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The Houston Texans: Primed to be a Top Contender in 2012 73

Texans fans must be wondering how their season would have ended with a healthy Matt Schaub.

Anyone who follows the NFL knows that injuries can completely derail a season. No two teams were more impacted by key injuries than the Chicago Bears and the Houston Texans. The Texans started off the season with Pro Bowl running back Arian Foster out, lost All-Pro linebacker Mario Williams in Week 5 to a torn pectoral muscle, and then proceeded to lose their starting quarterback Matt Schaub (Week 10 – Lisfranc foot injury ) and backup quarterback Matt Leinart (Week 11 – shoulder) in quick succession. The Texans overcame the injuries, won the AFC South, and beat the Cincinnati Bengals in the first round of the playoffs. Wade Phillips, who was hired as defensive coordinator, transformed 2010’s 30th ranked defense into 2011’s 2nd ranked.  The offense continued to roll behind one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, and the Texans still finished 13th in overall offense (2nd in rush, 18th pass).  Provided they are able to make strategic salary cap moves, the Texans should be primed to re-arm themselves for the 2012 season.

According to Football Outsiders (FO), the Texans only have about $3-4M under the projected $124M NFL salary cap. However, the Texans do have several key players they can work renegotiations with in order to create some relief this year. Remember, reworking contracts to gain relief in a current year basically just “kicks the can down the road,” so a team like the Texans has to be prudent when looking to create cap space. The table below outlines the top-12 salary cap hits for the franchise (Note: For people viewing this at YardBarker (YB), to read these tables formatted properly, use this direct link http://sports-kings.com/?p=769):

PLAYER

BASE SALARY

BONUSES

SALARY CAP HIT

Jonathan Joseph

$7.3M

$2.5M

$9.8M

Andre Johnson

$6.5M

$2.8M

$9.3M

Matt Schaub

$7.2M

$1.1M

$8.3M

Antonio Smith

$5.5M

$2.5M

$8.0M

DeMeco Ryans

$5.9M

$1.3M

$7.2M

Owen Daniels

$6.5M

$6.5M

Eric Winston

$5.5M

$5.5M

Danieal Manning

$5.0M

$5.0M

Jacoby Jones

$4.8M

100K

$4.9M

Kevin Walter

$3.5M

$3.5M

Matt Leinart

$3.0M

$3.0M

JJ Watt

$900K

$1.6M

$2.5M

(www.spotrac.com)

General Manager Rick Smith has his work cut out for him in restructuring the Texans' top paid players' contracts.

The Texans are the seventh team Sports-Kings has previewed and by far they have the most players with no bonuses (signing or otherwise) either pro-rated over the contract or coming due this off-season. That, in conjunction with their top playmakers all having contracts that could be re-negotiated, will give general manager Rick Smith some flexibility.

The table below details how Pro Football Focus (PFF) graded out each player in their position and then displays where that player ranks in terms of salary cap hits for their positions.  For example, quarterback Matt Schaub graded out as the 10th highest ranked quarterback and the 16th highest salary cap hit at that position. Even if fans do not agree with PFF’s ranking of a player, they can judge how good they think that player is themselves and still see the salary cap position rank. Players must play 25% of a team’s snaps to qualify for PFF’s default ranking.

PLAYER

PFF POSITION RANK

SALARY CAP RANK

Jonathan Joseph

13th

8th

Andre Johnson

29th

4th

Matt Schaub

10th

16th

Antonio Smith

8th

11th

DeMeco Ryans

20th

12th

Owen Daniels

23rd

6th

Eric Winston

11th

19th

Danieal Manning

40th

13th

Jacoby Jones

85th

17th

Kevin Walter

48th

31st

Matt Leinart

Not Ranked

27th

JJ Watt

5th

38th

(www.profootballfocus.com)

Aside from Manning and their receiving corps (not including Johnson), the Texans are not overpaying  their highest-salaried players.  Leinart, among the highest paid backup quarterbacks (along with the San Diego Chargers’ Billy Volek, the Dallas Cowboys’ John Kitna, and the Cleveland Browns’ Seneca Wallace), may be a target for release, since the Texans brought back Jake Delhomme and apparently think highly of second year signal-caller T.J. Yates.  It would not come as a surprise to see Leinart hit the open market; he currently makes five times what starting Browns’ quarterback Colt McCoy makes, while doing a lot less. Only reason that it even remotely makes sense to keep him is the coaches are worried about the health of the injury-prone Schaub, and want four quarterbacks on the roster…and that probably won’t happen.

 

Tight end Joel Dreessen has becoming a viable option in the Texans' passing attack.

Smith will definitely look to his highest paid players to make salary cap room, given that all of them have base salaries that can be converted to signing bonus and can be prorated against future years.  Referencing the “kicking the can down the road,” Football Outsiders illustrated how the Texans could restructure Joseph’s contract to save $4.1M in 2012, but it would add another $1.4M to the salary cap in 2013-2015.  As for the receiving corps, the Texans have no business bringing back Daniels, Jones and Walter on their current salaries.  The wide receiver market in both free agency and the draft is too deep to overpay for two players who are not producing at a level commensurate with their salaries. Daniels should also be a target from management looking to restructuring contracts. Although the tight end market is slim, it should not stop the front office from talking with Daniels’ agent as the emergence of fellow tight end (and free agent) Joel Dreessen (6th in PFF rankings) has given the offense another target. The Texans should use the money freed up from Daniels to keep Dreessen.

There is no way a player is worth $21M, even one as talented as linebacker Mario Williams.

Looking at free agency, the elephant in the room is linebacker Williams. The Texans should not jeopardize the long-term salary cap health of the organization for any position outside of quarterback, and every Texans fan knows the defense did not miss a beat when he went down in Week 5.  Indeed, while finishing second in overall defense, the Texans also finished 6th in sacks, evidence that the pass rush was still effective, led by linebacker Connor Barwin (11.5 sacks), Smith (6.5 sacks), linebacker Brooks Reed (6.0 sacks) and rookie J.J. watt (5.5 sacks). This is not a knock on Williams; he has played tremendously and deserves to get paid; but at $21M+, he would just be too expensive, especially for a team that already has four productive linebackers (Cushing, Ryans, Barwin and Reed). The Texans, in the event they are not able to work out a palatable long-term deal, should let Williams walk and use the money to address other needs in free agency.

The Texans’ real top priorities this off-season should be signing restricted free agent running back Arian Foster to an extended contract, and maintaining the strength of their offensive line by re-signing interior linemen Chris Myers and Mike Brisiel.  Myers was the top rated center in 2011 by P.F.F. and Brisiel’s  versatility (P.F.F.’s 35th ranked guard) adds depth to the offensive line. Continuity among the offensive line will be a major factor in the offensive success of the Texans in 2012.  As for Foster, there has been some speculation of the Texans tendering Foster. Since the new collective bargaining agreement  limits tendering to a first-round pick in compensation (versus a first- and a third-round pick previously), a running back needy team might poach Foster. The more preferable option for the Texans regarding Foster is to work out a long-term deal for the former All-Pro back; if an agreement is not reached, then they could consider using the franchise tag.

Adding a deep threat to go with wide receiver Andre Johnson would do wonders for the Texans' offense.

For their final move in free agency, the Texans should consider adding a quality threat at wide receiver opposite All-Pro wide-out Andre Johnson. If G.M. Smith can make some room under the cap, they should take a hard look at Kansas City Chiefs’ Dwayne Bowe, if he avoids the franchise tag from Kansas City, or consider the New Orleans Saints’ Robert Meachem.  For those who would say, “The Texans have no cap room,” they should indeed have room as long as they don’t use all of it franchising Williams. Barring that, the Texans may have to look to the draft for a dependable deep threat, given that their current downfield threat, Jacoby Jones, only catches about half the passes thrown his way. Walter is more dependable, catching about 70 percent of passes thrown his way, but he lacks breakaway speed, and has yet to develop into the threat the Texans had envisioned for their #2 wide receiver.

Heading into the draft, the Texans, provided they re-sign their offensive linemen, will have the luxury of essentially drafting the best player available throughout the draft. The Texans hit the jackpot last year with Watt, who in any other year would have received Defensive Rookie of the Year consideration. Anyone who saw his pick-six of Cincinnati Bengals’ quarterback Andy Dalton knows about the lightning quick reflexes and athleticism their star defensive end has. They also got great value with their second round pick in Reed, who picked up those six sacks in the regular season and added three and a half in the postseason. Look for the Texans to target a tight end if they are not able to re-sign Dreessen, while adding depth to the linebacking corps and offensive line in the later rounds of the draft.

Head Coach Gary Kubiak has the team; will his play calling be up to the task for getting the Texans to the Super Bowl?

Looking at the Texans, they are a team with very few holes.  Indeed, the only real consistent weakness fans can point to is Houston’s third down conversion rate, which fellow Sports-Kings writer NFL Guy alluded to in his AFC South: The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly. Whether this is an issue created by the play calling by head coach Gary Kubiak, or is initiated by some other mysterious force, remains to be seen.  The Texans are not a heavily penalized team, which usually leads to poor third down conversion rates. Regardless, there is no doubt the Texans will be a top team in the AFC and are easily the early favorites to win the division.  As long as they can avoid the injury bug that plagued them this season, there is no reason why the Texans could not end up representing the AFC in next year’s Super Bowl.

Follow me on Twitter: @Shaner021

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