HOUSTON For a season, the screeching ceased.
Free agent defensive backs Johnathan Joseph and Danieal Manning helped set the foundation for a resounding defensive turnaround, and so, too, did rookie end J.J. Watt and rookie linebacker Brooks Reed. After enduring years of skepticism over his personnel evaluation acumen, Texans general manager Rick Smith ably silenced his staunchest critics.
But the mob is fickle, and with the onset of NFL free agency on Tuesday came this harsh reality: Smith will have to prove himself all over again. The Texans claimed their first AFC South title, enjoyed their maiden voyage into the postseason, and earned their initial playoff victory in 2011. They accomplished those milestones while significantly over the salary cap. Chickens inevitably come home to roost.
So when the Texans stared lopping veterans' salaries off their books on Monday, no one should have been surprised. According to NFL.com, the Texans entered free agency roughly 615,000 under the cap. For a franchise with 16 free agents (15 unrestricted), that's a paltry figure.
The cap carnage engulfed quarterback Matt Leinart, fullback Lawrence Vickers and cornerstone right tackle Eric Winston, he of the 87 consecutive starts. Texans receiver Andre Johnson restructured his contract so that his entire salary of 7.5 million in 2012 is guaranteed, saving the Texans 5.2 million in cap space. In total, the moves should bolster the Texans' cap between 11-13 million. That's a modest start.
The Texans will need to shake those couch cushions with greater vigor. Outside linebacker Mario Williams hit the market on Tuesday as the most coveted defensive player available. The Texans featured the second-ranked defense in the NFL with Williams providing only five games of productivity before being sidelined by a torn pectoral muscle. They would love to see what sort of defensive behemoth they could become with Williams as a rotation fixture alongside Reed and Connor Barwin.
Williams has been injury prone of late, missing 14 games over the past two seasons after opening his career with 77 consecutive starts. But at 27 years old, Williams is entering his athletic prime. He is a two-time Pro Bowler playing a position at which immense talent is at a premium. He will command a king's ransom that the Texans appear incapable of paying unless they make additional roster decisions deemed difficult.
Texans owner Bob McNair reaffirmed the franchise's commitment to retaining Williams and the bulk of their free agents. His team, as presently constructed, is on the cusp of Super Bowl contention. If the Texans can maintain their core and draft shrewdly come April, they will remain a viable threat in the AFC. Keeping the band together is the chore.
According to published reports, Williams will visit the Bills Tuesday night.
"We want Mario," McNair said on Tuesday. "We'd like to have him. Unfortunately, other people would like to have him, too, and it depends on how much they're willing to pay. We have limitations that constrain us, and we're going to do everything we possibly can to keep him here."
Now that they have committed five years and 43.5 million to tailback Arian Foster, center Chris Myers is elevated to the slot behind Williams as the free agent the Texans most desperately need to re-sign. Myers was exceptional last season, the anchor of a unit that has performed superbly for two seasons consecutively. He is widely regarded as the top center in the league, and he should be compensated accordingly.
If the Texans released Winston to enhance their odds of re-signing Myers and guard Mike Brisiel, that move becomes retrospectively justifiable. However, Myers publicly described the negotiations between his camp and the Texans as "conversations" and, given what's at stake for the Texans, losing 40 percent of their line might prove catastrophic.
As with their cap casualties, the Texans will suffer losses via free agency. Cornerback Jason Allen appears to be a luxury the franchise can't afford, particularly given the selections of defensive backs Brandon Harris and Roc Carmichael last April. Tight end Joel Dreessen produced beyond expectations in 2011, but the Texans have ample depth at that position.
Nothing will detract from the euphoria that accompanied that AFC Wild Card victory over the Bengals, but some of that enthusiasm was based on potential. It was easy to envision where the Texans would be with the key components from their roster moving forward, but now that free agency is here and changes are afoot, that joy has been tempered.
The Texans have already suffered losses. If they aim to keep their postseason train rolling, Smith can't afford to lose many more.
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