Texans need cornerback upgrade and could make a free-agent splash

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HOUSTON -- The Houston Texans’ secondary struggled throughout the 2019 season, and the unit’s poor play was most evident on the biggest stage, when the Texans blew a 24-0 lead in the AFC divisional playoffs to Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs.

According to Pro Football Focus, Houston’s cornerbacks had the second-lowest coverage grade in 2019. Because of injuries and poor play, the Texans had a revolving door at the position and played 10 cornerbacks last season.

Two of Houston’s top corners from last season are entering free agency and one has been released. More turnover at the position is likely. A look at their options:

Where they stand

The Texans have five cornerbacks under contract for 2020: Gareon Conley, Lonnie Johnson, Keion Crossen, Cornell Armstrong and Anthony Chesley. Of those five, only Conley and Johnson played significant defensive snaps last season.

Head coach Bill O’Brien praised Conley at the combine and indicated that Houston is likely to pick up the cornerback’s fifth-year option. The 2017 first-round pick (drafted by the Raiders and traded to Houston for a third-round pick in 2019) still has one more year on his rookie deal (owed $1.89 million next season) and could be an option to start in 2020.

So who would start opposite Conley on the outside? One option is Johnson, a second-round pick in 2019. Although O’Brien is very high on Johnson’s potential, he struggled in his rookie season. According to PFF, he had a 31.7 coverage grade, while allowing a passer rating of 128.9 on 532 defensive snaps. Throughout his first season, Johnson lacked the speed to cover elite NFL receivers.

Perhaps Johnson comes in and impresses in his second training camp and wins that starting spot across from Conley, but Houston certainly needs another option.

Players they’re losing

Houston already cut Vernon Hargreaves to avoid paying his fifth-year option in 2020 and could lose Bradley Roby and Johnathan Joseph in free agency. Roby, who was playing on a one-year deal, was the Texans’ most consistent corner a season ago, but he isn’t expected to return. Another team is likely to offer a multiyear deal at a price that O’Brien won’t be willing to match.

Joseph has played for the Texans since 2011 and has been a leader in the locker room for Houston. But he played fewer than 60% of the Texans’ defensive snaps in 2019 because he did not play consistently starting in Week 13. The veteran cornerback could retire, but he said after the playoff loss to the Chiefs that he plans to play next season “unless someone [doesn’t] employ me.”

Even if Joseph returns to the Texans, it’s unlikely he will be expected to take a starting role given his decrease in snaps last season and his age (35).

Options in free agency

While O’Brien might also decide to go after a cornerback in the draft, there are several options in free agency who could be a great fit in Houston.

“I think if you're talking about an outside corner, I think you've got to have a guy that has man-to-man capability,” O’Brien said at the NFL combine. “I think it's got to be a guy that obviously has the right skill set of body type, movement skills, ball skills, instincts, the ability to tackle, the physical nature of the game the way some offenses are running the ball to the outside, the way some offenses are putting tight ends on the perimeter now.”

While the Texans have a huge need at cornerback, they also might be hamstrung by contract extensions that they want to get done with quarterback Deshaun Watson, left tackle Laremy Tunsil and linebacker Zach Cunningham.

But if they do want to make a big splash at the position, cornerback Byron Jones might be the best available. Jones has played for the Cowboys since he was drafted in 2015 and could be available because Dallas might not be able to afford to use a tag on him with quarterback Dak Prescott and wide receiver Amari Cooper free agents as well.

According to Pro Football Focus, Jones has been a top-five outside cornerback over the past two seasons and allowed just 0.39 yards per coverage snap in press-man in 2019 -- the second-lowest rate at that position.

Cornerback Logan Ryan, who has played for the Tennessee Titans since 2017, is a versatile option who can handle multiple positions in the secondary. Last season, he had 113 tackles, 4.5 sacks, four interceptions and four forced fumbles. Ryan was drafted by the Patriots in 2013 and was there when Jack Easterby, Houston’s executive vice president of football operations, was in New England. His experience and winning pedigree would be important additions to what is a relatively young secondary.

Other options include James Bradberry (although he could be too expensive for a player who might not make as much of an impact) and Trae Waynes, who could be a cheaper option.

With Hargreaves gone, the Texans will be looking for a slot corner, a position O’Brien called “very valuable” because “that's a guy that does a lot for you on the inside of the defense, covering slot receivers, doing different things within the front.”

Chris Harris Jr. played primarily outside for the Denver Broncos last season but could go back inside and be an immediate upgrade in that role for Houston. His name was brought up as an option at the trade deadline last season, but O’Brien had no intention of trading for a player on an expiring contract. Instead, Houston traded for Conley, who is still under team control. The last time the Texans dipped into the free-agent market for a slot corner, it was for Aaron Colvin, who lasted 1½ seasons into his four-year deal.

Options in the draft

How the Texans approach free agency will obviously play a huge factor in how they attack the position in the draft, especially because they have several other holes they need to fill and do not have a first-round pick.

When the Texans drafted Johnson in 2019, O’Brien noted several times about his length and why he thinks that is so important at the position. Of course, it’s hard to tell how the board will fall, but the Texans could be looking at corners such as Clemson’s A.J. Terrell (ranked 10th at the position by ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr.), Mississippi State’s Cameron Dantzler (ranked eighth) or Oklahoma State’s A.J. Green.