Whenever the lockout ends and free agency begins, the Texans have several key players who could become unrestricted and free to sign with any team.
Some, like All-Pro fullback Vonta Leach, will be unrestricted no matter what. But there are others, like wide receiver Jacoby Jones and tackle Rashad Butler, whose status is up in the air.
Jones has played four seasons, Butler five. Both would be restricted under last year's free agency rules, which required six seasons for a player to become totally free. They'd be unrestricted if the threshold returns to four seasons, which recent speculation suggests might happen.
Regardless, Texans coach Gary Kubiak said that re-signing players like Jones and Butler will be a priority.
"It's real important, because they're a big part of our team," Kubiak said last week at Reliant Stadium. "And everybody is going into this free agency period (the same way) – whenever it does happen, if you lose players this go-round, you're not only losing them but you haven't had any offseason to replace them. So you've got a double-edged problem right there. So maintaining the nucleus of the football team is a big, big priority."
Jones or no Jones, many Texans fans want to know if the team will sign a top-flight number two receiver to pair with Andre Johnson.
"I would tell the people that ask that question that if you put Jacoby and Kevin Walter's numbers together last year, they add up to about 102 catches and 1,200 yards, and that would be the best number two receiver in football," Kubiak said. "I like our two players. I think they're both damned good players."
Jones had his best season last year with 51 catches, 562 yards and three touchdowns, although he also had several critical drops. He stepped up in the final three weeks with 17 catches for 235 yards, including his first-career 100-yard game against the Denver Broncos.
Butler plays a vital role as the Texans' backup at both offensive tackle positions. He started four games at left tackle last season when Duane Brown was suspended, during which time the Texans went 2-2 and Butler drew rave reviews from the Texans' coaching staff.
Two other Texans in free agent-limbo are defensive end Mark Anderson and quarterback Matt Leinart. Both have played five seasons. The Texans placed tender offers on them, Jones and Butler in case they end up being restricted.
Leinart, the Texans' third-string quarterback in 2010, has said that he's hoping for a chance to start somewhere. Anderson, who had four sacks in 11 games last season, could join a talented outside linebacker group that includes Mario Williams, Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed.
Those players might be tougher to re-sign if they're unrestricted, but a four-year unrestricted rule also would result in a bigger pool of free agents from other teams. The Texans have studied the potential free agents time and again in meetings this offseason, evaluating and ranking veteran players much like they do with draft prospects.
"Obviously, we're guessing from a standpoint of exactly who's going to be free, but we think we have a pretty good idea," Kubiak said. "We've got our priority list and we're ready to go, because it's going to be a small window when they do get the deal done. There'll be a small grace period and we'll be at it."