|Monday, February 18
Draft puts Texans on right path
By John Clayton
Compared to their projections last summer, the Houston Texans are seven to nine starters ahead of where they thought they would be coming out of the expansion draft Monday.
Their early mock drafts included only one big name, Ravens right tackle Leon Searcy, who didn't see play this season because of injuries. Instead, the $20 million cap surpluses of Baltimore, Jacksonville and the New York Jets gave the Texans eight unexpected starters -- offensive linemen Tony Boselli and Ryan Young, wide receiver Jermaine Lewis, defensive tackles Gary Walker and Seth Payne, linebacker Jamie Sharper and cornerbacks Aaron Glenn and Marcus Coleman.
Throw in right guard Jeremy McKinney of the Browns and left guard Matt Campbell of the Redskins and possibly guard Ryan Schau of the Eagles and suddenly the Texans have a chance to be competitive early. Or do they? The problem for the Texans, surprisingly, is that talent acquisition gets harder from here. And the Texans know it, but Monday got the Texans on a good foundation.
"We've looked at unrestricted free agency and how many players under the age of 30 who were good players that we wanted to compete to sign," Texans general manager Charley Casserly said. "We felt that it wasn't a very deep list. On the opening day this year, we looked at the unrestricted list and saw that there were less starters who would go into free agency than every before.
"So we spent our cap room today."
The Texans invested $41.666 million of their $71.1 million cap on 19 players. They spent $11.8 million on 34 street free agents of which they could come out with one or two starting safeties -- former Jet Kevin Williams and former Redskin Leomont Evans. They will have to commit about $7 million of cap room to draft 14 players.
That leaves only $10.634 million for unrestricted free agency. At best, that might mean one or two high-priced players and a bunch of bargains as free agency winds down. Including the 14 draft choices, the Texans only have 23 more players to sign to reach their maximum roster limit of 90 players.
"I would say we have more talent than we had anticipated," Texans coach Dom Capers said. "But I would have anticipated there would be more talent available in free agency. It's not rocket science to take a look where the most talent is. But we have no players over the age of 30. We've still got a mountain to climb, but today was a positive step."
The Texans listed offensive linemen, defensive linemen and cornerbacks as the three hardest positions to find in free agency. Those voids were filled with six of the first eight picks of the expansion draft Monday. The other position that drives teams crazy is at quarterback.
The college draft should solve that because Fresno State quarterback David Carr is the odds-on-favorite to be the Texans choice. In Jacksonville, Boselli was a rookie left tackle who blocked for a young left handed quarterback, Mark Brunell, who came to the team in a trade from Green Bay. Brunell was raw but at least he had a couple of years in the league.
Carr poses an interesting challenge for Boselli if he has to block for a rookie quarterback.
"I will try to maybe not yell at him if he holds the ball too long," Boselli said. "I will try to encourage him because he's going to be out there fighting, just building some confidence. But you block only as long as you can. You know, for any quarterback to be good, he's got to have time to throw the ball. That's my job. That's Ryan Young's job."
By selecting Bears backup Danny Wuerffel to go with veteran Mike Quinn, the Texans don't have to hit the quarterback market hard. If Gus Frerotte, Jim Miller or Rob Johnson -- if he's cut by Buffalo -- wants to come to Houston for a $1 million, one-year deal, the Texans will probably accommodate him.
"Quarterback is a very important position, and you can't have enough quarterbacks," Casserly said.
Frank Reich started in Carolina until Kerry Collins was ready in the first month. The Texans -- if they draft Carr -- are only asking for games, not years, from a veteran quarterback. Tim Couch had to be ready by the second week of his rookie season.
The two priority areas over the next four months are finding skilled players to surround a young quarterback and getting two outside linebackers to anchor Capers' 3-4 defense. Of those two priorities, the linebackers are the most important.
If, for example, the Steelers can't get outside linebacker Jason Gildon signed by Thursday and opt not to place the franchise or transition tag on him, Gildon would be the perfect linebacker for that system. If the Steelers prevent Gildon from reaching free agency, they might shift over to Leonard Little of the Rams and draft a 3-4 linebacking prospect such as Will Overstreet of Tennessee, Nick Rogers of Georgia Tech, Lonnie Ford of Southern California or Kalimba Edwards of South Carolina.
Even though they used up $36 million of their cap on their top eight selections in the expansion draft, the price tag is only $24 million cash. There is $12 million tied up in proration of signing bonuses, an accounting figure that doesn't cost the Texans a penny.
"We have the makings of a good offensive line now, but if we could get a Kreutz or a Newberry, that would be something," Boselli said. "We'd have quite a good young line."
What the expansion draft did Monday was give the Texans the luxury to be choosey instead of rushing into deals that could be bad. They can wait until the second wave of free agency for bargains. If, for example, an Antowain Smith can't come up with a big deal from New England or another team, the Texans can sign him for modest dollars.
In the long-term planning of the Texans, they want to be 8-8 by their third season. They don't have to win overnight.
"I think you make a mistake if you set a time table," Capers said. "If we set a time table for three years, right away our players think we don't expect to be competitive in the first year. You've got to be careful. One thing, and I promise you this, I can't tell you how many times we will win this year, but if we develop an attitude to come in every day and work hard, sooner or later we are going to improve."
Monday was a great start.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.