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McClain: Don't expect Caserio and Ryans to ignore offensive line during the draft

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John McClain, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, is in his 48th year of covering the NFL in Houston, including 45 seasons at the Houston Chronicle.

Looking locally and nationally at what media and fans believe the Texans need in the draft, we still see a heavy emphasis on defense even though Executive Vice President and General Manager Nick Caserio signed 11 unrestricted free agents on that side of the ball.

The Texans do have needs on defense – with a tackle, cornerback and safety possibly being targeted. And defensive coordinator Matt Burke also could use another linebacker. And the Texans still have some needs on offense but no longer a wide receiver after last week's blockbuster trade for Stefon Diggs.

Amid all the intriguing speculation on what the Texans might do with their nine draft choices, including two picks in the second round, there's hardly a mention of the offensive line. But there should be.

Based on what we saw last season when injuries forced the Texans to start 11 linemen and use six different starting combinations, Caserio and Head Coach DeMeco Ryans are likely to target an offensive lineman, possibly in a lower round like last year when they selected guard/center Jarrett Patterson in the sixth round. The question is if they draft a lineman, will he be a tackle or a guard?

Injuries caused the Texans to start three left tackles (Laremy Tunsil, Josh Jones, Austin Deculus), four left guards (Tytus Howard, Juice Scruggs, Kendrick Green, Jones), two centers (Patterson, Michael Deiter), one right guard (Mason) and two right tackles (George Fant, Charlie Heck). Right guard Shaq Mason was the only player who started every game last season.

When you consider what happened to the line under first-year coach Chris Strausser, it's amazing the Texans had so much success in Ryans' first season. No position coach had more obstacles to overcome than Strausser, who was coaching in offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik's zone system for the first time. Strausser had to learn on the fly. Ideally, the linemen would have stayed relatively healthy, and the transition to the new scheme would have been smoother, but, ultimately, it worked out remarkably well.

What turned out to be a sign of what was coming, center Scott Quessenberry, who started 16 games in 2022, suffered a season-ending knee injury early in training camp. Left guard Kenyon Green, a first-round pick in 2022 who started 14 games as a rookie, also was lost for the season before regular season began. When the Texans began the season at Baltimore, Howard and Scruggs were also on injured reserve. And to make matters worse, Tunsil missed three of the first four games because of an injury.

Injuries in the offensive line contributed mightily to the Texans beginning the season with an 0-2 record. When the Texans played their next two games at Jacksonville and at NRG Stadium against Pittsburgh, they still had five linemen on injured reserve and Tunsil inactive. And yet they defeated the Jaguars by 20 and the Steelers 30-6.

At that point, it was obvious Ryans and his coaches were doing a terrific job of keeping the players focused. Ryans, his staff and the players didn't use injuries in general and the offensive line in particular as an excuse. Most important, rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud was showing how special he could be in his first season no matter who was healthy enough to play in the offensive line.

Now, let's jump ahead. Fant, Deiter and Jones, who combined to make 26 starts, signed with new teams. In a perfect world, the starters next season would be Tunsil and Howard at tackle, Green and Mason at guard and Scruggs at center. But we all know there's no such thing as a perfect world.

Barring injury – and we know how that goes – the stiffest competition could be at left guard between Green and Patterson and perhaps Kendrick Green, who started three games last season.

Going into the draft, and including the possibility of Caserio adding veteran free agents, Tunsil, Howard and Charlie Heck (four starts) are the top-three tackles. As he showed as a rookie, Patterson can play center or guard. In camp and preseason, Scruggs was at center and Patterson at guard.

So what does all this mean for the draft? Maybe nothing but possibly something. It's hard to imagine Caserio and Ryans going through the draft without selecting a tackle or guard considering they have two picks in the fourth, sixth and seventh rounds. Stay tuned.

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