The Case to Fire Nick Caserio (Already)

I haven’t really written much about the Texans this season because nothing they do actually matters, and there are multiple people who deserve some blame for that. Jack Easterby was one of the architects of a number of disastrous trades that left them in the spot they were in following the 2020 season, as well as the No. 1 reason that the franchise-quarterback-turned-accused-serial-sexual-harasser wanted out of Houston. Lovie Smith has been, about as I expected, an old school coach without much in the way of solutions for this new era. Pep Hamilton’s offense is gimmick-heavy because it has no players to rely on and Rex Burkhead-heavy for reasons I cannot even begin to fathom. Some of the players on the field have played poorly for them or been hurt, but broadly speaking I wouldn’t say any of what has transpired this season has been surprising. They were not very talented in 2021 and still aren’t.

But it’s time to put the one who has avoided a lot of the blame on trial here too. Nick Caserio’s draft picks have been more-or-less acceptable. Dameon Pierce is a big hit. Jalen Pitre and Derek Stingley are already starting. When the Davis Mills pick was made it was a chance to find a starter that didn’t pan out, I think the Texans have their money’s worth out of the pick. Nico Collins still could be something even if he’s lost in whatever this offense is and is now hurt. While I have questioned a lot of the draft capital spent to move up in trades at times, I don’t think the Texans have made objectively poor picks. (Well, okay, I didn’t like the Metchie pick, but I’m not going to spend five sentences on it.)

But the process involved in creating the infrastructure around those picks has failed spectacularly. Not only are the glue and culture guys coming apart at the seams after Easterby’s firing, but the coaches chosen to oversee this task are barely even creating a scenario where anyone with talent can look good. The only thing that has improved at all from 2021 to 2022 is that the offensive line has put its tackles in the correct spot — and neither of them have quit the team for the year yet — and it has been bailed out by Justin Britt’s abrupt hiatus from having to deal with how bad he is and was. That portion of the team has improved from abysmal to acceptable with some bad weeks mixed in. Which is part of why sometimes they are able to functionally execute Texans Football, a playstyle I’d define as “running the clock out while hoping for turnovers and the opponent to beat itself.” The 2021 and 2022 Texans play football like Homer Simpson boxed.

That’s a stylistic choice, I would argue. Not just by the coaching staff, but by the shape of the team. And the truth of the matter is that we’re all just waiting for something to happen here because nothing has yet.

The weird Brandin Cooks non-trade

I will ask a question: What’s the point of Brandin Cooks being a Houston Texan if he doesn’t want to be one?

He clearly, obviously, does not want to be one.

There’s been a lot of hubbub about trying to extract the most value that you possibly can here, but it’s not like whether Brandin Cooks is a Texan or not has any real impact on the status quo. He’s not worth a second-round pick with the massive extension that Caserio signed him to this year, but the Texans wanted one. I am skeptical that Cooks’ value will increase from here, whether he plays or not. He’s 29 and in the midst of the worst season in his career to date. He’s averaging just 6.7 yards per target, a career-low, and way less involved in the offense than he was in 2021. What are the odds that the next nine games — again, assuming he plays them — increase his value? I think the Texans will be lucky to get a fourth-rounder for him.

I think the deeper question that comes out of this is: What does it mean that Brandin Cooks wants out?

And the Occam’s Razor of that answer to me is best explained by Kamu Grugier-Hill abruptly quitting on the team and asking for his release: His boy is gone. Cooks is an Easterby guy. Much of the movement in the football industry is founded on Who Is Your Boy? One of the major reasons I was not a fan of the Lovie hiring is because his boys were already here, joining last offseason, and they aren’t good enough.

I’m not going to be teased by this — I don’t think there’s any chance that what has been in the shadows gets put out there by a player. But man, would it be fun as hell for all of us who aren’t Texans.

Caserio has said nothing but glowing things about Cooks for his Texans tenure — nobody gets spoken of in higher terms as a character guy — thus the contract extension. The fact that he already wants out and that Caserio limited his options is emblematic of a problem that I’ve had with Caserio since day one: Texans fans talk day and night about how bad his circumstances are, but he creates many of them on his own! Nobody asked him to release Zach Cunningham or Whitney Mercilus early. Nobody asked him to trade for Shaq Lawson. Nobody asked him to have Grugier-Hill, Pharaoh Brown, Antony Auclair, Jeff Driskel, Royce Freeman, Fabian Moreau, Kevin Pierre-Louis, and Marlon Mack accounting for a combined $9.6 million in dead cap. Look at how long this list is!

Some of these are releases or trades that were leftovers from the O’Brien/Easterby era, and I am by no means upset that Watson is taking up $16.2 million in dead cap. But we are in the second season of this rebuild and the fallout has been dragged on by short-sighted decisions to try to field a team of culture.

Comparing the Texans to other recent rebuilds paints them in a pretty dark light

Let me attempt to answer this question posed by Robert Mays:

If your culture is what you do well, then I’d say that the Texans have developed one culture over the last three years: Not being the Jaguars. The Texans have nine wins over the last three seasons: 1 in 2022, 4 in 2021, 4 in 2020. Six of those wins have been over the Jaguars.

Compare that to what is going on in Atlanta and New York, where the Falcons are ninth in DVOA and the Giants are 14th with similar rebuilds and lack of talent. Those two teams were amongst the five worst in the NFL last year by DVOA, right there with the Texans. The Falcons are starting a journeyman quarterback and the Giants are starting a failed fifth-year option guy. They have similar turnover rates on the roster of high-paid guys and clearly-failed free agents. (Kenny Golladay, Deion Jones, to name a few.) The Texans are dead last in overall DVOA and just lost to a team that didn’t even bother trying to throw the football in the second half. Because they’re that bad at a fundamental portion of their defense: playing the run.

The Texans are keeping pace with the Lions in the win column, but if you asked me if I’d rather have Detroit’s offense or Houston’s offense in two years, it’s not even a question. The Lions have a much brighter future assuming they can figure out their Texans-esque inability to cover. The Bears are tearing it down just as quickly as the Falcons and Giants have, but notably beat the Texans despite not being able to throw in September. The Steelers I’d argue are notably bad this year, but they are trading their unwanted players for assets at the deadline and are an offensive coordinator away from being on the right path again. The Panthers fired Matt Rhule and suddenly look much better than the Texans, with a bigger stack of building blocks. I won’t even embarrass the Texans by comparing them to the Seahawks and the magical Geno Smith.

We are two years into this and I am struggling to find a team that is in worse than the Texans are in. I’ll give them Jacksonville based on the recent head-to-head results, but I don’t think most plugged-in NFL people would agree with that. Trevor Lawrence is probably more valuable than the entire Houston roster in the grander eyes of the NFL, even if he’s struggling after 20 games.

You see, it’s almost like building an entire team around culture and heady, veteran play doesn’t grow roster value. If only I had written about this at any time in the last two years.

The Jack Easterby excuse happens to make Caserio’s roster building look worse in retrospect

In fact, I’m kind of curious if it will be walked back in any real way.

What you heard from several people at the conclusion of the Easterby Era, and what was a not-closely guarded media secret, is that Easterby’s influence had been reduced following the coaching search not hiring Josh McCown. Here’s how John McClain put in his Gallery column on the Easterby firing.

Something happened after last season that caused the McNairs to see Easterby in a different light – the same dark light that everyone else saw.

During the offseason, Easterby’s influence with the McNairs diminished. He didn’t have the same decision-making authority. He was seldom seen or mentioned. He was forced into the background. It was apparent Easterby would be gone after the season, but the McNairs didn’t wait, and the Texans’ fan base is giving a 100-percent approval rating.

Do you know what that means? It means that Nick Caserio had a full offseason to do whatever he wanted and just kept everything the same as it was. While they drafted some good players, the talent around them was just the same guys they’d already had re-signed, minus David Johnson. (Thank goodness for that, by the way, small blessings.)

I’ve actually been a little kids gloves with Caserio because I don’t feel like he’s always had full control of the roster. I’ve written numerous times that the way that Caserio talked about David Johnson kinda betrayed the fact that I don’t think he really wanted him around. But if he truly had a full offseason all to himself this way and decided that what was happening here was Mario Addison and Jerry Hughes and Andy Janovich turning this thing around, maybe he’s not focusing on the right parts of his job.

I’m willing to give him credit when a move pays off — Steven Nelson and Desmond King have both played well enough this year. But — and this is especially funny given how publicly uninterested in gambling he is — Caserio winning those small bets means absolutely nothing to the state of the franchise. Hughes and Nelson and King won’t be a part of the next good Texans team, and he hasn’t opted to trade them off for things that could be. Him winning the Desmond King re-signing is kiddie table stuff, like trying to win $10,000 at a blackjack table except you’re playing $10 a hand.

Heck, let’s dabble in hypotheticals. Remember the Anthony Miller trade? Let’s say Anthony Miller played about as well as Nico Collins did this year. Now the Texans get to decide if they want to pay him $10 million a season or let him walk. This team has been so reticent to spend long-term or big money that even if they’d won that trade, they’d still likely not recover real value on it! The ways that this team can recover value — taking on bad contracts from other teams, stacking draft picks and UDFAs instead of trading up and clogging roster spots with vets — are so unexplored that talking about them feels like a fever dream. And what I hear from people who still back Caserio is something that winds up sounding like this to me:

Except that every day, other NFL teams are proving that it is, in fact possible! The Falcons annoy the hell out of me as someone who writes about fantasy football, but I’d build Arthur Smith a statue if he were doing to this roster what he was doing with Atlanta.

The one caveat I have to give is that people don’t think Caserio has hired any of these coaches yet

The people who talk to me about this stuff behind the scenes believe that Caserio has not ultimately been the one that has hired either David Culley or Lovie Smith. And while my instinct is to react to what is being said with “this is stupid,” I have to admit that I felt the same way whenever I heard about Easterby lacking influence and potentially being out after the season.

Here’s the problem: Lovie Smith is a babysitter. I have a lot of respect for him as a coach in historical terms, I don’t think he’s a bad person. He just has nothing to offer to today’s game in much the same way Romeo Crennel didn’t. If you keep him as head coach in 2023, he’s a babysitter. The Texans aren’t going anywhere, and he’s just the shepherd that’s out there to make sure nobody skips recess.

But also if you fire him, you’re committing to four coaches in four seasons. And the big problem is that Caserio is in such a position of power for the Texans — remember when he was on the headset to Culley? — that it’s going to be hard to find a good coach who accepts that level of delegation. This is something The Athletic brought up earlier this offseason when discussing successful rebuilds.

To commit to Caserio over the ability to get a new coach is to commit to a mindset that the Texans need another two years of rebuilding to even be NFL-level feisty again, and that’s something that goes against everything happening in the NFL this year. The franchise is already irrelevant. What happens in three years with, let’s be polite and say, another couple of five-six win seasons? Do people show up? Do we even talk about the Texans as an NFL franchise? Are they the butt of every talk show joke in the NFL?

That’s why I’ve come around to the idea that as much as you can hem and haw about what Caserio has and has not had the power to do, this roster should look better by now. This team should be somewhere better by now. By his own admission, you can’t change what’s happened. Nobody’s going to bitch and moan about your situation and your circumstances. The team was built on contrarian ideas and has not done the results necessary to validate them.

I write all this, and I will be honest with you: I have zero expectations that Caserio will be fired. I expect that the Texans will just float along as a babysitter’s club here for a few years, sell people on the youth and act like no team with a bunch of young first-round picks has ever failed to come together before.

But I don’t think we need another year or two to understand what has happened here: Caserio has had more than enough power and opportunity to turn this team around and he hasn’t done it. Those are grounds for dismissal if I’m an owner with any kind of vested interest in the team being good within the next two seasons. I don’t know how many more seasons of being bad the McNairs are willing to tolerate, but if I owned them, it would be zero.

Post-Easterby

I want to start this post by asking you to think about Derek Stingley. Yes, really. The Texans third overall pick this year. Close your eyes for 20 seconds. Think about what you think he will be one day.

The thing about being a fan is that you always start with the best-case scenario in any situation and want to believe in it. Stingley was once the third overall pick in the draft. There was a value you attached in your head to that pick before it was ever made. That value was based mostly on other successful third overall picks and not on, say, Trent Richardson or Blake Bortles.

Stingley’s looked good so far — not talking about his PFF grades or anything. How good will he be in three years? You’ll look at what could be and amplify it to the desires you have. Well, he could be the next Patrick Surtain II! In settling on that, you have chosen to neglect the idea that Stingley’s career is lost to injury attrition. You have chosen to neglect even a still-positive but less-optimistic outcome, like how Justin Reid was a good player for four years before signing a major free-agency contract. You can point to big moments in Stingley’s five games so far. I can tell you I’ve been here long enough to remember Amobi Okoye starting off his NFL career with four sacks in his first five games. I’ve also been here long enough to remember Duane Brown being bad his first season, and Kareem Jackson being bad for two seasons, before they rebounded and became core players.

The inherent optimism when I ask you what Stingley will be is a trick that fandom plays with you. And I’m not leading off with this because I have some great secret on how big Stingley is going to be — he’s played five games and shown big flashes, you could tell me he’d be anything at this point and I couldn’t tell you otherwise. But I want to demonstrate that in the grand game of probabilities that is the NFL, little is guaranteed. Fandom carries the optimistic outcomes to the forefront of our mind first, and conditions that belief in us. 

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Firing Jack Easterby reminds me a lot of firing Bill O’Brien. It was long overdue. There was a mountain of evidence that both men weren’t up to the standards of the positions they filled. The carnage left behind from their shared marriage of power is not even close to being cleaned up. And the true measure of how each move changed the franchise is to be gained not from the firing itself, but from what happens afterwards. Their firings were a relief. A book closing on days that can never be unsuffered. It was a waste of our collective lifespans watching Anger from Inside Out (who routinely fucks up major talent advantages at Alabama) and Mr. Mackey with a taste for power drive an organization with star-level talent to the ground and disperse it.

But that mountain of evidence also made it extremely obvious that this would happen at some point, the way any of these things in sports do these days — Robert Sarver selling the Suns, or how the Commanders will eventually be sold. The toothpaste doesn’t get unsqueezed. The Texans have been telling any media person on the ground for months that they had minimized Easterby’s role this season. I’m not sure if that was a reaction to the failed Josh McCown coup, something weird with the Deshaun Watson settlements, or just a more benign falling out of favor with the McNairs. (I don’t spend a ton of time in the media insider circles, because I’ve found it doesn’t really matter much when it comes to the product on the field.) I’m going to trust that you’ve read the Sports Illustrated articles on Easterby’s bit pre-2022. If you need a “more credible source,” (i.e. you’re one of those “the national media hates my team!!! types”) here’s Andre Johnson:

One of the things I have heard plenty over the years from people who wanted to believe that Easterby was just a scapegoat for another real problem is, to paraphrase, “what if you fire him and nothing changes?” I regret to admit that they are right — this firing could mean nothing materially changes in Houston’s short-term plan. The relief on the shoulders of those in the organization who Easterby made not wear sunglasses so he could look them in the eye is something I think we should be happy about. Those people are the real winners today. But the on-field product, well, that’s something that could take years without Easterby or years with Easterby. It’s kind of all up to them, and your fandom views will optimistic that up as you wish.

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Another thing I noted? The deafening silence post-firing. I waited a day before I even attempted to write about this because I wanted to see more of how things would develop and, well, we barely got any of that. John McClain posted a big thing at Gallery with a bunch of tea. And that’s fun stuff, but it’s not exactly saying what the final straw was or how anything changes now. Aaron Wilson’s accounting of it — and I say this as no slight on Aaron because he is okay with being a person who sources speak through — reads like it was written by Easterby.

But is there a big Adam Schefter story about this beyond the scoop? No. Ian Rapoport? No. Albert Breer? No. Peter King? Etc. Normally when an enormous change like this happens, we get a big media dissection of What It All Means. Now, I’m sympathetic to the idea that because Easterby was a leaker to all these people, we don’t have the level of sourcing that we normally would. But the part of my brain that always looks for troubling signs is also thinking “maybe they just don’t think removing him is that big of a deal, or there’s not going to be a real change to who they are at this point.”

The only accounting for it that Texans management had were a statement from Cal McNair that went like so:

And a brief Nick Caserio statement that he gave on his weekly hit with the in-house crew:

Neither of those statements actually do a lot to tell us how anything will change, or what the upside was in letting Easterby go. I know that you, the snarker, are reading this and thinking “you know exactly what the upside is!!!” Yes, I can see publicly many upsides. But do they? What is their broad accountability for how they see the last few years? Pardon my language, but I don’t give a shit about what Jack Easterby was actually working on this year or who is going to make developmental program tweaks or schedules now. What his continued employment represented is much, much more important — what do the Texans hope will change by firing him? You can’t find an in-house person who will talk about this stuff on air, as they have season blinders on and think we earnestly care about the results of the current football games.

That’s something that’s generally out to media 48 hours after. I am nothing if not patient — drop a full 10 page report on me and I’ll read it — but I’m surprised that there wasn’t a broad consensus to take control of the messaging of him being fired beyond “it was mutual,” which I can only read in a Clueless valley girl voice.

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This leaves three major questions unanswered. They are the three questions that matter more than anything else. They are questions that are apparently going to be answered with actions as much as words. 

1) How much of the dumb stuff the Texans are currently engaged in belonged to Easterby, and how much of it belongs to Nick Caserio?

2) How much of the firing is about mending a reputation carried by ex-Texans to the rest of the NFL that this organization is utterly hapless?

3) Is ownership about to change their mind about a slow build and actually demand some results?

I’m not as pessimistic about the answers to these questions as I was when O’Brien’s firing left Easterby, who was clearly never qualified to do any of the stuff he did and only stayed abroad by hiring his New England buddy. I am more pessimistic about the state of the current roster, because as much as replacing David Johnson with Dameon Pierce every Sunday is a gift, the roster has continued to bleed talent and has no plan for creating more value from it’s non-drafted players. When O’Brien was fired, they had a quarterback who was so good that he was credibly accused of serial sexual harassment and was still worth three first-round picks. Today, they have a lot of draft picks to dream on, which is something that has sometimes built good teams and sometimes built the mid-2010s Cleveland Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars.

I’ve been a vocal critic of Nick Caserio’s culture and non-draft roster building, but I must admit that if he is now more empowered, he at least comes to this with an actual football background. It’s at least feasible on the surface that he was being held back or steered away from signings or refreshes he wanted to do by the voice of Easterby. Or the reputation that Easterby carried throughout the NFL. Wilson’s article ends by saying that helping to bring Nick Caserio to Houston is going to be “Jack’s greatest legacy.” I don’t know if that line will age real well.

But given how impulsive this whole organization has seemed once Bob McNair passed away, where things seem to stumble and take new direction every season, and where we very well could see head coach four in four offseasons, I don’t really have a strong feel for where this is going. I don’t think the little that trickled out Monday and Tuesday set expectations well for that. Could the Texans keep mostly the same strategy and just draft and develop until they’re ready to be relevant in, like, 2024? Sure! Could Cal McNair make further changes and sign free agents of real acclaim while putting Caserio on the hot seat for 2023? I can’t rule it out! He’s probably sick of empty seats and being less relevant than the Astros in football season. 

As a fan you’re conditioned to believe the best. And as someone who has covered football for 12 years now, I’ve seen administrators rise and fall like the tides. I don’t say this to be cryptic, but it’s hard to know which way this will turn without seeing more of the how and the why. I don’t think a Nick Caserio/Lovie Smith pairing is stationed to do anything but sit here and watch young players maybe become good one day. A lot of these other rebuilds that have happened over the last three years — the Falcons, the Lions, the Jets, the Bengals, the Giants — they are head-and-shoulders in better spots than the Texans are. They’re doing more schematically to be competitive earlier, they have generated more value out of roster spots rather than having middle-class vets play extensively. The Texans have … figured out how to beat the Jaguars. That’s a neat trick, but it hasn’t really translated well to the other 15 games of football every season.

If I had to bet on something, it’s that the Texans will largely handle things like they’ve handled them since Caserio took over — and in my eyes, that’s not really a positive at this point, but I understand that optimistic eyes can differ. Optimistic eyes are all we really have as we watch draft picks become young players become whatever they will eventually be.

28 Signs The Houston Texans Just Aren’t That In To You

Been a bit since we last wrote in this blog — we had a hit piece with the 2022 Texans Poll, and then Real Life hit me pretty hard. Took a vacation. Cut my knee up pretty bad at kickball and had problems walking around normally for two weeks. Have a cat that’s dealing with extreme health issues requiring hospitalization and blood transfusions. Had a bird drop dead on us on Sunday. Have had plenty of non-Texans work to deal with. I know you probably don’t actually care or will glance over this. We’ve all got our own stuff going on.

But there’s more to it than that. I’m struggling to write about the Texans this year.

Part of it is, to take the 2021 Steph Stradley pledge, my feelings are in escrow. I have spent 2.5 years ensconced in awful football that feels bad. I am as sick of writing about my bad feelings about the team as I imagine most are at me reading them. And, well, I’m more or less feeling withdrawn in admitting this to you. Writing, to the best of the truth in my eyes what I think about this team, is something I took a lot of pride in. I try to read negative criticism as much as praise about my work, and I try to answer it if I feel it is fair.

So why now, when the Texans have some young and potentially exciting players for the first time in a few years, am I feeling this way? Well, mostly because I’m not really feeling like the Texans are all that interested in me being a fan.

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Let’s rewind to last Thursday night, the final night of the preseason. Where my belief is that the Houston Texans DMCA’d 28 videos on my account:

Now, at first I believed this was coming from the NFL themselves. The notices are certainly signed by the NFL’s people. Perhaps it was Amazon — wouldn’t be the first time they’ve been overly aggressive. But as I dug into this more deeply, it became very clear to me that the Texans were overwhelmingly likely to be the ones that did this. Here’s my evidence:

– I did a search for NFL DMCA on Twitter, and my account is the only one that has mentioned it in a non-joking way since May. I know that there are some problems with all-22 and Brian Baldinger that I’m tangentially aware of, and I know that YouTube has generally been bad with it. Not Twitter, though. I have been posting clips like this to Twitter since 2018 with no problems. If it were the NFL, I feel like they’d have a wider target base than some piddly 10K account, right?
– If it were only Amazon trying to shake me, they would have targeted only clips from preseason Week 3. They were targeting clips from all three preseason games.
– I have only ever been DMCA’d on Twitter one other time — what happened was that I sarcastically took the Texans field goal celebration GIF and used it with no alteration. That was me being cheeky, and I got thwacked for it. And I deserved that, to be honest.
– Other reporters such as Jayson Braddock have posted clips from that game and none of them have been touched.
– I’ve been made aware from at least a few people that people inside the building took in Texans Poll 2022 with interest and took it negatively.
– When I experimentally blocked the Houston Texans’ Twitter account as the DMCAs were rolling in, the DMCAs slowed and then stopped abruptly at about 1:30 AM.
– I know of at least one other reporter with credentials who had his stuff DMCA’d that night with warning from the Texans PR team that they were doing it.

The generous read of this is that there is media favoritism afoot. The more negative way to think about this is that the team is actively deplatforming me from something I’ve done for years. And the funniest part about it is: I’ve been way more negative about this team in the past than I’ve ever been this season and offseason. I liked certain picks in the draft. Some a lot! The videos I’ve posted this preseason have largely been of rookies doing good stuff — Dameon Pierce in particular, but also Derek Stingley and Jalen Pitre. I’m not saying that I haven’t said a negative word or that I have a great deal of belief in the front office — I’m definitely not an 8 on Caserio like the majority of poll respondents — but I’ve largely slowed my roll on that sort of content because after three years of this there’s just not a lot of new ground to cover. The positions are staked out and I’m hoping to be wrong.

It’s just a weird ground to take, both in the timing and in the target. I’ve spent thousands of hours promoting the product for free. I know a lot of you have almost no sympathy for media people or even media-adjacent people, and I’m prepared for the cry-laughing emoji to be deployed. But uh, when your product has problems engaging people — y’all know, the thing where the stands were mostly empty last season and so concession stand prices were lowered this season? — one thing I’d advise not doing is actively trying to push away one person who has been working to keep you on the radar.

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I’ve put in 20 years of fandom over a franchise that has never really been popular. I was watching 2002 Texans games this offseason to paint a picture of Andre Johnson’s past. I maintained this website’s Texans focus not to make money — I think if I counted it up on PayPal I may have been tipped $2,000 in three years of doing this all here — but because I was a fan. Nobody is holding on and hoping to make big donation dollars through the trio of Blown 24-Point Chiefs AFC Divisional Round Lead, Oops The Franchise Quarterback Hates Leadership and Also Is Allegedly A Serial Sexual Assaulter, and The David Johnson-David Culley Era. There’s no bandwagoning that.

And I enjoyed writing my truth, and I believe it’s extremely good content, or I wouldn’t put it out there. And what the actions are now suggesting to me is not only is the feeling not reciprocated, but it isn’t appreciated. What I have learned from this is that the Texans do not want me to be a Texans fan anymore. I haven’t felt for a while like I was the target market for Texans football, and that was something I tried to push through. I have largely not made a stink about things that they’ve done to me in the past that I felt were extremely petty, such as making me drive from Humble every week to pick up a press pass rather than giving me a season-long one because I missed their arbitrary deadline. Or when they unfollowed me on Twitter earlier this offseason out of nowhere. Or how J.J. Watt spent more time communicating with me than the Texans organization as a whole has.

I think they’d rather have Debbie The Texan as a fan than me, and I think Twitter follows prove my point. (I make no judgements on Debbie The Texan; for all I know she is very much different than her online persona.) I live in Houston, and I love football. But this kind of football is now for somebody else. It’s for simps. It’s for cheering in lockstep because we said so and Cal McNair fed some of you burgers one time. It’s only for The Positive People.

And, so, I’m doing some Real Thinking right now. I can’t tell you that I have no desire to keep doing this, because my day feels a little emptier without it. I’m also loathe to give it up because it feels like another part of my past is dying, and I don’t have a lot of pieces of my past that are still alive. If I were like pot-committed in some way — if I were working for a place that was paying me to cover them — well, this is just a thing that I’d have to deal with. But it doesn’t really benefit me much to post about the Texans, outside of just being something I’d like to do.

But barring an olive branch that I doubt is forthcoming, I’m leaning towards taking them up on it for this year. I am obligated to follow the Texans for the national work to some extent, but I definitely could cease all fan operations. There definitely doesn’t need to be a preview of this team, and there definitely doesn’t need to be weekly coverage here.

One thing I definitely won’t do is post Texans clips on the main account. Wouldn’t want to draw any positive attention towards any young players making big steps.

The 2022 Texans Preseason Survey — Results

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

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When I posted a survey of Texans fans last week, I must admit, I did not have high expectations. I asked a lot of questions, and my general belief in the attention span of other people is low. 600+ responses later, I’m blown away by how much attention this got. Specific thanks to Steph Stradley, Sean Pendergast, Seth Payne, and Landry Locker for promoting the survey, and particularly to the latter three for making it a part of their radio shows last week. And, of course, thank you if you spent your hard-earned time filling out a 20-question survey. I know it’s not an easy ask. I have left the survey open for more answers if you want to get in, but a week is a long enough sample to me. I’ll close it for good when the Texans officially open camp.

I will post the poll answers and give you a synopsis of what I believe these answers really mean/how I’d answer them. Some of the answers were surprisingly realistic to me! Some of them were … optimistic. Some questions will have a different number of responses than others, because I did not require you to answer every question to submit the survey. But every question got at least 600 responses.

Davis Mills franchise quarterback questions

So the majority of you believe that Davis Mills will finish among the 20 best quarterbacks in the NFL in 2022. The majority of you believe that he needs to be a top-15 quarterback to not be replaced. My read of these results is probably a little counterintuitive, but it’s based on watching fans be fans for years: If there’s any question that Mills could still be a franchise guy or not, I think there will be support for him here. And let me be clear from a franchise-building standpoint: That can be a little dangerous. The ability to talk yourself into a quarterback who isn’t good enough to be a star is not a danger for every NFL team. But this particular Texans team, which hyperfocuses on character and off-field traits? I have some concerns. I’m not saying this like Mills doesn’t deserve a chance — he’s earned it — I just think there’s an assumption of rationality that if he doesn’t show that he’s the guy that Houston will draft a quarterback. I agree this will happen if Mills gets hurt or bombs out, but if he’s the 18th-best quarterback in the NFL next year? I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see him starting in 2023.

Get well, John

This question was hijacked by John Metchie’s leukemia diagnosis over the weekend. All my best to him as he fights this disease. I truly hope he recovers and makes it back to the Texans — I would be lying if I said I thought the Texans should count on that at this point.

Nico is seen as the obvious answer here. In studying them last year, I actually kind of like Brevin Jordan’s odds to make a run for this. I don’t think Nico played particularly well as a rookie. But he will have his chance to take a second-year leap, and with Metchie’s injury, I certainly can say I expect a lot of targets. Where else is the ball going to go? The only thing that could hold him back is if Pep Hamilton decided to have him split snaps with Chris Conley or someone of that ilk.

The win total

Part of me is comforted by the answers to this question. One of the big problems of fly-by-night internet commentary is you start lumping in most optimistic or most pessimistic people you know with the most optimistic or pessimistic takes you see. I wouldn’t be stunned if the Texans won six or seven games. I certainly wouldn’t predict it to happen, but it’s a far cry from the rando YouTube comments about going to the playoffs or shocking the world. Most of you aren’t on that path, and I’m happy to see that.

If I had to pick something now, I’d put the Texans down for four wins. I reserve the right to change my mind between now and then if preseason ball strikes me one way or the other. I think the Jaguars are going to have almost as much of a say in this as the Texans do — Houston’s other two wins last year were them finding the only run defense in the NFL they could bull over and a game which they turned over the Titans six times. If the Jaguars become competent rather than another disaster, I think that hurts the outlook quite a bit.

Talking rookies

Some of this to me is just about availability — we didn’t get many coach quotes on Stingley and Green as they worked back from offseason surgeries/injuries. Meanwhile, Pitre suited up every day in OTAs and has a good chance to work as the starting safety replacing Justin Reid.

But I’m still surprised by Stingley’s performance in this poll. Is it because we have great expectations already, and him being solid is a disappointment? Is it because we’re worried about his last few seasons? This is a poll question that doesn’t really provide a great insight on the deeper meaning of Stingley’s placement.

The McNairs have a problem

That’s over 76% of Texans fans giving the McNairs a four or worse on the confidence scale. I’m sure some of this is about certain highly public gaffes — using a slur to refer to COVID-19 at the charity golf classic, the fact that Cal McNair has a real problem talking about things in public without putting his foot in his mouth — and I’m sure some of it has to do with the records. But more than that, it just kind of feels like there’s a level of trust that the organization wants from its fans that has been unearned? The Texans tried to pivot the McNairs heavily into the philanthropist way last season. It doesn’t look like it much took.

I expected the placement of Bill O’Brien in this poll to be what it was — what I did not expect was that McNair would receive more than double the blame of Your Favorite VP Of Football Operations. I know that one hired the other, and I know that McNair is ultimately accountable for him. But, you know, one of them is actually signing checks, and the other one is the one who actually made several mistakes with O’Brien and in an interim basis without him, right?

Nick Caserio continues to be the overwhelming champion of faith among the fanbase

I think I’d be at about a 6 myself — not entirely convinced that Caserio can’t build a winner, but utterly tired of the culture rosters and the self-inflicted cap space wounds. What it comes down to is that we don’t have any evidence that he’s whiffed on a major decision yet, and I think he is getting extra credit from fans for a) not being Bill O’Brien to the point anything competent looks good and b) trading Deshaun Watson before things got worse. I tend to think B was mostly luck rather than skill. Almost all of his real moves in 2020 blew up in his face — Shaq Lawson, Marcus Cannon — and at the end of the day, I don’t really care if Kamu Grugier-Hill is better than advertised if he doesn’t deliver real value to the roster. We shall see how that unfolds in year two.

I’ll say this: I’m very curious if the Texans don’t get productive seasons from their rookies this year how that will change. If Mills stagnates, Nico doesn’t take a step forward, you get starts but not actual game-changing plays — how much credit will he get simply for filling the holes with NFL-caliber young players?

Give me the over on Texans fans here. This is a guy who spent late-round picks on Anthony Miller and Ryan Finley. I would be way more comfortable holding a ticket for 3-4 than I would 1-2.

So this question has two purposes. One is as a broad check on approval of the roster from an emotional level. Does it breathe, act, look like a real NFL roster? Another is about the value of the players on the roster. I think most respondents took this emotionally. Logically, if you’re telling me I have my pick of the quarterback prospects in the draft, plus the 20-30 guys you can get from a real football factory, and as a bonus I get to tank and get more good picks … well, I’m going to take that. I’d rather have Bryce Young and Will Anderson’s futures than anybody on the Texans. Let alone anybody else who might pop up from Bama and be a real NFL star in 3-4 years.

But I understand why the results were what they were.

I shouted these two questions out early in the poll, which I fear swung it a bit, but there’s really a sizeable portion of the fanbase that doesn’t want to re-sign Tunsil as compared to Howard. I think that’s wild on the results of how the two have played here, but when you bring more context into it — missed games for Tunsil, how much Tunsil would cost, etc. — I kind of understand the swing.

Tunsil’s contract is one of the biggest questions this team has going forward. He’s simultaneously the only player on the roster that made ESPN’s top 10 at each position and also the only player on the roster that has never felt like a pure extension of the culture the Texans are trying to instill. Personally, I’d hate to lose him, but I would understand if the Texans decided to trade him at the deadline.

Similar faith in Pep Hamilton and Lovie Smith

Pep trends slightly ahead of Lovie Smith, but both guys are viewed fairly highly as we enter the season. Lovie has more middle-of-the-road believers than Pep. While I appreciate that Lovie has a consistent voice and actually speaks to the fans — something nobody else in the organization does — I do have my doubts that he’s actually a good NFL head coach in 2022. Good defense is timeless, and I’m not here to shit on the Cover-2 — I do think the Texans don’t change it up enough to be a top defense, and I’m especially worried about that early in the season. My belief is that the defense changed last season to fit the run, and not for any other reason.

Pep, well, we’ll see. I covered Pep when I had the AFC South for Bleacher Report during the Andrew Luck era. I’m excited about play-action passes not being terrible, and kind of like Caserio I think he benefits from the “at least it’s not this guy” bounce with Tim Kelly. But I don’t think he has the talent to really make this “feed your playmakers” approach work and I’m worried that, again, this will be a run-heavy offense that can’t run.

This is a level of confidence I’m surprised about — I don’t believe Lovie is any kind of sure thing to survive this season. That’s not a Josh McCown Waiting Game opinion, but an opinion based on how quickly Houston was willing to wash their hands of David Culley. If they think they can do better, why would they keep Lovie? I think there’s some fire under his butt for 2022, let alone 2023.

If there’s one thing that the Texans have done since Easterby came on board in 2019, it’s a lot of turnover. They got to the process of hiring Lovie almost out of nowhere. I would not presume anybody on this staff is safe without a step forward.

Actual on-field players: The Tunsil Question and the leaps forward

I know it’s a good poll question when I see a vote split like this — Brandin Cooks narrowly beating out Laremy Tunsil by two votes. I would actually put my vote for this on our fourth-place finisher, Jon Greenard. He had eight sacks in 12 starts last year, and when you listen to him talk, I think he’s the kind of guy who breathes ball.

I think he knows exactly what he has to do to get sacks, works hard on the little things, and can be this team’s Whitney Mercilus of the future. Maybe Whitney Mercilus-plus if everything breaks right. He’s also only 25, and his second contract probably won’t be out-of-the-park wild. If I had to stake my chip on one guy to still be a valuable NFL player that wasn’t drafted in 2022, it’s Greenard. The injuries at the end of the season just memory-holed him to an extent.

I’ve 100% got my eye on what Garret Wallow does in preseason after he drew effusive Nick Caserio praise — the interesting thing about that is that they have stuffed the linebacker position with solid veterans. Does Wallow’s step forward mean he actually plays real snaps and relegates somebody to the bench? For the record, Charlie Heck got two votes.

I would put my chip on Brevin Jordan. I think he’s got a cleaner path to production without improvement than Nico Collins does. I think Davis Mills already took a step forward at the end of last year, which colors my perception of him enough to where I wouldn’t consider a full season of what he did in the last month a real step forward. But that’s kind of beyond the bounds of what this question asked, so it’s hard to see if that’s me projecting why he’s winning or why he’s actually winning.

I’m not surprised Marlon Mack won this poll because of perceived need and his standing as a skill position player — more people have heard of him than the other guys in this poll. I would personally put my chip on Okoronkwo. He’s got some nice pressure numbers in small samples, and I think he’s the easiest projection on the defensive line to get pass-rush snaps. “Impact” is an interesting word, in the sense that I could see Jerry Hughes providing a lot of impact as a mentor even if I don’t necessarily believe he’ll play 600 snaps and get eight sacks.

Touches meaning receptions + rushes — which I think is something that may have slipped by some of the responders — I think Burkhead is being majorly undervalued by this poll. I understand why nobody wants it to be Burkhead, but the truth is that the Rexaissance was the most consistent back the Texans had last season, to the point that they re-signed him before free agency.

I think Dameon Pierce will eventually have a chance to make a real move on the job, but it probably comes too late for him to factor in this poll. If Mack splits the run-down carries with Burkhead it’s an easy win for Rex. I think he has to downright dominate carries to win.

This is my favorite poll result because it tells me how rational you all are. The vast majority of us feel like anything more than 20th place is a dream — I think that’s a good way to consider things.

I hold out hope for Kenyon Green to make a major impact down the line, but the last time the Texans had a lineman ball out right away as a rookie was … Brandon Brooks? Earlier than that? Duane Brown struggled. Tytus Howard took his lumps. George Warhop’s young guys in Jacksonville did no better. He’s the impact blocker to dream on, but I would be surprised if he was instantly good. And A.J. Cann doesn’t move the needle for me either. And Laremy’s run blocking is … up-and-down, to be polite. Justin Britt wasn’t good last year and there’s not a lot of reason for me to believe he will be this year. Pierce is the only guy in the backfield I have any faith to be a major tackle-breaker and he’s a rookie. So … yeah, I don’t expect a lot out of this unit in 2022 again.

I love the split on this question so much. I can understand why Grugier-Hill is winning, as I think he got more of the spotlight than anyone else last season. Let me offer Christian Kirksey to you as my choice. 1) They re-signed him before free agency started, on March 11th. 2) Nick Caserio was effusive in his praise for him playing with a club. 3) Kirksey seems to be regarded as a culture leader. 4) Kirksey also seems tight with Lovie, which gives him more room to stay in my book.

Ultimately this is probably gonna be a question that comes down to stuff that’s not fun to talk about: injuries, declines in performance that are too big to not notice, and so on.

The final three things looming over the franchise

That this split is as close as it is really tells me a lot about how much faith the Texans have from portions of their fanbase. McCown actually had never been asked about this on the record anywhere that I could see before Kalyn Kahler had him join Defector’s new QB2 podcast:

The most telling words McCown spoke during that interview were how he answered a question about his credentials as someone who has never been an NFL coach before: “to a degree it’s more answering questions when you go through an interview process than it is necessarily, you know, pitching someone.” He gave a large account of how backup quarterbacking is essentially partially coaching, and fair enough, but the onus falls on the Texans, not Josh McCown. They don’t have to view him as a serious coaching candidate, and they can choose to not interview him. They did neither of those things before the whole scenario backspun. I don’t necessarily believe that McCown would be a bad offensive coordinator, by the way. We have no idea and no real data how it would go. But it would look bad, and the Texans seem to have realized that at the last minute.

I don’t really understand where this is coming from. It’s interesting to me. I know that John McClain mentioned this at one time. I also know that the Texans have spent a lot of the offseason downplaying Easterby’s involvement in anything. Those are both, to some extent, things that the Texans benefit from putting out there. He’s not a particularly well-trusted executive at this point and the idea that he has any say at all in any aspect of football operations is wildly unpopular.

But at the end of the day, he hired the general manager. I think by virtue of how different the first coaching search was from the second coaching search, you can read between the lines and say that he was the main reason David Culley was hired. He’s the one who has Cal’s sway. He walks on the sideline like he owns it every Sunday and in every practice. And he has per Sports Illustrated a six-year contract that reportedly pays him between $5 million and $6 million per season. What’s his motivation to leave? That fans don’t like him and are mean to him on Twitter? (Even after he tried to shield himself from that by putting his kids in his profile picture!) They have no power in his life. He’s never been held accountable in a real way and gets to do whatever he wants for a lot of money. That’s not a combo that screams “I’ve gotta get outta here.”

Innit.


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An ask: Fill out a 2022 Texans Fan Survey!

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

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You might think summers come easy to football writers — I actually got that from someone I was surprised to hear it from yesterday — but the reality is that from about the start of the draft to the beginning of July I am constantly writing things to preview the season for different publications. I’m in both Athlon’s Fantasy Football and regular NFL magazines, I have five chapters again in Football Outsiders Almanac 2022 (Cleveland, Dallas, Pittsburgh, Washington, Top Prospects), and have continued to schlep away at NBC Sports Edge on the blurb desk and on some of our various fantasy previews.

That leads me to a couple things: One is that I’m tired. By the time I finish the yearly 7,500-word FOA top prospects chapter I’ve probably put in about 70k words between all these little articles, snippets, sidebars, and so on. Another is that when I’m not specifically assigned to focus on the Texans in the offseason, I kind of don’t! I went back and caught up on what I missed to the extent that I could — watching old interviews, reading everybody’s stuff — but that’s not quite the same as living it live. I waive keeping up with it because my sanity can only takes so much, and as a result I’m generally quieter as a social media “presence” from May-July than I am at any other time.

But after a couple of offseasons where I was writing the Texans chapter in FOA and thus had them glued into my head anyway, I’ve come out of this year a little slow. So I want to see what they’ve been able to do to you in a period of — best I can tell from the outside — unbridled optimism. (And I hope you do put your name on that if you are optimistic!)

I’ve created a 25-question survey (click to link out to it) about the Texans as we head into 2022. Some of the questions are pretty simple: How confident are you in Nick Caserio on a scale of 1-10? Some of them are a little more complex. I’d like to see what everybody’s feelings are. I would also like to write about the results, something that I will do if 100 or more people actually answer the survey. I have nominally titled this a Texans fan survey, but if you are devoted enough to answer 25 questions about the Houston Texans, bless you, I’m counting you.

To get that result, I’m sorry, my calculations tell me I’m going to have to be a little annoying about it. So you might see this two or three times a day for the next week. And hey, here’s that link to the form yet again: https://forms.gle/3BDQKTDGs4iQQrgt8

Thank you for helping me create some dead zone content.


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The state of Nick Caserio’s rebuild

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

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Outside of their role in the leftover Deshaun Watson lawsuits, the Texans have settled into a pretty comfortable news cycle that looks something like this:

1) An optimistic point is presented. (John Metchie’s looking good! The run game will be better!, Davis Mills could be really good!, Etc.)
2) Nobody challenges it.
3) There’s no on-field results to challenge it with yet.
4) The point lodges into the discourse and is another brick that some other optimistic point or idea will be built upon (John Metchie’s looking good! -> He’ll play and find his way to 700 yards!)
5) Repeat 1-4.

None of this discourse actually matters, much as it didn’t in any of the past two offseasons, but I largely use these couple of months to let optimism carry people where they want to be. I’ve long ago learned the lesson that anyone who wants to be optimistic about their favorite team can’t be stopped. Go on. Enjoy a little Jalen Pitre hybrid slot-corner dream as a treat, you’ve earned it with all the depressing stuff over the past couple years.

I mostly disagree with Nick Caserio’s culture signings (See: CultureBall). I feel those signings a) come at the expense of opportunities for younger players and b) seem to serve as an excuse to put a premium on young players who have those cultural touchstone tendencies, because the roster is already full of Our Guys even if Our Guys are 30. But outside of that, I don’t have a major complaint with how he’s handled the few big decisions he’s been given every year. I liked drafting Davis Mills at the time. While I wish he would have gotten more for Deshaun Watson at the time, his hands were largely tied by a no-trade clause he did not give out, and the potential of a season-long Watson suspension is going to help him make up some of the value I was concerned about. I don’t understand drafting Derek Stingley in the context of what Lovie Smith’s defense has traditionally been, but I think he has the kind of upside that makes him worthy of a No. 3 overall pick — especially in a tough class for top-of-the-line talent. I get signing Brandin Cooks to an extension even if he may not be a part of the next great (or maybe even good) Texans team.

Help him for the next 10 yrs?

The biggest compliment I can give Caserio is that he hasn’t really done anything I’d consider a fireable offense. I’m not a fan of the culture emphasis, but if the plug is pulled on that in 2023, it may have cost them a couple of solid-value younger player discoveries at most. He’s made a lot of tiny bets, and the benefit of that is when you’re wrong, it doesn’t actually matter. It won’t matter if Justin Britt is bad again, because if he is and they think they can do better, he won’t be here. His two-year contract is a one-year deal with an 80% cap savings number in 2023. The only players on the roster that would not save money in a 2023 release are Cooks and guys on rookie contracts. It creates feel-bad scenarios, I would argue, because if the Britts and Eric Murrays play poorly, there’s really no point in them playing at all. And to a man, almost none of the re-signers (I will exempt Maliek Collins) actually played building-block-level football last year. But they’ll be Guys To Be Remembered in three years, and if you want to know more about how you’ll feel about them, ask yourselves how much you’ve thought about David Culley in the last six months.

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But I do feel like Caserio has been given a lot of praise locally. He’s actually in a position where he was almost guaranteed to do so. Consider the optics:

1) Nobody wants to talk about Jack Easterby, now renowned for (the kindest possible interpretation) knowing about Deshaun Watson’s access to the Houstonian. Nothing anybody can say about Easterby still being here looks good, so the fans who do talk about him default to pretending he is unimportant, and the team is loudly telling anyone who asks privately about how uninvolved he now is in football when he is (checks notes) the vice president of football operations. I’ll believe that when he’s not on the sideline.
2) Bill O’Brien was one of the worst general managers of our lifetimes.
3) The quarterback quit on the team.
4) The team outside of the quarterback was a smoking crater when Caserio was appointed.
5) The amount of public faith in ownership feels staggeringly low.

You would have to try hard to invent a scenario where Caserio would not be praised locally. The bar for anyone taking over this team was on the floor. Any kind of change would be a positive.

What I want to point out is an Athletic Podcast from about a month ago that I listened to during busy book season entitled How to rebuild a NFL franchise. The concept of this podcast was that Robert Mays, Nate Tice, and Mike Sando took turns revealing lessons of successful rebuilds of the past decade or so. (Or so because the Seahawks get discussed alongside the Rams, Chiefs, Bills, 49ers, and so on.)

Here’s the full list of major lessons they discussed (they had a few others of interest such as securing left tackle early, adding pass rushers as finishing pieces, continuity with offensive staff, being willing to spend cash compared to just cap, you can’t have shitty ownership):

1) For the most part they hired the head coach first and made him the focus, and then found a GM who fit well with him.
2) You have to nail the quarterback — you either have to be in position to take one early, or be in position to grab one and build up the team around them. (Position meaning assets.)
3) None of these teams were absolute crap early, they were competitive early.
4) You need the right quarterback right away — someone who is going to keep you competitive, and someone who when everyone else walks into the huddle, they know this “isn’t a fucking joke.”
5) Less fear-based cultures … “Andy Reid’s a serious guy … but I think you kind of like him too, and trust in the idea that he has your best interests at heart.” “How many of those guys go in and want to be little Bill [Belichick]s?”
6) Don’t be afraid of the mid-tier free agents and find free agents that can be culture-setters for you — and weren’t just one-year wonders for those teams, but became pillars. (Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, Robert Woods)
7) Those picks have to become something at some point. (Dolphins mentioned as going 0-for-3 on first-round picks in Tua year, if you stand pat with three first-round picks and you blow all three, welp! Raiders also mentioned with Jacobs/Ferrell/etc.)
8) Able to make really targeted personnel moves for high-profile veterans when they wanted/needed them. (Mentioned Stefon Diggs, Percy Harvin, Cliff Avril, Frank Clark, Tyrann Mathieu)

Alright, so some of these it’s just too soon to tell about. I’d mark off 8 for there — I have no idea if the Texans will get high-profile, they’re too far away in their own heads. I’d mark off 7 because we just don’t know how the picks will go yet, and mark off 4 because we don’t know the ultimate outcome of Davis Mills yet. Let’s throw those off the board for the moment as neither wins nor losses.

But I think it’s pretty clear that 1 is not happening. I think it’s pretty clear that 3 is not happening. I would certainly say based on the enormous cleansing and public character assassination of the 2020 roster that 5 is not happening. I think they’ve done a good job about the assets for 2, though I worry about how they’ve used assets in the past couple of drafts. 6 … I think they’d say that six is happening, and I think some fans would say that six is happening, but I think the intent of the point in their eyes is to find guys who will be long-term starters for you over the years. I don’t see those guys, I don’t think Christian Kirksey will be a good football player in three years. So by those guideposts, the Texans are batting .333 on the ones they can actually control. (As long as you assume that Mills is going to be reasonably successful, which I’d say is more likely than not even if he’s not a franchise quarterback.)

Is that good enough? The Athletic finished that week with a podcast about their top 10 GMs to “build a roster from scratch.” Not mentioned at all: Nick Caserio. Brad Holmes was mentioned in Detroit, so it wasn’t just about current results. No Caserio.

Now, is The Athletic Football podcast the only place on the planet you can get smart football news? No! But I think they do a pretty good job covering the bases and talking to the right people. I also think a lot of the national analysts who are more prone to waving their hands away and saying “this is going fine” don’t have a lot of interest in digging into the Texans. Mostly because, well, they’re not really going to matter in their current incarnation until 2023 at the earliest. Why waste the time and resources to learn more about them when a lot could change by then? It’s a lot easier to say “hey, they finally have a couple first-round picks on the roster, Nick Caserio is building something but he needs more time.” That was likely going to be the case even if Caserio was doing all the small shit I would rather see from someone in his position: the calculated youth free-agent risks, less talk about culture and more about creating value, more trade downs than trade ups, the ability to retain good free agents that were already here, and so on. But stripped of all that, what we have here is a very simple tale: Caserio’s culture better produce results with the drafted players, or there’s little point to the rest of this.

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Where I’m at with the state of the Texans rebuild in 2022 is: I don’t think Caserio has bungled anything major so far, but I’m also not ready to buy in on the plan. To me the state of the roster called for value appreciation rather than trading up and being emboldened to love your veterans. That was true when Caserio took over, and it’s still true now as Houston sits here for a second straight season of not being favored to win a single game.

But when you look at that Athletic list, Caserio really needs 7 to come true. He can’t have singles, he needs doubles at the very least after trading up for Christian Harris, Nico Collins, and John Metchie. He needs these guys to be producers instead of proficient vets. This team simply can’t afford for them to fail, because if they fail, the fallback plan is for the same culture vets to try to teach a new generation. Yeah, they’ll have more high picks. That’s nice. The Jaguars have had plenty of high picks too. That doesn’t guarantee you the right to go anywhere. And the fact that personality and player makeup weigh so heavily in the evaluation process for this crew vis a vis getting elite talent at positions of value is something that will concern me until the day they have some established NFL elite talent again.

The Texans aren’t adrift as they were last year. Their games matter more than they did towards the tail end of 2020 and for all of 2021. David Johnson still hasn’t been brought back. There are reasons for optimism. But the standard can no longer be “we’ve put some young guys on the field next to the vets and they’ve held their own.” The entirety of this season is about guys like Mills, Nico Collins, and Brevin Jordan becoming productive NFL players rather than guys who got on the field. It’s on Stingley, Metchie, Kenyon Green, Jalen Pitre, and Christian Harris being good enough to be productive right away with higher draft value. That’s exciting in the sense that it’s way more promising than what 2021 was about, but the goalposts have to come with us. It isn’t enough to just see young players on the field — they’ve got to be good.

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From Caserio with Love: A Texans Draft Review

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

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Nick Caserio’s Texans took an important step towards healing the wounds that this fanbase has suffered over the weekend. They don’t have anything that is guaranteed to mean anything tomorrow, but they have planted some seeds that could one day be the sort of future star players that an NFL roster needs to be competitive. I think it’s important to point that out. I also think it’s a fanbase reaction that was almost guaranteed to happen unless the Texans selected Malik Willis or someone totally off the map at No. 3. They stayed logical enough to a board of value to not get that sort of implication.

My reaction to this draft comes from two places: understanding and disagreeing.

I understand that Caserio places a mega-premium on the makeup and personality traits he believes are the differences between success and failure. I understand that he fills the roster with other guys that have these traits in an attempt to further create that mindset. And I understand the intersection of those two things create a place where he trades up, as he’s demonstrated often in the last two drafts, because the value he places on culture guys outweighs the value of spending roster spots on young players who won’t be. I have already seen the inklings of “this draft should prove he cares about talent first,” but I don’t think I agree with that interpretation of what happened here. Caserio isn’t even trying to hide how important player makeup is to him. It comes up in literally every public conversation he has.

I can’t square this draft plan itself with any logical and rational standing of the state of the roster. The team’s not good. They have enough good players that I can’t rule out them being good in, say, 2024, as well as competitive in 2023. They aren’t one John Metchie or Christian Harris hitting away from being good. We live in an NFL where teams like the Ravens purposefully went out of their way to stockpile third- and fourth-round picks, and where even the Rams have a plan where the volume of cracks at hitting a successful pick they have explicitly matters. It’s a volume industry, and Caserio is — what were his words again?

There’s a certain football fan that this talk is — let’s be honest — very charming to. It’s certainly a stark contrast to Bill O’Brien’s whiny nihilism where he’d allude vaguely about things that needed to be corrected, then never do anything about them. There’s nothing sexy about saying “We don’t know if we’re going to hit on these draft picks, that’s why we make a lot of them.” It’s smart, of course. Exactly what this roster needs if we’re being honest with ourselves. I would have taken the Ravens draft over the Texans draft even though the Texans started with two picks before Baltimore picked for this reason. But this has long ago stopped being about constructing the best long-term roster that can be created.

I have to be careful when I type this next part because there’s a segment of the fanbase that is on High Easterby Alert and needs to believe in Very Clear Terms that He Is Not Involved. Even though he’s on the sideline on gameday and obviously in the draft room and also is Literally Director of Culture for a team that can’t stop talking about its culture. I don’t think Easterby’s running the draft, I don’t think he’s making personnel decisions.

I do think it’s impossible to escape the fact that from the moment he’s arrived, everything the Texans have done as an organization has been about a) ignoring what everyone else is doing and b) betting as big as you possibly can on what you believe in. And it’s impossible to ignore that he is the reason Caserio was hired. Maybe Caserio would have done the same thing in any GM role he had — he certainly has plenty of pre-Texans background that suggests he’d value his prospect interviews anyway — but for an ostensibly rebuilding team to take so many “we know better than you” stances is revealing to me. “Noise outside the building” is practically an allegation for this organization. And if you fail? Well, there’s plenty of Twitter account quotes for how noble that is.

I think a lot of fans take my stance on how culture is important to this team as a personal attack on the organization. I will say this: I’m happy to stop talking about culture when the Texans are. Win some damn games and we can praise the culture all day. I’d love nothing more than to document the story of how these tough and smart players they targeted cornered a market nobody knew about. That’s just … not the story we have yet.

Caserio has put himself in a position where he needs to hit every single one of his picks in the first four rounds. And I really mean hits, not the kind of hits I think some fans are counting where last year’s mid-round picks got to play on a roster that largely lacked talent and that was a “victory” even though no unit on the team actually empirically played well. What Caserio is trying to do here is, to use his parlance, launch a dinger from an 0-2 count, down three runs in the third inning.

I’m not going to tell you he can’t park one over the fence with this draft. The players he got have talent. But when you concentrate all of it into so few players, some of whom have legitimate injury questions, you certainly open the door to going down swinging.

***

Thoughts about the picks

I wrote a piece early Friday morning on the Derek Stingley and Kenyon Green picks. With a little extra time to reflect, I think I’m pretty happy with the points I brought up there. I like the upside of the Stingley pick and the fact that this draft class as a whole is pretty weak makes me more comfortable with the gamble on him. I understand the draftnik criticism that it’s not the ideal pick at No. 3 overall, but really there was no market for trading up this year and the class dictated that the pick would “feel” bad compared to a normal year.

I’m even more upset about the Green trade back than I was at the moment, because so much of the capital was spent in trade ups. I think Green’s a legitimate guard prospect, and someone who has a chance to start early if the coaching staff can correct him. But I’m sorry, you can’t make me feel happier to have him than I would with Jordan Davis or Kyle Hamilton. It’s just not going to happen.

On to the Day 2 picks! I did a few mock draft simulators along the way where I connected Jalen Pitre to the Texans in the early second round. Unlike the Green pick, this is one where my thinking became more optimistic with time. I really wanted the Texans to land Breece Hall and most smoke tended to lean that way until the Jets traded right in front of them and snagged him. With some time to reflect on it and the shock of the moment wearing off, I’m happy with the Pitre pick. I think he can bump out and cover inside on passing downs, has enough tackling to play run fits out of two high, and my only real concern on him is the size. 5-foot-11, 198 pounds isn’t “small,” but we haven’t seen it with real NFL punishment. But if someone was stupid enough to make me a GM, size obsessions by scouts might be the No. 1 thing I tried to exploit.

Caserio Press Availability 4/29 on John Metchie III

Where the draft jumps off the rails to me is trading up for John Metchie III at 44. They gave the Browns 68, 108, and 124. Those picks became: Martin Emerson, Perrion Winfrey, and Cade York. Forget the kicker, I’d take the first two picks over Metchie, who is coming off an ACL tear. He broadcast to reporters in his initial Zoom availability that he’s on track to be ready for the season, but Caserio would not commit to a timetable about him coming back when asked. Metchie also required two surgeries at the end of the 2020 season, which is concern at his size.

Metchie did no testing, but at 187 pounds he’s in the bottom 20 percentile of all NFL wideouts, his arm length and wingspan are similarly in the bottom 20 percentile. Guys like that have to absolutely fly — except Metchie had, per Dane Brugler’s draft guide, zero receptions of 50+ yards after September 2020. I don’t mean to diminish the good things that he does do — the route-running and the after catch yardage — but I’m having a hard time understanding the scenario in which a player with this many flags is worth a high second-round pick, let alone a trade up. By the time he’s ready to play this season, he may be so far behind that the team can’t really do much with him. Guys that show little promise in the first season typically have an uphill battle in their second year.

In many ways, I find Metchie to be the biggest test of the Caserio system so far. The Athletic’s consensus big board had him 62nd, and I can’t find anyone in the inner circle of people I trust to do this stuff who will tell me there’s not backup risk. And you’re not taking this chance in a package of an outside receiver, either. There seems to be a lot of risk he’ll wind up as a slot-only player. And what did Caserio say above? “I would say we like probably as much as any football player in the draft.” Read that. He loves him! That’s quite high praise! Maybe it works out, but it’s not where I’d want my chips to be. I’d have been much happier with Skyy Moore or David Ojabo — who I think has a legitimate chance to be a beast edge rusher and thus is worth the wait — at this pick.

Caserio Press Availability 4/29 on Christian Harris

I’m of two minds on the Christian Harris move up. The price wasn’t anywhere near as bad as the Metchie trade, costing the Texans just 162 to move up from 80 to 75. (I tend to value the first three rounds pretty highly, and see a fourth as a place where you have a chance at a player. Fifth or on you’re really banking on deep stuff going right.) But this was the one early pick the Texans had that didn’t really seem to target a position of need — they drafted Garret Wallow in 2021 and also have committed mid-level dollars on their dream team of culture leaders at middle linebacker.

What Caserio’s breakdown won’t tell you is that Harris needs to take a step forward in coverage. Lance Zierlein wrote: “Harris’ lack of desired recognition will result in missteps and mistakes that could prove much more costly on the NFL level. However, he could thrive as a chase-and-hit, weakside linebacker, where he can play faster. He can handle some coverage chores but it’s not his strong suit.” His PFF grade declined in every season and he allowed a “111.0 passer rating in coverage” per them, with a comp of … Christian Kirksey. Hey, sounds familiar.

So does he start as a rookie? Probably not on passing downs with that read out, right? But that’s what they praised him for. I’m curious how they’ll square that. I think it will probably be 2023 before he gets a real trial inside. The Texans better be able to teach him some coverage, or it’ll be Zach Cunningham’s worst years all over again.

My favorite pick of the draft was Dameon Pierce, who reminds me a lot of Duke Johnson in that he can contribute in the passing game and never met a hole he couldn’t hit fast. Pierce did his interview with the media shirtless and was by far the most gregarious of the guys the Texans drafted. He makes it to the fourth round because there’s simply not a lot of tread on his tires — why didn’t he start at Florida? Why was he used so little? (Wow, this Duke Johnson comparison keeps growing!) I think his breakaway speed is lacking, but he’s got enough juice in the open field to make defenders miss. That was something that was painfully lacking for the Texans last year, as they finished third-to-last in the NFL in RB broken tackles.

Despite my personal enjoyment of the player, I do worry a little bit about his first-year role. Caserio concluded his roundup about the pick with: “We have a lot of good backs in this building, and I would say he is a part of that group, but I wouldn’t say he is any better than the guys that we have in the building.” I don’t agree, but the Texans do not care about my opinion. I think pass protection has the potential to be a major bugaboo for him. As much as I’d just point to David Johnson’s pass protection from last season as a reason that doesn’t matter, traditionally the Patriots acolytes tend to value it. I understand why a fantasy guy would want to look at this backfield and put major bets on Pierce, but I have my doubts he escapes from the quagmire early without some rough play or injuries by those ahead of him.

I think the Thomas Booker pick at 150 is being a little overlooked. He drew a lot of pre-draft interest from teams. He talks the talk, as you can see in the video above. Caserio mentioned that he’d probably be playing one-technique or three-technique for the Texans. Kind of eye-catching to me when you consider that Ross Blacklock is headed into year three and that’s supposed to be his spot — is he on the outs? I could see Booker growing into a rotational lineman with some pass-rushing prowess. Those guys tend to be reliable NFL players for quite a bit if they hit.

I’m a little surprised it took so long for the Texans to draft a tight end considering the state of the roster at the position. Brevin Jordan showed some promise as a receiver in his rookie season, and Pharaoh Brown is probably better than he showed in 2021. But for how important two tight-end sets are reputed to be for Pep Hamilton, it sure feels like he doesn’t have a second guy who can be counted on to be versatile. Heck, I’m not sure you can count on Jordan to be versatile yet after just one season. Teagan Quitoriano has one of the best names I’ve ever heard, ruined only by the fact that it is pronounced “tee-gan.” I don’t have major hopes for any fifth-round picks, but this was a big stretch compared to some of the other available prospects. Quitoriano had a 6th-7th grade from Zierlein, and was a priority free agent in Brugler’s draft guide. He also is almost solely a blocking prospect. This is a pick where I get why you’d want the player at the end of the day, but the aspirational value of selecting them in the fifth-round feels off. There’s not enough ceiling here to me.

Finally, Austin Deculus — sixth-round LSU tackle — looks like a reasonable pick. 46 college starts, it’s the sixth round, he could be a depth piece, he could move inside.

Thoughts about Nick Caserio’s drafting strategy after two drafts

Eventually we’ll get to the point where we can zero in on some Texans benchmarks as far as speed/frame/arm length and so on. But for now, I just want to start off with what pops out to me about the two drafts in the Caserio Era.

1 — Nick Caserio loving SEC players was the talking point of this draft, but the real talking point needs to be Power Five conferences.

Caserio has taken 14 players so far. Not a single one of them has been from a non-Power Five conference. The SEC has six, the Pac-12 has four, the Big 12 two, the Big 10 and ACC each have one. If you listen to him talk about the high level of play that Stingley went up against every day when he was playing against Ja’Marr Chase in practice, it immediately became extremely clear that he values playing and winning reps against the bluebloods of college football.

2 — Nick Caserio loves trading up

In addition to what we already went over above, Caserio gave up two fours and a five for the third-round pick that would become Nico Collins in 2021. They also traded picks 203 and 212 for 174, then 174 and 233 for 170, which became Garret Wallow in 2021. He talks over and over again at these press conferences about pockets of players and making sure you don’t miss out on a window. And then he does everything he can to not miss out on a window.

3 — Nick Caserio loves players with a long history of being good

Your high school recruiting record matters to Nick Caserio. Kenyon Green was a five-star recruit. Not only that: How quickly you get on the field in college matters to Nick Caserio. Green started as a freshman. You may have heard something about Derek Stingley’s first year in Baton Rouge. Jalen Pitre started eight games as a freshman in 2017. Christian Harris started as a freshman and was 79th on the ESPN 300. While Metchie didn’t start as a freshman, he was a) behind a stacked Alabama class that included Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith, and Jaylen Waddle and b) still active for every game before starting as a sophomore.

Nico Collins? 150th on the ESPN top 300. Started as a sophomore, was active as a freshman. Even Teagan Quitoriano managed to play as a freshman (a bit) and a sophomore (heavily) — it’s a big factor for Nick’s comfortability with a prospect in my opinion. Austin Deculus was the first player in LSU history to play 60 games.

4 — In 2022, the Texans brought in every prospect they selected in the top three rounds in on a private visit.

I find this revealing, particularly when paired with some of the statements Caserio has made about pre-draft visits:

Now, of course, we don’t keep track of every visit every team ever has, but I find it instructive that not many teams operate like this. The Cowboys are the team who had the most reported top 30 draft visits that I could find. They wound up drafting Sam Williams and DaRon Bland, but had no contact with Tyler Smith or Jalen Tolbert there.

Again, when I harped on this people took it as if I was pointing out that they were foolish or that there was something wrong with this — I don’t really know what to make of it as compared to the rest of the NFL, and some of these visits aren’t well-reported anyway. But I’m not very surprised that Caserio and the gang who value personality traits would want to test these guys face-to-face in the facility before they drafted them.

5 — In my eyes, Nick Caserio is targeting his weakest roster positions in the draft

It wasn’t broadly surprising that the first four picks went cornerback, interior lineman, safety, and wide receiver. The Texans were awful at corner all last season, a fact that Lovie Smith admitted out loud.

They can’t bring themselves to say that Justin Britt isn’t good, so the other interior line positions must be bad if they can’t run the ball. They’re relying on retread wideouts. They lost Justin Reid in free agency. Had the Jets not snapped ahead of them for Breece Hall, they likely would have picked him. Instead they picked Pierce. The Texans had plenty of spots of weakness (or at least that they’re old at if you’re valuing the culture vets), but you didn’t see them go after a quarterback when the board went that way. They didn’t draft a tackle early. They didn’t draft an interior defensive lineman early.

When you have this much leeway to play around in what I think we can all admit is a rebuild, it says a lot to me that they’re still going after positions where they are the weakest first.

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Overall, I feel like this is a respectable draft. The process behind the trades are what rankles me the most — I think Green and Metchie in particular have a lot to live up to based on the What Ifs you could play. But that doesn’t mean they’re bad players or incapable of developing into more than the tiny snapshot we have in front of us. Or that my lack of relative interest in them in prospects compared to who could have been taken is some damning statement on their futures. There’s almost as much ballgame left as there can be.

There are just swings here that I would’ve passed on.

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The Texans finally draft a Johnathan Joseph replacement

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

***

I don’t really do draft preview posts at this point, which is a shame for #thebrand and #engagement because you guys love to talk about the draft. I will be upfront: I don’t have a whole lot of confidence in my ability to pick these guys out to be winners. I don’t watch college games live very often, and while I watch enough video of these players to call it a passing interest, I’m not going to grind down to the bone to figure out if I think this mid-round tight end is a third-rounder or a fourth-rounder. Jordan Pun is your guy for that.

Frankly, when I do that stuff more competitively, what I realize is that we’re blessed publicly with maybe about 25-30% of the total picture. Medicals, interviews, tracking data (Caserio referenced this recently in an interview) — it’s just wildly easy to have a take based on some combine numbers and some highlight clips. But it’s classic Dunning-Kruger effect. And if I don’t have all that much conviction about something, what I tend to do is quiet down and do a lot of listening to the people I actually respect about the process. (Matt Waldman, Dane Brugler, Lance Zierlein, Josh Norris, Nate Tice, etc. etc. etc.)

I think this is a drop in the bucket of a Texans rebuild. But at least there’s water in the bucket. I don’t agree with both picks in so much as I, with my limited information, might have done something else. But where I’m at is: I’ll try to understand where they’re coming from, and I’ll be upfront with you and tell you that nobody really knows how these guys are going to turn out. I try to keep a very probability-focused mindset on the draft.

***

1 / 3: Derek Stingley Jr., LSU, CB

Name the last great Texans cornerback season. The answer is probably Kareem Jackson in 2018, and I would argue that he was really still a safety playing cornerback even then. The Texans haven’t had a true No. 1 cornerback since Johnathan Joseph aged out of it. Bradley Roby was a stable CB1, but I don’t think anyone would argue that his play here was top-notch. It’s been a hole for a long time. Even people who literally work for the Texans would say this:

The major reasons to draft Stingley over Sauce Gardner are that a) Stingley has more play against better competition and b) Stingley’s 2019 season was the highest high for any cornerback in the class. Nick Caserio cited seeing him play against Ja’Marr Chase and players of that ilk when asked about Stingley at his post-round-1 presser:

Stingley, of course, played just three games last year for LSU as he fought a Lisfranc injury. That was a major reason why he kind of rode the downslope for most of the draft process after being bandied about as a potential top-five guy for most of the college football regular season. It turns out that this didn’t matter to the Texans. I watched his post-selection conference call with local media and you’re not going to get a lot of words out of him. I found that kind of interesting because Dane Brugler’s draft guide listed one of his weaknesses for Stingley (in some eyes around the league, of course) as “scouts say he doesn’t have an Alpha personality.”

If it were up to me, I would have taken Kayvon Thibodeaux with this pick. I think he’s the most talented player in this draft. But knowing how the Texans operate, and knowing the questions about Thibodeaux’s commitment to football, I really didn’t come into this with any expectations about Thibodeaux ever donning deep steel blue. I was expecting this to come down to either Stingley, Sauce Gardner, or Ikem Ekwonu. I think of those three players, the Texans probably made the right pick. I can see the arguments for either of the other two players. I think Stingley is the swing-for-the-fences pick of the two cornerbacks and, while I understand Ekwonu’s appeal, I was a little lost on the value proposition of a guy who might start at guard at third overall.

It’s hard to say how quickly the rookies will get run on a team that is ostensibly full of veterans that deserve a chance, but Stingley will be in competition with Desmond King, Tavierre Thomas, and Steven Nelson. One thing I am earnestly curious about is how quickly he’ll get a chance to play. Rookie cornerbacks only rarely look great right away.

1 /15 Kenyon Green, Texas A&M, G

Caserio’s post-draft presser gave us the nugget that he could have traded down again with this pick, as he initially did from 13 to 15 for picks 124, 162, and 166. He ultimately deemed the idea “too cute” and instead settled on something that has very obviously been a point of contention within the building due to the back-to-back 32nd place finishes in run DVOA: people who can move people.

Green tended to be regarded from what I read as the more raw of the two big guard prospects in this draft between himself and Zion Johnson, who went to the Chargers two picks later. Brandon Thorn, who I would trust on offensive line play more than most, appeared on a few podcasts (I’ll dig these later, sorry, I do like to sleep) and the basic gist of what I got from him is he thought Round 1 was rich for Green, but that he could understand what the scouts were seeing.

Green’s major dings are about technique, not the body that made him a high-level high school recruit. Brugler’s draft guide cites him as a “penalty magnet.” I’m a little worried about giving George Warhop this high of a pick to build with because it’s not like his recent track record with young linemen is great. Jawaan Taylor and Cam Robinson barely developed at all. His Bucs days with Lovie had Ali Marpet, but also Donovan Smith.

In short, I’m not a huge fan of this pick because I a) understand the burden it’s going to put on one guard to turn a run game around and b) I just think there were better values up and down the board. I would have picked Zion of the two guards, I just think he seems more likely to be a steady contributor. But more to the point — and I have to note that depending on which draft models you believe in, the Texans did well on this trade — I simply would have stayed put and drafted Kyle Hamilton or Jordan Davis at 13 if these were my options. Frankly, I would have been happy with Hamilton at 3, so to have that scenario just fall into Houston’s lap and watch it slide away was a little disappointing.

I’m less in love with that return than Seth is simply because the top three rounds are the draft bread-and-butter to me and the Texans received no picks that happen in those rounds. The real question here is what happens with the picks. It gives Caserio ample ammo to move around and target other fallers that he likes, which in theory can be a very good thing. He could also simply take many shots, which could also be a good thing. My read of Caserio is that there will be some trade-ups over the next two days to target players, as he did with Nico Collins in 2021, that he values higher than consensus. Given the volume of culture veterans already on the roster, I would be surprised if Houston made all the picks they have left.

It was also of note that Caserio quickly dialed in on Green as an inside guy. He again parroted the idea that the best five linemen will play. I think at this point I’d expect Laremy Tunsil at left tackle, Tytus Howard at left guard, Justin Britt at center, Green at right guard, and Charlie Heck at right tackle. Based on how things have played out publicly, that seems like the five they believe in most at the positions they believe they’ll tolerate best.

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Day 2 and a few random thoughts

37th overall has fallen in a manner that invites some intrigue. Malik Willis is still on the board, as are Breece Hall, Logan Hall, Nakobe Dean, David Ojabo, Arnold Ebiketie, Jaquan Brisker, Christian Watson, Skyy Moore, and Jalen Pitre. Both of the Halls have come in for top-30 visits with the Texans — as both Green and Stingley did. Caserio noted that there was some consideration about trading back up into Round 1:

I do wonder who they might be targeting here if they were considering moving up. I think you can argue any of the above players — plus a few more — would be good fits for the Texans. I personally would favor Dean and the Halls as my favorite picks left for them at 37.

-Wanted to point this out because it came up again as I was reading things and I realized that Jair brought this up earlier:

Green? You guessed it, a top-15 overall recruit. Caserio really seems to value the idea that someone who shows great talent at a young age counts for something over the long term.

Nakobe Dean was the 19th overall recruit in the 2019 class…

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The Texans backed up their words and paid Brandin Cooks like a core player

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

***

After an offseason of mostly dull signings, the Texans did exactly what you could have predicted they’d do by their words: They re-signed Brandin Cooks to a two-year extension that is commensurate value for his performance.

We don’t quite have full details of the deal, but at the very least, this will likely tie Cooks to the Texans for the next two seasons. It’s possible that the third year is also onerous enough to latch Cooks on to the roster because that’s a large amount of guarantees, but we’d need the full contract structure to know for sure. (And there’s also the question of if the deal is guaranteed for injury or fully guaranteed … agents tend to promote whatever part of it looks best. We’ll see where this comes in.)

Cooks is the Texans player that everyone always calls underrated. But underrated is a buzz word used by people who don’t actually watch players and just see some line score stat compilations and don’t hear anyone else talking about the player. He’s in a perfect situation to be underrated. In his first year without The Quarterback Who Used To Play Here, Cooks morphed into a volume receiver. He finished sixth among qualified receivers in Targeted Air Yards at 36.7%. That was up almost 6 percent from 2020. He performed better with Davis Mills in the lineup and I don’t think that was a mistake — Mills started the year extremely focused on Cooks and often had problems getting to his second read. It also made some sense to focus on Cooks because, well, nobody else in the lineup was producing or winning often.

I think in an ideal world, Cooks would lose a little of his volume. His rate stats declined slightly under extra target duress this year — he gained just 3.8 yards after the catch, his lowest since 2017, and a career-low 50% of his catches went for first downs against a career average of 60.8%. That probably relies on the Texans getting more established weapons around him, something that they’re going to have to dream into existence via a Nico Collins breakout or a highly-drafted wideout.

I don’t have to admit it often over the past few years, but the Texans made a better evaluation of Cooks than I did when they traded for him. My major concern was about the concussions, and while I believe he has been evaluated once or twice for one in his Texans career, he’s been able to stay healthy for the most part. Now whether Cooks is more valuable than the player he was ultimately traded for, Van Jefferson on a rookie contract, is probably an open question depending on how you feel about tanking. Lance Zierlein pegged Cooks’ value at about a fourth-round pick now. That’s not what Texans fans want to hear, but it could also help explain why there was not a trade. Jeremy Fowler noted that teams were still worried about Cooks’ concussions in the past.

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Of course, if you actually listened to the way the Texans talked about Cooks, you’d realize that there was no way he was getting traded. It’s been a constant barrage of positivity about his leadership, to the point where Houston media began parroting what they’d heard and started asking other players about it often.

I will be honest, from the outside, I don’t get it. Cooks complained loudly about Mark Ingram getting traded, calling it “bullshit.” He pouted that he would retire if he was traded before the Nick Caserio hiring. He quipped “at least someone’s doing great things this year” about the Astros playoff run. I’m not saying he doesn’t work hard, and I’m not saying he doesn’t do other great things inside the building. But the leadership that we can see doesn’t quite mesh with what we hear about it.

Regardless of my own feelings about his leadership, it’s clear that everyone on the personnel side values who he is as a person. He was an Easterby guy in New England. He is, as far as I know, the only player on the team to directly be asked about Easterby and provide a fully positive response.

And thus, this extension felt like something that was always going to happen — it was just a matter of when.

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Where I ultimately come down on the issue of keeping him versus trading him is that I don’t think it actually matters. I know that’s kind of odd to hear about the Texans actually taking a stand on someone, but it feels like they took a stand on him so long ago that this didn’t change much. Would I have traded Brandin Cooks for a second-round pick if I were general manager? Probably. But I don’t think the team is going anywhere, and I would just be trying to accumulate long-term value. If all they could get was a three or a four, well, it makes sense to keep him.

I don’t think it’s a bad contract — it’s a contract that has some shock value, even to me, but when you compare it to other extensions signed this offseason there’s some sense in it. The other part of it is that the Texans still have a ton of cap space in 2023 and 2024, no matter what. This doesn’t lock them out of doing anything. And anyone who has had to be the face of this miserable last two years deserves to be well-compensated for it.

I don’t think there’s a reason to believe that Cooks is going to fall apart in the near future. His speed looked normal last year. There’s nothing in watching his sample of passes that gives me cause for concern. It’s just that they need many, many more players as good or better than him to create any momentum as a franchise.

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Nick Caserio has created CultureBall

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

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The bet that Nick Caserio has made this offseason is the same one he made last offseason. It’s not about tanking, because if they were tanking, they’d trade Brandin Cooks and Laremy Tunsil. They’d employ a full lineup of young guys and try to find some long-term value out of some of them rather than signing veterans. It’s not about full-on getting the best players, because, well, look at the roster. There are clearly enormous sacrifices made for talent in the name of culture. Some teams get Robert Woods and Amari Cooper for their late-round picks. The Texans get Blake Cashman and Ryan Finley. And they retained almost all of their myriad free agents, bringing back 18 of the 22 free agents they had that have signed so far. Even guys like Jeff Driskel.

The bet is something that I think you can best find in this answer from the We Traded Deshaun Watson presser:

Over and over again, the culture is enjoined as a reason for these particular players to be here. There’s an unstated belief that these players can somehow instill the values that the Texans want all their players to have into the next generation. Combine that with the front office self-selecting for their favorite personality traits in drafts, as noted below:

It feels like the Texans are trying to create the players that they cannot find — the mythical players who are both really good at football and also have their desired level of conviction, self-starterism, and teamwork values. When the rubber hits the road on those things, they pick the player with the characteristics they value over the talent.

It also feels like a very, very stupid way to run a football team to me. I’m not saying that you have to build a team 100% with talent over culture, there are plenty of players on the roster and selecting for chemistry over talent is a sensible tradeoff at times.

The problem is that the Texans are all-in on it. They’re doing CultureBall.

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Having gone through two Nick Caserio offseasons — talking about the actual acquisitions, not the everlasting Watson drama that he couldn’t do much about — my major conclusion beyond the culture is that it’s fence-paintingly boring.  I don’t think that his signings are bad in a vacuum, I just think they’re all so low-risk as to be pointless, and there’s so many of them that the big picture largely becomes pointless.

Could Ogbonnia Okoronkwo become a good rotational edge rusher? Sure, I could buy that as a potential outcome. Does the contract he signed benefit the Texans if he does? Not really! It’s a one-year contract for a 27-year-old. He’ll have to be re-signed almost instantly to be a part of the next good Texans team. Could Dare Ogunbowale be a solid third-down back? Sure! Does the contract he signed benefit the Texans if he does? Not really! It’s a one-year contract for a 28-year-old (in May). These are the kinds of deals that make sense if you’re trying to create competition for a role on a contender. This team isn’t a contender. If I tried to analyze every Texans contract, 85% of them would end up in that same basic vein.

Caserio’s best signing from last year’s initial flurry, Tavierre Thomas, is also one of the few players that he actually gave a two-year deal to. (The only reason nobody praised it at the time is because Thomas had almost no NFL playing history on defense, he was primarily a special teamer.) This offseason he’s handed out more two-year deals, but instead of giving them to players who could be risers, it’s to 31-year-old Justin Britt, 30-year-old Christian Kirksey, and 28-year-old Desmond King. Caserio has approached roster building for this team like he’s an insurance adjuster. Even nominal splurges like Jacob Martin — one of the players they were rumored to want to keep — getting a three-year deal at $4M per season are too much to match. Caserio defended re-signing Britt and Kirksey like so:

Now, I don’t know what kind of metrics Caserio is relying on in saying these two were good last season, but the run offense was historically bad and performed slightly better without Britt. (The best game the run offense had all season, against the Chargers, actually had Jimmy Morrissey at center and Cole Toner at guard.) The defense suffered no drop-off without Kirksey and gave up plenty over the middle with him. I’m not saying these guys are “bad” players. They’re NFL pros, and obviously as you can glean from the clip, their locker room contributions are valued. Enough so that they don’t even get dinged for being hurt last season by the front office. But I can’t get behind them being two of the better players on the team last season from any space of objectivity.

Is Caserio right in a vacuum to not add risk to this team’s future cap space? I guess I could squint and believe that. But at a certain point, you have to believe in some football players to be good. Someone to be the core of what this team will be in 2024 besides rookie contract guys and Brandin Cooks. And he just doesn’t seem to do that. Brandin Cooks is here, and Laremy Tunsil is here, but neither of them are currently on contracts that go past 2023. (I’m sure they’ll work to extend Cooks if he wants to be here.)

The 2023 Texans, post-Watson trade, will have about $100 million in cap space available. Some of that will go to draft picks, sure. But that’s before they renegotiate with Laremy Tunsil, who has a $35 million cap hit in the last year of his contract. They are literally nothing but rookie contracts and Some Guys at that point. Before you get all excited about the free agents Caserio can sign, well, teams that go 4-13 three years in a row don’t really get the pick of the litter. Players like winning. Players like winning on their terms. Short of overpaying somebody who is actually in demand, something that would seem wildly against the Caserio Brand after these past two free agency periods, why would anyone come here? The Texans are going to need instantaneous dominance from both their 2021 classes and 2022 classes to get to a point where players want to come here in 2023. There’s a long recent history of teams like the Jaguars and Browns and 49ers in their Losing Eras getting stonewalled by free agents. To some extent, that may already be happening to the Texans, and they may be dealing with laughs from someone who might make sense on paper. Let’s imagine a New England roots free agent who has a real chance to be good in 2024. I’ll call him J. Jackson, no, too obvious, how about J.C. J.  

Now, would I like if they signed Jackson? Sure. Remember: Literally $100 million in cap space next year with easy avenues to more. They can backload the hell out of any deal they want right now, please do not tell me things like “Rivers they can’t because Deshaun was on the books still!” Bullshit. The goal is to build a good football team and every brick you put in the wall for 2024 — to use a McNairism — helps. That’s my point of view. 

But even if that’s not something you want to do, because Jackson could get hurt in 2023 or whatever, Caserio also isn’t using his wares all that creatively. He’s eaten cap space to make a trade, but outside of having to do so to deal with the Saints, he’s not really canvassing the league trying to help broker things. He’s trading for low-risk guys with his late-round picks. His biggest swings were for Marcus Cannon and Shaq Lawson and those were disastrous trades. You’re telling me the Texans can’t find an Osweiler contract to take on for a third-round pick? I don’t believe it. Caserio talks all the time about how thorough the operation is, but it’s thoroughness wasted in the guise of staring at mortality rates for football injuries or caring deeply about culture instead of getting players that are or could be good at football in 2024 signed up for it. Once you clear the culture veil, you have a free pass. He literally even re-signed his waiver claims this year. Royce Freeman! Early in free agency! 

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OK you fucking smartass, who would you sign then? Fucking so smart, not an NFL GM, are you!

I get some variation of this sometimes. I hope I got the spirit of it right.

Lemme tell you some players I would have been targeting if I were the Texans, who have successfully turned second-year contract players like Kevin Walter into solid/average fixtures. I’m not trying to hit home runs here; I’m simply trying to nail down some young guys who I think could still be good in 2024. There’s a very clear type here in my eyes: Guys who could be 28 or younger in 2024.

*Tim Settle, who signed with the Bills, has a history of being good and is just 24. He got a two-year deal. Maybe you would have had to pay him a little higher than the Bills did to get him in the door, but this is the kind of guy who could both a) be swayed by a higher payday and b) could still be starting/in a big role in 2024.
*James Washington turns 26 in April and has spent his past three seasons anchored to Ben Roethlisberger’s inability to throw deep. Signed with Dallas.
*Ja’Whaun Bentley is coming off a nice season in New England and turns 26 in August. They brought him back.
*Former first-rounder Jabrill Peppers is coming off an ACL injury and is just 26.
*The Falcons just brought on Lorenzo Carter, another 26-year-old with some versatility. I can keep going.

I want guys who could be in their primes in 2024. Or I want to be paid to take on guys who can still play. What if the Texans had accepted Austin Hooper as part of the trade with the Browns for Deshaun Watson, and they got an extra pick out of the deal? When a team like the Saints plays salary cap hell on a fiddle, why aren’t the Texans there with a fifth-round pick seeing if there’s a deal to be made for someone talented that makes money on the roster? “Oh, well, they don’t have the cap space!” you might say. But, well, a) they did and b) every contract is made to be re-negotiated. The Texans chose to spend a lot of it bringing back older culture players, and a little of it on Maliek Collins. Now for all I know, the Texans were in on one or two of the guys I mentioned. I’m almost positive they have internal measurements to be met that might make Washington a bad fit in their eyes on body type. That’s part of why I’m not all that interested in TwitterDebating specific guys. Forget about the specific players; it clearly isn’t an ethos to chase guys in this vein. (They finally brought in Marlon Mack for a workout after I started crafting this post, he’s 26!)

I admit that I’m not a professional general manager, and I have mostly stopped creating pieces in the vein of “the Texans should trade/sign for (THIS GUY)” because it has felt wildly pointless since 2019. I don’t know everything an NFL team knows. I also don’t think the Texans are operating in the same parameters I am because they don’t believe the same things about football that I do. But for all the Deep Process the Texans claim to have … it sure doesn’t amount to anything all that creative, and certainly not to anything with a real risk to it.

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Let’s be blunt: For everything the Texans can claim they did well in 2021, all of it is fleeting. Their culture is so good and important that they fired the head coach and had to have a last-hour intervention stop them from hiring someone who’d literally never coached anywhere before in his life. They turned the ball over a lot more on defense. Cool, thankfully no team has ever regressed in turnover rate. They brought back several key veterans from a 23rd-ranked DVOA defense only now those players are older and Lonnie Johnson is projected to start at corner and Justin Reid is gone. The less said about the offense the better. None of this, broadly speaking, matters. While I’m not a tanking guy, the four wins don’t matter. Nobody cared, certainly not the fans who didn’t show up.

There are moments to be remembered (Tyrod’s first game, picking off Tannehill with no targets four times, some bad things I won’t rehash to save your memories) and that’s about it. The broader NFL will pretend this team doesn’t exist post-Deshaun outside of whoever they pick high in the draft. Do I think it’s good to have a good culture? Sure! Did it materially change anything for the Texans as far as better players on the roster? Nope. All the rookies played, and that was good. But despite flashes, nobody really established themselves as a core piece going forward just yet. 

They spent the entire year playing older veterans at several positions — why is Eric Murray still here? — and those players have largely either declined in value or held steady. A few guys got raises — Kamu Grugier-Hill got $750,000 more this offseason, for instance — but that’s mostly because of the cap increase. They all stayed in roughly the same dollar bracket. They signed almost no undrafted free agents, and with 69 players on the roster and a ton of draft picks, they’re likely looking at the same tiny class of UDFAs they did in 2021. Let me set aside the actual starters on this team for a second. Why would you rather employ Cedric Ogbuehi than an undrafted free agent if you already have a tackle surplus? It’s a complete disregard for any rational semblance of value.

Listen, I’m not going to tell you the Texans are the worst team that ever existed. They’ll probably win 2-6 games again. I’m not going to tell you Caserio’s a dumbass, in over his head, and so on. He believes in culture and he clearly is not a risk-taking GM in free agency, and I think there’s an argument in those things even if I don’t personally agree with it. But the team’s identity right now is “there will be a team here one day.” You can’t pop out literally one non-rookie on a below-market rate contract for one year and get anywhere when you are as behind as the Texans are.  

To a certain extent, from the moment Watson wanted out this was going to be about developing rookies. And fair enough, they do provide most of the value contracts on a roster and the 2021 draft was pre-compromised by the Tunsil trade. But other NFL teams also sign good players to play for them, and it’s important to put rookies and young players in spots where they could develop next to legitimate NFL talent. Caserio has shown no interest in using his cap space to supplement these guys. There’s no No. 2 receiver for Davis Mills if Nico Collins doesn’t step forward. There no interior OL fix. Just the same guys they had last year who weren’t providing a lot of tangible value.

It’s reclamation project after reclamation project, without a real reward for actually being right beyond “we sure have a great culture!” quotes and this vague promise that Cooks and Grugier-Hill’s approach to doing things The Texan Way will eventually rub off on Brevin Jordan. It’s actively paternalistic and, when you really drill down on it, a little insulting to those young players to assume they can’t find their way without a Culture Roster. (Jordan credited Dylan Thompson for helping him grow into his role late last season, and last I checked Thompson isn’t on the active roster.) Some football teams rely on the coaches and other employees to teach players how to grow up and do things their way, but I guess those teams don’t have a culture director who has never played football either.

Outside of spot-checking the young players, I can’t give you a single reason to watch this team next year. Just as I couldn’t in 2021. Whatever progress the front office thinks is happening, it’s mostly progress about seasons that don’t yet exist. When the Sixers coined Trust The Process, they continually wound up with high-value assets when they made controversial trades. When the Astros tanked openly in the early 2010s, outside of their bad contracts, they played almost exclusively young players. Even the A’s — famous champions of sports analytics with Moneyball — knew enough to find high-value free agents for cheap and continually get good value in trades for guys they couldn’t keep.

CultureBall? It’s staring at two four-win seasons in a row and about to bring in another season that almost certainly will be bad. It’s sent almost every talented player on the team packing. It’s been easily first-guessed since the 2019 offseason — and yes, this is a Jack Easterby dig. It’s been very clear that the culture shifted the moment he came aboard, ask That Person. There is almost no value being created on this roster besides the rookies.

It’s put them in a position where the Texans almost have to nail every first-round pick to be a real live NFL organization again. After years without a high pick thanks to horrific trades, the pressure and expectations on this team’s first-rounders are going to be enormous. And hey, maybe they will succeed. Maybe it will all work out. But the roster built around the draft picks seems like a huge heat check that is utterly pointless from the outside. The modern NFL is all about creating good young players, so if you torture your logic a little bit, you can squint and understand why the Texans are doing what they’re doing.

But it’s a big departure from what every other team in the NFL is doing. The Texans do not have a good track record on going out on a limb over the last four years if you haven’t noticed.

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I’m writing this article free of charge — this website is ad-free and non-intrusive. If you enjoy my work and want to encourage me to produce more, please feel free to leave me a PayPal tip.