Sneak Peek at 2017 (And Beyond) For The Houston Texans
With the 2016 regular coming to a close in a few weeks, it becomes time to start examining the roster for the upcoming league year. 2016 was a defining year for the Houston Texans. The team was very active in free agency and had an obvious direction with their draft selections. The team returned 10 or 11 starters on the defensive side of the field; allowing the team to invest heavily on the offensive side of the field via the draft and free agency. This was a bold plan that appears to have not have paid off; at least with the veteran free agents. 2016 has some resemblance of 2012-2013 when the team extended core players Arian Foster, Matt Schaub, and Brian Cushing with large contracts. Only to have it all come crashing down in 2013 when the Houston Texans finished the season in last place with a 2-14 record. The organization does not appear to be in any better position for 2017.
For 2017 the Texans (currently) have 52 players under contract. This number will increase 8-10 players after the season concludes and practice squad players are signed to futures contracts. This projects the Texans have to anywhere from $20 – $25 million available in cap space for the 2017 league year. That will put them in the bottom third of the league when compared to other NFL teams. The team will likely spend all available cap dollars again, as they have done the past 5 seasons.
One thing is clear; the Texans will likely be very quiet during the offseason in terms of free agency. The team will likely focus on retaining core players and extending players on rookie contracts to keep them busy during the offseason. One positive note is the team only has 4 players with guaranteed salaries, which are not in rookie contracts: Brock Osweiler, J.J. Watt, Jeff Allen, and Lamar Miller. The team will have available flexibility within the veteran contracts; but I expect the team to avoid restructuring deals unless it is absolutely required. DeAndre Hopkins 5th year option, worth $7.915 million, is also guaranteed as part of his rookie contract.
Candidates To Be Released
The most obvious candidate here is veteran linebacker Brian Cushing. Cushing’s contract runs through the 2019 season. Second year linebacker Bernardrick McKinney has already become the team’s three down inside linebacker. Brian Cushing is due a $5.5 million dollar salary in 2017, along with $1.25 million in roster bonuses. Cushing’s 2017 cap charge is $9.547 million. Releasing Cushing will provide a net cap savings of $5.55 million while leaving $3.997 million in dead money; while saving the team $6.75 million in cash spending.
Derek Newton suffered a horrific injury this season tearing the patellar tendons in both of his knees. Newton’s ability to be able to play football again is unknown. Unfortunately the NFL is a tough business; and the Texans will likely release Newton from his contract. Newton will have injury protection coverage, as per the CBA, but his $4.75 million salary will be removed. Newton was scheduled to have a $5.5 million cap charge. A release creates a $3.25 million net cap savings while leaving $2.25 million in dead money.
We stay with the offensive line group with the next player in Tony Bergstrom. Bergstrom signed a two year contract last offseason to compete for the center position. Bergstrom lost the starter position to Greg Mancz, and Bergstrom would have lost the battle if Nick Martin had not been injured. Greg Mancz has performed well enough to justify his roster spot for 2017. With Nick Martin returning from injury and Mancz as interior depth…Tony Bergstrom will be the odd man out. Bergstrom is scheduled to have a $3.25 million cap charge with a $2.625 million salary in 2017. Releasing Bergstrom will create a $2.875 million net cap savings leaving only $375,000 in dead money.
The Texans should be looking to start developing a young quarterback again, which will make it difficult to retain Brandon Weeden. Releasing Brandon Weeden will create a $2.15 million cap savings, leaving zero dead money.
Total Savings: $13.825 million
Candidates For Extensions
Stemming from his short hold out this past offseason, DeAndre Hopkins will be in line for his lucrative contract extension. Hopkins is scheduled to have a $7.915 million cap charge for 2017 as part of the 5th year option on his rookie contract. The Texans will likely lower that amount as part of the contract extension. Expect Hopkins to receive a contract in-line with the Top 6 wide receivers.
The tight end position has finally become a relevant position for the Houston Texans with C.J. Fiedorowicz. Fiedorowicz has turned into a receiving threat for the Houston Texans, on top of his quality blocking skills. The Texans would be wise to jump on an extension early to retain Fiedorowicz at a low market price due to his small sample size. Fiedorowicz is scheduled to have a $1 million cap charge in 2017, but that will increase ~$1.85 million since he will have achieved the proven performance escalator bonus. The PPE bonus is available for all rookies drafted 3rd round or later, for the 4th year of their respective rookie contract. The investment would be small for a Fiedorowicz extension.
Veteran left tackle Duane Brown has proven he can still be a solid left tackle in the NFL at the age of 31. Brown is under contract for two more years with salaries of $9.65 & $9.75 million. The Texans could re-work this contract to add a third year and lower the salaries in 2017 & 2018; while providing Brown new guaranteed money for signing the extension.
Candidate Free Agents To Resign
Unfortunately this list is very short. Currently the Texans have 14 scheduled free agents for 2017.
Veteran punter Shane Lechler does not seem to be slowing down. The decision will likely be up to him if he wants to play another season. If he chooses to do so, the Texans will be happy to offer him another one year contract similar to 2016.
The most talked about emerging player from the Texans this season has been cornerback A.J. Bouye. Bouye was thrust into the third cornerback role when Kevin Johnson was lost for the season with a broken foot. Bouye snap count increased as the season progressed ultimately playing just as much as Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson. The Texans will offer Bouye a contract extension at what they perceive to be market value. Bouye has a very small sample size. However there are many NFL teams flush with cap space in 2017 and in need of cornerbacks. The Texans will have to go above their perceived market value to retain Bouye; and they should try to do so. During the 2015 & 2016 seasons the secondary has seen multiple missed games with Kareem Jackson & Kevin Johnson. Johnathan Joseph turns 33 in 2017, and is starting to get banged up more and more. Rick Smith routinely invests in defensive backs, and that should continue into 2017 with Bouye. Bouye was brought in as an undrafted rookie, and the team has continued to groom him to the player he is today. This should set the team up with Johnson & Bouye on the outside in 2018 with Jackson on the inside & box work.
Looking Beyond 2017
Ultimately the 2017 season will be a make or break season for the organization. The structures of all the veteran contracts are set-up to give the team maximum maneuverability in 2018. If the team were to fall off in 2017 (ala 2013) and nose dive…the roster is setup perfectly for an intervention. The team only has 25 players currently under contract in 2018 with two players having guaranteed salaries (both rookie contracts). The team could easily move on from veterans like Brock Osweiler, Kareem Jackson, Jeff Allen, Lamar Miller, or even J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus. If the team prospers in 2017 the team is in excellent position to extend players on rookie contracts and to sign high level free agents.
If the Texans decide to make any free agent noise in 2017, the contracts should be 1 or 2 year contracts that can be removed in 2018.