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.

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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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