Texans prepare for run, NFL power rankings, free agency rumors and more

NFL


The Houston Texans are going to be a trendy pick in 2018, but they need weapons for Deshaun Watson and a healthy J.J. Watt in order to dream.

After years of living in quarterback hell, the Houston Texans have finally escaped the wilderness. Houston has its man in Deshaun Watson, the rookie dynamo of a season ago who took the league by storm before tearing his ACL in practice on Nov. 2, ending his season.

Going into the spring, few teams will have more buzz around them than the Texans. Houston has a star-studded defense and one of the game’s rising stars under center. In short, the Texans appear to be ready for primetime.

However, there are plenty of questions which must be answered before Houston can challenge the likes of the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers for AFC Supremacy.

For starters, how healthy is J.J. Watt? Watt played in only two games in 2016, undergoing two back surgeries. Last year, Watt lasted into the first quarter of Week 5 before fracturing his tibial plateau, requiring season-ending surgery. Watt, who turns 29 in March, may never be the same player he once was, a perennial favorite for Defensive Player of the Year.

If that’s the case, Houston needs Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney more than ever. Mercilus was hurt on the same drive as Watt last season, tearing his pectoral. The star outside linebacker had only one sack in five games in 2017, but registered a combined 19.5 in the two prior campaigns. Clowney has continued to ascend, seeing his sack totals rise each year. In 2017, the former No. 1 overall pick notched 9.5 to lead the Texans.

Still, Houston’s new general manager, Brain Gaine will need to fortify the secondary. With Johnathan Joseph testing free agency, Houston has a litany of question marks. Kevin Johnson figures to be a fixture, but who mans the other side? Kareem Jackson has been inconsistent and is more suited to subpackage roles.

Gaine, who has a projected $64 million following the release of Brian Cushing, could spend lavishly in this area. Adding Trumaine Johnson, Kyle Fuller or Malcolm Butler would go a long way toward replacing A.J. Bouye, who left for the Jacksonville Jaguars a year ago.

Offensively, Houston has to give Watson more help. DeAndre Hopkins is a brilliant talent on the perimeter, but he needs a running mate. Will Fuller is a deep-ball threat, but his route tree is limited. Allen Robinson and Sammy Watkins would be great options for Houston, both providing terrific value.

Gaine also needs to shore up the offensive line, although free agency isn’t offering much in that area outside of All-Pro guard Andrew Norwell. In a normal year, Houston could do much of this through shrewd drafting, but the Texans traded away both their first and second-round picks to the Cleveland Browns. The second-rounder hurts most, using that to entice Cleveland into taking Brock Osweiler as a salary dump.

If the Texans can give Watson the right support, he’s shown everything to indicate he can be a franchise-altering force. Even though Houston was only 303 in his starts, the national champion threw for 1,699 yards and 19 touchdowns against eight interceptions as a rookie. Given more time, a better group of a weapons and a solid defense, Houston could scare anybody.

Now, the Texans have to go out and make those dreams a reality over the next few months.

Power rankings

Top 10 underrated QBs of all-time (can’t be in HOF)

1. Earl Morrall, Baltimore Colts/Miami Dolphins
2. Randall Cunningham, Philadelphia Eagles
3. Ken Anderson, Cincinnati Bengals
4. Steve McNair, Tennessee Titans
5. Bert Jones, Baltimore Colts
6. John Hadl, San Diego Chargers
7. John Brodie, San Francisco 49ers
8. Joe Theismann, Washington Redskins
9. Craig Morton, Dallas Cowboys/Denver Broncos
10. Mark Brunell, Jacksonville Jaguars

Quotable

“That sounds great,” Luck said. “I know all the best offenses that I’ve been a part of in my career we’ve not been static and we’ve attacked. And I’m sure he’ll have a great flavor and we’ll involve as many people as we can, and attacking defenses is what it’s all about.”

– Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck on Frank Reich’s promise for an up-tempo offense

Podcast

Matt Verderame and Josh Hill run down all the NFL action every Monday (join us Tuesday this week due to President’s Day). Please watch on FanSided’s Facebook page and listen on iTunes!

Random stat

Ozzie Newsome played 13 seasons for the Cleveland Browns. After fumbling on Oct. 5, 1980 in his third campaign, Newsome would play in another 171 regular and postseason contest. Over that span, he caught 579 passes. He never fumbled again.

Info learned this week

1. AJ McCarron wins case, becomes free agent

What is already a robust free-agent quarterback class is now ever more intriguing. On Thursday, AJ McCarron won his grievance against the Cincinnati Bengals, granting him unrestricted free agency come the new league year. McCarron argued that he shouldn’t have been on the non-football injury list as a rookie, and with a favorable ruling, he’s set to cash in.

The Browns have to be considered a player for his services after their near-trade for him at the deadline in November. However, it should be noted that Sashi Brown was the general manager at the time, not John Dorsey. Does Cleveland still have the same level of interest with a new front office and the first-overall pick in its pocket?

There will be other suitors as well, most-notably the New York Jets, Arizona Cardinals, Buffalo Bills and Denver Broncos. All three of those teams could view McCarron as a fall-back plan should they strike out on Kirk Cousins. At 27 years old, there’s ample upside, but also a bevy of unknowns. In his four years with the Bengals, McCarron made three starts, throwing for six touchdowns and two interceptions.

Will he get a deal similar to Brock Osweiler’s from a few years ago? It wouldn’t be wise, but quarterbacks drive NFL executives to make rash decisions.

2. Steelers want extension for Bell, not tag

Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert is saying the right things about potential free agent Le’Veon Bell. Colbert, strapped with only $7.6 million of projected cap space, says the Steelers would prefer a long-term deal with Bell over another franchise tag, saving the team money in the early years of the contract.

Bell, 25, reportedly turned down a five-year, $60 million offer last year, with half the contract guaranteed. After another All-Pro season, it’s likely he demands something close to $15 million/year with $40-45 million in guarantees. Anything in that realm would be a record deal for a running back.

Pittsburgh can’t afford to take on a $14 million cap hit with Bell. The Steelers would have to likely cut Ryan Shazier, Mike Mitchell and perhaps Joe Haden to simply fit Bell and a draft class under the cap.

If Bell gets out of Pittsburgh, the San Francisco 49ers would be an intriguing fit. After spending $137.5 million on Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco has to put talent around him. Another team to watch is the Detroit Lions. Bell played college football at Michigan State, and the Lions have had one 1,000-yard back over the past decade.

3. Who will get the tag this year?

Starting tomorrow (Feb. 20), NFL teams can begin designating their franchise players. To clear up any confusion on the process, here’s a quick snippet on how it works…

Every team can tag one player who is scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency. The tag value depends on position, which is taken from the average of the top five salaries at the given position. Due to this, the tag is very expensive against the cap, as the whole contract counts against the 2018 number.

So who is likely getting tagged? The Dallas Cowboys could very well slap it on defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, who finished last season with 14.5 sacks, second-best in the league. The Carolina Panthers could also use the tag on guard Andrew Norwell, who just posted an All-Pro season at 26 years old.

Then there are Sammy Watkins and Sheldon Richardson. In both cases, the Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks traded a good amount for each player, and losing them after one year would be asinine. However, both franchises have a litany of decisions to make in free agency. Richardson had only one sack last year, but was a consistent force with pressures. Watkins notched just 593 receiving yards, but amassed eight touchdowns.

Considering all their other cap issues, the Rams and Seahawks are likely to either extend or move on from the pair.

Finally, what will the Chicago Bears do about cornerback Kyle Fuller. Fuller appeared to be a bust after Chicago took him in the first round of the 2014 draft. After declining his fifth-year option prior to last season, the Bears watched him blossom, and now he’s in line for a serious payday. Chicago has the cap space and is in the midst of a youth movement, so keeping Fuller in tow would be the wise move.

4. Saints must sign Brees before new league year

The New Orleans Saints aren’t expected to lose Drew Brees, who is slated to hit free agency come March 14. Still, general manager Mickey Loomis is working against that date as a deadline due to cap constraints. Once the league year renewed, Brees’ contract will void. Due to the structure of it, the Saints would be stuck with $18 million worth of bonuses on this year’s cap. To get into further detail, Dan Graziano of ESPN does a great job breaking it all down.

It’s impossible to know how many years Brees believes he can play for, but the Saints would be wise to go no longer than a two-year deal. In that case, New Orleans would avoid any dead money down the road and could have a clean break when Brees walks away.

5. Finalists for hosting ’19 and ’20 NFL Drafts announced

The NFL Draft has been on the move recently. In 2015 and ’16, Chicago played host before giving way to Philadelphia. This time around, JerryWorld will be front and center. Over the next two years, the draft will be held in either Tennessee, Kansas City, Cleveland/Canton, Denver or Las Vegas.

The guess here? Vegas is getting one of them. The Oakland Raiders are expected to move to Vegas by the 2020 season, making the latter of the two drafts a perfect fit. Canton would be an interesting host, but it already has the Pro Football Hall of Fame inductions in August.

History lesson

The Super Bowl has rarely been won by a wild card team. In fact, it has only happened seven times in the game’s 52-year history.

The 1969 Kansas City Chiefs were the first to turn the trick, but in the AFL’s playoff format, only needed to win two games to reach Super Sunday. In 1980, the Raiders got their as the first needing three victories.

Since 1997, though, it has been a bit less rare. The Denver Broncos won it all that year as a fourth seed, while the Baltimore Ravens did the same three years later. In 2005, the Pittsburgh Steelers blazed a trail for future sixth seeds, a road the 2010 Green Bay Packers took. The New York Giants were the only other wild card to win it all, doing so in 2007, toppling the undefeated New England Patriots.

Parting shot

One contender facing a critical offseason is the Atlanta Falcons. After watching Adrian Clayborn develop into a quality pass-rusher, the Falcons now must keep him in town. Clayborn finished the year with 9.5 sacks, giving him value in free agency. General manager Thomas Dimitroff may have to be creative in the contract structure, with Atlanta projected to have only $12 million in cap space.

The Falcons also have other key free agents to re-sign in Dontari Poe and Taylor Gabriel, among others. Atlanta can create some cap space by restructuring deals or releasing guard Andy Levitre, but even those moves would only help to create breathing room.

Atlanta needs to be smart both in free agency and the draft to keep pace in the suddenly tough NFC South. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers should improve if Jameis Winston can ever lay off turnovers, and the Saints and Panthers are already playoff-caliber. The Falcons have the pieces to make another Super Bowl run, but only if they fortify the defensive line and tight end positions.

Dimitroff has proven his mettle before, but his task is significant over the next few months.



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