Because of the salary cap, good teams can keep about five big money, star level players and then two or three more substars who are integral to the team's success. The rest of the team needs to be filled with older players on smaller salaries, rookies playing out their original contracts and assorted other projects, special teamers, etc.
That's an incredibly simplistic view to roster building, but it's basically what good teams deal with. The New England Patriots are a good example, but the Colts back in their heyday did similar things, just like the Baltimore Ravens have done recently. You can't retain everyone, so you have to prioritize.
For the Houston Texans, that means guys like Matt Schaub, Johnathan Joseph, Andre Johnson, Arian Foster and Chris Myers get the big money, with Owen Daniels, Antonio Smith and Danieal Manning filling that second tier. You could even argue that Manning should be left off that "core" group of players.
Before Tuesday, I would have thought DeMeco Ryans would also make that list. The former second round pick was a big part of Houston's resurgence, though he didn't make as many plays after injuring his Achilles. Still, he was a fan favorite and a clear leader for the Texans on both sides of the ball.
Unfortunately, he made money like he was a core guy. In Wade Phillips' new defense, he was not nearly as effective as he was before. There are some 4-3 middle linebackers who can make the transition and still be very effective. Patrick Willis is a prime example. However, Ryans struggled coming back from his injury last year and was not nearly the playmaker that Brian Cushing proved to be.
Cushing, J.J. Watt, Glover Quin and (god help me) Kareem Jackson fit into that category of cheap draft picks who are needed to contribute in big ways on defense. The problem is that Cushing and fellow impact defender Connor Barwin will both need to be extended soon and seem to be better fits in the 3-4 scheme under Wade.
Just look at what the Baltimore Ravens have done with their linebackers in that 3-4. They prioritized Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs and let most of the other guys walk. They've continually lost linebackers next to Lewis over the years, from Jamie Sharper to Bart Scott to Jarrett Johnson. Some have worked out, some have been complete flops, but Baltimore knew it had to continually replace players at those two other positions.
Houston is getting into a similar situation. They've been developing players like Darryl Sharpton or Rashad Butler who are needed to step in for more high-priced guys like Eric Winston, even if he has an elite skill. It hurts losing players, but the days of dynasties sticking with a huge core of players is over. Now, teams have to prioritize.
Does that mean a loss of "loyalty?" Absolutely. The NFL is a cruel business. The Texans had to decide between the younger Cushing or the team leader in Ryans. They chose Cushing and will hope to develop someone next to him. That's why Ryans is in Philadelphia (pending a physical). It's a cold reality, but it's one that many NFL teams have to through.