DeMeco Ryans is the sea change the Texans needed with a bow of nostalgia on top

When I wrote about the Texans hiring David Culley, I couldn’t make much sense of it beyond a Jack Easterby power grab. When I wrote about the Texans hiring Lovie Smith, I compared it to me being a lonely bird. It’s been isolating and exhausting being on the negative side of the reaction to Texans news these past two years. They’ve won seven games since all this madness boiled over in the 2021 offseason.

2023 augurs some changed times. The Deshaun Watson saga is now another team’s problem. Easterby was dishonorably discharged in-season. Nick Caserio spoke at the team’s initial offseason press availability like his job was uncertain going forward. It was a massive power vacuum much like the one we saw after Brian Gaine was fired and Bob McNair died, one that would accommodate a head coach who had his own designs on how things were supposed to be done.

However, instead of picking one of several bad answers to the problem of firing three head coaches in three seasons, the Texans just … rolled out a thoroughly competent hiring process. Outside of being concerned about Ejiro Evero’s offensive coordinator selection (I did not want to witness the Hacketting of 2023 in Houston), and maybe thinking it was a bit early for Thomas Brown to get a head coaching interview, the initial list is pretty much a who is who of who I’d want to approach. Sean Payton is one of the most successful coaches in the NFL and has won a Super Bowl. Shane Steichen and Mike Kafka have both shown an impressive grasp of what it takes to run a modern NFL offense, Ben Johnson as well despite withdrawing early. Then there were the two defensive coordinators, both representing entirely different things in my eyes: Jonathan Gannon with the Eagles was the Caserio man they identified in 2022 as the guy before things went pear-shaped. DeMeco Ryans was the almost implausibly perfect candidate for the job, from his ties as a former Texans linebacker to his results on the field. How perfect of a match was Ryans? Look at this poll:

In today’s America where everyone is mad about everything at all times and I’m sure at least 5% of you think I’m a PsyOp employed by the government to shit on the football organization at all times — what can we find 97.5% of 2,450 people to agree on? The miracle of indoor plumbing? Not turning the electricity off during the Texas freeze?

I don’t know that I necessarily expected the Texans to end up here because it feels like Ryans was the most desired candidate of the cycle — the one who was requested to speak to every single team about their opening — and because I wasn’t entirely sure just how much would change here in terms of power dynamics. I’ve been hurt before by Josh McCown and Hines Ward interviews, so you’ll have to forgive my skittishness. But I was open to it after that Caserio “oops we fired a second coach in a row” press conference for reasons I’ll get to in a bit.

Ryans finished the 2022 season with the NFL’s best defense by DVOA at -14.1%. The 49ers had Nick Bosa, Fred Warner, and Dre Greenlaw, yes. They also dealt with a ton of injuries on the defensive line, broke in Talanoa Hufanga and turned him into an absolute cruise missile at the line of scrimmage, and forced 30 turnovers while playing stout run defense with a lot of rotational-caliber players. If you listen to the tape obsessives talk about him, you wind up seeing praise like this:

What impressed me just as much is that the 2021 49ers had problems creating turnovers and it simply didn’t matter — they were still DVOAs seventh-ranked defense. They still fit the run in an astonishingly good way.

So, listen, no head coaching hire is ever guaranteed to work. I would tell you the same thing if Sean Payton had landed here. But certainly on paper you could not draw up a better coaching candidate for a team badly in need of credibility and — let’s be blunt — a real football mentality rather than some culture bullshit. I could not fictionalize a hire as good as Ryans, which is the only way I know that it is real. He’s a terrific head coaching prospect. I was afraid to write about this happening before it happened because I did not even want to put the jinx into the arms of the powers above me.

It took year five of me writing in this blog, but I finally found the move I can’t find anything to complain about.

Let’s give a hand to Hannah McNair

One thing I alluded to when I wrote about the dismissal of Easterby is that I wasn’t sure what would happen because I wasn’t sure who would have the owner’s ear. That question has been answered: It’s his wife.

Hannah has been locked on Cal this whole cycle. He does not speak — outside of reading a press statement — without her by his side. When he gives an interview, she is there. I know there are plenty of you who have harbored negative feelings towards the McNairs — and I understand where they come from even if I haven’t always agreed with all of them — but one thing I remember pointing out during the Easterby years is that an aloof guy who writes enormous checks can be an ideal owner if you surround him with the right people.

I think the way this search process has gone and the way things have changed for the Texans post-Easterby owes a lot of gratitude in house. I don’t say this as A Man With Sources, but it is overtly obvious to me that Hannah is the one who reads up on what the fans think. She’s the one who didn’t shake Deshaun Watson’s hand on his return to Houston, something that can’t be said about her husband. She’s the one who understands when her husband is about to say something that’s going to sound wrong, and she’s willing to intercept that pass:

Look at how this starts about Nick Caserio — it’s a bumbling answer that doesn’t really know where to go. Hannah picks it up halfway through and spins a much better line around it than “we liked him when my Dad was here, so…” and answers the question as asked.

Cal is genuinely trying his best here. He’s never going to be a man made for the interview. That’s just not who we have. But I think the state of the franchise these last couple of years was embarrassing enough that Hannah started to have to set her powers on figuring out what could be done about it, and now we’re closer than we’ve ever been to the proverbial quiet owner who lets the smart people he employs work and signs off on checks.

Kudos to both of them for finding a way to DeMeco Ryans. It would have been incredibly easy and cost-efficient for them to focus on not improving the team and letting Lovie Smith babysit a bunch of draft picks again in 2023.

The worst area of concern I can think of about this hire is rhetorical

OK, so a defensive head coach was hired. But offense is more consistent and more important as far as the general tastemakers of the NFL intelligentsia believe right now — a good offense often beats a good defense the way the rules are set up today. Now, you might say, wouldn’t you rather make sure that the offensive brains of the operation are the ones locked into the head coaching gig? Yeah, I guess in an ideal world, you would.

But independent of that, we saw how Mike McDaniel worked out for the Dolphins last season. I don’t have a problem hiring a 49ers OC du jour like Bobby Slowik.

Ultimately, the style of offense is check one, and I think as long as Ryans doesn’t stray too far from the Shanahan tree, the Texans will at least be anchored in great material offensive concepts. Beyond that, yes, maybe Bobby Slowik (or whoever, we’re new to the interview process as of Tuesday evening) doesn’t wind up being the best coordinator from the tree — nobody really knows at this point. If he strays beyond it into places like Eagles QBs coach Brian Johnson or some of the other interesting younger candidates — this is a job I’d like to see Thomas Brown have — well, I’d be excited to see Ryans go Daboll on the league’s coaching staffs and find guys who aren’t necessarily his guys but who he thinks he wants to work with. It took Gary Kubiak a long time to find a defensive coordinator worthy of the position, and if there’s any worry to have about this hire, it’s that DeMeco Ryans might have the same problem on offense.

The truth if Ryans winds up doing his job well, and he’s a rock star defensive-minded head coach, the Texans are going to be a popular landing spot for rehabbing OCs and talented newcomers so long as the talent is well-stocked. I get why people are concerned about the theoretical specter of this being a stepping stone job for an OC, I really do. But after these last three years of Texans football, complaining about this possibility feels like being upset that the new car I just bought will one day need to be repaired.

What exactly is the fate of Nick Caserio now?

This is the biggest question I have about the move, let’s look at this statement:

“I’m excited to partner with DeMeco to build our football team together.” Look at what he said about working with Lovie Smith: “We both understand how much work is in front of us, but we embrace the responsibility and look forward to continuing to build a program that can have sustained success.” Nowhere in that statement was an admission that he would be endeavoring Lovie’s opinion on his own process.

I think the very first question about where the Texans sit at this point after hiring Ryans become “who has the power in the building now?” And when you combine this process that shut out Jonathan Gannon from even getting a second interview before the Texans moved on Ryans, the multiple self-admissions that the next coach might decide not to believe in him, and this statement, I’m having a hard time believing that Caserio has the ultimate power in the building. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s getting fired by Ryans any time soon, nor does it mean that Ryans will have a contract that directly says he has control over the 53-man roster or anything like that.

But if I had to guess today, before we hear these two talk on the podium on Thursday, I’d wager that Caserio will be grocery shopping for Ryans’ vision rather than the other way around. That is a humongous change and, if fans are able to objectively look at the work Caserio has done beyond the draft, a necessary one. Caserio’s first two Texans drafts achieved, on the whole, an average result I think when you look at the picks they had. They added some impressive talent when they had picks in 2022. They also don’t have a lot to show for 2021 when they didn’t. But the constant focus on culture, playing through injury, GPS numbers, and off-field habits created a mish-mash veteran roster that didn’t really have a point or plan. Rex Burkhead somehow becoming the team’s passing-down back is a great example of that — why would any rebuilding team decide to do that? What sense was there in this? The only vantage point to view it from is one where he picks up everyone else with his demeanor and work ethic, and when you finish those seasons with the win totals you did, it’s hard to argue that was the case.

I still think Caserio can do plenty of good for the franchise if properly focused. I think his vision for how an NFL team succeeds can only work with seven nailed drafts in a row, including a drafted franchise quarterback. Hopefully, Ryans imparts a better vision for winning in today’s NFL and gets Caserio focused on that instead of the overly clever designs of the last two seasons that, frankly (to use one of Caserio’s favorite words), never were going to yield any value to the team in the long-term and sure as hell didn’t yield any value in the short-term.

What will port over from San Francisco, and what will that mean for who is here?

Beyond the offensive coordinator, I’m extremely curious what else about San Francisco Ryans will want to replicate in Houston. San Francisco’s quarterback situation is a big toss up and I could see Trey Lance being moved in some situations. Does Ryans love Lance like John Lynch loved him, or does he see reasons for concern? Does he like (gulp) Jimmy Garoppolo?

Will he bring in other 49ers assistants? Will we get Niners vets like Jimmie Ward brought in to help young players figure out what they’re supposed to be doing here? Will Azeez Al-Shaair fit in next to Christian Harris?

And what exactly does he make of what he has stumbled into outside of the youngsters here? Does he want to bring back Brandin Cooks or trade him? Does he want Laremy Tunsil extended, or is he skittish about that? I don’t know how much we’ll get out of him on day one, but Thursday and Friday figure to be extremely revealing days for the organization now that they’ve made this move.

The end of the dark ages

Being a Texans fan for the last two years has felt like a secret you only come forth with when you’re forced to. When I have been asked to do interviews with people about the 2021 and 2022 Texans, the thing I lead with wound up being something like “I’m of course happy to help, this isn’t really a normal NFL team, so you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t follow your normal formula for how an interview works.” There was no reason to care about the results that this team put up. Questions like “Well, how do you think the Texans offensive line will hold up against our defensive front?” were in one ear and out the other, because really, who gave a shit? Why would any of this matter when there was never a coach with a long-term vision? The day-to-day stuff fans of actual NFL teams talked about became meaningless because it was in service of a vision that was never going to work.

While Dameon Pierce had a great rookie season and broke a ton of tackles, that was about the only thing that translated to 2023. Jalen Pitre and Derek Stingley were playing in a defense that was never going to be a long-term fit for them. Or, as Steven Nelson succinctly put it:

Elementally, it was hard to even care about how the young players played because there’s very little of what they did that would be extrapolated into the next time this team mattered. That is the hole the Texans dug themselves into with these hires and Caserio’s non-draft roster construction. You can marvel at your good Jerry Hughes reps here and there, but beyond that, where was this going? It was a blank slate before the 2022 draft class, and it was still a blank slate with the 2022 draft class.

For the first time since fans gave up on Bill O’Brien — I think 2018 or 2019 at the longest for most of us, I did hold out some hope for 2018 after how he worked with Deshaun Watson in 2017 — the Texans have empowered someone to build a vision of winning some goddamn football games.

And regardless of how the rest of the plan winds up looking like and how the results go, I’m excited about that.

Nick Caserio spoke like he was a dead man walking

Emerging from the latest disaster of a Houston Texans season with yet another fired coach under his charge — yes, I’ve heard the tea leaves that he didn’t hire them entirely, but the decision still resides on his record — Nick Caserio did something a little out of character for his tenure in Houston on Monday evening. He talked to the press at NRG Stadium, after Cal McNair said that ownership would have a bigger role in hiring this head coach, and he sounded like a man who had been shaken about his convictions.

Caserio can’t help but dress everything up in Business Jargon Word Salad when he talks, it’s just part of who he is. But beyond dropping the greatest hits like “best interests of the organization” and talking vaguely about processes and organizations, he had to admit that where the process has gotten them is not good enough.

Now, that in and of itself isn’t a news flash. Caserio has admitted several times over the last calendar year that various things haven’t been good enough when asked about it. But he came into this presser and made that a focal point. Something he referred to himself without being prompted by the press. Something that got circled back to in several answers. And, in a surprising twist, referred to himself as someone who very well might lose his job if a new coach comes in and doesn’t think much of his work.

The way that Caserio answered some of these questions, where he speaks about guiding ownership, talked about a bigger tent in the decision-making process, proving counsel — he’s talking like he is the head coach search committee for the team rather than someone who has supreme power. This was not the confident Nick Caserio who vowed to Go Down Swinging after David Culley was fired and talked about philosophical differences. This was not the guy that boasted that he wanted to be on the headset because he’d done it his whole life and didn’t look at it as a title thing.

This was not a talk about being in a better position than they were last year, like it was after firing Culley:

It was a wild shift in tone. Hell, it was a wild shift in tone even from the little press clips they let out after firing Lovie Smith, where they talked about creating a long-term future of the franchise. This was a guy who sounded like he’d already gone down swinging.

I particularly wanted to juxtapose these two answers together. Here’s Nick Caserio’s opening press conference from his introduction in 2021:

It wasn’t much of a concrete promise — there’s that vagueness again — but there was optimism in that answer. The small foundation was part of it, as well as the character of the team later on in the presser. Let’s compare that to what happened here:

“I don’t know if it guarantees results … nothing’s guaranteed, I mean, we’ve seen that, really — a lot of things aren’t guaranteed on a day-to-day basis. We can’t take anything for granted … all we’re guaranteed is an opportunity … the clock is ticking, time is short.”

How can you listen to that answer and have any belief that this man believes what he’s doing will matter?

I’ve been trying to wrestle with my own feelings about this presser for a few hours. It’s not like I want Caserio to fail — I did write most recently that he should feel some heat for this, but it’s not like I thought it would happen this soon or feel like every move he’s made has been bad. I’m earnestly surprised we’re seeing this situation this offseason. Lovie Smith being fired after one season was so predictable that I’m surprised anybody even bothered to care — even when it happened, I was surprised that local media bothered propping up narratives like “Lovie won the press conference!” — but this felt like a public admission that the last two years have been the complete waste of time I’ve been saying that they are. The only thing that matters are the draft picks and the youth, and neither of them have developed in a home run sort-of-way exempting maybe Dameon Pierce.

In many ways I felt like I was watching someone quit without actually quitting. And, well, depending on what happens from here, that can be a good thing or a bad thing for this franchise. I’d love to tell you I have more certainty about what happens when Texans ownership takes the wheel. It certainly doesn’t sound ideal on paper. But as is usually the case with these things, it depends on who they hire to run things. Caserio by his own admission sounds like an ancillary figure in the proceedings.

We can only hope that ownership hires the right person to turn this team around, as we have hoped since the day it was obvious Bill O’Brien was in over his head.

A lightly-attended funeral

I believe the internet warps minds in some ways and that none of us are ever really spared that. I lead off with that because I’m going to admit that I was fooled. The fervor for talking about Deshaun Watson’s comeback and how he wronged those women led me to believe that this game would be a massive vortex of negative energy.

It’s incredibly easy to remember in a general sense that one of the tenets of the internet is everyone is shouting takes that they’ll never have to write receipts for. It’s somehow harder to believe nothing will happen when people hop on to your tweets and describe how they’re going to try to throw things at the Browns sideline and what that would look like. In the end, fooling yourself about how much people actually care is one of the internet’s main exports. The fervor of the takes creates emotion. The emotion replaces action. We shout feelings into the void because there are few actions to take, and society encourages that because it means fewer actions are taken against those who have power. We have a bunch of people who “care,” but are really just trying to host their own versions of a sports debate show, which dumbs down what was already one of the lowest common denominators of human existence. Why? Because a) they can and b) there’s no action to take anyway.

This game was less sparsely attended than some Texans games this year, but only slightly so. The local football team also has a main export, and that export is excuses in the face of wasted effort. The men on the football field play hard. The men on the coaching staff coach hard. Neither of those two groups are collectively talented enough at their jobs for that to mean anything, as has always been the case since 2020 if not earlier.

The team is as well-covered from a media perspective as it ever has been. McClain is still posting. Berman. Kubena. Alexander. Bien-Aime. To name just a few non-radio people tasked to handle this, and not to mention in-house people. There are probably upwards of 25 people who put the Texans as their main media focus. But what I learned in trying to cover this team in 2021 is that no amount of access-heavy deep thoughts about the nature of a player can make any of this interesting to read or write about. It’s a 1-10-1 team that barely has made in-roads to the question of what it wants to be, never mind the question of how you express that sentiment to the fanbase. 15 people posting about Mario Addison’s COVID status can’t make it matter. They are a football team that sold culture instead of football, except now with Brandin Cooks pouting they sell neither.

And so, much as I would love to tell you the Texans made a game of this, what really happened is that they proved Deshaun Watson’s initial trade request was the right move for him to make. They elementally do not even know what a good football team looks like in 2022, to the point that a version of Watson that colloquially played like dogshit never actually had to worry about what the consequences of that might be. He also didn’t have to worry about what the consequences of holding out and demanding that trade would look like. He got a handshake from the owner and fans got Hannah McNair with her back turned as a consolation version of the home game. Browns fans were prevalent in the (at best) half-full stands. The man whose non-firing set in motion the trade request, Jack Easterby, is unemployed now despite being more valuable to the team than a franchise quarterback two years ago. The few teammates Watson still had from 2020 largely seemed to respect him more than they respect whatever the hell being a Texan is supposed to be. The NFL media en masse was more than happy to forget about his “off-field problems” and drape a protective cocoon around him while they talked about his charity work here and made sure Watson never even had to suffer the indignity of legitimately answering non-football questions.

In short, Watson spent his whole life accumulating the power. He transcended a team that never understood what to do with him or what it meant to have him. Then he began to use that power however he wanted. The only sin he can make in the league’s eyes is to play like he did on Sunday 17 times a season. Thankfully nobody watched this game and the Browns won anyway so it doesn’t actually matter.

What football feelings overtook me while watching this? Largely it was just helplessness. I have mostly come to grips with the fact that this whole “caring about the Texans” thing is a waste of time. But the fact that the one date on the calendar we all circled when the season started could be so collectively underwhelming in every facet really underlines how far away this team has wandered off the path. Forget about a full season of good football, the Texans were unable to even fulfill the basic requirements of a revenge game. No emotion, no fans. Not even a vague hint of it meaning something to play the guy who demanded his way out of town.

You may hear otherwise, but the empty seats speak louder. It’s all just posting into the void.

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. 

***

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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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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