The expansion Houston Texans will have a chance to add veteran talent to their rather rickety current roster, one now populated by men who spent last season mostly on pro football's not-so-easy street as they tried and often failed to get back to an NFL team.
The league will conduct a special expansion draft today to add class, charisma and competent potential starters to the Texans, who begin their first season of play this fall. There are scads of familiar names on the 155-man expansion list, many of them former all-pros who for various reasons -- many of them because of the salary cap or injuries -- have been deemed expendable by the 31 other teams.
Houston General Manager Charley Casserly, who held a similar position with the Washington Redskins for most of the 1990s, has been planning for this day for months, going back to a year ago when the team held the first of many mock expansion drafts.
"I was the general manager for 31 teams and came up with the lists," Casserly said. "Then the scouts went ahead and picked the players, and I did the pull-backs. At the end of the day, the toughest positions to fill are corner, offensive line, especially tackle, defensive line and quarterback. If you can help yourself in any of those positions in the expansion draft or free agency before you get to the draft, that certainly is going to be a priority."
Under the rules of this draft, the Texans must select either 30 players or use 38 percent of their 2002 salary cap, in this case $28.7 million. Casserly said last week his plan is to take 15 to 25 players today, a major difference from recent expansion drafts that stocked the Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Panthers.
Those teams each selected 30 to 35 players, but Casserly said that an average of only 17 per team made the roster that year. Cleveland was stuck with $5 million in so-called "dead money" after its first season, meaning the Browns were charged under the cap even if a player failed to make the team after being taken in the expansion draft before the 1999 season.
"One thing we don't want to do is take a player who's not going to be able to play out his contract and have dead money on our cap," Casserly said, adding that he almost certainly will not take any players over 30 years of age. It's a philosophy shared by Houston's coach, Dom Capers, who also coached the expansion Carolina Panthers and took them to the NFC title game in only their second season.
"The success we had early on -- we won 20 games our first two years -- ended up hurting us in the long run," Capers said. "When you have older players, they play great the first couple of years, but when they descended, we didn't have the youth to pick it up. It might take a little longer [in Houston] and we might have to be a little more patient. But hopefully it's the blueprint for success."
Many of the more desirable players on the list have huge salary cap numbers for the 2002 season. Tony Boselli, a perennial all-pro tackle until a bad knee and surgery on both shoulders forced him to miss most of the last two seasons, has been exposed by Jacksonville, the team with the worst cap problems in the league. He is a tempting Texans choice, but would count $8.95 million against the cap this year.
Buffalo quarterback Rob Johnson would cost $11.2 million. Miami defensive tackle Tim Bowens has an $8.75 million cap tag, and New York Jets cornerback Aaron Glenn is listed at $8 million. But there also appear to be some significant bargains.
The Baltimore Ravens, with cap problems of their own after winning the Super Bowl in 2001, placed linebacker Jamie Sharper on their list. He has a $3.8 million cap price attached but is clearly in his prime and one of the most unsung heroes of the Ravens' outstanding defensive unit the last three years.
The Ravens also exposed explosive return man Jermaine Lewis, an intriguing choice with a $4.1 million cap figure. If the Texans do take Sharper first, the Ravens almost certainly will pull back Lewis from the expansion list and keep him. If Lewis goes first, then Sharper will likely be pulled back and play in Baltimore next season.
Casserly has declined to name the names he covets because "there's a strategy involved at this point. How small it is, there still is some, so we don't feel that it's right for us to tell everybody who we're taking."
Casserly said about 20 players came to Houston for physical exams in recent weeks and virtually every player on the expansion list has been studied extensively by the personnel staff, as well as by Capers and his assistant coaches. Casserly said most players who had physicals are strong candidates to be drafted, but added that players who did not have physicals could be taken.
He said the team would be quite active in going after unrestricted free agents when the signing period commences on March 1, even if "it is a weak free agent class.
"The trend at the beginning of free agency [in 1993] was to let your players go into free agency, tell them if they got an offer to come back to you before they did anything. What happened early on is that players didn't come back. They got the offers they wanted and signed, so teams lost players. The tendency early in free agency was to overpay players. Now, we've come full circle. Teams will overpay their own players to keep them."
The Texans also get the first overall pick in the college draft in April, and two picks in each of the next six rounds of the draft.
The Redskins have exposed five players -- return man Michael Bates, defensive tackle Ethan Albright, guard Matt Campbell, wide receiver Kevin Lockett and defensive tackle Jerry DeLoach.