It was ultimately a success season for the Houston Texans in 2018. Anytime you win your division, especially a competitive division is a success. However, it could have been so much more than it ended up being. With one more regular season win they would have been the #2 seed in the AFC, and would have hosted a divisional round playoff game. Instead they had to welcome the Colts in the Wildcard round, and they struggled massively in that game. With a bye week to get their guys healthy, they could have made a real run for the Super Bowl.
However, 2018 is now in the rear view mirror. We are just under a month away from free agency (March 13), and the scouting combine is less than two weeks away. Therefore, it is time to start looking at the current state of the AFC South franchises. Who has the flexibility to make a big splash? Who has some questions to answer?
Let’s kick off with our 2018 AFC South champions.
Cap Space: $77,969,917
On its own that number looks huge but it doesn’t really mean a lot. To put it in context, the Texans enter this offseason with the fourth most space of any team in the NFL. For a team to win their division and then enter the following offseason with that much flexibility is extremely interesting.
The Texans actually gained $14 million in cap space when they cut Demariyus Thomas, who they traded a 4th round pick for last year. Thomas is coming into 2019 with an Achilles injury, and it made sense for the Texans to save the money and look elsewhere, given they already have three very good wide receivers in house.
Moving on from Thomas means that the team have so much cap space that any thoughts I had of the moving on from J.J. Watt have been dismissed. If the Texans were tight on space then cutting Watt could have given them $13 million in extra space. The only other players that would have given them anything like that were Thomas, cornerback Kevin Johnson ($9 million), linebacker Whitney Mercilus, ($6.25 million) and running back Lamar Miller ($6.2 million).
The Big Two
The Texans currently have 52 players contracted for next season, but they do have some key pieces leaving. The headliners are Jadeveon Clowney and Tyrann Mathieu. It is hard to know at this stage exactly how much money those two are going to command but it is going to be a significant chunk of money.
For some context on the pass rushing market, Khalil Mack will count $22.3 million against the Bears cap this season. Clowney should not get that much money but football contracts are a funny thing. Unless they get a home discount then around $20 million of that cap space is going to Clowney this season. Last season the franchise tag for defensive ends was $17.15 million, so look at that as the starting point for the Clowney contract. Of course they could let Clowney leave, but my belief is they will want to keep him around, especially as they have the cap space to do it.
Mathieu counted $7 million against the cap last season, and I do not believe his value went down after 2018. Therefore, somewhere in the region of another $7-10 million of cap space is likely to go to Mathieu. The safety market is weird so it could be less but it seems unlikely.
The Smaller Names
Outside of those two they have cornerback Kareem Jackson, running back Alfred Blue, kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn and defensive tackle Christian Covington heading out of the door as it stands.
Fairbairn and Covington are likely the main names there that they try and keep around. Covington flashed some really good performances last year and may not be cheap to keep around. Fairbain is also going to be looking for a contract in the Josh Lambo region (4 years, $15 million). It may be a little less but he is unlikely to be playing for under $1 million again in 2019.
Draft and Free Agency
With all eyes now turning to the draft and free agency it is time to consider what the Texans really need to add to their roster. quarterback and wide receivers is pretty well taken care of, and if they bring back both Clowney and Mathieu then defensive end and safety should not be major concerns. The same with Covington, if they bring him back then defensive tackle is not a major issue. However, if any of those three walk they will need replacing.
Draft Picks: 23, 54 (from SEA), 55, 86, 5th, 6th, 7th
Major Needs: Offensive Line & Corner back
It will be no surprise to anyone that the Texans need offensive line help. Deshaun Watson was running for his life in 2018, and he was hit more than any other quarterback in the NFL. The fact he was as good as he was with that little protection is extremely promising. Get him some blockers and who knows what the ceiling it. The issue is that there are not really any top end offensive linemen in free agency. Even when their are you often have to overpay for their talents.
The good news is that after having no first or second round pick last year the Texans have three this year. At least one of those picks needs to be spent on an offensive lineman, and perhaps even two or all three. There should be a lot of defensive focus early in this draft and their is a chance the Texans could get a really good offensive lineman at pick 23.
The other major need is corner back. It is nowhere near as major as offensive line but they need help. They ranked in the bottom half of the league in net yards per passing attempt and that is something they will want to improve. If two of the first three picks are spent on offensive linemen then I expect the other to be on a young corner for them to develop. Do not be surprised if they bring in a veteran in free agency either.
Minor Needs: Tight end & Running back
Other than Lamar Miller they do not have any game breakers at either of these positions. I do not think they should spend money in free agency on either position. Instead, some late round draft picks could add some cheap talent. Their tight end situation has some young players and they may decide that is all they need to go forward. Whatever they do they need a big step forward from the position in one way or another in 2019.
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