As yesterday's free agency period began in the NFL, it started much the way it has most years for the Texans -- with some veterans departing and no quick signings. They never figured to be in on any big names, and the types of players the Texans figure to pursue probably will be out there for a few days.
As for moves already made, Owen Daniels and Brice McCain were sent packing. Wade Smith, Garrett Graham, Antonio Smith and Ben Tate were not re-signed. Earl Mitchell also was allowed to walk and has already gotten overpaid by the Dolphins. Special teams ace Bryan Braman was also left to pursue free agency and signed with the Eagles. Backup Terrell McClain got a deal with Dallas.
Here is a look at the 10 biggest questions facing the team throughout free agency and leading up to the draft. We'll answer as many as we can:
10) Are there any more cap cuts coming? It's possible. Danieal Manning's deal would give the team another $4-plus million in room, but there isn't a viable replacement on the roster. A Manning/D.J. Swearinger safety pairing might be OK if Swearinger develops. If not, keeping Manning is even more vital. And of course, there's the Matt Schaub conundrum. More on that in a bit.
9) Who is the biggest loss so far? Well, when you are 2-14, the easy answer is no one. Mitchell was not going to be a fit in Romeo Crennel's defense. Tate may think he's elite, but in today's NFL, running backs are easy to replace. Probably Daniels, but cutting him makes sense. He's 31, injury prone and saved the team $4.5 million. Expect the Texans to look at tight end in the draft or free agency. Brandon Pettigrew is reportedly on their radar, and he would be a significant upgrade over both Daniels and Graham.
8) What about the offensive line? With Smith gone, the three solid positions are left tackle (Duane Brown), center (Chris Myers) and right guard (Brandon Brooks). The Texans have to hope they have some pieces from recent drafts that can step in -- Ben Jones or David Quessenberry at guard, Quessenberry or Brennon Williams at tackle. Also don't be surprised if they sign a low-end veteran to add to the group. It's doubtful they will invest high picks here. They need to be right on last year's draft.
7) What about pass rushers? A lot depends on whether the Texans go QB or Clowney at No. 1, but this might be the biggest weakness on the team. Whitney Mercilus and Brooks Reed were terrible last year as outside 3-4 rushers. Mercilus might be salvageable, but Reed simply isn't very good. He might be a serviceable inside linebacker -- a position where the Texans need help. It might make sense to move Brian Cushing back outside as well and address inside linebacker in free agency (Brandon Spikes?) or the draft. Perhaps Trevardo Williams, who spent the entirety of last season on IR, isn't a bust and contributes. But this is a position where the solutions probably aren't on the roster and will need to be addressed in a significant fashion.
6) Who replaces Mitchell and Smith? Jared Crick likely gets a look in Smith's place, but expect the Texans to sign another 3-4 DE or draft one relatively high. Mitchell will be replaced by a larger, fatter, road grader type in the middle. Expect the Texans to grab a couple veterans on the cheap and maybe look mid round in the draft.
5) Is the secondary good enough? With a presumably healthy Jonathan Joseph, Kareem Jackson, Danieal Manning and hopefully a D. J. Swearinger who takes a big step in year 2, yes, this should be one of the better units on the team. You don't want Shiloh Keo or Eddie Pleasant starting, but they are functional as backups. Cutting McCain made sense, but it means Brandon Harris has to finally prove he was worth a No. 2 pick (in fact, one they traded up to get). He has been a bust so far. A.J. Bouye showed promise before getting injured and might be in the mix here as well. This is one area where there might be enough on the roster as is, although another veteran to compete in camp wouldn't hurt.
4) What happens at running back? With Tate gone, they will need to deal with this in the draft, and late round poaching should work fine. They have been very solid at finding running backs on the cheap. Remember Arian Foster was an undrafted free agent. The Texans will need him healthy next year but expect so new blood to join the fray. A new fullback is in order as well but those are a dime a dozen.
3) How much will the coaching changes make a difference? That's the second biggest question. You never know what you are getting with a first-time NFL head coach. On the high end, Bill O'Brien could be Jim Harbaugh. On the low? Greg Schiano. Obviously there are concerns about putting together a staff of mostly college coaches, although veteran DC and former head coach Romeo Crennel was an excellent addition to the staff. And it worked well for Harbaugh. Bottom line? If you are getting Harbaugh and this team can answer questions No. 1 and 2, this could be a playoff team again. If you are getting Schiano? Uh oh. The guess here is something in between. This -- and the next two questions -- will answer whether or not this is a quick fix, as Bob McNair said when he hired O'Brien, or a longer term process.
2) Who plays quarterback? Josh McCown was expected to visit but he signed for way too much in Tampa Bay. It's interesting how Lovie Smith and O'Brien were the hot coaching candidates, and players seem to be flocking to join Smith in Tampa. With McCown out of the picture, the Texans might need to look at Shaun Hill types or perhaps trade for their QB of the future. It's also not impossible they keep Schaub, although he would have to take a significant pay cut. Of the options out there, McCown was likely the best short term answer. The Texans simply have to figure out what to do here or next season could be just as brutal as 2013.
1) What do they do with the No. 1 pick? It's most likely time for that future QB, no matter who else you bring in. Teddy Bridgewater is the most NFL ready and has a big upside. Blake Bortles is a project. Johnny Manziel has local interest but might not have an NFL body.
If they go with Clowney No. 1, then the first pick of the second round will likely be an A.J. McCarron or Jimmy Garappolo type. While not as sexy as the top three players, this would make a ton of sense, especially if you don't see much difference between those guys and the top three, and you have a veteran stopgap to run the show.
The best move would be to trade down a few spots --preferably with Cleveland -- and pick up more selections to help fill out most of the holes outlined above.
Whatever direction they go, the Texans simply cannot afford to miss on any of their first three picks. They need players who can contribute right away. Last year they got nothing from their mid round picks. This year they need to hit on all cylinders.
Lots of questions besides these remain.
How they answer them will determine just what we can expect from the Texans in 2014.