Matt Williamson of ESPN and Scouts, Inc. recently did an article publishing offseason grades for each team in the AFC. While many of Williamson’s assessments were dead-on, such as his high grades for the Buffalo Bills’ offseason additions or his praise of the Cincinnati Bengals’ draft, his disapproval of virtually all of the Houston Texans offseason transactions was somewhat puzzling.
Williamson gave the Texans an overall grade of D+. Only the Oakland Raiders received a lower grade with a D. Williamson cited the loss of Mario Williams and Demeco Ryans on defense as his reasoning behind the suggestion that the Texans’ defense will take a “baby step backward” in 2012.
Defending The “D”
No, I’m not defending the D+ grade that Williamson handed out. I’m defending the Texans’ offseason moves on the defensive side of the ball.
To say that the Texans didn’t improve this offseason on defense is accurate, but to suggest that this means there will be a regression is false at best. In fact, the addition of Whitney Mercilus may even mean an improvement over what was arguably the NFL’s top defense in 2011.
Williamson stated that, “While [Mario] Williams didn’t play a lot in 2011, replacing him with Mercilus isn’t an even swap”. While the second half of the sentence is true, the first half negates the point altogether. Williams played the first five games of the season, but the Texans’ defense didn’t miss a beat without him as they cruised to finish 2011 as the NFL’s #2 defense. The Texans also registered 48 sacks on the season, good for 6th in the NFL.
If anything, the addition of Whitney Mercilus is exactly that. An addition. There is no swap, because Mario Williams hardly saw the field in 2011. Now, Mercilus will join Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed, both of whom should show improvement after another year of working on their pass rushing skills under Wade Phillips to form an even more formidable pass rushing attack.
Replacing Demeco Ryans may prove to be the most difficult thing to do for the Texans on the defensive side of the ball. Let’s not forget, however, that Demeco Ryans was not playing at 100% until well into the second half of the regular season in 2011. Coming off of an Achilles tear, Ryans certainly provided veteran leadership, but as far as physical talent goes, the drop off to Daryl Sharpton and Bradie James is not as great as many would lead you to believe.
Ryans’ leadership will certainly be missed, and it will be up to certain players such as Brian Cushing, Jonathan Joseph, and Antonio Smith to step up as the vocal leaders in the locker room. To suggest, though, that the loss of Ryans and Williams means the Texans will take a step back on defense is, in my opinion, overzealous.
Defending the Offense
Williamson’s sharpest rebuke came as a result of the Texans’ cutting Eric Winston this offseason. Undoubtedly, the move came as a shock to players and fans alike. But before we start burning season tickets and calling for Rick Smith’s head, as some have been apt to do, it would behoove us, and Matt Williamson for that matter, to dig a little deeper into the curious move the Texans made.
Winston was certainly a mainstay on the offensive line and a big part of the success of the Houston Texans’ running game. However, Eric Winston was certainly not a Pro Bowl offensive lineman, nor should he have been. Winston allowed 7 sacks in 2011, ranking 32nd in the NFL in that category. Translation: Middle of the pack.
While Winston did rate 18th in pass blocking efficiency, Pro Football Focus’ tool for grading offensive lineman on their pass blocking effectiveness, Winston made his fair share of mistakes in 2011. Will he be tough to replace? Yes. Will Rashad Butler and/or Derek Newton be a step down as his replacement? Yes, at least initially.
But for Williamson to cite this as the reason for a “substantial step backward” on offense in 2012 is, quite frankly, ludicrous. The re-addition of sorts of Matt Schaub and a healthy Andre Johnson will automatically make the Texans’ offense light years better in 2012 than the previous year. Also, the Texans did, after all, vigorously attack their needs along the offensive line in the 2012 draft, selecting Brandon Brooks and Ben Jones back to back in the 3rd and 4th rounds, respectively.
Method To The Madness
The reasoning behind the Winston release is simple, yet many still don’t understand the logic behind it. Williamson wondered aloud, “Maybe there is more to it than we know, but the release of Winston was one of the most peculiar moves that happened during the free-agency process.”
There is more to it than you know, Mr. Williamson, so allow me. What many forget is that the Houston Texans are an organization which constantly keeps its eye on the future. The Texans, much like the Patriots and Steelers, are a team that is not afraid to cut players familiar to the organization who have been with the team for a long period of time. The Patriots did it with Richard Seymour, and “experts” deemed it a mistake. The point is, when a player’s decline is imminent, tough decisions must be made and priorities must be set straight. You can’t keep everybody.
Matt Schaub, Duane Brown, and Connor Barwin will all be free agents at the end of 2012, and you can bet your bottom dollar that the Texans will pay Duane Brown whatever he asks. Brown is one of the premier left tackles in the NFL and he will have a long, long career in a Texans’ uniform. The future of Matt Schaub and the Texans is not so certain. It will hinge largely on Schaub’s health throughout the upcoming season. If he struggles to stay on the field again, the Texans may be forced to look at other options under center, but Schaub always has been and will remain the Texans’ best option for the quarterback position for this year and future years after that. Nevertheless, the Texans will be paying somebody a lot of money to play quarterback in 2013, and they’ll need the cap space to do it.
The Texans definitely want to bring Connor Barwin back, as he is still young and only scratching the surface of his potential as an NFL pass rusher. If he has another year in 2012 like he did in 2011, though, his asking price will be hefty and it will be a tough task to ward off other potential suitors.
All these and more are obvious reasons why the Texans made the difficult decision to cut Eric Winston. Flirting with going over the salary cap and being handcuffed in the future as far as cap flexibility is concerned, the Texans did the right thing in identifying some of the weaker links on the team and allowing them to walk.
It’s not that Ryans and Winston were weak players, per say. Rather, for the money they were making and their overall value to the roster, they became expendable, and well-run organizations are OK with letting expendable pieces move on.
Did the Texans have the sexiest offseason of all time this year? Certainly not. But did they do what they had to do to remain a contender this year and for many years to come? They did, and results will show for themselves.