Heading into the 2021 NFL offseason, the 4-12 Houston Texans have as many as 21 free agents that they have to make decisions on. Before free agency begins, let’s look at the Texans’ top free agents on offense and defense in 2021.
How much cap space do the Texans have in 2021 to re-sign their free agents?
For 2021, the NFL has a projected salary cap of $176 million per team. Currently, the Texans show a 2021 cap hit of just under $207 million, putting them about $31 million over the new ceiling.
This is not an ideal position, especially for a team likely looking to rebuild from the ground up. This is going to make their decisions on who to bring back that much tougher for a front office in flux. So who should they re-sign and who will the Texans let go in free agency?
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The Texans have one obvious free agent they need to sign on the offensive side of the ball
The Texans have nine offensive players whose contracts are set to expire before the season starts. Six of the nine players are unrestricted free agents while three are restricted. Only one stands out as a clear option to return, but what about the rest?
Will Fuller, Wide Receiver (UFA)
The biggest name on the offensive side of the ball of the Texans’ free agency list is clearly wide receiver Will Fuller. Fuller, 26, started in 11 games for the team before being suspended for a PED violation. In those 11 games, Fuller caught 53 of 75 targets (a 71% catch rate) for 879 yards and 8 touchdowns, which led the team. 2020 was also Fuller’s best season of his career even though he missed 5 games.
Teammate Brandin Cooks had a great year as well, but without Fuller, the Texans’ offense will definitely struggle. It’d be hard to imagine the team letting him go, even with his suspension and inability to stay healthy. The Texans need to make re-signing Fuller a top priority, potentially even using the franchise tag if it comes to that. He’s just that good.
Pharaoh Brown, Tight End (RFA)
The biggest restricted free agent for the Texans for 2021 is tight end Pharaoh Brown. Brown played in 13 games but only caught 14 of 16 targets for 163 yards and two touchdowns. The Texans operated with a revolving door at the tight end position all year, but Brown was clearly involved.
Given the TE competition on the roster from Jordan Akins, Darren Fells, and Kahale Warring, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Brown miss the cut. The team has too many needs to bring back a depth piece like Brown, in my opinion.
Buddy Howell, Running Back (RFA)
Another restricted free agent is RB Buddy Howell. Howell played in 14 games this year. He rushed 16 times for 64 yards (4 ypc) in limited work, but as a 24-year-old running back the team might need him to return. He may not warrant a huge contract and RB depth could be useful with both David and Duke Johnson experiencing injuries more often as they age. I think they bring him back.
Brent Qvale, Right Tackle (UFA)
RT Brent Qvale is the lone offensive lineman free agent on the Texans’ roster. He only played in 19% of offensive snaps as a backup most of the year, but good offensive linemen are generally hard to find. The contract required to keep him likely wouldn’t be too expensive, but I could see them cutting the 28-year-old lineman anyway.
Jon Weeks, Long Snapper (UFA)
One of the special teamers that are coming up for a new contract is 34-year-old veteran Jon Weeks. Weeks has played his entire career (176 games) with the Houston Texans since being signed as a free agent prior to the 2010 season. He’s played in every game of his career and was re-signed to a $1 million contract last year. I expect the team does something similar this year to make sure he’s on the roster once again.
On defense, Houston has several big decisions to make
On the defensive side of the ball the Texans have a total of 12 free agents. Of those, nine are UFA and three are RFA, and the most affected group is clearly the secondary.
Gareon Conley, Cornerback (UFA)
Gareon Conley is the biggest defensive name on the Texans’ free agency list even though he missed the entire season with an ankle injury. Conley started the season on the three-week IR with the expectation of playing, but there were complications and his rehab didn’t go as well as it needed to, so the team opted to sit him down for the entire year to rest up.
This bodes well for the likelihood that the Texans bring him back. Conley is a vital piece of this defense. The team would be crazy not to bring him back. Now that he’s missed his contract season his price tag should be lower than his value. Conley is a clear candidate for the team to re-sign this offseason.
Vernon Hargreaves, Cornerback (UFA)
With Conley out, teammate Vernon Hargreaves had to step up to fill the void. Hargreaves played in all 16 games, had 72 total tackles, and one interception. While the defense as a whole was down, Hargreaves was their best talent in the secondary.
The 24-year-old Buccaneers’ first-round pick definitely deserves another contract with the Texans. Bringing him back alongside a healthy Conley should improve the defense as a whole, both for 2021 and the long-term future as well.
A.J. Moore, Safety (RFA)
Moore played 32% of the total snaps on defense in 11 games and recorded 27 total tackles. As a backup, he wasn’t exactly a presence on the defensive side of the ball. Teammates FS Eric Murray and SS Justin Reid are both under contract for next year. Moore may have earned a second contract, but it’s not likely going to be one that breaks the bank as a backup player.
Tyrell Adams, Linebacker (UFA)
The second-best linebacker for the Texans this year was ILB Tyrell Adams. He finished second in total tackles with 125, behind only fellow LB Zach Cunningham who had 164 combined himself. Adams is 28 and definitely worthy of a second contract for a rebuilding team like the Texans.
Carlos Watkins, Defensive End (UFA)
Behind DE J.J. Watt, Watkins was the third-best DE on the roster for 2020. He played in all 16 games and in 49% of the team’s snaps. His snap share increased throughout the year, though. Watkins is a prime option to be re-signed given his price tag.
Who are the other free agents the Texans need to look into?
The other free agents are mostly depth pieces that may be easier cuts for a team looking for cap space. Here’s the full list sorted by 2020 contract value:
Brennan Scarlett, LB (UFA)
A.J. McCarron, QB (UFA)
Dylan Cole, LB (UFA)
Roderick Johnson, OT (UFA)
Cornell Armstrong, CB (RFA)
Michael Thomas, FS (UFA)
Phillip Gaines, CB (UFA)
Kyle Emmanuel, LB (UFA)
Damion Ratley, WR (UFA)
Dontrell Hilliard, RB (RFA)
P.J. Hall, DT (RFA)
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Andrew Hall is a writer for PFN covering the NFL and fantasy football. You can follow him on Twitter: @AndrewHallFF.