I’m separating this into a few posts because I don’t want to drop 5,000 words on one piece.
There is nothing I can do about my beefs with how this team is coached so I’m not going to run through that disclaimer on every position, but obviously it is a shadow that looms over the ceiling of the entire organization. Ultimately I have players I like that would not be used exactly in the way I’d prescribe. So I’ll also be trying to add people I think are good fits for what the coaching staff wants as well, even if they are not the exact players I’d go after.
QB: Deshaun Watson (rookie deal), FA signing, FA signing
I’ve got nothing against Brandon Weeden but I have serious doubts that he could manage the team well through a multi-week Deshaun Watson injury. He’s 35, 36 in October, and hasn’t started a game since 2015. To me, Weeden being a primary backup when your quarterback takes as many dings as Watson takes with his playmaking style is a bad fit.
So, who to chase then? I think Tyrod Taylor might allow the Texans to keep most of the offense they run normally with Watson, as well as give them enough juice as a runner to creatively manage through some games. I don’t know what Taylor’s market is like but the Bills ran him out of town and the Browns didn’t even give him a month as a starter — I think he might have to settle for being a backup. The Texans don’t figure to be cap-strapped and could give Taylor a decent one-year deal in the $4-$5 million range without it changing anything. (Alternately I like Colin Kaepernick but I have my doubts the Texans would actually be interested for reasons that are incredibly obvious.)
Most of the other quarterbacks are unproven, because the generic backup quarterbacks that hit the market have only proven to be mediocre in a best-case scenario. I want more upside. A player I’ve always been enamored with that is still young-ish and has shown something in his NFL starts is David Fales. Fales had a nice start with the Dolphins at the end of the 2017 season, and while he doesn’t have a deep ball, he can manage a short game pretty well. I’d also be sniffing around AAF youngsters Luis Garcia and John Wolford. I’d be willing to take a chance on Brett Hundley, who I think will be way too inconsistent to win you a game on his own but has more upside than a lot of the backups that are hitting the pool. Hundley’s another guy you can use in the run game, and he’s got enough arm talent to burn someone if a defense plays his receivers too tightly. He may not actually hit the throw … but he could. If the Texans were willing to take a chance on someone who has had actual off-field issues, Chad Kelly looked pretty solid for the Broncos last preseason as well.
Running backs: FA, FA/Draft, D’Onta Foreman (rookie deal), Gregory Howell (UDFA/ST)
A major emphasis for me would be finding a running back who could contribute as a receiver out of the backfield. So, my No. 1 target would actually not be a free agent at all. The Browns just signed up Kareem Hunt, giving themselves a three-headed backfield with Nick Chubb, Hunt, and Duke Johnson. I think Johnson has been underutilized by his staff, and with Hunt in tow, perhaps you can invest a late-day trade or pick swap to acquire a running back who can be the main head of a committee in a best-case scenario and, worst-case, is a terrific third-down back. That’s what this team has needed for years. I’d actually prefer to trade for him because I don’t want to get involved with RFA compensation if I can avoid it. The Patriots are able to bilk lots of extra draft picks in this way. The Browns would assume the guaranteed parts of Johnson’s contract, the Texans would give up, say, a fourth- or fifth-rounder. That’s a win-win to me. Ty Montgomery could fit that role as a pure free agent, as could Darren Sproles if he decides not to retire.
I expect the Texans to just roll with the last year of Lamar Miller’s contract. That’s fine. I think the team could get marginally more efficient play by releasing him, but he’s a solid zone scheme back. I expect they’ll also probably wind up with Alfred Blue as part of the platoon again because the coaching staff seems to love him. I think Blue’s play has not merited him getting the looks that he has already. Running back is a position where, if you’re not going after Le’Veon Bell, you’re not going to have to pay big premiums anyway. Might as well shop at the top of the market. I’d like to see Jay Ajayi as a Blue replacement — he’s always run powerfully and I think he makes a lot of sense as the between-the-tackles back in a platoon. Spencer Ware also seems like a good fit for the role, although he has been pretty prone to injury.
With D’Onta Foreman‘s torn Achilles one year further in the past, this is pretty much a make-or-break year for him as far as his NFL future. If the Texans don’t trade for a back, I think drafting one in the middle rounds is clearly on the table. It’s hard to forecast who exactly will be on the table this far from the draft, as we don’t get much clarity from inside the bubble until post-Combine, but to throw a name on the table I think Memphis’ Darrell Henderson is a good fit for how O’Brien calls plays and when the Texans will be able to justify spending a pick.
Wide Receivers: DeAndre Hopkins (star contract), Will Fuller (rookie deal), Keke Coutee (rookie deal), DeAndre Carter (ERFA), Vyncint Smith (UDFA), Steven Mitchell (UDFA)
Not much to be done here in my opinion. I understand fans are going to hand-wring about bringing back the same lineup because Will Fuller and Keke Coutee both dealt with long-term injuries, but they’re so good when they’re healthy that I don’t have a problem with it. Give them some real time to actually play themselves on or off the field. I’d actually be open to extending Fuller right now, as we enter the final year of his rookie deal, but I’ll write about that more at a later date.
I thought DeAndre Carter was reasonably effective after being claimed off waivers. Fumbles a bit much for my taste in the punt return game but he can fly and he can make people miss — in my viewpoint he’s a solid No. 4 receiver and worthy of the tender.
I doubt this is an area the Texans target in free agency or in the draft unless a screaming value comes at them. You could see some roster churn between Smith and Mitchell if they find someone who offers them more on special teams than those two did last year.
Tight ends: Jordan Akins (rookie deal), Jordan Thomas (rookie deal), FA/draft
I thought Jordan Akins had a fantastic rookie season and was puzzled by how little he was utilized, particularly when the team ran out of wide receivers towards the end of the season. Akins is not a blocker, but he’s a move tight end with reliable hands and the size to win the ball in traffic. He took some big shots and held on to the ball fairly well last season.
Meanwhile, Jordan Thomas fit into the same basic mold but was a little further ahead on the depth chart because the coaches thought higher of him as a blocker. Thomas, a former college wideout, has soft hands and should be an ideal No. 2 tight end for at least the duration of his rookie deal.
I’m out on Ryan Griffin — but, like Miller, he’s in the last year of his contract and I expect the Texans to keep him because he makes almost no impact on the bottom line. Griffin was a net negative in run blocking and, even though his most memorable incomplete passes included a lot of Watson’s lowlight reel, I don’t think he adds a lot as a receiver either. I’d be trying to find a more reliable blocker — someone like Nick Boyle out of this free agent class — who can do the catch-and-fall-down thing as well. Tyler Kroft is another name that fits. Just someone who can actually complement Los Jordans.
I have a special interest in Tyler Eifert because he’s a true difference-maker at the position and he’s so injury-prone that he won’t command any real money. That’s a gamble I’ll take to training camp, especially with the team having as much cap space as they do. If it works out, great. If it doesn’t, oh well.
Offensive Line: Zach Fulton (midscale contract), Seantrel Henderson (small contract), Nick Martin (rookie deal), Julie’n Davenport (rookie deal), Martinas Rankin (rookie deal), FA/rookie, FA/rookie, FA/rookie
Alright, here’s the big mess to clean up on this side of the ball. Kendall Lamm would be on my callback list, but he wouldn’t be a priority re-sign. I expect the Texans feel about the same by their decision to re-sign Seantrel Henderson. I would go ahead and release Senio Kelemete and Greg Mancz for cap space ($3.15 million). They both struggled this season in some ways. I expect in reality the Texans will actually keep Mancz. Kelemete, I could see it going either way.
I’d make Rankin a full-time guard, thought he showed decently in that area towards the end of last season when given a chance. Here’s the order of free agency/trade operations for me: in order, I’d pursue Matt Paradis, Darryl Williams, and Ty Neskhe. If the team was able to land Paradis, who I expect to be one of the biggest free-agent prizes in the league despite coming off a fractured fibula, I’d move Nick Martin to guard. I’d be willing to give Paradis something north of what Ryan Jensen got last offseason, a four-year, $42 million contract with $22 million in guarantees — a contract that essentially amounts to a two-year contract with options. I think Martin will play better at guard where he can focus on less pre-snap, and I think Paradis is an elite center that will help run blocking and pass protection. You can sub in Rodger Saffold if you like him better in this plan — Paradis is younger and I would want any good play I got from Martin to be a bonus, rather than something I’d rely on. I think you come into the season with Zach Fulton on hand, ready to replace Martin wherever. I expect the Texans will not do any of this and instead will let Mancz spell Fulton, Martin, and Rankin up the middle.
Nsekhe is my sleeper option to fill left tackle — I think he gets overlooked because he was stuck on Washington behind Trent Williams for his entire career. But every time he’s gotten on the field, he’s played solid-to-well. He’s already 33, so he’s not going to command a huge long-term deal. But that’s a play I think you make when Juli’en Davenport is your penciled in left tackle.
I like Williams as a low-cost gamble at right tackle. Williams disappointed for the early portion of his rookie contract in Carolina, but was second-team All-Pro in 2017 before missing most of 2018 to a torn MCL and a dislocated kneecap. I don’t think he’s who you want manning left tackle because I don’t think he has the speed for it, but he’s only 27 and the injury should depress his market a bit. If he were coming off the 2017 season now he’d figure to get $30 million in guarantees. As is, I bet he still does well for himself. But this is the one guy in this tackle class who I think is talented enough to actually get into a bid war for.
I’d offer some trade options but I think it largely is a draft-only thing when it comes to tackles. Teams don’t trade star tackles very often. I wonder why that is and if Deshaun Watson has any thoughts on that. ?
This year’s draft pool at tackle is deep and has multiple potential options that could make it to Houston’s first-round pick, but it does seem to be a class where evaluations vary wildly. Having not dived into tape and thoughts on the subject as often as I’m comfortable with, I’m going to mostly abstain from the discussion for now. Jonah Williams seems to be bandied about as the safest pick, if not necessarily a true top-10 left tackle for everybody. My “I’ve watched some college games but not intently studied this” opinion is that Andre Dillard and Greg Little make up the second tier of potential left tackles.
I expect the Texans to just sit back and take the best offensive tackle on their board when they select, unless they have a high enough grade on someone to trade up for them. My gut feeling is: three weeks into free agency any fan who was riled up about the offensive line last season will probably continue to be baffled by the lack of investment. If that doesn’t come to pass, I think the team will have grievously over-evaluated a tackle like Trent Brown.