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January 6, 2009
Throwin' Down the Offseason Gauntlet

by Keith Weiland

As if the 5-1 finish to the 2008 season didn’t bring forth enough optimism into the new year, the Texans’ 2009 salary cap situation is as appealing as it has been in years. Gone is the nearly all of the dead money from the Charley Casserly era. An improving team and cap flexibility seems like the stuff of dreams for beleaguered Texans fans, doesn’t it?

Sure it does, but please don’t start making out your offseason shopping lists just yet. The Texans have plenty of business to address on the home front before they can even begin thinking about players from other teams. So buckle up, we’ve got a long ride ahead.

First to consider are the players with contracts set expire this season. Topping that list is Dunta Robinson. With him available to play in 2008, the Texans posted a 7-4 record, and it says here that the team’s late season improvement defensively was due in large part to his leadership and steadying play in the secondary.

At the time of his injury, Robinson was thought by some including yours truly to be a Pro Bowl-caliber player. His 2008 play might have failed to reach that level, but with an entire offseason to rebuild his speed and strength, there’s reason for hope that he will once again achieve that level of play. The problem of course is that the Texans need to decide how to pay him before they are able to see him regain that potentially elite status.

Seems like a good time then for the Texans to employ the franchise tag on Robinson, a designation the team has yet to use in its history. By using the “F-tag”, the Texans would pay him the average of the top five cornerbacks for the 2009 season. While Robinson’s play in 2008 (or in any other season for that matter) may not be of the quality belonging to any of the five best corners in the league, the idea is that the Texans could keep Robinson in Houston for one more season to confirm that he is worth what would likely be one of the biggest contracts the team has ever paid.

Or Robinson and the Texans might find middle ground in the next two months on a new contract. The team will likely have to invest guaranteed money that exceeds the F-tag salary next season, but if Robinson is really back to his old self, then it will seem like a bargain a year from now.

The Texans have other free agents to consider from their own roster, players such as Demarcus Faggins, C.C. Brown, and Nick Ferguson. Most fans would probably have a hard time missing these guys if they were gone, but it is also easy to underestimate just how hard it is to find quality depth, too.

Restricted free agents will also have special priority this offseason, namely Owen Daniels and David Anderson. Daniels, a Pro Bowl alternate, has been a salary cap boon for the Texans since his rookie season. Time to pay the bills. And while Anderson might string dance near the bottom of the depth chart, he is now a quality veteran with good hands (and interesting hairstyles).

While this year’s re-signing of free agents is already a big priority, the Texans have a long list of players with contracts expiring after the 2009 season that deserve looks for extensions as well. The team has done well to avoid ugly holdouts in the past, but that has a lot to do with those past rosters employing underwhelming and underperforming talent. Not anymore.

DeMeco Ryans was rumored to be in negotiations with the front office on an extension before the 2008 season. Maybe when the two sides come to the table this offseason an agreement can be reached.

Ryans isn’t the only player that has outperformed his current contract. Kevin Walter has one year remaining on his deal, and at a base salary of just $2 million, he’ll be underpaid entering the 2009 season. Steve Slaton set a franchise record for rushing yards in his rookie season, and he might be the biggest bargain of all if the team keeps paying him like a mid-round rookie for a couple more years.

Chester Pitts might not be as big of a bargain, but the Pro Bowl alternate is also entering the final year of his contract with a $4.38 million base salary aching to be extended. And don’t forget the reliable kicker, Kris Brown. He is also playing out the final year of his contract, too.

Re-signing these guys is going to cost quite a lot, right? You bet. And don’t forget that while there isn’t much dead money reflected on the 2009 salary cap just yet, there’s still a bit more on the way. Just as an 8-8 team has plenty of underpaid performers and free agents, there are also a few overpaid and/or injured players to address as well.

Anthony Weaver might be the most expensive on that list. He has two years remaining on a contract that guaranteed him $12 million. While his play improved down the stretch in 2008, his overall performance has still been a disappointment since joining the team in 2006. If he is released, then the Texans will need to absorb $5.4 million in dead money. The upshot? Saving $3.5 million off his base salary next season.

Ahman Green has probably limped through his last game as a Texan as well. Cutting him will add at least another $3 million to the dead money ledger, but the Texans wouldn’t have to pay his scheduled $4.8 million salary if they let him go.

One thing to keep in mind here is that neither Weaver nor Green can be treated as June 1 cuts next year, the infamous rule that previously allowed teams to defer dead money in future years to the next season’s salary cap. With the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) set to expire after the 2010 season without an extension (at least not yet), 2009 has therefore become the last capped year and no dead money deferrals will be allowed. More on this uncapped situation in a bit.

Weaver and Green aren’t the only veterans in danger of being cut this offseason. Morlon Greenwood has just one year left on his contract that is set to pay him a base salary of $4.768 million in 2009. No one should expect Greenwood to be playing in Houston next season at that pay level. Cutting him will leave $1.4 million in dead money behind.

Last year’s darling, Will Demps, might be this year’s ugly duckling. Demps signed a two-year contract heading into the 2008 season, and it seems questionable that he will be welcomed back at a base pay of $2.35 million. Releasing him would create another $500,000 in dead money, but ultimately save the team sizable cap room.

And I would be remiss if I failed to mention Matt Schuab’s contract status. His base pay jumps another $2 million next year to $6.95 million, but even more noteworthy is a $10 million option that the team could exercise soon enough to impact the 2009 cap. Another productive yet injury-shortened season might give the Texans reason to renegotiate that bonus.

Back to the CBA… the owners last discussed their purported financial troubles with Gene Upshaw and the players’ union in May with the looming expiration of the existing agreement. While the owners have yet (to my albeit limited knowledge) produced any documentation supporting these money woes, it is interesting to note that most teams are spending millions below the cap limit (believed to be on average around $6 million of unused cap space per team in 2008).

This is definitely a sign that the teams have learned how to better manage their salary caps, but it might also be an indication from smaller market teams that they are simply no longer able to compete financially with the big money teams. The good news for Texans fans? Most owners consider Bob McNair to be a member of the ‘haves’, not the ‘have nots’. Spend away, right? Well, maybe. For all that cap room the Texans have next season, it probably puts them somewhere in the middle of the pack, making it all the more difficult to offer sensible contracts to highly regarded free agents.

The union did a fine job dividing the owners along these economic lines the last time the CBA was extended almost three years ago. They should probably expect a more united front this time around with plenty of threats of a lockout in March 2011. The owners have already opted out of the CBA – unanimously – to begin negotiating a new agreement, though progress has and will be excruciatingly slow as neither side seems to be in a particular rush to get further negotiations going.

Upshaw passed away in August, and the NFLPA isn’t expected to name his replacement until March. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell seems willing to let the next season or two play out as previously agreed upon, including the uncapped year in 2010, which might not sit well with smaller market teams. Before his death, Upshaw had hoped for a new agreement by March 2010, but he was reluctant to “sell the players on a cap again”.

So is the future of the NFL salary cap hanging in the balance? Tough to say, but expect the uncertainty to play an increasing role this offseason, even here in Houston, where the Texans are likely to be focused on taking care of their own with an eye well beyond the 2009 season.

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