The Texans made a couple of surprising moves this past offseason, though the reasons behind each were and remain completely defensible. Circumstances have conspired since Eric Winston and DeMeco Ryans were cut and traded, respectively, to merit a look back at the moves and how the positions look going forward.
Eric Winston, cap casualty
Winston’s cap number combined with the need to take care of other key players who would soon need new contracts forced the Texans into a difficult decision. Cut salary elsewhere and stick another year with a guy who was a plus run defender on the right side (in a run-right heavy offense), or cut him and take their chances with Rashad Butler. Winston’s pass protection had been deteriorating the last couple of seasons, and it was thought Butler’s pass pro would be on par with Winston’s, or likely a bit better. Every Texans analyst I read – and I read the good ones – agreed that his run-blocking would be a slight to significant step down.
Fast forward a few months. LT Duane Brown got his new contract, and Rashad Butler is the assumed starter going into the preseason. That’s when things got complicated. 2nd year tackle Derek Newton, a Kubiak favorite, had allegedly pulled even with Butler for the starting job. Throughout camp, Kubiak said over and over that the two were neck and neck for the starting job. I didn’t believe it. Then the preseason started, and Newton got a couple of starts over Butler. I still didn’t see why – they were both equally underwhelming.
Newton was eventually named the starter going forward, but it was all rendered moot in the final preseason game against Minnesota. Butler, who tore his left tricep muscle and was out for the season in 2011, tore his right tricep and is now out for 2012. He has likely played his last game in a Texans uniform.
In Winston, the Texans knew what they had. They had a guy who could get it done in the run game, but was starting to become a bit of a liability in pass protection. Publicly, the Texans will tell you how impressed they were with Newton, but let’s be honest here. Derek Newton didn’t win the starting RT job as much as Rashad Butler lost it. It’s not like Newton played out of his mind.
What does this mean for 2012? It means the still raw and unknown commodity Newton will start, and the team has no safety net if he gets hurt or falls on his face. All they have is newly-acquired, and presumptive swing tackle Ryan Harris, who knows the system from his time under Rick Dennison when Dennison was in Denver. If not Harris, then it’s Andrew Gardner, who “can” play tackle but prior to the Butler injury was considered a guard.
The pressure is squarely on Newton. Hopefully we will start to see in Newton whatever it is Kubiak saw that pushed him to the top of the depth chart.
DeMeco Ryans, beloved team leader – traded to Philadelphia
As much as I love DeMeco, I’m still 100% in agreement with this move, and I do think the compensation was fair (4th rounder and move up in 3rd). Now, as far as how the Texans have handled the position since the trade… that I can’t really get behind, though I don’t know what else they could have done.
Ryans played much better in the latter part of last season once he started rounding back into shape after his torn Achilles injury. Prior to that, Darryl Sharpton was taking snaps away from him, and there was legitimate debate as to whether or not Ryans was a fit for Wade Phillips’ 3-4 defense.
Clearly Ryans could play in the system, but his role was minimized due both to the style of the defense, and the emergence of Brian Cushing. All those factors combined with his cap number and the continuing uncertainty about a guy who had a ruptured Achilles, and you can understand why the Texans looked to make a move.
The Texans felt good about Sharpton, though he landed on Injured Reserve last year with a quadricep injury. While in rehab for the injury, he suffered a setback said to be a hip injury. Sharpton was placed on the preseason Physically Unable to Perform list, and has now landed on the regular season PUP list, meaning he cannot play in the first six games of the season. It would not be a shock at all if he simply landed on IR once again.
Enter former Cowboys ILB Bradie James, who played under Phillips. Wade famously said (paraphrasing) “we feel like we have in Bradie what we had in DeMeco, and then some.” Heh. Funny guy. James has been underwhelming, and at times just plain lost out there. It’s more than a little concerning to me because he already knows the system and terminology of the defense. Granted, with injuries to Cushing the two haven’t had a chance to play side by side very much. JJ Watt has such a profound effect on the defense, you also have to allow for his absence. It’s not that anyone expected James to come in and be excellent, but I certainly expected him to at least look, you know, kind of average.
Behind James presently is Tim Dobbins. Frankly, Dobbins has outplayed him in the preseason but like Newton and Butler, neither has been outstanding. Neither jumped off the screen. I can’t say I’m in favor of starting Dobbins ahead of James, but I certainly wouldn’t protest if he did. The problem, again, is depth. No offense to Mister Alexander, but I did not expect him to make the team at ILB. I figured the Texans would search the waiver wire or the veteran cuts for another ILB to come in and shore up what might be the weakest position group on the team. They still may do that, but as it stands now – the Texans have nothing, nothing at all at ILB after Cushing. It goes without saying that you want your best players healthy, but Cushing better stay HEALTHY. Not Mario healthy, but HEALTHY. (Mario healthy is of course when you are able to still play in the game but aren’t nearly as effective as you would be if you were anywhere close to 100%.)
It’s a scary issue because though Cushing certainly hasn’t been injury prone, he has suffered from those nagging recurring small nicks that keep him out of practice, and you wonder how long it will be before those nicks start costing him games.
Compared to most if not ALL other NFL teams going in to 2012, the Texans have few issues. Depending on your perspective, none of them are glaring. Still, these are areas that could become a problem if the guys propped up to replace Winston and Ryans don’t work out.