McNair: Keeping core players key

HOUSTON -- Texans end J.J. Watt established himself as one of the premier defensive players in the NFL during his first three seasons in the league. His next contract certainly will reflect that.

What's less certain is when that contract will come.

If the Texans can't reach a new deal before Watt's rookie contract expires, owner Bob McNair wouldn't mind using the franchise tag on him.

"You've got guys in the Hall of Fame that have been franchised in back-to-back years," McNair told ESPN.com. "The franchise tag is worth something to the team, and you can't be afraid to use it."

McNair noted that Watt is under contract for at least 2014 and 2015. Earlier this summer, the Texans picked up the optional fifth season on his contract. The sides had some preliminary discussions before the team took that action.

The franchise tag is a way for a team to restrict the free-agency movement of players. If the Texans tagged Watt after the 2015 season, they would have to pay him based on the five-year average of the cap percentage of defensive end tags. Players who aren't quarterbacks cannot be tagged more than twice. At most positions, it's a system that works better for teams than players, as it gives no long-term security to players.

"It's going to be a big contract," McNair said. "If we can do something with him that makes sense for the team to do it early, we'll certainly do it.

"It has to make sense for us. The team comes first. We want to keep all of our players. We want to take care of all or our players, but the team comes first."

McNair said the Texans prioritize certain players they consider "core players" who need to be protected and that Watt is one of them.

"We want him here for a long time," McNair said. "We protected Andre Johnson, given him long-term contracts. Brian Cushing's got a long-term contract. Arian Foster. So certain key players, core players, we've tried not to tie them up for a long period of time. Mario [Williams] is gone; we just couldn't do that.

"Some people said, why didn't you sign Peyton Manning? Well, we just couldn't do it. We would have had to let go of two or three of our outstanding players to create enough room in the salary cap to do something with him. Those are the decisions you have to make as you go forward. You hope you make the right decision."