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State of the 2023 Houston Texans: DeMeco Ryans, C.J. Stroud and Will Anderson Jr. headline new era

Where does your squad stand in 2023? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Texans organization, Texans fans around the world and those who have found a way to distract themselves from the struggles of the past few Texans seasons by, oh, rooting for one of the best baseball teams of the past decade ...

That's right, Houston. I don't cry too much for you, because the Astros have been the cream of the MLB crop lately. Will it soon be time for the Texans to take their turn? They made a couple of huge moves during the 2023 NFL Draft, to help themselves not just this season but in the future, as well. How much progress will they make immediately? Good question. But before we can look forward, it's important for us to take a step back.

2022 rewind

One high from last season: Restocking the draft-pick cupboard in the Deshaun Watson trade. OK, I know this happened in March of 2022, well before the season began, but the bountiful return Houston secured from the Browns (including three first-round choices) in exchange for Watson set up the Texans for the future.

One low from last season: Dropping out of the top overall slot in the 2023 NFL Draft. This hit the draftniks in Houston extra hard. The Texans were poised to get the No. 1 pick -- until they pulled off a miracle rally to beat the Colts in Week 18, slipping to the second overall choice. If the QB they ended up with at No. 2 (C.J. Stroud) is as good as or better than the top overall pick (Bryce Young), this will all be forgotten. Personally, as a fan of the Bears -- who ended up with (and later traded away) the No. 1 choice -- I thought this was kind of cool. Thank you, Lovie Smith.

2023 VIPs

Quarterback: C.J. Stroud. The Texans seem to have landed a great quarterback in Stroud. The product of Rancho Cucamonga High School performed really well at Ohio State, ultimately joining the recent wave of QB prospects who played with the Buckeyes en route to the NFL. He's probably always going to be compared to the Panthers' Bryce Young -- the only player to go before Stroud in April's draft -- but that's cool. It's kind of like Ric Flair and Sting. You could have your favorite, but both were great in their own way. There's always an element of uncertainty when it comes to whether a prospect will be able to succeed at a high level, but I believe in Stroud. Will he start Week 1? NFL Network's James Palmer reported "it's pointing in that direction right now."

Projected 2023 MVP: Laremy Tunsil, left tackle. Young quarterbacks sometimes have to play behind a line that's a little sus -- just look at what happened in Houston with former No. 1 overall pick David Carr. (Now an NFL Network colleague, the guy was sacked 76 times as a rookie!) Stroud, though, is joining a team that already has an absolute stud at left tackle. The Texans have let go of a lot of talent over the years -- but they had the presence of mind to hang on to Tunsil, a three-time Pro Bowler who was awarded a three-year extension in March. It's like how I moved a lot during my 20s but still managed to hold on to my cassette tape of Paul's Boutique. (Ask your parents what a cassette tape is.)

New face to know: Jimmie Ward, safety. The Texans made a huge move in free agency when they signed Ward, keeping the longtime 49er with DeMeco Ryans, the defensive coordinator who left San Francisco to became Houston's head coach (more on him in a sec). The Texans are young and will improve this season, but you need that sage, veteran, Qui-Gon-esque presence on your team to help guide you. Ward, heading into his 10th NFL season, can play that role. Does this mean Derek Stingley Jr. is eventually going to turn to the dark side? That's not what I'm implying. But can Stingley become one of the better cover men in the NFL? That I can see!

2023 breakout star: Derek Stingley Jr., cornerback. It feels like the secondary is going to end up being the best part of the Texans' defense this year. Whether that prediction comes true will fall to some extent on 2022 second-round safety Jalen Pitre, who filled up the stat sheet in Year 1 despite missing too many tackles. That said, I think the unit's rise will be driven largely by Stingley, the third overall pick last year, whose rookie season was cut short by a hamstring injury. Stingley said last month that he's "seeing the whole field at a faster rate," which is good, because when someone comes in with that kind of draft pedigree, he is expected to become a franchise player. Remember, the Texans chose him one spot ahead of Sauce Gardner, who went on to become Defensive Rookie of the Year for the Jets. If Stroud and Young are Flair and Sting, I guess that would make Stingley and Gardner the Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart of second-year cornerbacks.

2023 braintrust

Table inside Article
Head coach DeMeco Ryans
General manager Nick Caserio
Offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik
Defensive coordinator Matt Burke
Special teams coordinator Frank Ross
  • You have to love the idea of a former stud player coming home to lead the team as head coach. But the hiring of DeMeco Ryans -- whose six-season run playing linebacker in Houston included a Defensive Rookie of the Year award and two Pro Bowl bids -- isn't just a nostalgia play. Ryans spent the past six years on staff with the 49ers, becoming defensive coordinator in 2021, and he turned himself into one of the top candidates for a head-coaching job. I'm excited to see him get this opportunity.
  • The Texans brought over Bobby Slowik, a young offensive whiz, from San Francisco along with Ryans. I love this pairing. As new running back Devin Singletary described it recently, Slowik is "putting his own twist" on the Niners' offense in Houston. It will be fun to see what he can come up with, given a chance to work with a talented young passer like Stroud.
  • Credit to Nick Caserio, who really went for it in April's draft. First, he took a potential franchise QB at No. 2. Then he traded away a raft of picks to secure the third overall selection, using it to pick up ballyhooed pass rusher Will Anderson Jr. You have to love the aggressiveness from an organization looking to turn the corner after three consecutive losing seasons.

Roster reshuffling

Below is a rundown of the Texans' most notable roster developments for the 2023 season, including this year's draft class, as well as key acquisitions and departures via free agency and trade.

Table inside Article
Draft class (round-pick) Key additions Key departures
C.J. Stroud, QB, Ohio State (1-2) Case Keenum, QB Kyle Allen, QB
Will Anderson Jr., DE, Alabama (1-3) Devin Singletary, RB Jeff Driskel, QB
Juice Scruggs, C, Penn State (2-62) Noah Brown, WR Rex Burkhead, RB
Tank Dell, WR, Houston (3-69) Robert Woods, WR Royce Freeman, RB
Dylan Horton, DE, TCU (4-109) Dalton Schultz, TE Brandin Cooks, WR
Henry To'oTo'o, LB, Alabama (5-167) Greg Little, OT Phillip Dorsett, WR
Jarrett Patterson, C, Notre Dame (6-201) Shaq Mason, OG Chris Moore, WR
Xavier Hutchinson, WR, Iowa State (6-205) Chase Winovich, DE Jordan Akins, TE
Brandon Hill, S, Pittsburgh (7-248) Sheldon Rankins, DT O.J. Howard, TE
Hassan Ridgeway, DT A.J. Cann, OL
Cory Littleton, LB Rasheem Green, DE
Denzel Perryman, LB Ogbo Okoronkwo, DE
Shaquill Griffin, CB Mario Addison, DL
Jimmie Ward, S Jonathan Owens, S

2023 roadmap

Three key dates:

  • Week 1 at Baltimore Ravens. Sure, this seems fair -- just throw the Texans and Stroud up against the Ravens right out of the gate. OK, it's worth pointing out Baltimore had the 26th-ranked pass defense last year. Maybe the rookie QB will hit the ground running (throwing)!
  • Week 12 vs. Jacksonville Jaguars. I like the Jaguars to take the AFC South again. Sorry, Houston fans -- I'm just being honest. Still, this game figures to be a test of where the Texans are in their push toward a brighter future.
  • Week 18 at Indianapolis Colts. I know what I wrote in the preceding paragraph, but ... Could this be for all the marbles in the division, with Stroud and No. 4 overall pick Anthony Richardson facing off for the title? The NFL is a strange place; why not believe?

Will the Texans be able to ...

... turn around the defense? I already mentioned that I loved the bold move for Will Anderson Jr. Instead of having to choose between a quarterback to build around and a pass rusher to lead the defense, Nick Caserio just took both. Kind of like going to Whataburger and ordering the fries and the onion rings. I mean, the better move would have been In-N-Out, but I digress. Anderson has the billing of being one of the safer picks of the defensive class. The Terminator will give the Texans a presence on the defensive line they haven't had since J.J. Watt was in his prime. Anderson was an All-American and SEC Defensive Player of the Year in back-to-back seasons. He was the hipster pick for Heisman Trophy in 2021. He's not sweating his position change from OLB to DE, and neither should you. He is a legitimate superstar who will be counted on -- along with Jimmie Ward and Derek Stingley Jr. -- to help turn around a defense that ranked 30th last year.

... find somebody to catch throws from C.J. Stroud? I mean, the Texans have receivers on the roster, but there are question marks, especially in the wake of Brandin Cooks' trade to Dallas. Robert Woods is a veteran who has been good over the years, typically the kind of reliable presence a young QB can rely on. But he hasn't had 1,000 yards receiving since 2019. I'm excited for the return of John Metchie III, who missed his rookie season in 2022 after being diagnosed with leukemia. He's been dealing with a hamstring injury recently, but I can't wait to see him make his long-awaited NFL debut. Tank Dell is a third-round pick who totaled 2,727 receiving yards and 29 scoring grabs over the past two seasons. Free-agent signee Noah Brown ranked third on the Cowboys in receiving yards (555) in 2022. The player who posted the second-most receiving yards in Dallas, tight end Dalton Schultz, will be on hand, as well, after inking his own deal. Oh, and there's 2021 third-rounder Nico Collins, too. Nico is one of those guys fantasy enthusiasts have tried to will into being a thing. Like trying to make "fetch" happen. I'll believe it when I see it.

One storyline ...

... people shouldn't overlook: Dameon Pierce could be a certified star. Pierce put up nearly 1,000 rushing yards in 13 games as a rookie in 2022 before his season was ultimately ended by a sprained ankle. His pass-catching numbers (30 grabs, 165 yards, one TD) were not impressive, but it's hard to hold that against him, given the lack of production around him in Houston last year. He could end up sharing more of the load with offseason signee Devin Singletary, but even so, a leap to the next level could be in line for Pierce under Slowik, who saw firsthand how San Francisco got the most out of Christian McCaffrey (and, really, many other running backs).

For 2023 to be a success, the Texans MUST:

  • Play well enough to disappoint the Cardinals in the 2024 NFL Draft. When the Texans traded up to select Will Anderson Jr. third overall, they gave Arizona their own first-rounder in 2024, hanging on to the first-rounder they acquired from Cleveland in the Deshaun Watson deal. I believe that was a really good move. The Texans have the third-easiest schedule this season. They play in a division that -- like the NFC South -- is wide open. Almost anything can happen. It's not outlandish to imagine Houston's record will be strong enough that the pick that went to the Cardinals will be lower than the pick the Texans received from the Browns.

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