HOUSTON -- With the NFL trade deadline approaching on Nov. 3 and the Houston Texans entering their bye week with a 1-6 record, it would seem that the time has come to sell on the 2020 season.
Unlike his predecessor, Bill O’Brien, who was both the general manager and head coach, interim coach Romeo Crennel said he doesn’t “even think about” the trade deadline -- “I think about losing and winning,” he said.
“They’ll come to me and we’ll sit down and we’ll make a decision about what we think is best for the team,” Crennel said. “I’ve been informed of some possibilities, but nothing definite right now.”
According to sources within the organization, the team is not looking to unload players solely for the sake of trading them, but the Texans will have to consider strong offers. Crennel has said multiple times that his preference is to keep his talented players and continue to try to win this season.
The Texans are in a unique situation where tanking the rest of the season serves no purpose because they have already traded their first- and second-round picks in the 2021 draft to the Miami Dolphins in the deal last summer that netted them left tackle Laremy Tunsil and wide receiver Kenny Stills. So it might make more sense to continue to try to win this season with a focus on a quick return to contention in 2021. That is, unless the team is blown away by a trade offer.
“I think because of the situation, other teams might look and feel like we are vulnerable and we might be willing to make a trade for guys,” Crennel said. “But like I told the players, I’m trying to win games and I’m not trying to trade players. So I want to keep as many good players as I can. Now, I know the record doesn’t say that we are very good and we are what the record says we are, but we do have some talent.
“I think other teams realize that and they would like to get their hands on it. But most of the time in this situation, they’re offering peanuts and not offering legitimate trade value.”
So who could the Texans realistically trade before the Nov. 3 deadline?
WR Will Fuller
Fuller is playing on his fifth-year option and has not missed a game this season to injury, the main concern about him throughout his career. Fuller already has more touchdowns through seven games than he had in either of his last two seasons and is clearly trusted by quarterback Deshaun Watson.
If he stays healthy and is signed by another team this offseason, Fuller could net the Texans a third-round compensatory draft pick in 2022, so it wouldn’t make sense for the Texans to let him go for less than that. Would a contending team in need of a wide receiver offer more, such as a third-round pick and a fifth-round pick, or perhaps a second-round pick? A package like that could be enough to let Fuller go if the Texans don’t see themselves re-signing him.
Fuller has 31 catches for 490 yards and five touchdowns this season. While it seemed likely before the season that this would be the wide receiver’s last year with the Texans -- because he would price himself out of Houston with a strong season or see the injury bug bite him again, which would create hesitancy in giving him a long-term contract -- the uncertainty about other offensive playmakers means they could look to keep Fuller around for the long haul to ensure that Watson has a reliable receiver. A trio of Fuller, Brandin Cooks and slot receiver Randall Cobb is certainly capable of producing with Watson and could be an enticing prospect for a potential new general manager and coach.
DE J.J. Watt
It seems unlikely that the Texans would trade the face of their franchise in the middle of the season unless he wanted to move on and they got the proper value in return. If another team offered a first-round pick, Houston could make a move, but it seems more likely that this would be a decision owner Cal McNair might want to leave for the new general manager he hires after the season.
Since the end of last season, the Texans haven’t exactly earned a lot of goodwill with their fan base. Houston traded All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins, the team’s best all-around player, and then made O’Brien the general manager despite a vocal portion of the team’s following displaying its disdain for the now-departed coach. Trading Watt would make it that much worse, and unless the return was massive, it might not be worth even considering.
While most teams can manipulate the cap by restructuring contracts if needed -- as the New Orleans Saints have done in recent years -- Watt’s contract does make it harder to trade him. He doesn’t have any guaranteed money left on his deal but is making $15.5 million this season and is slated to make $17.5 million in 2021.
WR Kenny Stills
It would make the most sense for Stills to be on the trading block. He is on an expiring contract and has not been involved that often in the passing game because Fuller and Cooks have stayed healthy. Through seven games, Stills has been targeted only 18 times, with 10 catches for 138 yards and a touchdown. The Texans probably can’t get a lot in return for a half-season rental of Stills, but at this point, any draft pick to potentially help fill other roster holes should be welcomed.
RB Duke Johnson
The Texans traded a third-round pick for Johnson during training camp in 2019 but have rarely used him, especially this season after trading for David Johnson. Duke Johnson is averaging 5.6 touches per game, and it’s clear by their usage that the coaches see value in riding David Johnson.
Texans running backs coach Danny Barrett said this week that the team needs to get Duke Johnson more involved than just being on the field on third down, but whether that will happen remains to be seen.
Perhaps more important than what the Texans would get in return for Johnson is that they could save $5.15 million of their 2021 salary cap by trading him. Given that it seems unlikely they will keep David Johnson at his current salary in 2021 (they could save $6.9 million by cutting him), they could find much cheaper options at the position, a strategy that worked well for the Texans in 2019, when Carlos Hyde ran for 1,070 yards on a salary of less than $2 million.
TE Darren Fells
Before Jordan Akins injured his ankle and missed the last three games, he was playing on more snaps and outperforming Fells. Although Fells did not have a target in Week 7 against the Green Bay Packers, he showed in the previous two games that he is more than capable of being a No. 1 tight end for a team in need at the position.
Because both Akins and Fells have only one year remaining on their current contracts after this season, trading Fells would give the team an opportunity to take a more meaningful look at the other options on the roster, such as Pharaoh Brown or 2019 third-round pick Kahlale Warring, who can still return from injured reserve this season and is yet to appear in a regular-season game.