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C.J. Stroud-led draft class laying fine foundation for Texans; early Defensive Player of the Year candidates

Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. Today's installment covers

But first, a look at one rookie class that could spark a franchise revival ...

To build a championship-caliber squad in this pass-happy era, NFL executives and coaches appear to be placing a premium on acquiring blue-chip pieces in a few specific areas. On the Move The Sticks podcast, Daniel Jeremiah, Rhett Lewis and I have referred to these high-value assets as the four Ps, with three on offense and one on defense:

  • Passer
  • Playmaker
  • Pass protector
  • Pass rusher

Honestly, this isn't exactly a novel concept. In fact, Hall of Fame executive Bill Polian used the blueprint in his heyday. As one of the most successful team builders in NFL history, Polian routinely constructed contenders around elite quarterbacks and a star-studded cast of running backs, wide receivers, offensive tackles and pass rushers. In Buffalo, Polian helped transform a downtrodden franchise into an AFC powerhouse, with the Bills making four straight Super Bowls behind a core that included QB Jim Kelly, RB Thurman Thomas, WR Andre Reed and DE Bruce Smith, all of whom have a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In Indianapolis, Polian repeated his magic by drafting a true franchise quarterback (Peyton Manning) and flanking him with a bevy of playmakers (Edgerrin James, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne) and a stout offensive line. He also drafted a pair of edge menaces (Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis) to terrorize opposing quarterbacks trying to keep up with the Manning-led offense.

So, why am I talking about this right now? Well, seeing the Houston Texans (1-2) quickly emerge as a tough out in the first few weeks of DeMeco Ryans' tenure, it appears the championship blueprint has found its way to H-Town, with a talented rookie class that has this franchise trending in the right direction for the first time in years. While I am not trying to push the 2023 Texans as contenders, it sure looks like the pieces are coming together for Houston to rise from the ashes of the Deshaun Watson era.

In their first draft together, Ryans and third-year Texans GM Nick Caserio attacked the prospect board with a clear intention to upgrade the four Ps. Well, actually three of them. With Laremy Tunsil and Tytus Howard already in place as bookends, the Texans were able to leave pass protector (offensive tackle) off their shopping list. But look what they did with three of their first four picks:

All three of those picks have provided immediate returns, but let's start with the first one, for the obvious reason that QB1 is the most important piece in the team-building process.

In the excessive nitpicking exercise that is the pre-draft process, Stroud faced questions about his processing speed and functional mobility, particularly out of structure. In some circles, these concerns seemed to overshadow the fact that he was the most natural thrower in the draft, with a game that looked pro-ready between the lines. This was shortsighted thinking, considering everything Stroud had put on tape at Ohio State.

For two years, the 6-foot-3, 214-pounder shredded Big Ten defenses with surgical precision as a quick-rhythm passer with superb timing and anticipation. Operating from the pocket, Stroud's ability to fit balls into tight windows while utilizing various trajectories and speeds made it easy to project his game to the next level. He was the classic dropback passer who has flourished in the league for years. The Texans saw that, and when they went on the board with the No. 2 overall pick, they pounced. And boy does that look like a good decision ...

Having just earned NFL Offensive Rookie of the Month honors, Stroud looks the part as a blue-chip passer with exceptional poise and polish. As the first quarterback in league history with at least 900 passing yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions in his first three career games, the rookie has played like a 10-year veteran despite lining up behind a leaky offensive line missing four starters due to injury. Most impressively, Stroud has done this with a non-existent running game, forcing him to throw against aggressive defenses attacking Houston's one-dimensional approach. This Sunday's opponent, Pittsburgh, will present Stroud with his toughest test yet, as the Steelers boast one of the best pass-rushing duos in the game (T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith). I can't wait to see how the 21-year-old fares. But given the host of blitzes and simulated pressures he has already faced as a young starter, the rookie's spectacular performance and production suggest he is a special player with the skills to elevate everyone on the team. Just ask tight end Brevin Jordan.

"We drafted the right guy," Jordan said in the wake of the Texans' Week 3 blowout of the division rival Jaguars. "Man, he's a leader. He's a phenomenal player and a phenomenal guy with God-given talent. Dude, he's unbelievable."

In a league where game recognizes game, Jordan's effusive praise of Stroud reflects the hope and optimism that a legitimate franchise quarterback brings to a team. But the third-year pro is not alone in his belief in the Texans' new QB1. Ryans is also all in on his young signal-caller, as evidenced by the unwavering support of Stroud as the rookie works through the challenges of playing the position with an imperfect cast around him.

"Everything starts with the quarterback, and we have a good one, and he's improved every week," Ryans said last Sunday.

Stroud's steady improvement as a player is apparent when you study the tape, but his leadership skills from Day 1 have changed the trajectory of the franchise. In fact, he implored the team to draft Dell after getting to know the wide receiver during the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine. The quarterback's astute evaluation helped Houston acquire an explosive playmaker with game-changing skills on the perimeter. Moreover, it has given the Texans a potential WR1 to build around as this young offense grows together with Stroud at the helm. Dell just torched Jacksonville with five catches for 145 yards and a touchdown.

Defensively, the Texans' decision to trade up for Anderson has also reaped serious rewards for a team climbing back toward respectability. The Alabama standout was a proven commodity as a pass rusher, but his combination of savvy, smarts and effort made him the perfect pick for a franchise looking to change the culture. As a natural leader with outstanding energy and a relentless approach, the rookie edge defender sets the tone for a defense that outworks opponents from snap to whistle. In three games, Anderson has piled up a sack, five QB hits, 11 pressures and a beastly field goal block.

Beyond those three draft picks, the Texans also scooped up a pair of instant-impact players in Rounds 5 and 6: LB Henry To’oTo’o (who's started the past two games) and C Jarrett Patterson (who's started all three contests). That's five immediate starters in one draft class. Not too shabby.

Last season, we watched the Seattle Seahawks sneak into the playoffs with a rookie class sparking a resurgence that surprised the football world. It is too soon to proclaim the Texans as playoff contenders, but their rookies have set the foundation for a significant bounce-back in Houston.

Early DPOY race: Superstars galore!

Coaches and scouts expect blue-chip players to impose their will on opponents, but the true elites completely take over games, tilting results in their favor. Watching three-plus weeks of the 2023 NFL season, I see a bevy of bona fide game wreckers setting themselves up to make a serious run at the Defensive Player of the Year award.

It's early, obviously, but this DPOY race could be something special. With many of the game's biggest defensive names surging out of the gates, we're looking at a superstar-studded field of initial candidates.

With that in mind, here is how I rank the top five DPOY contenders at this moment -- with an additional wild card to watch.

Myles Garrett
Cleveland Browns · DE

The two-time first-team All-Pro is an unstoppable force off of the edge. Garrett's freakish athleticism and creative pass-rushing skills make it nearly impossible to slow him down in one-on-one situations. Garrett has tallied 4.5 sacks, 3.5 of which came this past Sunday against the Tennessee Titans, and the league is buzzing about the superstar's dominance in new Browns defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz's scheme. As the headliner of a defense that looks like a top-five unit, the 6-foot-4, 272-pounder is the early front-runner for the league's most prestigious defensive honor. 

Micah Parsons
Dallas Cowboys · DE/OLB

Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has unleashed Parsons as a game wrecker this season with his aggressive approach and creative scheming. The two-time first-team All-Pro hybrid (defensive end/outside linebacker) thrives in one-on-one opportunities against overmatched offensive tackles and offensive guards, overpowering or outmaneuvering them at the line of scrimmage with his superior speed, quickness and explosiveness. Given Parsons' impact and production (4.0 sacks and a forced fumble thus far in 2023) as the most disruptive force on a turnover-obsessed unit, the third-year pro is a logical choice as one of the early favorites for the DPOY award. 

T.J. Watt
Pittsburgh Steelers · OLB

After an injury-shortened 2022 campaign (10 games, 5.5 sacks), the energetic QB hunter is right back to his old tricks with an impressive three-game run to kick off 2023, boasting a league-high six sacks. Watt has registered at least one sack each time out this season, displaying exceptional first-step quickness, closing speed and ball awareness on his runs to the quarterback. The 2021 Defensive Player of the Year is making an early move to secure his second award with a series of strong performances that have reminded the football world of his dominance as a true disrupter. Watt's ability to take over the game as an edge defender with superb playmaking instincts separates him from others in the conversation. 

Nick Bosa
San Francisco 49ers · DE

Could Bosa go back-to-back in this award? The 2022 NFL sack champion is off to a slow start in that category, having logged just one so far, but his potential to collect more in bunches keeps him on the list. After all, he's still piling up the pressures (15, per PFF). As a talented technician with heavy hands and superb instincts, Bosa can overpower and overwhelm All-Pro-caliber edge blockers with his textbook game. A first-team All-Pro himself, the San Francisco star possesses a non-stop motor and nasty disposition. With the undefeated Niners serious being contenders for the top seed in the NFC, Bosa will spend plenty of time in the spotlight -- a few big games would send him soaring up the DPOY charts.

Chris Jones
Kansas City Chiefs · DT

After engaging in a holdout that kept him on the sidelines for Week 1, Jones immediately retuned with a bang. The eighth-year pro has racked up 2.5 sacks in two games while working his way back into shape as an All-Pro defender, delivering splash plays in spurts. I haven't seen any rust in his game. The Chiefs' stingy defense becomes scary good with the super-sized pass rusher wreaking havoc at the point of attack. 

Wild card to watch

Aidan Hutchinson
Detroit Lions · DL

The second-year pro has sparked a defense that makes Dan Campbell's Lions look like the class of the NFC North. As an athletic edge rusher with explosive first-step quickness, violent hands and a high-revving motor, Hutchinson (3.5 sacks after Thursday night's win in Green Bay) can overwhelm opponents with a flurry of punches and spins that keep blockers guessing at the point of attack. Through four games, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft already has a whopping 27 QB pressures, per PFF.

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