Free Agency 2022: Four keys to the Houston Texans’ success this offseason

With the 2022 free agency period looming, what do the Houston Texans need to address this offseason to continue their rebuild as a franchise?

INDIANAPOLIS — The Houston Texans head into 2022 free agency with a new head coach, the Deshaun Watson dilemma, and at least one talented player potentially set to leave as a free agent. Let’s take a look at the options the Texans have this offseason as they enter the 2022 free agency period.

Houston Texans 2022 Free Agency

Nick Caserio finds himself in an altogether different and much more positive situation than a year ago. Standing at a podium at the Indianapolis Convention Center for the first time in his NFL career, Caserio smiled as he addressed reporters this week.

It was after a year of heavy lifting in terms of roster-building for the Texans general manager, who follows a strict exercise regimen and diet.

When Caserio left the New England Patriots after winning six Super Bowl titles as the primary lieutenant to coach Bill Belichick, he took over a franchise that was in transition coming off a 4-12 season and the firing of coach-general manager Bill O’Brien.

The Texans were in such bad salary cap shape a year ago that Caserio quipped that they ranked 40th out of 32 teams.

Three-time Pro Bowl quarterback Deshaun Watson, the NFL’s passing yardage leader in 2020, then demanded a trade. That situation was compounded by Watson’s legal issues (10 criminal complaints and 22 civil lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct or sexual assault) that have made it extremely difficult so far to trade him for the type of serious draft capital — the team wants three first-round draft picks and other draft selections — that could accelerate the Texans’ construction project.

A year later at the NFL scouting combine, the Texans have roughly $16.917 million in salary cap space with 49 players under contract. They’ve hired a new head coach in former NFL Coach of the Year Lovie Smith after firing David Culley. They also have the return of a strong-armed young starting quarterback in Davis Mills, who had a promising rookie season after being drafted in the third round out of Stanford and outplaying many of the first-round quarterbacks.

While the Texans are still in the midst of a rebuild and not primed to become a playoff contender just yet, the AFC South franchise is encouraged that they’re on the right track.

Last season saw the start of rebuilding the franchise

Caserio overhauled the roster with a series of one-year contracts with former Philadelphia Eagles punter Cameron Johnston representing the only three-year contract, an $8 million pact.

While the Texans have a league-high $35.4 million in dead money, including $12.832 million for linebacker Zach Cunningham, $7 million for linebacker Whitney Mercilus, $5.275 million for defensive end Shaq Lawson, $4.79 million for Bradley Roby, and $3.5 million for wide receiver Randall Cobb, they have room to operate.

The Texans are also encouraged by the culture and chemistry they’ve instilled in the building with a hard-working, blue-collar atmosphere, major upgrades to the locker room and training area and in sports science, strength and conditioning, community involvement and character development.

“A lot of change has taken place,” Caserio said. “I’d say organizationally over the last, call it 12 months, it’s hard to believe it’s been a year or so that I’ve been on the job. Did some decent things as a team last year, had a lot of new players.

“Have a number of players that will be free agents this year. So we’ll be using the offseason here kind of rebuilding the team. Looking forward to free agency and looking forward to some opportunities here in the draft once we get started.”

Here are four keys to the Texans having a successful free agency and offseason as Caserio heads into his second year as the architect of a rebuild:

1) Trade Deshaun Watson

No trade is imminent or developing at this time for Watson, who was nearly traded at the NFL deadline last season to the Miami Dolphins with the deal scuttled because Dolphins owner Stephen Ross insisted that the quarterback settle his lawsuits and he was only able to reach preliminary agreements to settle with 18 of the 22 plaintiffs, per league sources not authorized to speak publicly.

Dolphins general manager Chris Grier made it abundantly clear that he won’t be revisiting trade discussions.

“The door is shut on Deshaun,” Grier said this week.

The New York Giants aren’t interested, too, per owner John Mara, citing a tight salary cap situation and Watson’s unresolved legal situation.

Who is interested in Watson?

The Washington Commanders and Carolina Panthers remain interested in Watson, per league sources.

Philadelphia Eagles general manager Howie Roseman previously conducted significant due diligence on Watson before last season, even sending an investigator to Houston to look into the legal situation and contacting Rusty Hardin, Watson’s attorney, per sources.

However, Watson has never been inclined to waive his no-trade clause for the Eagles. Moreover, Philadelphia has publicly committed to Jalen Hurts as their quarterback.

The Denver Broncos have had interest in Watson for over a year, per sources. Yet, they have some understandable hesitation to pursue him given the potential reputation fallout due to the graphic and unproven accusations he’s facing and the fact that the team is for sale. They’re also actively monitoring the Aaron Rodgers situation and would love to trade for him. Rodgers, though, may remain in Green Bay.

As much as the Texans want to trade Watson, they realize that the criminal justice system and civil litigation move slowly. And perhaps the list of teams will grow exponentially if his legal problems are resolved favorably.

The situation remains complex heading into the 2022 NFL league year

Watson is facing 10 criminal complaints alleging sexual misconduct or sexual assault. He has not been charged with a crime, but Hardin has repeatedly said he is hopeful for clarity by April 1 on whether Watson will be charged. Watson is scheduled to face his first deposition on March 11 at Hardin’s office for civil lawsuits alleging inappropriate behavior during his sessions with massage therapists.

At the 2022 NFL Combine, Smith, 63, said he remains hopeful that closure will ultimately be realized for Watson and the AFC South franchise. When that might happen remains unclear.

“I have no idea,” Smith said. “And the good part about it is time kind of takes care of everything. I just know Deshaun is an excellent football player. Excellent football players need to be playing somewhere in the NFL. Hopefully, that will happen, and if it’s not with us, it’s somewhere else. And I’m sure as I see in this situation, both of us eventually are going to benefit from the situation, and I just can’t wait for that to speed up a little bit.

“How important is that? I’m agreeing with what you said. Yes, we would like a prompt resolution to it, but I’m also a patient man, too, and time normally takes care of everything. We understand this is Year 2, and I know Deshaun wants to play, and it will come to a head. I have faith in that. We just have to give it a little time, and hopefully, everybody will be happy with it. I’m sure that will be the case.”

2) The Texans need to have a strong draft

Houston holds the third overall pick and has nine selections in total one year after a five-player draft class as they lacked draft picks due to the Laremy Tunsil trade engineered by O’Brien.

The Texans got solid production out of Mills, wide receiver Nico Collins, tight end Brevin Jordan, linebacker Garret Wallow, and especially defensive tackle and sixth-round draft pick Roy Lopez. All of the players displayed potential during their rookie season.

“I’d say generally speaking, we saw some progress from the rookies, not just Davis, but I’d say Nico kind of as the year progressed,” Caserio said. “The one guy that played the most snaps and was the most consistent from beginning to end was Roy Lopez, and he was picked in the sixth round.

“So, I think the big thing is, you’re just looking for some level of improvement and progress. Just try to be smart and hopefully those guys can see the gains that they made during the season and hopefully continue to build on the things they did last season.”

With the third pick, they have several intriguing options. That includes defensive ends Aidan Hutchinson and Kayvon Thibodeaux, offensive tackles Evan Neal and Ikem Ekwonu, and safety Kyle Hamilton. Caserio has also made it clear that he’s open for business. A trade-back scenario would potentially benefit the Texans by acquiring more picks to add more talent to the roster.

“I would say spending as much time on that group of players, knowing that group is just as important as knowing the top 50 players in the draft,” Caserio said. “Again, it really speaks to more of a comprehensive deep dive of knowing the overall board. There are, however, many players get drafted. 200, almost 300, and then there’s going to be another large group of players that are signed after the draft. You don’t want to kind of cast that group aside.”

3) Retain free agents

The Texans aren’t expected to be big spenders in free agency and are considered unlikely to bid on high-end free agents like Patriots corner J.C. Jackson, according to sources. There will likely be a solid volume of players acquired on short-term deals that aren’t particularly expensive.

The Texans are considered unlikely to retain safety Justin Reid, their top unrestricted free agent, given their other personnel needs and the fact that he’s expected to have a strong free agent market, according to league sources.

Although league sources not authorized to speak publicly still predict that Reid will ultimately have a healthy enough market that it would be financially inadvisable to stay with the Texans, Reid said that the team promoting Smith is a bit of a game-changer for him as far as his decision-making process. Still, the Texans aren’t opposed at all to the idea of Reid returning on a new contract now that his four-year, $2.443 million rookie contract has expired.

“Justin Reid is an outstanding player, Smith said. “He’s a football guy. He wants to know every little detail about why we do things. I love that in a football player. He fits the profile. When you get in the NFL and you play the amount of time he has and you get an opportunity to be a free agent, so you’re excited for him in that sense. But the business part takes care of itself. We’ll be pretty happy if Justin ends up coming back with us.”

Reid could have a good market if he reaches free agency

Reid could be a strong fit for the Chicago Bears, Philadelphia Eagles, and Baltimore Ravens, amongst other NFL teams should he hit free agency, according to sources. In four NFL seasons, Reid has recorded seven interceptions, two forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, and two sacks. Now, Reid is expected to cash in as a free agent.

The highest-paid safeties in terms of average per year are Denver Broncos’ Justin Simmons ($15.25 million), Arizona Cardinals’ Budda Baker ($14.75 million), Chicago Bears’ Eddie Jackson ($14.6 million), Tennessee Titans’ Kevin Byard ($14.1 million), Washington Commanders’ Landon Collins ($14 million), Kansas City Chiefs’ Tyrann Mathieu ($14 million), New England Patriots Devin McCourty ($11.5 million), and the Cleveland Browns’ John Johnson ($11.25 million).

Which other free agents could the Texans look to retain?

The Texans are also interested in retaining defensive tackle Maliek Collins and linebackers Kamu Grugier-Hill and Christian Kirksey prior to or during free agency with that interest being mutual, according to sources. They also could potentially bring back defensive lineman DeMarcus Walker and cornerback Desmond King depending on their other options in free agency.

No deals are imminent for the Texans’ other unrestricted free agents, per sources. They have already re-signed or agreed to deals with long snapper Jon Weeks, linebacker Tae Davis, wide receiver Davion Davis, and center Jimmy Morrissey to one-year contracts.

4) Manage the salary cap

The Texans can, of course, manage the salary cap to create more space to compete financially.

Nothing would help them more than trading Watson and shedding his four-year, $156 million contract that includes a $40 million salary cap figure for 2022 and a fully guaranteed $35 million base salary. Trading Watson would create $24.2 million in salary cap space and add $16.2 million in dead money.

Laremy Tunsil’s future in Houston is an intriguing situation this offseason

Caserio was noncommittal on the status of Pro Bowl left tackle Laremy Tunsil, who didn’t return to play last season after undergoing thumb surgery.

The injury ended his season as he remained on injured reserve. Him not returning as soon as Culley originally projected (a four-week recovery estimate) raised some questions about his future with the Texans given his three-year, $66 million contract and his $17.85 million base salary in 2022 and $18.5 million in 2023.

Caserio met with Tunsil after the season but made no commitment or lack of commitment toward the former Dolphins’ first-round draft pick when asked about his status at the combine.

NFL teams have a high opinion of Tunsil’s blocking skills and athleticism. However, the Texans would want a hefty return in exchange for Tunsil, according to league sources.

The Texans can save $9.5 million in cap savings if he’s traded with $16.6 million in dead money. The Cincinnati Bengals, Carolina Panthers, and several other teams could use an elite pass blocker like Tunsil.

“I don’t want to get into some of the things we talked about, but we’ll see how it goes here once we get moving,” Caserio said. “We’re kind of going through the whole team-building process as we speak. So, we’ve got a lot of players that are under contract, so we’ll be pretty busy here the next couple of weeks. But you know, Laremy’s under contract. He’s been a good player for us, so we’ll kind of see how it all goes.”

What other cap space options do the Texans have?

The Texans can also create $5.2 million in salary cap space by cutting veteran offensive tackle Marcus Cannon. Cannon making a sound recovery from back surgery makes the decision a little tougher. Caserio was complimentary of Cannon, who started four games before his back got aggravated.

“Durability has been the main thing that’s prohibited him from maybe being a better player. But when he was out there, I think he actually probably played hurt, showed a lot of mental, physical toughness,” Caserio said. “I think it speaks to who Marcus is as a person and a player.”

The Texans can add $3.1 million in cap space if they cut linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis, who had an injury-plagued season and is entering the second year of his contract.

They like safety Eric Murray, who has a $6.9 million salary cap figure, but they can add $5.4 million in cap space by releasing him. They could also potentially restructure his contract and might want to if Reid leaves.

Caserio addresses cap situaiton

“I’d say cap-wise we’re in a little bit better situation than we were kind of the start of last offseason,” Caserio said. “I think we’re honestly middle of the league right now. That’s before we do anything. You can create cap space in many different ways, so you want to have a manageable amount. I’d say your cap situation is also going to dictate the pool of players that you’re going to maybe have an opportunity to add to your roster during free agency. But I’d say philosophically our belief is the value of the player commensurate with the role, and you try to match those up.

“Okay, if the value of the player goes beyond what the role is, then you have to make a determination. Is it worth pursuing that player or you know what? We’re going to have to let him go and try to find somebody else that maybe fits the role that we have in mind. I would say kind of looking at the economics and being fiscally responsible is certainly something that has always been a big part of something I believe in. It doesn’t preclude you from signing somebody that maybe is going to be cost-prohibitive, but it’s going to come at the expense of maybe X number of players. You just have to be thoughtful of the ramifications it has on the overall team, not specific to the one player.”

Aaron Wilson is the NFL Insider for Pro Football Network. Follow him on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL.

Aaron Wilson is the NFL Insider for Pro Football Network. Follow him on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL.

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