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McClain: Texans expected to continue reinforcing defense to prepare for elite quarterbacks next season

A January 6th, 2024 image from the Regular Season week 18 game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, IN.
A January 6th, 2024 image from the Regular Season week 18 game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, IN.

The Texans' offseason approach to fortifying their defense has been similar to building a blockade – cover every possible entry point, wait for the enemy to attack and then force them to retreat in defeat.

In the Texans' case, the enemy is comprised of quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes (Chiefs), Lamar Jackson (Ravens), Josh Allen (Bills), Dak Prescott (Cowboys), Aaron Rodgers (Jets), Tua Tagovailoa (Dolphins), Jordan Love (Packers), Jared Goff (Lions) and Caleb Williams (Bears), destined to be the first overall pick in the draft. And that's not including AFC South quarterbacks Trevor Lawrence (Jaguars), Anthony Richardson (Colts) and Will Levis (Titans).

That Murderer's Row of quarterbacks is a byproduct of the Texans' success under first-year Head Coach DeMeco Ryans. After leaping from worst to first in the AFC South with a 10-7 record and going 1-1 in postseason, the Texans will hitch up their new uniform pants, snap the chinstraps on their new helmets even tighter and come out swinging.

The Texans play a first-place schedule next season that includes five defending division champions, seven playoff teams and 11 games against teams that finished 2023 with winning records. That could be a daunting assignment, but it's one that Ryans, offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik, defensive coordinator Matt Burke, special teams coordinator Frank Ross and their coaches and players will welcome with eager anticipation.

That's why Executive Vice President and General Manager Nick Caserio signed 13 defensive free agents and re-signed four of his defensive players. It's also why he's expected to continue to reload the defense in the draft. He has nine picks – as it stands today – two in the second round, one in the third and two each in the fourth, sixth and seventh rounds.

While augmenting the offense in trades for wide receiver Stefon Diggs and running back Joe Mixon, Caserio used his salary cap room wisely. He signed, among others, defensive players like end Danielle Hunter, tackle Denico Autry, linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair, tackle Tim Settle, tackle Foley Fatukasi and cornerbacks Jeff Okudah, C.J. Henderson, Myles Bryant and Mike Ford.

Caserio also brought back four defensive veterans: cornerback Desmond King II, tackle Khalil Davis, end Derek Barnett and linebacker Neville Hewitt.

There's a chance Caserio could use premium draft choices on a defensive tackle, cornerback and safety.

It's not like the Texans were bad on defense last season. They finished 14th (330.7 yards a game), including sixth against the run (96.6) and 23rd against the pass (234.1). It's just that Caserio, Ryans and members of the coaching and personnel staffs know what's coming.

The division winners on the Texans' schedule finished with a combined 59-26 record. Those same division winners finished third, fourth, fifth, sixth and ninth in offense. And the Dolphins, who were a wild card team that lost in the playoffs at Kansas City, were first in offense.

The division winners finished second, third, sixth, eighth and 21st in passing. The Dolphins were first.

Memo to C.J. Stroud: The division winners were no slouches on defense, either. They were second, fifth, sixth, ninth and 19th defensively.

With Hunter, Autry and Will Anderson Jr., the Texans have three premier pass rushers. Anderson is the only starter returning in the defensive line after the Texans set a franchise record with 45 sacks. So much of Ryans' defense is predicated on the line, stopping the run – they went from 32nd to sixth last season – and then getting after the quarterback. That's why it shouldn't be a surprise if Caserio adds another tackle with one of the second-round draft picks.

Here's a good reason Caserio has signed so many cornerbacks in free agency and could draft another one in the second round: Of the seven playoff teams the Texans face next season, the lowest-rated quarterbacks in 2023 were Mahomes (92.6) and Allen (92.2). Is that frightening or what?

The other five, in order, are Prescott (105.9), Jackson (102.7), Tagovailoa (101.1), Goff (97.9) and Love (96.1). Those seven quarterbacks combined for 207 touchdown passes and 85 interceptions. Prescott (36) threw the most touchdown passes. Allen (18) threw the most interceptions.

Oh, one more statistic for the defensive buffs: There were 12 players who rushed for at least 1,000 yards last season. The Texans play six of them – Derrick Henry (Ravens), James Cook (Bills), David Montgomery (Lions), Raheem Mostert (Dolphins), Travis Etienne (Jaguars) and Tony Pollard (Titans).

Based on all that information about the Texans' opponents next season, it's easy to see why Caserio and Ryans will continue to do everything they can to reinforce a defense that will be under constant attack by many of the NFL's most elite quarterbacks.

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