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McClain: Coaches are counting on a talented line to set the tone for defensive improvement

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

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.

It's unusual for a team to set a franchise record for sacks and improve from 32nd to sixth against the run and have to replace three starting defensive linemen, but that's the path the Texans chose to take during a busy offseason.

Executive Vice President/General Manager Nick Caserio and Head Coach DeMeco Ryans believe their defense that finished 11th in points allowed and 14th in yards surrendered can be even better this season. The Texans plan to be well-fortified for a first-place schedule and an array of elite quarterbacks.

That's why they signed 14 defensive free agents, re-signed four of their defensive players and drafted five players on that side of the ball.

The ongoing transformation of the defense starts up front, where the Texans could have one of the most prolific pass rushes in the NFL – even more impressive than last season when the linemen helped them set the franchise record with 46 sacks.

DE Will Anderson Jr., the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, is the only starter returning in the line. After setting a rookie team record with seven sacks and registering 23 quarterback hits and 67 pressures – both first among league rookies – Anderson is poised to have a breakout season that should put him in the double-digit sack category every season.

The Texans could have kept their leading pass rusher, end Jonathan Greenard, who recorded 12.5 sacks before leaving for Minnesota. Instead, they landed Danielle Hunter, who had 16.5 sacks and a league-best 23 tackles for loss.

Ryans and Defensive Coordinator Matt Burke are looking for two new starters at tackle. Sheldon Rankins was offered a raise, but he got an even larger one from Cincinnati. He played well in his only season with the Texans that included six sacks, the second-best output of his career to the eight he had with New Orleans in 2018. Maliek Collins, a three-year starter, tied his career high with five sacks and was dealt to San Francisco for a reported seventh-round draft choice.

Greenard, Rankins and Collins combined for 23.5 sacks or 4.5 fewer than Hunter and end Denico Autry (11.5), both of whom compiled career highs in their last seasons with the Vikings and Titans.

The strength of the defensive line should be at end, where the Texans have veteran talent, depth and young players with potential.

Hunter playing opposite Anderson should give the Texans one of the best twosomes in the NFL at rushing the passer and stopping the run. Anderson said during the offseason program how much he's learning from Hunter, who's playing in his 10th season. They only scratched the surface as far as how much Hunter can help Anderson be even better.

"I think Danielle and Will had this (instant) connection you need for ends playing off each other, picking each other's brain," Ryans said. "Danielle's done it for a while, so Will being able to lean on him for advice is very important. I like the connection they have. They're working well together, and it's great to see both of them collapsing the pocket and finishing on the quarterback."

Burke, whose specialty is coaching the defensive line, is excited to work with his new players and to see Anderson grow.

"Danielle has a history of success rushing the passer," Burke said. "We think playing in this front and in this style he can even enhance that. Partnering him with Will and the other guys we have rushing, we're excited about seeing how that comes to fruition."

Hunter, 29, reached double digit sacks five times with the Vikings, including four of the last five seasons. The only season in which he didn't have at least 10 was 2021 when a season-ending injury allowed him to play only seven games, and he still had six sacks. He totaled 27 the last two seasons.

"Just having his presence and his history of what he's done in the league, teams are going to have to account for where he is and how we're using him," Burke said. "If (the defense) is focusing attention on Hunter or Will, it sort of unlocks some more things we can do or how we manipulate some of those protections.

"As for Will, he's very demanding of himself and what his expectations are. There's room for Will to get better. He had a great season. I love what he brings to the table, but there are things he can get better at. I think a small thing would be trying to get more extension and separation at the top of his rush. There are things that we've worked on."

Autry, who plays end and tackle, is expected to move inside in a lot of passing situations. At 6-5, 273, he's got the size for either position. The Texans know him well because they've gone against him when he played for Indianapolis and Tennessee.

Autry, who turns 34 in July, has averaged nine sacks since he reached 30. He's had at least eight in each of his last three seasons. And Autry plays well against the run.

Ryans sounds like the president of the Denico Autry Fan Club.

"He's one of the toughest and most respected players (in) the league," Ryans said. "You talk to any offensive lineman that's gone against him, and he has their utmost respect. He plays the game the right way. He plays hard. He plays with an intensity that's unmatched, and he finds a way to get in the backfield playing on the interior or on the edge. He's just a hard-nosed player that's unbreakable."

Imagine how impressive the pass rush can be with Hunter, Anderson and Autry lined up in a four-man front with another player who'll be determined in training camp and preseason.

The Texans have depth at end, including veterans Derek Barnett, Dylan Horton and Mario Edwards and rookie Solomon Byrd, a seventh-round draft choice.

When the Texans get to training camp in July, figuring out who'll replace Collins and Rankins at defensive tackle will be a priority. If the season started today, veterans Tim Settle and Foley Fatukasi – free agents from Buffalo and Jacksonville – would probably be the starters. Khalil Davis and Kurt Hinish would be returning backups. Marcus Harris, a seventh-round draft choice, is a rookie who'll be competing for a spot on the roster.

"I want as much depth as possible on our defensive line," Ryans said. "When you can get guys like Denico, Danielle and Tim – veteran guys who've played a lot of football and have made a lot of plays -- they know what it looks like. It's easy for those guys to come into our system and transition very quickly. Having those guys around has helped everyone because they understand our style of play. They understand how we see the d-line play and how important it is, not only to our defense but to our entire team."

After watching the players in the offseason program, the coaches aren't in a rush to figure who's going to start inside and who's going to be part of the rotation. That's what training camp and preseason are for.

"I feel pretty good about the depth of our interior guys," Burke said. "Foley and I have a history (together) with New York (Jets), so he's been in the system. He's been great. Settle is a bigger body type and can still move. I think our system lends itself to Tim's skillset and traits, so I'm excited about him. Kurt and Khalil got a lot of reps in this system last year and showed the same growth curve like some of these guys we've been talking about.

"We can move pieces around and see how it shakes out, but I do feel like we've grown some depth in the interior. It's trying to put guys in different spots to either dictate protections or try to win the matchups we like."

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