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McClain: Caserio makes a big splash in free agency and trade pool to help improve Texans going into Ryans' second season


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.

If Executive Vice President and General Manager Nick Caserio had earned as many A's at John Carroll University as he's getting for making moves in free agency and the trade market, he would have graduated summa cum laude.

Caserio is earning universal praise for making shrewd decisions in free agency and engineering trades. In free agency, Caserio targeted Head Coach DeMeco Ryans' defense, signing eight free agents – four linemen, two linebackers and three defensive backs.

When Caserio started mining for nuggets, he struck gold when he signed defensive end Danielle Hunter (Minnesota), a Katy native who recorded 16.5 sacks last season, 23 tackles for loss, 41 pressures and 17 hurries. In his last four seasons, Hunter averaged 12.4 sacks. The Athletic's Randy Mueller, a former general manager with New Orleans and Miami, ranked Hunter No. 1 on his list of the top-150 free agents.

In the Texans' whirlwind of activity, Caserio traded a seventh-round draft pick next month to Cincinnati for running back Joe Mixon, who signed a three-year extension. Mixon, who turns 28 in July, should be a nice addition to offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik's running and passing game because he was also an excellent receiver in seven seasons with the Bengals.

Mixon started 17 games last season and finished fourth in the NFL with 309 touches. He rushed for 1,034 yards – his fourth 1,000-yard season – averaged 4 yards a carry and rushed for nine touchdowns. Mixon caught 52 passes for 376 yards, a 7.2 average, and three touchdowns. Mixon didn't fumble in his last two seasons.

Caserio and Ryans are in lockstep when it concerns making personnel decisions to improve last season's 11-8 record, including 1-1 in the playoffs, and the team's AFC South title. Caserio makes every effort to try to provide Ryans with players he wants.

What the Texans do in the draft (April 25-27) is largely based on what they did in free agency. It's not surprising Caserio has loaded up on defense because the Texans will play against quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, Aaron Rodgers, Dak Prescott, Tua Tagovailoa, Jared Goff, Trevor Lawrence, Anthony Richardson and Jordan Love.

Acquiring Hunter and pairing him with Will Anderson Jr., the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, gives the Texans' dynamic bookends who should consistently harasses opposing quarterbacks.

Other defensive players added for Ryans and coordinator Matt Burke include tackle/end Denico Autry (Tennessee), tackle Tim Settle (Buffalo), linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair (Tennessee), linebacker Del'Shawn Phillips (Baltimore), cornerback Jeff Okudah (Atlanta), cornerback Mike Ford (Cleveland) and safety Lonnie Johnson (New Orleans).

Caserio traded defensive tackle Maliek Collins to San Francisco for a seventh-round pick. He also dealt the Texans' first-round draft choice, 23rd overall, and a seventh-round selection (238) to the Vikings in exchange for picks in the second (42nd) and sixth rounds (188). The Texans also received a second-round draft choice in 2025. The Texans currently have nine picks, including five in the second through fourth rounds.

Comparing Texans coming to those going, Mixon replaces running back Devin Singletary (New York Giants). Hunter and Autry replace defensive end Jonathan Greenard (Minnesota) and Collins. Fatukusi and Settle replace Sheldon Rankins (Cincinnati). Al-Shaair replaces linebacker Blake Cashman (Minnesota). Punter Tommy Townsend, who played in three Super Bowls with the Chiefs, including two victories, replaces Cam Johnston (Pittsburgh).

Caserio pirated two of Tennessee's best players – Autry and Al-Shaair. The ageless Autry, who turns 34 in July, tormented the Texans when he played for the Colts and Titans. Last season, he had a career-high 11.5 sacks. He's had at least nine sacks in four of his last six seasons. He averaged 9.5 in his three seasons at Tennessee. One reason coaches love Autry is because he can play inside or outside.

Ryans is being reunited with Al-Shaair. Ryans coached Al-Shaair in his first four seasons with the 49ers. Last year, Ryans came to Houston, and Al-Shaair signed a one-year contract with Tennessee. He started 17 games, was voted as a team captain, played the most snaps on the team and led the Titans with 163 tackles, including 85 unassisted and nine for loss. The Titans wanted to keep him, but Al-Shaair wanted to play for Ryans again.

Moving back to offense, another benefit of the Mixon trade is his playoff experience. He's played in seven postseason games, including a Super Bowl, with 425 yards rushing and 157 receiving. He also threw a touchdown pass in the Bengals' Super Bowl loss to the Rams.

Caserio made an interesting move that was low risk and high reward and could turn out to be pure genius. The Texans are getting Okudah on a one-year, make-it contract – the kind of deal Al-Shaair made with the Titans last year. If Okudah stays healthy and proves he can return to the level of play that made him the highest-rated defensive back in the 2020 draft, he's got a chance to cash in big time after the 2024 season.

Okudah, 6-1, 202, was the third overall pick by Detroit in 2020 when Cory Undlin, the Texans' defensive passing game coordinator, was the Lions' defensive coordinator. Okudah was the highest-rated defensive back in his draft class, but he experienced bad luck in his first two seasons.

Okudah, 25, made six starts as a rookie before suffering a season-ending core muscle injury that required surgery. He returned in 2021 and suffered a torn Achilles tendon injury in the first game that cost him his second season. In 2022, his last season with the Lions, Okudah started 15 games. Last year, he was traded to the Falcons for a fifth-round draft choice. In his one season with Atlanta, he played in 15 games and made nine starts. Getting a player with Okudah's talent on a one-year deal is powerful motivation to have his best season possible.

Keep in mind that Caserio always considers special teams when it comes to personnel decisions. Led by coordinator Frank Ross, the Texans have had the NFL's best special teams in each of the last two seasons. Caserio re-signed kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn. Adding free agents like Townsend, Phillips, Ford and Johnson should enable them to become major contributors to Ross' special teams.

Fairbairn and snapper Jon Weeks, who's going into his 15th season, will team with a new punter in Townsend, who played four seasons with the Chiefs and is five years younger than Cameron Johnston. Townsend, who had a gross average of 47.1 yards and a net of 41.9 last season, has career averages of 47.4 (gross) and 42.8 (net).

To warm up for the legal tampering period, Caserio re-signed a group of veterans, including Fairbairn, receiver Noah Brown, defensive tackle Khalil Davis, cornerback Desmond King II and safety Eric Murray.

If we know one thing about Caserio it's that he'll continue to make moves that he and Ryans believe will help improve the team. They'll continue to evaluate more possible free agent additions as they get closer to the draft.

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