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PHOENIX -- If he had his choice, Texans head coach Gary Kubiak wouldn’t have let James Casey and Connor Barwin bolt in free agency.
But the salary cap, which barely rose over the past year, and the difficulty every NFL team faces in keeping together its pieces prevented Houston from digging deep enough to keep both from landing in Philadelphia.
“You want to keep everybody,” Kubiak admitted Tuesday from a ballroom in the Arizona Biltmore as AFC coaches had breakfast with media at the annual owners meetings. “You’d like not to let anybody go. It is the nature of the cap these days and putting your football team together, year in and year out.
“Obviously, you have to have a plan as you move forward when these things happen to you. But, hell, [I] don’t think there is a coach around that wouldn’t say you don’t want them all.”
Kubiak forecasted promising Eagles careers for Barwin and Casey, two of the team’s eight free-agent signings since the market opened last Tuesday afternoon. He seemed optimistic about Casey’s impact as a pass-catching threat in Chip Kelly’s offense, which Kelly has said will emphasize two-tight end formations.
James, who developed from an undersized tight end/H-back into a versatile fullback, posted career bests last year with 34 receptions and 330 yards. Kubiak thinks he only scratched the surface of his potential.
“I think James’ best is yet to come,” he said. “And, yes, I’d love to have James in what we’re doing.”
But the Texans have another H-back who can play fullback in fourth-year pro and former fourth-round pick Garrett Graham, and their offense still centers on all-pros Arian Foster and Andre Johnson. For them, matching the three-year, $12.5 million offer from the Eagles didn’t make sound economic sense.
The same can be said for Barwin, who erupted for 11.5 sacks in 2011 but managed only three last year as the Texans shuttled him between strong-side and weak-side linebacker.
With two young outside linebacker prospects in 2011, second-rounder Brooks Reed and 2012 first-rounder Whitney Mercilus, who had six sacks last year as a rookie, the Texans weren’t willing to shell out $8 million guaranteed to keep Barwin from jumping ship to the Eagles.
But there’s no question that Kubiak believes Barwin can recreate his 2011 double-digit sack season.
“I think Connor played as well this [past] year as he played last year, he just didn’t have the numbers,” Kubiak added. “He [was] always an effort player for us. I thought he did a hell of a job for us. I thought he had a good season. He just didn’t have the 10 to 12 sacks.”
Barwin had added some weight to match up better against tight ends when he played the strong side in coordinator Wade Phillips’ 3-4 scheme, but it’s unclear where Eagles defensive coordinator Billy Davis plans to use Barwin.
Davis has discussed implementing a hybrid scheme that uses players interchangeably and in various positions, which Kubiak thinks makes sense for Barwin.
“I think he can play either side, I really do,” Kubiak added. “We know he can rush the passer. You saw that two years ago with his production from a sack standpoint. He can drop [into] zone coverage, those type of things. Zone pressures that guys like to do in a 3-4. Connor will be a consistent player. The numbers come back, you never know from year to year, but I think you’re gonna get the same thing all the time.”
Kubiak, who lost another starter on defense when safety Glover Quin left for Detroit, emphasized more than once that he had wanted to keep his team intact. After nine seasons without making the playoffs since coming to Houston in 2002 -- and just one winning season -- the Texans have won double-digit games in each of the past two years and won playoff games each time. They’ve had top-10 defenses and offenses in each of the past two seasons.
But they also have big money sunk into Foster, Johnson, quarterback Matt Schaub and left tackle Duane Brown, and their cap situation is tight.
Their losses became the Eagles’ gains.
“Very difficult,” Kubiak said. “When you have guys come in your program that you draft and you’re kinda part of their growth process and they hit Year 4 and they are playing that type of football, now they go play it somewhere else. That’s tough. But that’s part of the business. You wish them all the best.”