The Houston Texans' management is out here spending draft picks like they're burning holes in their pockets. It's been an incredible frenzy to watch from afar as the Texans desperately try as they may to plug up as many holes on their roster this season as possible -- perhaps sensing that the window to win a Super Bowl with a quarterback on a rookie contract is their best chance to make postseason magic happen.
And in the most pure of self fulfilling prophecies, the Texans have now almost assuredly guaranteed that to be fact. But first, some backstory!
The Texans were led by general manager Brian Gaine this past offseason -- who was surprisingly passive in 2019 free agency. Houston entered the 2019 offseason coming off of an 11-5 season and their third AFC South division title in four seasons. But they lost in the Wild Card Round 21-7 to the Indianapolis Colts. All good, an understandable loss at the hands of a more well rounded roster. Regroup, attack getting better and forge on. Right? Wrong.
Houston's free agency strategy was to sign cheap one-year contracts to stopgap players like OT Matt Kalil, QB A.J. McCarron, TE Darren Fells, SS Jahleel Addae, FS Mike Adams, RB Taiwan Jones, QB Joe Webb, P Bryan Anger, TE Logan Paulsen, DB Briean Boddy-Calhoun and CB Phillip Gaines. Plus a 3-year contract for a good starting safety in Tashaun Gipson.
THAT'S IT. THAT'S THE LIST.
It was an incredible display of passiveness for a Houston team that entered 2019 free agency with over $74M in salary cap space -- one of the four highest figures in the NFL. And yet under Gaine's watch, the win-now Texans punted on paying up to retain their own talents such as Jadeveon Clowney, Kareem Jackson and Tyrann Mathieu.
But even then, at least the Texans had the 2019 NFL Draft on the horizon. Clowney was not yet out of the picture and the team had three draft selections in the top-55 picks. And what did the Texans do with those picks? Drafted a developmental tackle in Tytus Howard (Alabama State) at 23 overall, a developmental cornerback in Lonnie Johnson (Kentucky) at 54 overall and a G/T hybrid at 55 in Max Scharping.
To summarize -- the Houston Texans watched their franchise quarterback get sacked 62 times in 2018 and the general manager's reaction was to completely ignore the offensive line in free agency (despite top-4 cap space in the NFL) and draft a small school offensive tackle whose film was clearly indicative that he'd need development, patience and time...things the Houston Texans don't really have as a team in the "win-now" window.
So on June 7th, the Texans fired Brian Gaine. It was a surprising move, given Gaine had only recently taken control of the position and if the team was willing to ride it out with him making decisions in the draft, one would assume they'd be willing to let him see the season through. Not the case -- and now we can see exactly why. Houston flirted with New England Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio in the aftermath of firing Gaine but were strong-armed by the New England Patriots to cease their courtship. Caserio is widely considered one of the more promising potential general managers across the NFL landscape -- and Bill Belichick wasn't willing to let him walk out the door. Caserio is likely to be back in the conversation with Houston next winter when his contract expires, but boy does the landscape for Houston look significantly different.
The Texans did what any logical team would do on the heels of being told to kick rocks by New England -- they didn't hire a general manager and effectively left Bill O'Brien in charge of personnel. And the firestorm of draft pick trading that we've seen yet is about as aggressive as a push away from building via the draft as we've seen in recent memory, especially since the implementation of the new rookie wage scale. O'Brien has told Tytus Howard and Lonnie Johnson exactly what he thinks of them by doubling down on players at their position over the past two months -- and spending crazy draft picks to do so. O'Brien traded his 2020 1st and his 2021 1st and 2nd to the Miami Dolphins for left tackle Laremy Tunsil. There's no shame in being bumped from the line-up by a player like Tunsil, but the depths O'Brien was willing to go to grab him isn't exactly an inspiring endorsement for Howard's ability to fill the void as a 1st-round pick by a "win-now" team. The team traded a conditional 3rd/4th round pick to Cleveland for RB Duke Johnson -- who is 3 games away from the required 10 games of action needed to qualify the Browns for a 3rd-round pick as compensation. And just yesterday we saw the Texans flip a 3rd-round pick for CB Gareon Conley -- a much less costly purchase but another move that further amplifies the dilemma the Texans' new general manager -- Nick Caserio or otherwise -- will face.
The Texans have angled themselves as such that they've living for the moment and they don't really care what the long-term implications are. But they should, because they've put their next general manager in quite the pickle. Whoever comes into the Houston Texans' front office this offseason is going to be charged with further building this team but must do without:
- A 1st-round pick in 2020 or 2021
- A 2nd-round pick in 2021
- A 3rd-round pick in 2020
And while the Texans do have salary cap space on their side (they're projected to own over $89M in 2020 salary cap space), the aggressive mentality put forth by Houston's "management" this fall has rapidly accelerated their spending window for second (or in one player's case, third) contracts. Houston will -- in the next 18 months or so -- be required to pay out contracts to:
- QB Deshaun Watson (estimated market value somewhere around $32M per season)
- OT Laremy Tunsil (estimated market value is right around $16M per season)
- WR Will Fuller
- OLB Whitney Mercilus
- ILB Zach Cunningham
And many other less accomplished, less expensive players...including whichever of Gaine's one-year holdovers the team deems has earned a long-term contract. It's reasonable to consider that signing Watson, Tunsil, Mercilus, Cunningham and Fuller could cost the Texans around an average of $70-75M against the cap, leaving Houston with around $15-20M at their disposal to cover resigning all other talents across their roster, building up weak areas on the roster and trying to target the right pieces to add to the puzzle and win a Super Bowl.
Oh, right. And newly acquired Gareon Conley is on the rookie pay scale and is due for a 5th-year club option in 2021, which figures to be right around $10M in guaranteed salary for the 2021 NFL season, too.
You're asking a general manager to step in and build upon the foundation the Texans have set with a hand tied behind their back -- and you're also putting a lot of pressure on the coaching staff to develop the players brought into the fray before this drastic shift in philosophy has put the Texans into the pressure cooker.
The only way this philosophy works is if you're willing to use players as tokens both ways -- trading players for picks and picks for players. Houston's sure as hell nailed down the trading picks for players piece of the puzzle. But the one opportunity thus far afforded by the Texans to flip a player for a pick was botched. Horrendously. The Texans traded OLB/DE Jadeveon Clowney to the Seattle Seahawks for a 2020 3rd-round pick (presumably the one already traded for CB Gareon Conley) and two linebackers: Jacob Martin and Barkevious Mingo. Mingo has played 1 defensive snap this season and Martin has logged 3 tackles thus far on the year. The team's best, most available asset gone with a whimper and the Texans still facing the deficit of just two top-100 picks in the next two years of the NFL Draft.
There are those who point to the volatility of the NFL Draft as a reason to embrace what the Texans are doing -- and to a certain degree, sure. I can understand wanting established players relative to the unknown of banking your well being on unproven assets. Heck -- it just bit the Texans 6 months ago, although I will challenge you to find anyone who watched the film on Tytus Howard or Lonnie Johnson before the draft who felt like they could be plus starters on a "win-now" team. Houston should've known what they were signing themselves up for, developmental players who need time the Texans really don't have to give.
And with the NFL Draft biting Houston terribly, the Texans have spent every imaginable asset on the horizon to try to solidify their positions of need. The Texans' offensive line has looked much better with Laremy Tunsil on the blind side -- but will history look back kindly on the Texans spending three 1st-round picks and two 2nd-round picks to protect Deshaun Watson with Tunsil, Howard and Scharping? Because that's what it cost. And if history doesn't look kindly on such steep investments, where exactly would you like to see the Texans go to target upgrades? Houston is out of assets and about to be pinched for cash.
Houston's double and triple downs have left themselves in what is sure to become an unfamiliar position in the next few years: on the clock.