HOUSTON - The Houston Texans can look at 2021 as a blueprint of the future. Having the right foreman and architect goes a long way for any project, but it certainly does help in the realm of football.
GM Nick Caserio and coach David Culley were brought in to the fix the roster. Houston finished 4-12 last season, despite watching Deshaun Watson lead the NFL in passing and setting the franchise record in passing touchdowns.
Now, Watson wants out of Houston.
The Watson fiasco will hog the spotlight until the two parties find a resolution. That can't be the only thing on Caserio's mind when free agency begins, though. After 20 years working alongside New England's Bill Belichick to build their dynasty, it's time for the protege to prove he can be a teacher on his own.
These five "to do" list items over the next month will be the deciding factor on if Houston can be competent in the start of the rebuild.
1) Decide and stick to Deshaun Watson plan
Houston has two options with Watson: trade him now for a hefty bargain or elect to watch him dare to sit out. Multiple reports have stated that the 25-year-old will be willing to miss the season if he remains with the franchise.
If Houston is fine with that, Caserio can double down on his "no trade" comments all offseason. If there's any hesitation, it's time to listen to offers. A handful of teams have the draft capital to help Houston's rebuild, but it has to be done before April's NFL Draft.
Credit Caserio for holding out this long, but it's time to get serious for the future.
2) Consider trading all assets
The Texans won four games in 2020 with a Pro Bowl quarterback. Imagine that same roster without Watson and now J.J. Watt. Do they win more than two games in 2021?
Should Houston trade Watson or allow him to sit out, they need to explore every trade route they can. Their first pick won't be until No.67 overall, so bulking up late might be the best plan.
Any player with value should be on the table. Wide receiver Brandin Cooks should garner the most attention, but linebacker Benardrick McKinney and cornerback Bradley Roby all should worthy of trading.
For now, safety Justin Reid, linebacker Zach Cunningham and left tackle Laremy Tunsil all should be off the table since they'll be the face of the rebuild. However, for a high enough price, Houston should at least consider options. All options.
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3) Restructure or cut Benardrick McKinney and Brandon Dunn
McKinney is a fine player and Dunn has value in a 3-4 system. Therein lies the problem, as the Texans are switching over to a 4-3 under Lovie Smith.
Houston will need to decide if Cunningham will play the middle or more of the outside in the new formation. McKinney has always played inside linebacker and hasn't played in a 4-3 set since 2014.
Both players have earned all their guaranteed money off the extensions. Unless they're willing to take a pay cut, Houston would save $9.2 million in cap space should they be released. If they don't fit the formation, cut them for the cash.
4) Add a high-end QB backup
Houston could trade Watson, draft a rookie and begin fresh. They could keep Watson, hope he doesn't sit out and add a name later in the draft. Either plan needs a veteran who has "been there" before.
Andy Dalton, Tyrod Taylor or the maybe-retiring Ryan Fitzpatrick all would be great mentors. Should Houston be willing to splurge a little more, Jacoby Brissett has ties with Caserio from New England.
With AJ McCaron entering free agency and Josh McCown gone, Watson remains the only quarterback under contract. That obviously can't be the case entering training camp.
5) Prioritize adding rookie weapons in the draft
Will Fuller will likely either enter free agency or sign a long-term deal with Houston. (The franchise tag is also an option.) If he leaves, Houston will need a vertical threat to pair with Cooks should Caserio keep him for another year.
North Carolina's Dyami Brown led the ACC in 2020 with 1,099 receiving yards and averaged at least 20 yards per catch his final two seasons. Clemson's Amari Rodgers is a route-running technician with great strength to win in the slot. Louisville's Tutu Attwell also was an effective vertical threat for the Cardinals.
Pairing a pass-catching back with David Johnson should expand the run game. Look for Kanas' Pooka Williams or UCLA's Demetric Felton to be considered options later in the draft.
No matter who returns, it's about building for the future in Houston. Drafting weapons who will be under cheaper contracts for multiple is a starting point.
And overall? This blueprint is only about building a foundation. The goals, at this point, are not very lofty. But these five "to-do's'' are a start.
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