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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