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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The Astros have JV this year, and Yankee Stadium will be packed. Composite image by Jack Brame.

How’s that New York, New York song go, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere? The AL West leading Houstonians are about to find out just where they stand among baseball’s elite. The Astros start a 4-game series tonight against the AL East first-place Yankees at Yankee Stadium, then a 2-game set against the NL East first-place Mets at Citi Field, then back home for a single game against the Yankees.

New York, New York indeed. And you can throw another New York in there for an encore.

When the dust clears, the Astros could be the best team in baseball or merely a good, solid team … just not the Yankees in the American League. Or the Mets in the National League.

The Yankees have the top record in the AL East, 51-18, a dozen games ahead the second-place Blue Jays. The Mets, even after dropping two to the Astros this week at Minute Maid Park, stand at 45-26, 4.5 games up on the Braves.

The Yankees and Mets have the two best records in the Major Leagues, with the Astros knocking on the door at 43-25.

It’s not yet July, but the next seven games could be the most important, interesting stretch of 2022 for the Astros, maybe for all of baseball.

Remember last year when the Astros visited Yankee Stadium, their first trip to The Bronx after the sign-stealing scandal broke? Yankee fans were lurking for the Astros like the Van Buren Boys waiting to mug George Costanza.

It was a different year last year for sure. The Yankees were barely over .500, headed for a third-place finish in the AL East. Didn’t matter, cold-blooded New Yorkers were out for vengeance. They remembered 2017 when they believe in their souls that the Astros were undeserving, big fat cheating champions and Astros second baseman Jose Altuve stole the AL MVP election from Aaron Judge. There seems to be a lot of that going around. Also with no evidence. Turns out that Altuve wasn’t one of the garbage can gang.

It also was baseball’s Covid season. The Yankees allowed only 10,500 fans to attend those games against the Astros last year. And they had security staff patrolling the ballpark ordering fans to wear their face masks. The only time fans lowered their masks was to eat or drink.

Or yell “F-Altuve” or “F-Astros” at the top of their New York lungs. They’re loud to start, and 10,500 fans sounded like a packed stadium. It could be a decibel-breaker tonight at Yankee Stadium.

It was brutal last season. Fans brought signs laced with profanity. They got personal with Astros players. Fans were dressed in homemade garbage can costumes. Party City doesn’t sell those. I watched small children yell the F-word and turn to their parents for a high five.

What a treat for Astros fans, seven games over eight days, all against dreaded powerhouses from New York. A dying sport? Half empty stadiums in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and Miami? A vacant house in Oakland? Nobody’s ghosting baseball in Houston.

The Astros are loaded for bear this week. Their pitching is set up perfectly. Framber Valdez starts the opener tonight at Yankee Stadium, followed by Justin Verlander, Cristian Javier and Jose Urquidy. Luis Garcia and Valdez are slated for the Mets at Citi Field. The bullpen is firing on all cylinders.

Then, one week from today, it’s Verlander vs. Gerrit Cole at Minute Maid Park. Game of the Year. Where the pitching rubber meets the road. TK, Blummer and Julia, get ready for World Series level ratings.

It’s go time. The only thing that could make that game any bigger and better – if it were a Tuesday Dollar Dog Night.

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