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Houston Texans

McClain: Opposing quarterbacks next season could cause Texans to load up on defensive players in the draft


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.

Even though the start of the new league year is March 13 when contracts expire and unrestricted free agency begins, the centerpiece of the NFL's offseason will always be the draft, this year coming from Detroit April 25-27.

Teams have placed the combine in their rearview mirrors, and pro personnel departments have turned their attention to free agency, but the college scouts have cranked up their responsibilities because so many important decisions will be made when the evaluation process continues between now and the first round.

In 2023, Executive Vice President and General Manager Nick Caserio and Head Coach DeMeco Ryans worked together for the first time. To say the Texans hit a home run in their first draft together would be an understatement. It was more like a grand slam, beginning with quarterback C.J. Stroud and defensive end Will Anderson Jr. with the second and third overall picks. Stroud and Anderson Jr. were so impressive they were voted NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.

But the success of last year's draft went beyond the exceptional performances by Stroud and Anderson Jr.. Caserio selected nine players, six of whom started at least six games. Overall, the draft choices started 55 games: Stroud (15), Anderson (13), receiver Tank Dell (8), center Jarrett Patterson (7), guard Juice Scruggs (6) and linebacker Henry To'oTo'o (6).

Led by Stroud and Anderson Jr., last year's draft choices made substantial contributions to the Texans being the most surprising team in the league. Ryans ignited them to a 10-7 record and an AFC South title. They beat Cleveland at NRG Stadium in the wild card round before being eliminated at Baltimore in the divisional round.

Despite their success last season, the Texans still have needs, as does every other team, some more than others. What Caserio does in the draft depends largely on what he does in free agency as far as re-signing his players and signing players from other teams. Free agents have been a big part of Caserio's rebuild that began when he was hired in January of 2020.

Caserio and Ryans understand the draft is the lifeblood of NFL organizations. Their philosophies are aligned when it comes to building the team through the draft and supplementing it with free agents. Caserio makes every effort to try to give Ryans the kind of position-specific players he wants, and they place a heavy emphasis on a prospect's character.

Asked at the combine what the Texans can do for an encore considering the success of last year's draft, Ryans said, "How do we follow that (up this year)? We continue to add guys who fit the Texans' culture. We add those type of players to our locker room that's how we follow up a great draft (like) last year."

The Texans enter next month's draft with eight picks: one in each of the first three rounds, two in the fourth and three in the seventh. Their first-round pick is 23rd overall. Picks in the first and fourth rounds complete the Deshaun Watson trade to Cleveland. We know one thing for certain. Based on his history, Caserio will not sit on his hands during the draft because fans know how much he likes to wheel and deal.

Trying to predict what players the Texans will draft is a crapshoot, of course, but it's not difficult to identify needs and possible positions Caserio and Ryans might target. Expect a strong emphasis on defense for two reasons. One, Ryans was a defensive player and a defensive coach, and he makes the calls on that side of the ball. Two, they play a first-place schedule that includes a Murderer's Row of quarterbacks.

Ryans and defensive coordinator Matt Burke know they need to load up on that side of the ball because they'll be playing against Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, Aaron Rodgers, Dak Prescott, Tua Tagovailoa, Jared Goff, Jordan Love and probably Caleb Williams as the first overall pick in the draft to Chicago. That group doesn't include AFC South quarterbacks in Trevor Lawrence, Anthony Richardson and Will Levis.

Caserio and Ryans are careful not to divulge any secrets, but that lineup of quarterbacks will cause the Texans to work overtime next season when they'll be the defending division champions.

"The big thing that we emphasize is just good, sound, consistent, decision-making and let the process play itself out," Caserio said last week. "The big thing DeMeco and I've talked about is trying to build (a) deep and consistent roster top to bottom. We're trying to optimize our opportunities. We're fortunate we've added players that have been able to help our team."

It makes sense that Ryans will want to target the defensive line and cornerback even if the Texans are able to re-sign end Jonathan Greenard, tackle Sheldon Rankins and cornerback Steven Nelson, three of their most important players. Anytime Ryans talks about his defense, he starts with the line.

Even if Greenard and Rankins return, it makes sense that the first-round pick could still be a defensive lineman. The highest-rated edge rushers like Alabama's Dallas Turner, Florida State's Jared Verse and UCLA's Laiatu Latu aren't expected to be available when Caserio makes the 23rd pick. But Penn State's Chop Robinson and Missouri's Darius Robinson could still be on the board.

If Ryans prefers an interior defensive lineman, Robinson has played inside and outside. Texas' Byron Murphy II is the best defensive tackle available, but he'll be long gone before Caserio makes his first selection. Two interior players who could be available are Illinois' Jer'Zhan Newton and Florida State's Braden Fiske. Newton is recovering from surgery on his foot but is a dominating presence. Fiske was considered a second-round draft choice until he had a monster performance at the combine, where he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.78 and showed his terrific athleticism.

Ryans came from the 49ers. Their blueprint for success has been to stockpile linemen in the first round and free agency and use lower picks on linebackers and defensive backs. In their Super Bowl loss to Kansas City, the 49ers started three defensive linemen who were first-round picks. No linebacker or defensive back was selected higher than the third round.

Because there are so many talented cornerbacks available, perhaps Caserio and Ryans will target a prospect at that position to play opposite Derek Stingley Jr. Nelson, Desmond King II and Tavierre Thomas have expiring contracts. Nelson and King played well last season.

It's doubtful Alabama's Terrion Arnold, Toledo's Quinyon Mitchell and Clemson's Nate Wiggins will be on the board when the Texans make their first pick. But corners with first-round grades who could be available are Alabama's Kool-Aid McKinstry, Iowa's Cooper DeJean and Missouri's Ennis Rakestraw Jr.

A lot of fans and members of the media want the Texans to use a high pick on another receiver for Stroud. The Texans have shown it's not necessary to draft a receiver in the first round. Nico Collins and Tank Dell were third-round picks, and they're doing just fine. Caserio is expected to address wide receiver at some point, but it's not likely in the first round.

The Texans will have a much better idea of what they want to do in the draft after they've made moves in free agency, a time during the offseason that requires 24/7 dedication and the kind of wise decisions Caserio and Ryans made together last year.

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