Examining the options for the Texans, disgruntled Andre Johnson
The odds of Houston Texans WR Andre Johnson sporting another team's uniform in 2014 improved in drastic fashion on Wednesday, with Johnson reportedly telling the Texans that he wants "to play for another team."
According to the NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, the final straw for Johnson may have come when his current franchise denied Johnson the opportunity to earn back part or all of a $1 million workout bonus which he forfeited by skipping earlier workouts. This on top of Johnson's earlier frustration with the current rebuild going on in Houston following a 2-14 season -- a construction project that included the hiring of new head coach Bill O'Brien and signing QB Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Johnson, who just happens to turn 33 years old on Friday, is owed $10 million in base salary this season and then $21.5 million over the next two years. Johnson carries a cap hit in excess of $14 million for each of those seasons, per OvertheCap.com, and the Texans would be on the hook for upward of $11 million in dead money should they trade or release him.
The former would be the more likely scenario, with Johnson still considered one of the game's best wide receiver. Also, Rapoport reported, four teams already have expressed interest in swinging a deal for Johnson. Rapoport did not reveal the identities of those teams, though he tweeted that "some are probably pretty obvious."
Which teams might fall under that umbrella?
• Carolina: Despite using a Round 1 draft pick on Kelvin Benjamin, the Panthers are still lacking in skill-position talent around star quarterback Cam Newton. Johnson absolutely would help fill that quota, more than replacing the void left by departed veteran Steve Smith. The sticking point in any potential Panthers' interest would be financial (though, this could be the case for most teams): Carolina currently has less than $5 million in cap space available, according to the NFL Players Association.
• Cleveland: Again, we find a team in dire need of a game-changer at wide receiver, particularly because former No. 1 option Josh Gordon is facing upward of a year suspension from the NFL. Unlike the Panthers, the Browns have plenty of money to spend, meaning they could fit Johnson under the salary cap -- approximately $24 million -- even if they took on his current contract as is. Cleveland also has an extra first-round draft pick next year after trading down so Buffalo could nab Sammy Watkins.
• New England: Anytime a big-name player becomes available, for whatever reason, the Patriots have to be part of the discussion merely based on their past interest in such scenarios. Tom Brady survived and even thrived at times in 2013 despite a depleted receiving corps, but Johnson could be a nudge over the top for a team in Super Bowl contention. With a little more than $6 million available in cap space at the present time, New England would have to free up more money to bring on Johnson. As we've seen this offseason with, for example, the Saints fitting Jairus Byrd into a tight cap situation, that outcome is possible.
• New York Jets: Perhaps a less-obvious suitor, but the cap space is there (approximately $13.6 million) and adding Johnson to free-agent signing Eric Decker would mean the Jets could elevate their WR position into an unquestioned strength. QBs Geno Smith and Michael Vick certainly would appreciate the boost, one that might make sense with the Jets believing they're on the cusp of a playoff breakthrough.
• Kansas City: Not all that far from the Patriots' situation -- a team that was competitive in 2013 and could use a true No. 1 receiver, no offense to Dwayne Bowe. Kansas City may want to keep most of its capital free to get QB Alex Smith locked up long-term, but with nearly $10 million available right now, the Chiefs might be able to swing this.
Some other sleeper teams along the lines of San Francisco, Tennessee or even always star-hungry Dallas might be among those with interest.
Should the Texans actually prepare to move forward with a trade, we ought to learn the parties in the mix soon enough. Getting to that point will be extremely difficult for the Texans, however, no matter how contentious their situation with Johnson has become. Johnson has played his entire career with the Texans since being taken No. 3 overall back in 2003 and, along with J.J. Watt, he has long been one of the faces of this franchise. Plus, as already mentioned, he continues to produce at a high level -- 109 catches and 1,407 yards last season in spite of a disjointed QB situation.
Shipping Johnson out of town would be a brutal setback, at least in the near future, for a Houston team that shows some elements of mimicking Kansas City's rise last season. The lack of a definitive answer at quarterback may rein in the expectations some, but a repeat of that 2-14 train wreck seems unlikely.
For Johnson, at least, the distance from a 14-loss campaign to the playoffs may be too wide, even with Houston seemingly taking steps in the right direction. He was one of just two players over the age of 30 to finish in the top-15 in catches last season (Anquan Boldin being the other), an indication that his career is closer to its end than its beginning. All his efforts for Houston have helped produce but two playoff berths, in 2011 and '12, and two playoff wins, both over Cincinnati.
The drop from a 12-4 campaign and divisional-round trip in 2012 to the No. 1 overall pick this year had to be as jarring for Johnson as it was for the Houston organization and its fans.
Houston's first task now is to figure out what, if anything, will appease Johnson enough to bury the hatchet and return him to the fold. If it is as simple as granting him the $1 million roster bonus -- and, remember, as of just a few days ago, all signs pointed toward Johnson joining the Texans for training camp -- then that may be the path of least resistance. Would caving set a bad precedent for the franchise regarding future roster bonuses? Perhaps. But Johnson might deserve a little special treatment, given his place on this team.
Any other significant steps forward in terms of fixing the roster likely will have to wait until next offseason. The rub for Johnson there is that he becomes much easier to release, in terms of the dead-money cap hit, beginning in 2015. By 2016, the Texans could save $12 million by cutting their superstar.
The ongoing rift between Johnson and the Texans has shattered what is generally the NFL's quietest few weeks, post-OTAs and pre-training camps. Should Houston decide to trade its disgruntled wide receiver, the resulting shock waves could alter the league landscape for the coming season.