Don’t Panic!

Despite what Patrick Creighton says, Texans early offseason is a success

Brian Gaine has done a solid job so far in free agency. Houstontexans.com

It’s now been a full week since the NFL offseason kicked off with numerous player signings negotiated in the days leading up to the official start date. In the eyes of Texans fans, the lack of big name signings on the offensive line and Tyrann Mathieu being the only big name secondary addition may look like Brian Gaine is failing. Fear not. The lack of huge deals is a sign of strength and clarity of purpose in the front office.

It’s too early for Gaine to say it was his plan all along to not overspend for free agent talent. It’s too early to say they chose not to meet exorbitant salary demands instead of admitting that players just didn’t want to come to Houston. But no matter what, we can all be happy that the future of the Texans’ salary cap is still healthy. And that’s the best news to come from an offseason that didn’t see all the best players available come to Houston on bargain contracts.

I know salary cap health is not a sexy topic but I am one of the few who adhere to the religion of NFL economics. I believe firmly in getting players at a number where value and cost meet. That means negotiating contracts that give the players a reasonable value for their services while protecting the team’s future ability to acquire more talent without having to shed important depth or risk massive amounts of dead money. There are exceptions to this, and when those players are available it’s OK to overpay. But that doesn’t happen too often.

I say all this because it’s exactly what the Texans’ GM has done in his first rodeo. Obviously, his biggest signing of the week was Mathieu, who he brought in on a 1-year, $7 million contract. The secondary was one of the two major needs heading into free agency and this is a home run signing. Mathieu’s play-making ability could be a huge boon for a defense looking to return to glory after a year in the basement. But he comes with injury concerns and the one-year contract, at a price tag below what he could have been worth when fully healthy, gives him and the Texans a season to decide his true value. If he doesn’t work out then there’s no long-term commitment to another free agent bust. If he makes it through unscathed then the Texans will have the ability to negotiate another deal before he becomes an unrestricted free agent at the start of the next league year.

The rest of the signings may not be the blockbusters we were hoping for, but each one is a good signing anyways. Let’s continue with the secondary. The Texans brought in Aaron Colvin from the Jaguars at four years and $34 million. He may have $18 million of that guaranteed at signing but for a young defensive back with upside who can immediately be plugged into the slot cornerback position the full structure of the deal is what makes it so great. He has two years to develop before he can be released at minimal loss to the Texans. That’s right; he has just two years to prove himself. After that the dead money is only $2 million in 2020 and $1 million in 2021. If he outplays some of his peers then he may be kept while they are let go.

The other signings garnering attention are the three offensive linemen who were brought in to improve upon last year’s disaster. Senio Kelemete has a contract that only guarantees $5 million over its three years, but the dead money after one is $2.25 million. Zach Fulton was brought in for four years, but has no dead money after two. And much like Tyrann Mathieu, Seantrel Henderson was given only one year at a low price.

Those three signings are players who graded out better than anyone the Texans played at the position last season. Their numbers aren’t outstanding, which is why they signed for so little money. But this year there wasn’t much to go after in the front five. The only one worth chasing was the former Patriot Nate Solder and even he wasn’t considered one of the top at his position. He was just the best of this year’s group. Gaine didn’t sign him, but that’s not a bad thing. A left tackle who is only above average, about to enter his 30s is probably not the safest of bets at $15.5 million per year for four years.

Remember what I said earlier about signing players where value and cost meet? I believe each of these five players were signed right about where those meet and that’s a sign of a successful first week of free agency. No bank was broken just because there was a huge need at the position.

I know what you’re thinking: “I want big name players who will help us win a championship in 2018!” WRONG! You should be wanting exactly what you’re getting this year. You’re getting one of the best defensive front sevens returning to health being supplemented with smart, cheap additions in the secondary. You’re getting a slight upgrade to an offensive line that, with a healthy Deshaun Watson, was part of the highest scoring offense in the NFL. All of this without being tied down to contracts that could prevent future signings by eating up future cap space.

I’ve seen a lot of articles lately discussing how the Astros management got it right by suffering through a few bad years to rebuild the team the right way with young talent and smart signings. The Texans are going to have to go through something similar. If you looked at the mediocre 9-7 teams and thought they were just a player away from a championship you weren’t looking closely at the money. Having players like Brian Cushing signed for big dollars and declining play, bringing in unproven free agents on big contracts, and just flat out whiffing on draft picks have all contributed to a roster that must be repaired one player at a time.

Everything I’ve seen this offseason indicates that the plan is in place to do just that. If the Texans want to put themselves in the category of teams that win consistently behind a franchise quarterback they will need to make sure they have the cap space and the wisdom to make the right signings at the right price. They currently have about $31 million left to work with this year and there might be good veteran players cut after the draft that the Texans want to bring in. There’s also the ability to roll over part of the salary cap to next year. Whatever they wind up spending less than 89% of the cap number can be useful if someone worth the big money comes available in 2019.

Whatever happens, rest assured that so far, you’re in good hands. Take care of your salary cap and your salary cap will take care of you.


 

 

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After a "qualifying round" of playoffs, the actual Stanley Cup playoffs are here. In a weird hockey world that saw two 12 seeds win in round one and the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference finish last in the round robin and get a four seed, things appear wide open. The lower seeds may actually have a bit of an advantage at the beginning of these series, as they have already gone through an actual elimination round, while the top four seeds played a less intense round robin. As teams still adjust to a long layoff, more upsets could be in order. It should be fun. Here is a look at the matchups:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Philadelphia Flyers (1) vs. Montreal Canadiens (8)

The Flyers were dominant in the round-robin phase and look very much like a team that can make a deep run. Montreal was the lowest seed in the qualifying tournament, but stunned Pittsburgh, and were the better team throughout the series. Philly, however, is playing much better hockey than their Pennsylvania counterparts. The Canadiens will need a big effort from goalie Carey Price, who is capable of stealing games. Young Flyers goalie Carter Hart was outstanding in the two round-robin games he played and is an emerging star. Philly has more talent, but a goalie like Price can win a series.

Prediction: Flyers in 5.

Tampa Bay Lightning (2) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (7)

Tampa is as talented a group as you will find in the NHL. They have depth on all lines, terrific defensemen and an elite goalie. Yet they have a checkered playoff past. Last season, they were dominant in the regular season and looked like a Cup lock. They were promptly swept out of the first round by the Jackets. Columbus outplayed a similarly talented team in Toronto in round one and are a tough matchup. Can the Lightning be struck down twice? Absolutely.

Prediction: Jackets in 7.

Washington Capitals (3) vs. New York Islanders (6)

The Caps still have Alex Ovechkin and a recent Stanley Cup, and have to be considered a contender against whoever they play. But the Isles play terrific defense, grind you down and get just enough scoring to win games. Plus they have the coach who won the Cup with the Caps, Barry Trotz, which gives them another edge. The Isles are a long shot Cup contender and could pull off the upset.

Prediction: Islanders in 7.

Boston Bruins (4) vs. Carolina Hurricanes (5)

The Bruins were the best team in the league in the regular season, but played flat in the round robin, winding up with a fourth seed. It seems a little unfair that they dominated all year but three games determined their fate, but that's life. By now they should have figured things out again and should be able to advance. They are a tricky team, because if they play as poorly as they did last week, Carolina could knock them out. But the Bruins should get better the deeper they get in the playoffs. The Hurricanes have a rising star in Andrei Svechnikov, who had a hat trick in the first round against the Rangers. The Bruins, however, are deeper, more talented and have the more tested and reliable goalie in Tukka Rask.

Prediction: Bruins in 5.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Las Vegas Golden Knights (1) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (8)

The Golden Knights were impressive in the round-robin, and looked like they did not miss a beat from the break. They were on a 8-2 run before the Rona interruption and swept the three seeding games since. But the Blackhawks are a scary matchup. They dominated Edmonton in the play-in round, winning 3-1 despite being the last team to qualify. They are young and shaky on defense, but still have proven Cup winners like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Corey Crawford. It would be foolish to count them out, but the Oilers were a much better matchup for the Hawks. If Crawford dominates in net, they have a fighting chance. But the Knights are on a different level right now.

Prediction: Las Vegas in 6.

Colorado Avalanche (2) vs. Arizona Coyotes (7)

This might be one of the more intriguing matchups of this round. The Avs look like a Cup contender, and Nathan MacKinnon is an MVP candidate and might be one of the most underappreciated superstars in the league. The Coyotes, however, are going to be a tough out. Goalie Darcy Kempner faced a ton of shots against the Predators and held up well. He will have to do the same here. Taylor Hall and Phil Kessel provide top end forward play, and Arizona matches up OK here. The Avs should win, but don't be shocked if they are pushed hard.

Prediction: Avs in 6.

Dallas Stars (3) vs. Calgary Flames (6)

Dallas is an interesting team. The Stars have Stanley Cup-level talent, but they struggle to score at times, which could be a problem in a seven-game series. They play strong D and have great goaltending, but have issues with quicker teams, which bodes well for Calgary. The Flames are also a bit of an enigma, but they seem built for the playoffs. They have two young American-born stars in Johnny Gaudreu and Matthew Tkachuk, solid depth up front and on the back end and can hold their own with most teams. Cam Talbot is the key, however. If he can consistently man the goal the way he did in the series win over Winnipeg, they have a big shot. He finished off the series with a 31-save shutout.

Prediction: Flames in 7.

St. Louis Blues (4) vs. Vancouver Canucks (5)

The defending champs were not very good in the round-robin, hence the four seed. But it will probably work out; the Canucks are an easier matchup than what they would have faced with Calgary as a 3 seed. Vancouver is an interesting young team. Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser are two up and coming stars, but the rest of the lineup is bolstered by gritty vets. Defensemen Quinn Hughes is another young star in the making. Goalie Jacob Markstrom was solid against Minnesota, but he will need to be better in this round. The Canucks could have made a run against Dallas, but hard to see them beating the champs.

Prediction: Blues in 6.

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