Within the past 10 days there has been rumors and discussion on the status of head coach Bill O’Brien for the 2018 season which has prompted the annual discussion of Rick Smith’s management of the roster and how it has been constructed. I have some thoughts on the latter specifically to how the 2017 offseason played out. There is no doubt the 2017 season has been difficult for the organization. I do not think any team would have done any better given the circumstances and the amount of players lost throughout the season due to injury. Some players were lost for the year, and some players were out for short periods of time. Prompting the team (through Week 15) to become ranked #1 in the league in the number of different players used on the field (courtesy of @PatDStat).
I do believe Rick Smith has done a better job than portrayed by fans regardless of the team’s overall success since Smith’s arrival in 2006 to replace Charlie Casserly. Yes there have been some misses…the same could be said for many GM’s in this league. The McNair’s are a very patient group with their staff. Over the years we’ve seen other team’s GMs fired for less when compared to Rick Smith. Given his history I wanted to take a look at the 2017 offseason and what happened…or exactly what didn’t happen. I’ve had lengthy conversations with people in the industry that I trust; and those conversations have helped me realize what may have happened. Keep in mind we will likely never know the truth behind the 2017 offseason.
Based on conversations Rick Smith empowers his team to bring to his desk the finalized options for this blessing to sign to the roster; speaking of pro personnel exclusively in this case. Before talking about 2017 we need to look back at 2016. The person, at the time, responsible for the free agent moves was Director of Player Personnel Brian Gaine. Gaine was brought in to the organization in 2014 from the Miami Dolphins. The 2016 offseason marked the first time the Houston Texans had a substantial amount of salary cap dollars to spend in free agency. Generally the Texans do not spend heavy in free agency, but rather use it to fill in small gaps in the roster. The 2011 season marked the last time the Texans went heavy in free agency with the acquisitions of Johnathan Joseph & Daniel Manning. The 2016 offseason started off with some player releases of Arian Foster, Garrett Graham, and Rahim Moore. Rahim Moore was a major free agent bust for Brian Gaine from the 2015 offseason. The team was unable to re-sign their offensive guard Brandon Brooks; who has since become a staple in the Philadelphia offense. As the league year started on March 9th the Texans had a slew of signings both on retaining free agents and signing unrestricted free agents from other teams. Chris Clark, Eddie Pleasant, Jonathan Grimes, Nick Novak, Shane Lechler were all retained on new deals. The big signings came in with Lamar Miller, Jeff Allen, Tony Bergstrom, Antonio Allen, and lastly Brock Osweiler. Antonio Allen ended up not making the final roster, Bergstrom saw one snap during the season, Jeff Allen had injury issues, and we know how the Osweiler debacle played out. Lamar Miller has been a solid addition, and should continue his work in the 2018 season. One other notable signing which came in April was the retaining of Quintin Demps, a gem that Brian Gaine found late in training camp in 2015. Overall the 2016 free agent class did not have the impact the team had hoped.
Fast forward to March of 2017. The Texans are in a similar position salary cap wise and posed to spend some money on free agency as well as re-signing all-pro DeAndre Hopkins. The main priority for the team was to try to resign cornerback star A.J. Bouye. Unfortunately the team was unable to retain Bouye, ultimately signing with the Jacksonville Jaguars. At 3PM on March 9th the bombshell hit Twitter reporting that the Texans had traded Brock Osweiler to the Cleveland Browns. The initial thought by most was this meant the Texans were going after free agent Tony Romo. The team had freed up the available cap space to sign Romo; as well as retain Hopkins and other potential future free agents. Ryan Griffin was resigned a couple days later to a mid-level tight end contract. Then the team went dark waiting on Tony Romo. Every day there was discussion on social media and the radio as to what the Texans could do to land Tony Romo. Reports even had Romo as wanting to join the Houston Texans. Fans watched as other teams signed offensive linemen; which was a position of need for the Texans. April 1st rolled around and Romo had decided to join the CBS Network as a commentator. This left the Texans high and dry with no options. By waiting the Texans had missed the window on the premier free agents.
In my opinion, and after conversations with people I trust, this is the point where the organization decided on a soft reset on the roster. The team had ultimately decided to avoid signing any compensatory free agents and start saving their cap space for the 2018 offseason. A few weeks later Director of Player Personnel Brian Gaine left Houston for a position with the Buffalo Bills. There have been no reports of this, but I feel like the Texans politely pushed Gaine out the door. When you go back and look at the free agent work completed by Gaine; the work leaves a lot to be desired. Letting Gaine move on at the time it happened doesn’t seem to be a coincidence to me. The team then hired Jimmy Raye III. Raye has been in the industry for a long time both working for San Diego and Indianapolis. Raye III is the son of Jimmy Raye II, who is Troy Vincent’s right hand man in the NFL Operations Group. Rick Smith is on the NFL competition committee which works with Vincent’s group. There is your connection. Raye III had tremendous success in San Diego for a number of years, however he did not have very much success under Ryan Grigson in Indianapolis…but let’s be honest nobody had success under Grigson.
With Jimmy Raye III entering the organization after the major free agency window closed this ultimately made the Texans stick with their soft reset plan. The team opted to avoid signing any compensatory free agents to maximize their draft capital in 2018; after already sending a 2018 second round pick to Cleveland. This especially became even more important after the 2017 draft was completed. The Texans sent their 2018 first round pick to Cleveland for Deshaun Watson.
Jimmy Raye will have his work cut out for him in 2018 as he tries to navigate the difficult waters of free agency. Raye will likely need to find an offensive guard, maybe an offensive tackle, cornerback, safety, and a defensive end. Rick Smith’s group has set him up with a large amount of salary cap space for 2018 & 2019, which is projecting to be over $50 million in available 2018 cap dollars. Given the lack of draft picks the Texans will likely be active in free agency much like they were in 2016. The team also needs to complete extensions for JaDaveon Clowney and Bernardrick McKinney. We will be monitoring this as the 2018 offseason unfolds.