The Houston Texans had a lot of reasons to be excited for 2017, and one big reason for dread.
With one of the more imaginative trades in recent NFL history, the Texans dumped their biggest problem. They sent Brock Osweiler, a second-round pick in 2018 and a sixth-round pick this year to the Cleveland Browns for a fourth-round pick this year. Though that move was fairly brilliant, albeit costly (and, perhaps, the type of salary dump the NFL might want to outlaw in the future), the work isn’t done. It only makes sense if the Texans also land Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. Otherwise, they just gave up a second-round pick and didn’t gain a whole lot.
Let’s not give the Texans too much credit for dumping Osweiler. They signed him in the first place, to that unforgettable four-year, $72 million contract, and then watched Osweiler become the second-worst quarterback in the NFL last season (sorry, Ryan Fitzpatrick). The gamble was understandable last year. But it missed, and the contract was an anchor in 2017. The Texans wouldn’t have saved a dime against the cap by cutting him this season. And trading him seemed so outrageous, it didn’t seem like a realistic possibility until Thursday. The Texans understood Osweiler was a sunk cost, admited the mistake and did what they had to do to move on.
For the Texans, giving up a second-round pick was worth not wasting another season. They have a defense that could be the best in the NFL in 2017, when you consider J.J. Watt will return. They allowed the fewest yards in the NFL last season, mostly without Watt. There are talented players on offense, like DeAndre Hopkins, Lamar Miller and Will Fuller. But the quarterback was a black hole, and it’s really hard to win that way (though it’s not impossible; the 2015 Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos had a 19-23 touchdown-to-interception ratio … with Osweiler starting seven games).
The trade was smart, but part two is crucial for it to be a success.
The Texans have been linked to Romo most of the offseason, though it was hard to see them making that move while also paying Osweiler $18 million. There was a report from John McClain of the Houston Chronicle that the Texans would not trade for Romo, the Osweiler move wasn’t related to Romo and Houston would be interested in Romo only as a free agent if he’s cut. It makes sense for the Texans to make such proclamations publicly in order to maintain some leverage. But the Texans put their cards on the table with the Osweiler trade. It would be a steep price to pay, giving a second-round pick to get rid of Osweiler, if that’s all. And the only follow-up move that makes sense is getting Romo. Otherwise they just spent a second-round pick for what, to start Tom Savage? They could have done that with Osweiler sitting on the bench making a ton of cash. To sign Jay Cutler? That’s not getting them closer to a title. The Texans might have to worry about the Denver Broncos making a play for Romo, in which case they’d be stuck without a viable quarterback yet again. The next few days will be vital for Houston.
The Osweiler move was prudent if the Texans believe they can compete in 2017. But if they don’t get Romo or make some other unforeseen and out-of-the-box move at quarterback with the $10 million in cap savings, then what was the point? What happens next will determine if the Texans were one of the big winners on a crazy first day of NFL free agency.
Here are the rest of the winners and losers from a hectic first few hours of the NFL’s new league year:
Jameis Winston: Unlike fellow young quarterbacks Marcus Mariota and Carson Wentz, Winston already has a star No. 1 receiver in Mike Evans. But the Tampa Bay Buccaneers understand the value in getting Winston even more talent to throw to, and they landed DeSean Jackson.
The Buccaneers were tied for last in the NFL with just four 40-yard pass plays last season. The other three teams with just four 40-yard completions were the Jacksonville Jaguars, Texans and Chicago Bears, and all three had quarterback issues. The Buccaneers don’t have a quarterback problem, but they had a big issue in their receiving corps outside of Evans. Jackson, who led the NFL in yards per catch last season, immediately solves the problem of big plays in the passing game. His addition instantly makes Winston better.
The Buccaneers also grabbed former Washington Redskins defensive lineman Chris Baker, adding a nice piece to the defense. The Buccaneers should be in the playoff race this season, especially if Jackson makes the impact he should.
Offensive linemen: With spread offenses dominating the college football landscape, it’s getting harder for NFL teams to identify and develop good offensive linemen.
If you’ve proven you can play on the line in the pros, you’re going to get paid very well.
Many of the biggest deals in the first few hours of free agency went to offensive linemen. Among the linemen who got rich, with their reported contract figures: Andrew Whitworth (Los Angeles Rams, 3 years, $36 million), Kevin Zeitler (Cleveland Browns, five years, $60 million), Matt Kalil (Carolina Panthers, five years, $55.5 million), Russell Okung (Los Angeles Chargers, four years, $53 million), Ricky Wagner (Detroit Lions, about $9 million per year), Ronald Leary (Denver Broncos, four years, $36 million), Luke Joeckel (Seattle Seahawks, one year, $8 million), J.C. Tretter (Browns, three years, $16.75 million).
Kalil might be the best example of offensive line contracts are exploding. Kalil, the fourth pick of the 2012 draft by the Minnesota Vikings, struggled the past few seasons at left tackle and played in only two games last season due to injury. Yet, the Panthers still paid him more than $11 million per season to fill that hole. Ask any Vikings fan if they think Kalil is worth $11 million per season. It’s an enormous gamble from Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman, who has been pretty safe in free agency. It’s also a sign that offensive linemen – even suspect ones – are in incredible demand.
Jacksonville Jaguars: At some point, all this spending has to pay off.
Last year, Jacksonville spent big to add safety Tashaun Gipson, cornerback Prince Amukamara (who got a one-year deal; he’s a free agent again) and defensive end Malik Jackson to the defense. Jackson was seen by many as the No. 1 free agent last offseason. This year, defensive end Calais Campbell was the best available free agent on many lists. The Jaguars landed Campbell for $60 million over four years. They followed that up by signing cornerback A.J. Bouye to a five-year, $67.5 million deal and safety Barry Church to a four-year deal at more than $6 million per season, according to reports.
Add all that high-priced talent to recent draft classes that include pass rusher Dante Fowler, cornerback Jalen Ramsey and linebacker Myles Jack, and the Jaguars look great on paper. They have acquired a ton of blue-chip talent, especially on defense. But they looked good on paper last season and were terrible on the field. We’ll see if 2017, with a new coaching staff, is different.
But give Jacksonville credit: If they’re bad again, it’s not because they’re cheap.
Washington Redskins: Let’s recap Washington’s offseason.
• General manager Scot McCloughan was fired, and an unnamed source told the Washington Post it was due to his problems with alcohol. The source told the Post, “This has been a disaster for 18 months.” It’s not a good look for the Redskins that someone immediately leaked that intensely personal information to the media. It’s also not good to lose someone as good at player evaluation as McCloughan, no matter the circumstances.
• The Redskins have lost both starting receivers, DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon, from last season. Jackson went to the Buccaneers. Garcon went to the San Francisco 49ers.
• Washington lost defensive end Chris Baker, one of their best defensive players, to Tampa Bay.
• Quarterback Kirk Cousins personally reached out to owner Dan Snyder and asked to be traded, according to ESPN. Which … wow. And Snyder reportedly told Cousins to not get his hopes up. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport said Cousins will soon sign his franchise tag and knows it’s unlikely he’ll be traded. That sets up a truly awkward season with Cousins in Washington, and it’s not going to get better next offseason.
That enough? Washington has been a mess for a while, though coach Jay Gruden has brought some respectability back the past couple seasons. But after all that has happened this offseason, it’s hard to believe the Redskins’ arrow is pointing anywhere but straight down.
Redskins running back Chris Thompson had a funny tweet not long after the McCloughan news broke, and while the timing could have been purely coincidental, it summed up the state of the team well:
Cincinnati Bengals: If you’re not going to be a big player in free agency, you need to retain a high percentage of your home-grown players. Lately, the Bengals have been quiet in free agency and also have seen many good players leave for other teams. That’s a bad combination.
The Bengals lost two-fifths of their offensive line, and both made $12 million a year in free agency. Tackle Andrew Whitworth signed with the Los Angeles Rams, and guard Kevin Zeitler signed with the Cleveland Browns. Their new salaries tell you how valuable they are. Last year, the Bengals lost players like receiver Mohamed Sanu, receiver Marvin Jones, safety Reggie Nelson and tackle Andre Smith while acquiring very little.
There’s still plenty of time for the Bengals to add some key free agents. And they were able to re-sign cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, according to NFL Network, which is a good move. Still, the Bengals have lost a lot of talent the past couple offseasons. It’s hard to overcome that.
Running backs: Just because Ezekiel Elliott had a great rookie season, it doesn’t necessarily mean the entire landscape for running backs has changed. Not unless you’re also acquiring the Dallas Cowboys’ offensive line.
There was very little chatter about the big-name backs on the market on the first day of free agency. Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, Eddie Lacy and Latavius Murray are among the biggest names who are available. Aside from a few reported upcoming visits – Lacy with the Seahawks and Vikings, Charles with the Seahawks, Murray also with the Seahawks – there wasn’t much news regarding the top backs. It was particularly quiet in regard to Peterson.
The running back market hasn’t quite rebounded as a whole, and this year’s free-agent running backs might be hurt by the draft class, which is stocked with talented backs. Even fullbacks are getting paid – former Baltimore Ravens fullback Kyle Juszczyk got $21 million over four years from the San Francisco 49ers (which is a ridiculous for an outdated position, but still) – but tailbacks have to sit and wait. Life is pretty good if you’re an offensive lineman or a cornerback. It’s still tough if you run the ball for a living.
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