Driving home from work the other day I heard a discussion between Jay Glazer of Fox and Mike Francesa of WFAN where they felt as if the Texans head coaching job was “one of the best openings in the last 10 years”. While some of their talk focused on ownership that doesn’t meddle most of it was centered around the strength of the roster and flexibility they have. Glazer compared it to the Chiefs of 2012. I admit I was surprised when I heard that so I wanted to look deeper at the team.
Going into the season I had felt the Texans were a team that likely was going to trend downward. We see it all the time in the NFL. You are pretty good for a long period of time and eventually the wheels come off. The 2011 Houston Texans were an excellent football team. Everything clicked on defense and their offense was potent. Unfortunately QB Matt Schaub was injured and that killed any hopes for real playoff success. The 2012 team was much more inconsistent than the 2011 team. They were up at times and down at others. Schaub returned but faded in critical situations. The wheels fell off for him and the Texans this year.
In terms of salary cap the Texans are not in a position to be active in the way the Chiefs were this past offseason. Kansas City had the cap room to trade for a mid grade QB, extend a franchise tender to a left tackle, extend a wide receiver on a top of the market contract, and then go out and sign a number of players to add to the poorly coached team. The Chiefs had millions upon millions to spend.
The Texans have been tight on cap space all season and will carry over just about $1.1 million to the 2014 NFL season. Based on their current cap commitments the team will have just slightly more than $9 million in cap space to spend on improving their team, a number that does not include tenders (though they have no RFAs of note) or escalators. Considering one of those improvements will come with the number 1 pick in the draft, whose cap charge will be just over $4 million, the team has essentially no money to spend with the roster as currently constructed.
The Texans will go into the offseason with nine free agents that are considered contributors to the team. Houston will need to create some cap space in order to re-sign some of these starters and rotational players. The list is as follows:
The question becomes where do they go to create cap space? It would seem to be a foregone conclusion that the team releases Schaub, but that move only saves the team $4 million, essentially the room it needs to sign his replacement, which will be expected to be their top draft pick. But beyond Schaub where is there to go for cap relief?
The Texans need to restructure contracts in the past or sign players in a manner to fit short term within the cap has them with very limited options. They are not a team that has one or two players making large sums of money with no realistic chance of being on the team in 2014. The Texans highest cap savings are TE Owen Daniels and S Danieal Manning at $4.5 million each. Both were injured in 2013, but would be penciled in as starters in 2014. Both are also free agents following the 2014 season so there is no restructure relief available and extending two players on the wrong side of 30 coming off injury would not seem to be beneficial. Both could take paycuts but the team is not going to get major relief through just these two players.
CB Johnathan Joseph would be a logical candidate for restructure as he has an $11.25 million hit and they could push a portion of it to 2015, which is the final year of Joseph’s contract. Again that is only going to save around $4 million with the bill coming due in 2015, so it doesn’t make a huge dent in the Texans salary cap.
The two big questions will be what the team does with WR Andre Johnson and RB Arian Foster. Both are big ticket players, but Johnson will be 33 years old and Foster’s body already seems to be breaking down. The Texans have restructured Johnson’s contract so many times that going there again is going to cause damage in the future. Johnson is still a great player but he is nearing that age where the Wide Receiver numbers begin to decline and if you bring a rookie QB into the mix you never know what can happen. His cap in 2015 is already over $16 million and the team has over $7 million in dead money there if they had to release him. Adding more money to those totals seems like a bad idea.
Foster has an $8.5 million hit and release saves just $1 million in cap, but there at least has to be a discussion about his future. Tate is a younger and likely cheaper option at this time and it would seem unlikely that the team can afford both players. With Foster’s injuries it’s a situation that needs to be watched carefully. Foster would more likely be a June 1 cut candidate so that his salary cap savings can be applied to signing draft picks.
Houston also needs to be concerned with the future of LB Brian Cushing. When he plays Cushing is one of the better inside linebackers in the NFL, and the Texans are paying him accordingly, but he has only played 12 games in the last two years. This could turn into a Jon Beason situation where constant injuries lead to wasted cap room.
Now I’m painting a bleaker picture than this really is- The Texans do have really young talent ranging from JJ Watt, arguably the best defensive player in the NFL, to DeAndre Hopkins, who could very well be one of the next stud receivers in the NFL. The team this year just never recovered from some early losses and things spiraled out of control as injuries piled up. They also play in one of the worst divisions in the NFL making a quick turnaround that much easier.
But I don’t see how the Texans are a new coach away from greatness. This is a team that probably underachieved for some time in part due to coaching and then peaked in 2011. Now its time to begin turning parts of the roster over again. The Texans had 7 starters this year over the age of 30 and 8 over the age of 29, so turnover is a necessity. The short term cap position does not really lend itself to adding significantly to the team in free agency. The team does not have a Quarterback on the roster. There are just as many questions with this team as there are with most teams searching for a head coach. .
I don’t think that in terms of readiness that this job compares with some of the more recent coaching hires that included Mike Tomlin to the Steelers, Jim Harbaugh to the 49ers, or Rex Ryan to the Jets. The Steelers were set at the QB position when Tomlin took charge and did not really have a roster overhaul to consider. The other two coaches did not have Quarterbacks (though Ryan did end up with a top draft choice to play the position) but both had tremendous roster flexibility due to better managed salary caps and teams that had not yet peaked. At the time all three were highly desirable jobs.
The Texans are not a bad job like the Raiders, but to me they are a rebuilding team that must first navigate the breaking down of a team following successful period of football before they make the turn to returning deeper into the playoffs. Any coach that takes the team over should be expected to improve off this seasons dreadful performance but most likely it will take two to three years to drive home the results that many seem to think are just going to happen overnight.
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.