HOUSTON -- Despite the offseason conversation surrounding the Houston Texans mostly centered on quarterback Deshaun Watson, there are other big decisions that new general manager Nick Caserio has in front of him.
Last week, the NFL announced the 2021 salary cap will be no lower than $180 million, which is a drop from the $198.2 million cap in 2020. After granting J.J. Watt’s request to be released -- and freeing up $17.5 million -- the Texans’ total cap liabilities are close to $190 million.
Watt's release was the first domino to fall this offseason for the Texans, but what other challenges does Caserio face going into his first free agency in Houston?
Will the Texans re-sign wide receiver Will Fuller V?
Through 11 games in 2020, it looked like Fuller was well on his way to proving he could not only stay healthy for a full season, but keep up his production and chemistry with Watson while doing so.
And then in November, Fuller was suspended six games for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing substances, meaning those questions about his durability are still unanswered. Fuller will also miss the first game of the 2021 season under the suspension.
In the 11 games he did play in, Fuller had 53 catches for 879 yards and eight touchdowns.
While Fuller was in line to sign a new deal averaging around $15 million a season, it seems more likely the receiver will sign a one-year, prove-it deal, especially in a season where the salary cap will decrease.
The Texans could also choose to use the franchise tag on Fuller, which would cost $16.4 million for the 2021 season if the sides do not agree to a long-term deal. While the team is still over the $180 million cap minimum, there are moves Caserio could make to fit Fuller’s salary.
Watson made it clear -- even after Fuller’s suspension -- that it was “very important” to him that the team re-signs Fuller. Now that Watson has requested a trade, could bringing Fuller back be a step toward mending the team’s relationship with the quarterback? Perhaps, but given the reasons Watson is upset, it's hard to see that roster move being enough -- at least on its own -- to convince Watson to change his mind.
Will Houston do anything with wide receiver Brandin Cooks' contract?
Cooks was a bright spot for the Texans in 2020 after trading for him in April. Despite playing for his fourth team in five seasons, Cooks had 81 catches for 1,105 yards -- the fifth time in his seven-year career he has surpassed 1,000 yards in a season.
If the Texans do not re-sign Fuller, Cooks gives Houston a solid No. 1 receiver. Cooks said in January that he wants to keep playing with Watson and isn’t “going to accept any more trades.” But if Watson is traded, will Cooks still want to be in Houston?
Cooks has three years left on his contract, but none of it is guaranteed. He is owed $12 million in 2021, but Houston could lower his cap hit either by signing him to an extension that guarantees his salary or restructuring his current contract to move the money to a signing bonus and freeing up cap space that way.
Will the Texans cut running back David Johnson?
Johnson currently has a cap hit of nearly $9 million in 2021, but just $2.1 million of it is guaranteed.
Bill O’Brien traded for Johnson as part of the deal that sent receiver DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona, but the former general manager and head coach was fired just four games into the season. Johnson ran for 691 yards and six touchdowns and the Texans’ rushing offense ranked last in Football Outsiders’ Rush DVOA.
It would be hard to see the Texans keeping Johnson on his current contract, but if they don’t want to move on, they could try to restructure his deal to match his salary with his production. Houston does have backup running back Duke Johnson under contract in 2021, but with a cap hit of more than $5 million, the team could move on from him as well.
Any other moves?
Although Watt was the most logical candidate to release on the defensive side of the ball, there is another player who may make sense to move on from: inside linebacker Benardrick McKinney.
McKinney signed a five-year, $50 million contract in 2018 and his base salary isn’t guaranteed. If Houston moved on from him, it would save more than $6 million with just $1.5 million of dead money. Last offseason, the Texans signed inside linebacker Zach Cunningham to a four-year, $58 million contract that makes the pair combine for more than 10.5% of the Texans’ total cap in 2021.
McKinney played in only four games last season before needing shoulder surgery and in that short sample size, he had a Pro Football Focus grade of 53.4, lower than his 67.7 grade in 2019.