Free agents' fates change with turnover

INDIANAPOLIS -- Before the season ended, I asked a few pending free agents what their gut feeling was about whether or not they would be back.

The responses were often ones of uncertainty. Who knew what the new coaching staff would want?

If you assumed the Texans were finished with Antonio Smith, that might have been a premature assumption. Smith told Houston's Sports Radio 610 last week that his agent told him the Texans and Bill O'Brien like him. It made him optimistic about returning next year.

O'Brien was highly complimentary of Smith when I asked yesterday.

"Good player," O'Brien said. "Have a lot of respect for Antonio and what he’s done in this league. Really tough, good player. Good teammate from everything we hear. Enjoyed meeting him. I can only say hello to him. Meeting was really brief, but have a lot of respect for what Antonio does in this league."

O'Brien wouldn't go into more specific evaluations of Smith, but calling him a good teammate is a great sign for Smith. That quality is hugely important to O'Brien.

I asked general manager Rick Smith if he had started conversations about re-signing Smith, and he answered circuitously, while bringing up two names unprovoked:

"This is the time when we really start to sit down with the agents and start to talk about what the prospects look like for all those free agents, (tight end) Garrett Graham, (nose tackle) Earl Mitchell, there are a few guys that are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents this year. This is the time we start to formulate those conversations."

Graham and Mitchell are two more guys I might have assumed wouldn't return. Graham because it might be easier to keep Owen Daniels. Daniels is better today than Graham, but over the next four years, Graham might have the advantage. Mitchell just doesn't seem to fit in Romeo Crennel's defense as well as he would in a 4-3 system.

We'll get more clarity on that over the next few weeks.