Sarah Barshop, ESPN Staff Writer 42d

Houston Texans free-agency overview: Search for impact players on defense

The Houston Texans enter 2021 NFL free agency coming off a 4-12 season in 2020 and have 14 unrestricted free agents.

While the Texans will have to decide whether wide receiver Will Fuller V is in their future plans, their main focus in free agency should be on improving their defense, which was ranked 30th in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA in 2020. After granting J.J. Watt’s request to be released, Houston has few impact players on defense and needs to find several players who can consistently get to the quarterback, whether that’s via free agency or the draft.

Without a first- or second-round draft pick this year, Houston is likely to be busy in free agency. Whether that’s at the top of the market or looking for reliable veterans to fill a role for 2021 is to be determined.

Here’s what to expect from the Texans when the NFL offseason hits high gear with the start of free agency on March 17:

QUARTERBACK

Under contract: Deshaun Watson

UFA: A.J. McCarron

Game plan: The Texans’ future at this position is the biggest topic of conversation surrounding the team right now, as Watson has requested a trade, but Caserio and Texans chairman and CEO Cal McNair have made it clear they want him to play for Houston. If Watson is serious about never playing for Houston again, it’s likely the Texans will be in the market for a veteran quarterback with starting experience for 2021.

RUNNING BACK

Under contract: David Johnson, Buddy Howell, Dontrell Hilliard, Cullen Gillaspia (FB)

UFA: None

Game plan: The Texans released Duke Johnson on Feb. 26, which saved $5.025 million in cap space, and still have a decision to make on David Johnson, since he also carries a high cap hit in 2021. They could restructure his contract instead of cutting him, if he is willing to take a pay cut, or try to find a cheaper option during free agency or later in the draft. If he is cut, expect Houston to be in the market for a veteran back to carry the load in 2021.

WIDE RECEIVER

Under contract: Brandin Cooks, Randall Cobb, Keke Coutee, Isaiah Coulter, Chad Hansen

UFA: Will Fuller V

Game plan: The biggest question the Texans have in free agency is whether to re-sign Fuller, who was suspended for six games for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. If they don’t, Cooks has shown he can be a No. 1 receiver and the Texans could rely on its young receivers (Hansen, Coulter and Coutee) for depth at the position while also looking to add in free agency.

TIGHT END

Under contract: Darren Fells, Jordan Akins, Kahale Warring

UFA: None

Game plan: This group likely looks similar to last season, perhaps with a bigger role moving forward for Warring, who was a third-round pick in 2019 but saw his first game action last season. Warring played in seven games, catching three passes for 35 yards. ERFA Pharaoh Brown, an undrafted player who played over Warring, impressed at the end of last season and could be re-signed as well.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Under contract: Laremy Tunsil, Max Scharping, Zach Fulton, Tytus Howard, Charlie Heck

UFA: Roderick Johnson, Brent Qvale

Game plan: After the Texans cut starting center Nick Martin to save more than $6 million in cap space, they could be looking for a cheaper replacement in free agency. Houston could re-sign swing-tackle Johnson, especially if they don’t think Heck is ready to step into the role.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Under contract: Charles Omenihu, Brandon Dunn, Ross Blacklock

UFA: Carlos Watkins

Game plan: The Texans attempted to address this position by drafting Blacklock in the second round in 2020, but the rookie defensive tackle played just 23 percent of Houston’s defensive snaps. After releasing Watt, Houston needs to add multiple players up front.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKER

Under contract: Whitney Mercilus, Jonathan Greenard, Jacob Martin, Duke Ejiofor

UFA: Brennan Scarlett, Kyle Emanuel

Game plan: Scarlett had a down season in 2020, playing in just 11 games due to a broken forearm. Houston will hope for Mercilus -- owed $12 million in 2021 -- to rebound from a poor performance last season and Greenard, a 2020 third-round pick, to take a step forward. This could be a position Caserio upgrades during free agency and spends more than one late-round draft pick on.

INSIDE LINEBACKER

Under contract: Zach Cunningham, Benardrick McKinney

UFA: Dylan Cole, Tyrell Adams

Game plan: Houston could move on from McKinney, whose base salary isn’t guaranteed in 2021, and is part of an expensive inside linebacker duo with Cunningham. Cutting or trading McKinney would save the Texans more than $6 million with just $1.5 million of dead money. Adams, who saw more playing time after McKinney went on IR last season, could be a less-expensive replacement for next season.

CORNERBACK

Under contract: Bradley Roby, John Reid, Keion Crossen, Cornell Armstrong

UFA: Gareon Conley, Vernon Hargreaves, Phillip Gaines

Game plan: This is the position with the most turnover, although Conley missed all of last season with an ankle injury. The Texans, under Bill O’Brien, traded a third-round pick for eight games of Conley and then opted not to pick up his fifth-year option. Roby will miss Week 1 while serving the final game of his six-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances.

SAFETY

Under contract: Justin Reid, Lonnie Johnson Jr., Eric Murray

UFA: Michael Thomas

Game plan: Reid is one of the Texans’ best young defensive players and Houston may be counting on Johnson improving, as well. Murray has two more years left on his contract, but Caserio could look to upgrade -- or at least add some depth -- at safety.

SPECIALISTS

Under contract: K Ka'imi Fairbairn, P Bryan Anger

UFA: LS Jon Weeks

Game plan: Fairbairn and Anger are both under contact and Weeks has been the Texans’ long snapper since 2010 and signed a one-year deal last offseason. Houston also had Anthony Kukwa on its practice squad last season.

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