Next season’s playoff race begins this spring as all 32 teams retool their rosters, so it’s time to take a look at what each franchise must do for a better season in 2016. Next up? The Texans, who are in desperate need of a QB. Check back for our other 31 off-season outlooks, which we will be rolling out in reverse order of finish over the coming weeks leading up to free agency and the draft.
Key free agents
G Brandon Brooks, OT Chris Clark, DE Jared Crick, S Quintin Demps, C Ben Jones, P Shane Lechler, K Nick Novak, RB Chris Polk, WR Nate Washington
Players that must be re-signed
Brooks, Jones, Lechler (if the Texans can avoid the franchise tag), Novak: Add a couple of restricted free agents to this list, too: OLB John Simon, who had 5.0 sacks last season, and safety Eddie Pleasant, who was far from great but certainly earned his $585,000 salary on defense and special teams. Running back Jonathan Grimes (455 yards from scrimmage) is another, especially with Arian Foster a cut candidate and Polk headed to free agency.
The Texans’ decisions will be plentiful beyond that because all of those “key free agents” up top were starters at some point in 2015, with several of them (all but Clark and Polk, really) sticking in the lineup for almost the entire season.
Outside of Brooks or Jones, the toughest player to lose would be Crick, a two-year starter in Houston and a key cog opposite J.J. Watt on the line. There is not a sure-fire replacement behind Crick currently on the roster, and 2015 sixth-rounder Christian Covington might be next man up if Crick walks and the Texans cannot land a new starter.
Jones was far from perfect after sliding over from guard to center to fill Chris Myers’s shoes. The 2016 draft class does include several possible starting centers, most of which would be available late on Day 2 or into Day 3. Houston could opt to go that route and let Jones walk. It would risk upsetting the O-line’s growing cohesiveness if it did, as every starter save for left tackle Duane Brown joined the roster in 2011 or later.
Brooks is the better of Houston’s two free-agent interior linemen, by a decent margin. The problem is that the rest of the league no doubt took notice. Coming off a slotted third-round rookie deal that earned him about $3 million total, Brooks could double that amount next year alone. There are nine guards as of this moment carrying 2016 cap hits in excess of $6 million; Brooks could be the 10th.
The franchise tag is out of the question, though, because all offensive linemen are tossed under the same umbrella—there is no tackle or guard designation, as there is with, for example, defensive tackle and end. The O-line tag last year cost $12.9 million and figures to rise for 2016. That would make Brooks the league’s highest-paid guard by about $5 million, which is ludicrous.
Despite all those obstacles, Houston should make Brooks a focal point this off-season. His loss would be a massive blow.
The franchise tag conundrum also applies to Lechler, who turns 40 in August. He ranked fifth in yards per punt last season (47.3) but just 26th in net yardage (38.8). He’d be nice to have back, but this is another joint tag that combines kickers and punters at a cost of upwards of $4 million last season. Lechler should not be the game’s richest punter.
Keeping Novak shouldn’t be too difficult. He was out of a job before the Texans added him in the middle of the season, then he connected on 85.7% of his field goals (18 of 21). No need to go chasing another kicker.
As for the rest, Clark served his role as a swing tackle well after Houston traded for him. If he can be kept for a reasonable price, he should be. Demps proved a reliable starter and would be worth kicking the tires on again.
Most important position to improve
Quarterback: This is as obvious a need as any team in football has right now. The Texans won nine games in 2014 with Ryan Fitzpatrick backed by Case Keenum and Ryan Mallett, then somehow did so again in 2015—capturing the lackluster AFC South in the process—behind Brian Hoyer, Mallett, Brandon Weeden and noted Bengals killer T.J. Yates.
Put a legit No. 1 QB on this team and it is a Super Bowl contender. Can the Texans find anyone who fits that description?
Other positions to improve
Running back, defensive line, offensive tackle, safety, tight end: Oh right, the Texans also won nine games this season despite losing Arian Foster to injury ... again. The talented back tore his Achilles in Week 7, after missing Weeks 1–3, leaving his team scrambling in the backfield. With $6.5 million in salary due to him in his age-30 season and a cap hit close to $9 million, Foster should be checking out his other options soon.
The defensive line issues are contingent on Crick. Veteran nose tackle Vince Wilfork could be on the chopping block, too, but it sounds for now like the Texans want to keep him around. (They would save around $4.5 million by cutting him.) With Watt, Wilfork and Crick all back for 2016, plus Covington behind them, the line turns from a trouble spot to one where Houston can focus on the future.
The offensive tackle spots should be fine with Duane Brown and Derek Newton back as the starters, but losing Clark would create an issue behind them. Brown also is about to be 31 and is coming off a torn quad, so banking on him long-term would be a risk.
Safety continues to be a bugaboo for the Texans, although Demps, Andre Hal and Eddie Pleasant helped make up for Rahim Moore’s bust-tastic 2015. This is a clear upgrade spot, with ample draft options.
Houston has three relatively recent draft picks at tight end: C.J. Fiedorowicz (2014), Ryan Griffen (2013) and Garrett Graham (2010). Which one worries opposing defenses?
Overall priority this off-season
Fix the offense already: The Texans have a top-10 defense led by Watt, the most dominant defender in football. Can they ever get their offense up to the same speed? This off-season presents an opportunity to remake that unit without blowing it to pieces.
Find a quarterback, be it through trade, free agency (probably not free agency) or the draft. Tap into the strong running back market and replace Foster. Keep the O-line together. Maybe add a receiver or pass-catching tight end. Voila.
OK, that’s all much harder than it sounds in four sentences, but those are the tasks facing GM Rick Smith this off-season. If he can solve that first problem and land a quarterback, the remaining headaches won’t be so bad.