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McClain: Changes in secondary must pay off when Texans line up against elite quarterbacks

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.

A May 20th, 2024 image from the Offseason OTA Phase 2 Practice 2 at NRG Stadium in Houston, TX.

Since the Texans won the AFC South in Head Coach DeMeco Ryans' first season, no area of the team has experienced more turnover than the secondary.

Nine defensive backs who participated in the 10-7 season are no longer with the team. Executive Vice President/General Manager Nick Caserio signed and drafted seven new members for the secondary, including five cornerbacks.

Creating Competition

One of Ryans' favorites words is "competition," and he's got a lot of it during OTAs. He'll have even more competition when the Texans begin training camp. Barring injuries, Caserio and Ryans should have some difficult decisions to make when the roster is reduced to 53 before the regular season begins on Sept. 8 at Indianapolis.

"We want as much competition at every position on our team as possible," Ryans said this week. "And not just the back end. The more competition you have, the better your team gets. I always speak about iron sharpening iron. If our guys can compete against each other and be their absolute best, that's going to make everybody around them better. I want as much competition as possible.

"Nobody is guaranteed a starting spot. We're not talking starters right now. I just want to see guys compete and be their best. That's why we've made the moves we've made – to add as much competition to our roster as possible."

New Arrivals

It's impossible to talk about the secondary without pointing out the three starters who return – cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. and safeties Jalen Pitre and Jimmie Ward. The only 2023 starter missing is cornerback Steven Nelson, who wasn't re-signed despite intercepting four passes during regular season and another one he returned 82 yards for a touchdown in the 45-14 wild card victory over Cleveland.

Candidates to replace Nelson are veteran free agents Jeff Okudah and C.J. Henderson and rookie Kamari Lassiter, the second-round draft choice who was the Texans' first pick in last month's 2024 NFL Draft.

One thing Ryans and the coaches like about Lassiter is his versatility. He can line up outside or inside. He's physical, smart and has the kind of work ethic the coaches covet.

Veteran Desmond King II also plays inside and outside and has starting experience. Other veteran corners are Kris Boyd, D'Angelo Ross and Troy Pride.

Caserio also signed veteran cornerbacks Myles Bryant (fourth year) and Mike Ford (seventh).

The Texans are hoping Okudah and Henderson step up like defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins did last season. Rankins signed a one-year contract with the Texans and played so well that Cincinnati signed him away for a raise of $4 million a year. Okudah and Henderson are in similar situations after signing one-year contracts.

In 2020, Okudah was the third overall draft pick (Detroit). Henderson was selected ninth overall (Jacksonville) in the same draft. The Texans are the third team in five years for both defensive backs. Both have spent time on injured reserve. Okudah, 25, has played in 38 games and started 31. Henderson, 25, has appeared in 49 games and started 32.

Evaluating the Skillsets

"When I evaluate them on film, I see their movement skills," Ryans said about his cornerbacks. "That's the biggest thing with corners – can they play man coverage? Watching C.J. and Jeff, they can play man coverage, so that gives them a chance.

"As a young corner coming out of Georgia, Lassiter has movement skills for man coverage. That's the first thing you want to see. Then, you want to see how in tune they are at playing zone coverage, things changing with different calls and different communications. We'll continue to rotate those guys. It's really about getting them reps against our receivers."

Going against receivers like Stefon Diggs, Nico Collins and Tank Dell in practice should give the coaches the kind of tape they want to evaluate their cornerbacks.

Ideally, either Okudah or Henderson – or both, of course – will play the way scouts believed they would when they were top-10 picks in 2020. Maybe the coaching, the system or the culture will help bring out the best in them.

"What stood out most to me about Jeff and C.J. is you see elite movers," Ryans said. "They're big, fast, long corners that can run with anybody. They've had some ups and downs in their careers, but as I've told those guys, I don't care what happened in the past. You can wipe the slate clean. (It's) how can you help us?

"They've been here every day of the offseason program, and they've done a great job of being dialed in (during) meetings and on the field, as well. I'm super excited to work with both guys."

As for depth at safety, Calen Bullock was drafted in the third round. Lonnie Johnson was brought back as a free agent. They'll compete for playing time with veteran backups Eric Murray and M.J. Stewart. Brandon Hill, who spent most of his rookie season on the practice squad, is another safety competing for playing time.

Utilizing Four Preseason Games

With so many defensive backs competing for spots on the team, will the coaches have enough time to properly evaluate them?

"There's so many of them, and it helps when you have four preseason games," Ryans said. The Texans face the Chicago Bears on Aug 1 in the Hall of Fame game, giving them an extra preseason game compared to most of their NFL competitors. "That's an advantage because it allows us to get them more reps and more opportunities for them to show us what they can do."

Ryans is hoping the defensive backs manage to stay relatively healthy, unlike last season when Stingley missed six games and Ward, Murray and Stewart combined to spend 27 games on injured reserve. Caserio was constantly having to look for replacements.

This season, the Texans will need all hands on deck when facing quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, Aaron Rodgers, Dak Prescott, Jared Goff, Tua Tagovailoa, Jordan Love and Trevor Lawrence – to name nine opponents who are among the best in the NFL. They'll be standing in the way of the Texans achieving their goal of competing for the Super Bowl.

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