Wide receiver Kevin Walter, an unrestricted free agent, has averaged 59 catches and 770 yards over the last three seasons as the Texans' No. 2 receiver.
Here are five things to watch for as the Texans approach the free agency period, which begins at 11:01 p.m. CT on March 4.
1. Top UFAs: Walter, Pitts
The Texans already have announced that they'll be parting ways with cornerback Dunta Robinson. That leaves wide receiver Kevin Walter and left guard Chester Pitts as the team's top two unrestricted free agents to keep an eye on.
Texans general manager Rick Smith said at the NFL scouting combine that the team would like to re-sign Walter, who's 28, sure-handed and an excellent blocker. He has averaged 59 catches and 770 yards over the last three seasons as the Texans' No. 2 receiver. The Texans want him back, but they're also deep at wide receiver with Jacoby Jones, David Anderson and André Davis along with All-Pro Andre Johnson.
Pitts is one of two remaining original Texans still in Houston, along with kicker Kris Brown. He started the first 114 games in Texans history but suffered a season-ending right knee injury in Week 2 of 2009. He has rehabbed for months and recently proclaimed himself nearly back to 100 percent health, but he enters a precarious situation as a 30-year-old coming off the first severe injury of his career. Kasey Studdard started 14 games in Pitts' absence last season and is under contract in 2010.
Another unrestricted free agent of note is punter Matt Turk. The 41-year-old set a Texans record last season with a 39.4 net punting average, which was the highest mark of his 14-year career.
2. Replacing RobinsonRobinson's tenure in Houston is over after six seasons with the team. The hard-hitting corner, a first-round draft pick in 2004, is the Texans' career interceptions leader with 13. Will the Texans look to replace him in free agency, or will they wait to address the position in the 2010 draft?
As it stands now, the Texans' top cornerbacks heading into next season would be Glover Quin and Brice McCain – a pair of 2009 rookies – and Jacques Reeves. The Texans also have Fred Bennett, who started eight games as a rookie in 2007 but played sparingly on defense last season; Antwaun Molden, a talented young corner who has ended both of his two NFL seasons on injured reserve; and Mark Parson, an undrafted rookie who signed with the Texans late in the 2009 season.
According to Pat Kirwan of NFL.com, the top-rated free agent cornerback after Robinson is Leigh Bodden of the New England Patriots. Bodden, who has excellent size (6-1, 193) for the position, started 14 games for the Patriots last season and intercepted five passes. He has 18 interceptions and 79 passes defensed in his seven-year career.
Kirwan's other top-rated corners, in order, are Lito Sheppard of the New York Jets, Benny Sapp of the Minnesota Vikings and Deshea Townsend of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
3. Running back help?The Texans are looking for running back help, and a number of big-name backs will be unrestricted free agents, including LaDanian Tomlinson, Thomas Jones, Brian Westbrook, Willie Parker, Larry Johnson and Chester Taylor.
The list reads like a "Who's Who" of fantasy football first-round draft picks circa 2007. The problem is that many of those players had their best seasons in 2006 or 2007 and have dropped off since. As team owner Bob McNair said in February, the Texans usually prefer young players on the rise to star players who might be past their prime.
"That is our philosophy," Smith said at the combine, affirming McNair's statement. "We want young players that are ascending, and those are the type of players that we go after. But as you put a football team together, there are times and instances where a veteran player could add value. There are times when that is the case."
Jones (31), Taylor (30), Tomlinson (30), Westbrook (30) and Johnson (30) are all past the 30-year-old threshold. Parker is 29 but hasn't topped 800 rushing yards since 2007.
That's not to say those players don't have production left in the tank. Jones had a career-high 1,402 rushing yards in 2009; Johnson averaged 4.4 yards per carry in seven games with the Bengals; and Tomlinson, though he averaged 3.3 yards per carry and had his first sub-1,000-yard season, scored 12 touchdowns. And Taylor has been a featured back only once (2006), so he has far less mileage on his legs than the other backs.
A high-profile veteran signing would be out of character for the Texans based on recent history (see No. 5 below), but the situation bears watching nonetheless.
4. Restricted free agent watchThe Texans made tender offers to seven restricted free agents this week, including linebacker DeMeco Ryans, tight end Owen Daniels and strong safety Bernard Pollard. Each of those three players, it has been reported, received high tender offers that all but ensure they'll be playing in Houston next season.
The Texans have the right to match any team's offer for those players. If the Texans decide not to match, according to reports unconfirmed by the team, they would receive a first- and third-round draft pick in compensation for Ryans or Daniels, and a first-round pick for Pollard.
Teams can still attempt to pry those players away, but the cost would likely be an exorbitant contract in addition to the draft picks they'd have to give away. Even if a team is willing to, say, part with a first- and third-round pick for Ryans, a two-time Pro Bowler, would they be willing to offer a salary so high that the Texans wouldn't want to match it?
That seems unlikely given how much teams value their draft picks, but only time will tell. The last day a restricted free agent can sign an offer sheet with a new team is April 15.
5. Shallow pool
The pool of available players will be collectively older and smaller than in years past because of new restrictions on free agency. Under the old Collective Bargaining Agreement, players became unrestricted free agents after four years in the league. The requirement has gone up to six years now that the CBA has expired.
As a result, more than 200 players league-wide who would have been unrestricted free agents are restricted this year. That will make it easier for the Texans to hang on to young core players like Ryans, Daniels and Pollard, but it also severely reduces the number of players to choose from who could help to improve their roster.
It will be interesting to see how the Texans approach free agency considering that their major signings over the past couple of years have been younger players like Antonio Smith (27 when he signed in 2009), Dan Orlovsky (25 in 2009) and Reeves (25 in 2008). They have a young roster in place and might decide, as Smith indicated in his comment at the combine, to add a veteran presence or two to the mix.