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McClain: What can fans expect from the Texans' 2023 draft class?

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.

16x9_Thumbnail_Anderson Stroud

Now that organized team activities have started, this seems like a good time to look back at the Texans' 2023 draft and try to figure out what's expected from each pick as they prepare for their second season.

Players usually – but not always – make their most improvement in their second season. Some, like quarterback C.J. Stroud and defensive end Will Anderson Jr., become instant hits as rookies. Others need a third season to prove what they can do. Too many fall short of expectations.

For the second consecutive year, Executive Vice President/General Manager Nick Caserio drafted nine players for Head Coach DeMeco Ryans and his staff. A year from now, the 2024 class will be evaluated. Now, let's look back at the Class of 2023 and predict how each player will respond in his sophomore season:

1A. C.J. Stroud, QB, Ohio State

What does the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year do for an encore? Offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik and quarterbacks coach Jerrod Johnson will explain to Stroud that defensive coordinators on the Texans' schedule will spend a big part of their offseasons watching tape and trying to devise strategy to combat what Stroud does best. Stroud's coaches will try to counteract what they anticipate opponents doing. Stroud's game will have to evolve. Based on his talent, intelligence, work ethic and leadership – not to mention Caserio providing him with offensive talent like receiver Stefon Diggs and running back Joe Mixon -- there's no reason not to expect Stroud to continue to improve and take his place among the NFL's elite quarterbacks.

1B. Will Anderson Jr., DE, Alabama

The NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year could make the kind of leap J.J. Watt made from his first to second season. Anderson is that good. Watt had 5.5 sacks, 56 total tackles, 13 tackles for loss and 19 quarterback hits as a rookie in 2011. In his second season when he won his first NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award, Watt had 20.5 sacks, 81 tackles, 39 tackles for loss and 43 quarterback hits. As the third overall pick, Anderson had seven sacks, 45 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and 23 quarterback hits. He led all rookies with 67 pressures. Anderson, who's 6-4, 260, plays the run exceptionally well. Expect him to develop into a dynamic pass rusher who's capable of leading the NFL in sacks and being voted NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

2. Juice Scruggs, C, Penn State

As a center, Scruggs impressed his coaches and teammates in the offseason program, training camp before beginning the season on injured reserve. He was replaced by rookie Jarrett Patterson and veteran Michael Deiter. When Scruggs was healthy, he played in seven games and made six starts at left guard. He's a natural center. If he stays healthy this season, he has the ability to become the kind of run blocker and pass protector Caserio expected when he used a premium draft choice to acquire him.

3. Tank Dell, WR, Houston

One of the NFL's biggest rookie surprises. Already a fan favorite because of his outstanding performance for the Cougars, Dell and Stroud developed a quick rapport that paid huge dividends. Dell played in 11 games and made eight starts. Before suffering a season-ending injury trying to block in a victory over Denver, Dell caught 47 passes for 709 yards (15.1 average) and seven touchdowns. He and Stroud were the first rookies to collaborate on at least seven touchdowns since Andrew Luck and T.Y. Hilton did it in 2012. Because of his speed and quickness, Dell is a big-time home-run threat capable of scoring every time he touches the ball. If he stays healthy, expect him to become one of the league's most dangerous receivers.

4. Dylan Horton, DE, TCU

He played in 10 games, mostly on special teams, but also had 13 tackles, one for loss and two quarterback hits. Then Horton was diagnosed with Stage 4 Hodgkin's Lymphoma and was placed on the reserve/non-football illness list, and he began his treatment. In May, Horton announced on his Instagram account that he completed his chemotherapy treatment and was in remission. He showed a video of him ringing the bell at M.D. Anderson, and he's working hard to get back into football shape. When he's healthy and able to return, the Texans are hoping he'll be able to join the rotation at defensive end.

5. Henry To'oTo'o, LB, Alabama

He played in 15 games and started six. He contributed to the NFL's best special teams and made one start in the middle and five on the strong side. To'oTo'o was in on 61 tackles. Christian Harris is a budding star on the weak side, and newly acquired free agent Azeez Al-Shaair, who led Tennessee in tackles in 2023, will start on the sideline. That leaves To'oTo'o on the strong side when Ryans uses three linebackers. Because there's so much on a rookie linebacker's plate when it comes to the mental part of the game, expect To'oTo'o to be a lot more comfortable in Ryans' system in his second season.

6A. Jarrett Patterson, G/C, Notre Dame

After spending the offseason, camp and preseason primarily at left guard, when Patterson played he was utilized at center. Then he suffered a season-ending injury. After his impressive contribution as a rookie, expect him to compete for the starting job at left guard with Kenyon Green and Kendrick Green.

6B. Xavier Hutchinson, WR, Iowa State

Hutchinson appeared in 16 games as a rookie, more than any receiver on the team, because he was a terrific special teams player. He also flashed as a receiver. He had eight catches for 90 yards (11.3 average), but he also carried the ball five times for 49 yards (9.8 average). He has excellent size and good enough speed. Barring injuries, there should be a logjam at receiver, but that's a good problem for the coaches to have. Hutchinson is physical and knows how to block, which endears him to his coaches. He's got to stand out in camp and preseason if he plans to earn more playing time in his second season.

7. Brandon Hill, S, Pittsburgh

As a rookie, Hill spend most of his time on the practice squad. He was activated for two games. He'll be given a chance to compete for playing time off the bench behind starters Jalen Pitre and Jimmie Ward, but it's a crowded room for the safeties. Veterans Eric Murray and M.J. Stewart, who finished the season on injured reserve, are eager to make a contribution. Third-round pick Calen Bullock has the kind of size, speed and range coaches covet as a deep safety. Hill will have to contribute on special teams.

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