Free agency is set to hit the Houston Texans’ roster harder than many, with 28 players’ contracts about to expire.
In many regards, this is almost the exact same position general manager Nick Caserio found himself in last year when he took the reigns of the Texans and began to overhaul the existing roster: New head coach, not many established starters, fresh off of a four-win season, etc.
However, this doesn’t tell the whole story.
Lovie Smith takes over from David Culley as head coach, having spent last season as defensive coordinator. Pep Hamilton has been promoted to offensive coordinator after spending last season as quarterbacks coach, while Frank Ross returns as special teams coordinator. With these and multiple others, the Texans do at least have some sense of consistency from one year to the next in their coaching staff, and their respective styles.
Also, after a successful 2021 draft, they have five more young players to build around in all three phases, as well as a few standout former free agents who were signed to multi-year contracts such as nickel back Tavierre Thomas, cornerback Terrance Mitchell, and punter Cameron Johnson.
Plus, while not all of their impending free agents will return, it seems only logical that a fair few of them have done enough to warrant a new deal with the Texans, adding to that consistency within the roster.
With this in mind, here is our opinion of who will and won’t be considered priorities for Caserio and co.
QB - Tyrod Taylor
Taylor’s season-opener was arguably a career performance from the veteran. He looked composed, comfortable, and confident in Tim Kelly’s offense. But, after another impressive first half against the Cleveland Browns in Week 2, his season hit a speed bump. A wrist injury kept him out until Week 9, and for his next four starts, he looked a shadow of himself throwing five interceptions to just two touchdowns.
What exactly caused this drop in form isn’t clear, but what is clear is that rookie Davis Mills outperformed Taylor for the remainder of the season.
Taylor could be brought back to provide a veteran option to backup Mills, but given that Mills still isn’t quite nailed down as the out-and-out starter at this time, the Texans may be better off looking for a more consistent backup option than Taylor.
RB – Royce Freeman, David Johnson
If the Texans had acquired the Johnson of 2016 when they acquired him from the Arizona Cardinals, then this would be a no-brainer. But frankly, he’s nowhere near the All-Pro he once was.
Granted he wasn’t helped by a mismatched and inconsistent offensive line, but Johnson has done little to impress during his two years in Houston, rushing for 919 yards and six touchdowns in 25 games, averaging 36.8 yards per game.
Freeman too lacked productivity when given the chance, recording 92 yards on 35 carries, although again the offensive line deserves a lot of the blame.
There’s a strong argument that the Texans need some fresh legs in their running back room.
WR – Chris Moore, Danny Amendola, Chris Conley
Priorities: Moore, Conley
Moore was never a particularly consistent presence in Houston’s lineup, but when called upon he delivered. A reliable target all year, Moore caught 21 of 22 targets for 227 yards and two touchdowns, highlighted by an impressive 109-yard game against the New England Patriots. He deserves another chance to fight for a backup role.
Conley too had a decent season and provided a solid depth option when needed. With 323 yards and two touchdowns on 22 receptions, like Moore he deserves to fight for a spot in training camp.
A tough one to decide on, 36-year-old Amendola performed well when healthy. In eight games he caught 24 passes for 248 yards and three touchdowns. Given his links to some of Houston’s staff going back to his days with the Patriots, it would come as no surprise if he was brought back. But given his age and injury issues, Houston may be better off looking for a longer-term option.
TE – Antony Auclair, Jordan Akins
Auclair’s figures for the year were hardly mind-blowing, with just five receptions for 47 yards and a touchdown, but he played 16 games, starting 10. A prototypical blocking tight end, the veteran would be a low-risk, experienced option to bring back.
Despite entering the year as the presumed starter, Akins fell out of the mix as the season progressed. Akins was a healthy scratch Weeks 11-13 and was only targeted a further five times the remainder of the year. Meanwhile, rookie Brevin Jordan’s role increased as the weeks ticked by, likely indicating Akins’ time in Houston is done.
OL – Geron Christian, Justin Britt, Jimmy Morrissey
Priorities: Britt, Morrissey
Christian’s season can accurately be described as okay. With injuries hitting multiple linemen, Christian saw plenty of game time making 14 appearances and eight starts. Penalties weren’t his friend, to say the least, recording six. If he were brought back, it wouldn’t be a shock, but also if Houston opted to let him go, that would come as no surprise.
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Britt had a decent season, especially given he missed all of 2020. Starting 11 games, and missing the rest due to injury, center remains a position the Texans may look to address early in the draft. As with Christian, Britt had a penalty issue with five and allowed three sacks, but he should be brought back for his leadership and tenacity as much as anything as he’d leave a big void in the locker room.
Rookie Morrissey was picked up off the Las Vegas Raiders’ practice squad as an injury replacement for Britt, starting four of five appearances in the second half of the season. Morrissey allowed two sacks and had two penalties, and is far from the finished product, with a PFF grade of 45. However, at only 23-years-old, he has potential and the exclusive restricted free agent deserves training camp at the very least to show if he can step up in year two.
DT – Maliek Collins, Vincent Taylor, Jaleel Johnson
Priorities: Collins, Taylor
Collins is a prime example of someone who was given a one-year prove-it deal – and did exactly that. Arguably Houston’s best tackle last season, Collins looked back at his best after a rough stint with the Raiders. Starting 15 games and recording 2.5 sacks, 29 tackles, seven quarterback hits, and a defended pass, Collins absolutely deserves a starting role next season and more than just another one-year deal.
Taylor is another difficult one. He only played 26 snaps in Week 1 before suffering a torn Achilles. Before then, he’d had a promising preseason and was a starter in his first game for the Texans. He deserves another shot to show what he can do, especially given how he performed last summer.
Johnson could go either way. Cut by the Texans after training camp before being brought back after Taylor’s injury, Johnson went on to play 12 games without starting and had 23 tackles and one quarterback hit. He could be brought back to fight for a depth spot in training camp, but if Taylor and Collins return, and with the emergence of rookie Roy Lopez, Johnson may be surplus to requirements.
DE – Jacob Martin, DeMarcus Walker
His first full-year at defensive end, Martin was a consistent presence for the Texans in 2021, playing in all 17 games, of which he started 14. At times, Martin can be a menace on the outside and has plenty of talent, but the productivity isn’t quite there – yet. With four sacks, six quarterback hits, and two forced fumbles last year, Martin deserves to return and continue to progress.
Walker had his moments in his debut campaign in Houston, with two sacks and seven quarterback hits in 13 games. Much like Johnson, Walker could go either way depending largely on whether or not the Texans draft a defensive end, as many suspect they will, in the first round.
LB – Eric Wilson, Kamu Grugier-Hill, Tae Davis, Christian Kirksey, Neville Hewitt, Hardy Nickerson
Priorities: Grugier-Hill, Kirksey, Hewitt
Grugier-Hill was Houston’s defensive player of the year. A breakout campaign for the veteran, Grugier-Hill fit in well in Lovie Smith’s defense and was everywhere. Starting 14 games, Grugier-Hill had three sacks, two forced fumbles, one interception, three defended passes, and 108 tackles including 20 in one game against the Indianapolis Colts. He has to be one of Caserio’s top priorities.
Kirksey was another shrewd acquisition by Caserio, starting 12 of 13 appearances as one of the leaders on Houston’s defense. With one interception, two recovered fumbles, two quarterback hits, and 93 tackles, Kirksey was consistent all year and is a no-brainer to bring back.
Hewitt’s role grew later in the year as injuries hit others, and he showed just why he had 134 tackles the year prior. In 17 appearances, Hewitt managed one quarterback hit and 60 tackles. He is a solid backup and would be a quality depth option who knows the system.
Davis spent the year on injured reserve while Nickerson was initially cut, only to return for two games before himself landing on injured reserve. Wilson was a mid-season addition and played very little. Plus, with the growth of rookie Garret Wallow and the performances of the likes of Hewitt, the returns of Davis, Nickerson, and Wilson seem unlikely.
CB – Desmond King, Grayland Arnold
King had a solid year for the Texans and had some real flashes throughout. With three interceptions, six defended passes, one forced fumble, and 93 tackles, King should be near the top of Caserio’s to-call list.
Arnold’s role was small and primarily on special teams once promoted from the practice squad. Unfortunately, he ended the year on injured reserve.
S – Terrence Brooks, A.J. Moore, Justin Reid
Priorities: Reid, Brooks
Arguably the biggest name on this list, Reid has been a stalwart for this Texans defense throughout his four years in Houston. A smart and consistent player, he’s never had the easiest time of it given the rotating doors at cornerback and safety alongside him since the start.
Any fan will tell you how much they want to see him back, and he himself has said he wants to stay, but given his value and Houston’s less-than-ideal cap situation, a return feels unlikely. If Caserio can work his magic and find the space, then bringing Reid back would be a big win, but again… don’t hold your breath.
Brooks was a solid backup for the Texans and a key special teamer all year. Brooks had one defended pass and 21 tackles in 11 appearances and should be brought back to compete for a spot.
After starting the year on injured reserve, Moore returned to play 12 games almost exclusively on special teams. Moore has shown ability on defense in the past, but his role on defense was undoubtedly scaled back from 2020 which doesn’t seem promising for his future in Houston.
ST – Jon Weeks
Houston’s longest-tenured player, Weeks is a pillar of this team having played in every game since 2010. With 193 appearances to his name, Weeks was as reliable as ever in 2021 and a true pro as always. Yes, he’s almost 36, but why fix something that isn’t broken? He should be a shoo-in until he decides to hand up his cleats.