee injury — and was targeted eight times, catching two balls for 18 yards. In his one game without Prescott in 2021? Two catches, 11 yards, seven targets. 2020 without Dak? 11 games, 58 targets, 44 catches for 390 yards and two touchdowns as compared to 225 yards in just the five games Dak played in.

So is that as easy as “get Dalton Schultz a good quarterback and prosper?” Or is that a specific matter of Prescott being the type of quarterback (pre-snap reads, knows where to go against zone over the middle) who makes a player like Schultz shine? Keep in mind that the 49ers have not exactly targeted George Kittle as much as they could have over the years. He had 86 targets in 2022, and only seven games with more than five targets. He hasn’t had 100 targets in a season since 2019. (Granted he often gets hurt, but…)

I like the signing — I have a lot of uncertainty over whether Schultz will actually become a core player. I do believe Schultz will be a productive TE1, but to me he wouldn’t be a must-roster fantasy football player or anything like that. I’m expecting modest, steady production rather than a bunch of 10-catch games.

Why can’t the Texans find their own D.J. Reader in free agency?

Reader became a free agent after the 2019 season, after years of creating a wonderful Texans run defense with his power up front. The Texans immediately became a bad run defense and never really recovered under Anthony Weaver or Lovie Smith. Reader signed a four-year contract worth $53 million — with $20.25 million in guarantees — with the lowly Bengals. The 2020 Bengals were … still bad! They went 4-11-1. They allowed 5.1 yards per rush attempt. It was hard to say that Reader immediately improved the situation. But … he still played extremely well, and he was a building block to them one day becoming good against the run once they filled some more holes in the front seven.

In 2021, the Bengals made the playoffs at 10-7. Their yards per attempt allowed on the ground fell to 4.3. They improved from 21st in run defense DVOA to 13th. They won the AFC North by a half-game, and every team in the AFC that made the playoffs had seven losses. Had they not signed Reader, would they have ever made the playoffs? Would they have ever made the Super Bowl run that they did? I kind of doubt it.

A lot of what I consider reductive analysis focused on trying to find logic by this team’s fans revolves around the idea that this team simply must have been tanking despite signing oodles of free agents and never getting a compensation pick for their losses in free agency. I think what has actually been happening is that the team has had no real plan to find building blocks like Reader in free agency or out of UDFA or trades. Caserio approaches free agency like an actuary, and his goal is to get out of it with the best players he can at the least risk he can.

The thing is, generating core players goes hand-and-hand with taking real stabs in free agency. If you sign someone expensive, then you allocate the resources around so that someone like Jimmy Morrissey might get a real shot at center because you can’t address it with a low-level free agent. I don’t think Morrissey would have been a star or anything, but it’s hard to argue that the Texans did better with Justin Britt and Scott Quessenberry the last two years despite paying real money for them.

I can understand the nihlist approach to free agency that Caserio takes — most free agents don’t work out, and most money will not be well-spent — but it’s curious to me that he takes almost the exact opposite approach in the draft. He goes out of his way to trade up for players he believes in, at a cost that I’d call fairly high even if it hasn’t sacrificed many Day 2 picks.

At the end of the day, it was a “waste” for the Bengals to sign Reader for the 2020 season. But they weren’t signing him solely for that season. The way that Caserio approaches free agency makes it almost impossible for him to ever create this kind of building block on the roster. The closest thing he has now is Maliek Collins, who he had to pay to keep off the free agent market after a one-year deal. That’s kind of where Schultz would be headed for me if not for the franchise tag exploit. Speaking of one-year deals…

Ogbonnia Okornokwo leaving worries me — will the Texans ever re-sign one of their own free agents to a deal that goes more than two years?

The Texans seemed to have problems properly using Ogo Okoronkwo last season. He was something of a free-agent success story for the team despite that. His pass-rush metrics in the advanced stats were all very good. He had some big games down the stretch once he started getting more playing time, including two sacks in the win over Tennessee. Great find, right? And he even wanted to come back.

But Caserio had only given him a one-year contract last offseason. And he seemed unwilling to match what I’d call a commitment but not a back-breaking deal from the Browns of: Three years, $19 million, $12.5 million in guarantees. Okoronkwo turns 28 in April and I think the market makes it clear that he’s more of a second banana rusher than a superstar, but I think you can argue that he could have been a part of this team’s core after they identified him.

The problem is, well, he’s gone now. Caserio won the free-agent contract — he got more than he paid for. And that efficiency didn’t do anything for the Texans in the end. He didn’t trade him at the deadline. (The only players he’s dealt at the trade deadline are Charles Omenihu, which looks to be a value mistake based on culture … and Mark Ingram, who appeared to ask off the team.) He’s not going to recap compensation picks for Okoronkwo because the Texans have signed plenty of players to respectable AAV contracts. They didn’t get a comp pick for Justin Reid last offseason for much the same reasons. (They did get a comp pick this year because of their record and a lack of comp picks handed out.)

Okoronkwo was one of my favorite players that the Texans signed in 2022 because I thought he deserved a real chance to play and the Texans could give it to him. In my opinion? That’s one of the archetypes of players the Texans should be trying to sign. But the way that contract was structured, Caserio created a no-win situation for the team, because if Okoronkwo played well, no surplus value was being generated for it. I don’t know if I’d say that Okoronkwo was going to be a core player for the team based on last year, but I’d say a good third EDGE rusher is worth $6-7 million a season, and he could play a bigger role until the team found the true No. 1 it needs up front.

What if the Texans had made a big free agency mistake?

I’m not giving Caserio too hard of a time about the record he’s piled up here because, let’s be real, he hired two coaches that were immediately laughable and the best quarterback he employed over this timespan spent the back half of last season platooning with Jeff Driskel. At least some of that can be excused away via in-house meddling from everyone’s favorite local youth pastor and an immediate franchise quarterback trade request. He does own the results, but they are somewhat understandable.

But these past two years could have been spent developing younger players instead of finding the highest floor he could have. With all due respect to the players, who are just trying their best, a big part of the reason I’ve had problems getting invested in this team’s success the last two years is that it never mattered to me if they performed well. Justin Britt playing at his 90th percentile outcome was never going to take the Texans anywhere. Justin Britt playing at his 30th percentile outcome was a colossal waste of everyone’s time compared to just cycling through practice squad and UDFA guys searching for anyone who could do something. So … why?

I’m also not saying if they’d named me general manager in 2021 the team would be in some magically better place. Look at what I wrote about Reader. I very well may have applied that idea to like, Kenny Golladay.

But crucially: If Hypothetical Kenny Golladay had failed for the Texans — and I do think this is more about probability than a default state, he may not have gotten hurt here, etc. — it wouldn’t actually have mattered. The cost of these guys on Houston’s roster is like four veterans who never mattered, and it’s not hard to cut bait with NFL contracts. The only risk is — rich coming from me — a bunch of middle-aged white dudes whining about how some player quit on his contract or is overpaid. But … said people were going to criticize this team either way on account of it being bad.

All of which is to say, if the choice is 2021 Kenny Golladay and four UDFAs on the roster or like, Justin Britt, Andre Roberts, Pharaoh Brown, Kamu Grugier-Hill, and Terrance Mitchell? One of those paths had the potential to uncover a block or three for the team to work with. The other one is what the Texans chose. They have signed enough random guys they like because of special teams work or projecting them to a startable linebacker caliber to easily cover a major signing. (By the way, I think it’s great that Caserio has focused on good special teams … but giving a good special-teams unit to a four-win team is like giving a 6-year-old a driver’s license.)

They just … don’t do that.

The longest game

What the Caserio Era has actually delivered is a pristine cap sheet in the year 2025, where the Texans will have (assuming no complete trade-downs) six first-round picks under contract and almost nothing else that takes up real space besides Laremy Tunsil and cap holds for void years. The current number is something like $225 million in cap space, though that will of course be eaten into when the other first-round picks are added along the way if nothing else. They currently lead the NFL in cap space available in 2024 at close to $150 million.

But the way Caserio has approached free agency, why would we believe that he’s suddenly going to start signing big free agents? He’s a value guy. There might be a player or two that break molds for him, but we haven’t seen that player yet. In three years of free agents, you’d think if that was going to happen, it would have happened already. A Jakobi Meyers or Jimmy Garoppolo this year, maybe. A J.C. Jackson in 2022 — not that the signing has worked out or anything, but he’s just a guy I thought the Texans might have some interest in based on his youth and his proximity to Caserio in New England.

When I critique the Caserio offseasons, one very common accusation I get leveled at me is that I want to build a contender in free agency. I’m not stupid. I know the Texans aren’t going to do that, nor have I really argued for them blowing out Osweilers worth of major contracts to Chandler Jones or something like that. All I want to see is the team attempting to find real building blocks rather than guys who will likely be gone in 2024. It’s how the Bengals built themselves a good defense in free agency — on guys like Reader, Tre Hendrickson, Mike Hilton, and Chidobe Awuzie. One or two upper/mid-tier investments an offseason like that can add up quickly if you hit on them, and they honestly cost less than you’d think.

My take is that this is austerity for the sake of austerity. Many teams have turned things around faster than Caserio has. The Lions, the Falcons, the Giants, the Bears, the Jets, the Jaguars … these are all teams that look much better for 2023 than the Texans do. A lot of that is about the quality of the coaching and the quarterbacks, yes, but those teams have also all utilized free agency and trades to find core players. Jared Goff was essentially a throw-in for the Lions. The Bears just reeled in DJ Moore. Hell, the Jets wildly overpaid C.J. Mosley, and it turns out that they didn’t take away any of their wins last season because of that.

There’s just, to me, a metric fuckton of opportunity cost that Caserio has more-or-less squandered these last three years. The Texans could have done a lot with their cap dollars. Let’s say that signing three-year deals is off the table because Caserio refuses to let it happen, that we have to protect the bottom line at all costs. OK, working with that in mind.

They can take on bad contracts for draft picks and profit as the Browns did from Brock Osweiler. (How about Allen Robinson? How about Russell Wilson?) They can decide to only sign released players and actually hoard compensatory picks. They can make the same moves that they were already making, but then actually trade your Jerry Hugheses of the world when they play well and get draft capital in return. They can actually have some UDFAs win camp competitions. (I know a few have for roster spots, but moreso, and let them play as starters on offense or defense because they have a chance to be reasonable cheap starters for a few years.)

The future flexibility of the cap sheet just doesn’t mean a lot to me when paired with a general manager who — I’m just going to lay it out there — doesn’t strike me as especially creative with his moves. This has all felt by-the-algorithm for awhile.

Maybe Caserio will actually spend for some big-name free agents in 2023 — I’ll be happy to praise him for that if I consider the moves good at the time, and I’ve been very on-board with the DeMeco Ryans hiring. I’m not trying to be obstinate for the sake of being obstinate here. Having these takes is honestly terrible for me mentally — I try to avoid the dogpile and I don’t really have a lot of interest in drawing attention to them because Everyone Wants To Be Happy With Their Team.

But if the whole point of this is to cycle one-year deals until a drafted core is in place … there are much faster ways to get to the endgame of this than all of us pretending we care what Eric Murray and Chase Winovich are going to do this season. There just are. We see them happen on every other NFL team but the Texans.

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