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Position Breakdowns: Defensive Backs


The Texans secondary in 2021 was a major, MAJOR issue, so Nick Caserio and company remade the whole thing, basically. In 2022, Derek Stingley Jr. and Jalen Pitre were drafted, while Steven Nelson, among others, was signed in free agency. The construction wasn't quite complete so with the addition of new head coach DeMeco Ryans, the Texans added one of Ryans' former players from San Francisco in Jimmie Ward to give that group even more punch, leadership and playmaking. As we move into training camp, let's take a look at the makeup of this group, of which much is expected.

2023 Texans Training Camp roster (in numerical order)

#0 Desmond King II (7th NFL season) - 2021 FA signing, resigned in 2022

2022 stats - 17 games - 89 tackles, two INT, 3.0 sacks, 10.0 TFL, one FF, two FR, eight passed defensed

When King II signed with the Texans in 2021, it was thought that he would be the team's nickel and that was that. But, by week four of that season, he moved out to a perimeter CB position and stayed there. Then, with the arrival of Steven Nelson and drafting of Derek Stingley Jr in the 2022 offseason., it was again thought that King II would transition back to nickel. Yet, King II was instrumental over the last nine or ten games, again, at a perimeter corner position. I've always believed that King II possessed the versatility, toughness, ball skills and football IQ to play any position in the secondary. He finished tied for the team lead in TFL, 4th on the team in tackles, tied for 2nd in interceptions and tied for 4th in sacks. He was a bright light in a tough season, to say the least, and will continue to be an important part of this secondary in 2023.

#1 S/CB Jimmie Ward (10th NFL Season) - 2023 FA signing

2022 stats (SF) - 12 games - 50 tackles, three INT, 1.0 TFL

Back in the spring, just prior to the start of the new league year, I wrote this about Ward

"When it comes to free agency, it starts with connections. Now, let me be very clear, I don't think the Texans will spend a ton of money in the secondary in free agency. But, if they do decide to go in that direction, Ward would make a ton of sense, having played a ton for DeMeco Ryans in SF. He could be a solid fit at a number of spots in the back end."

During OTA/minicamp, he was all that anyone could've expected. I love the impact he's had, and will continue to have, on this defense in so many different ways. I can't wait to see him again in training camp/preseason.

View photos of the Houston Texans defensive backs heading into 2023 Training Camp.

#4 Tavierre Thomas (6th NFL season) - 2021 FA signing, 2023 re-signing

2022 stats - 10 games - 41 tackles, two FF, 1.0 TFL

Tav has just made plays for this Texans squad in his two seasons in Houston. Defense. Special Teams. He's constantly around the football and the 2022 defense missed him when he was out with an injury early in the season. He played in just ten games, but finished eighth on the team with 4.1 tackles per game. He returned to Houston and will continue to impact both the defense and special teams units.

#5 Jalen Pitre (2nd NFL season) - 2022 2nd round selection

2022 stats - 17 games - 147 tackles, five INT, 5.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, eight passes defensed, one FF, one FR

On Friday night of the 2022 NFL Draft, the Texans were a few picks into the second round. We had our eyes on a number of names and then we heard "Jalen Pitre." OHHH, that was a glorious moment. However, just hearing his name paled in comparison to the reality of Pitre being in the defensive backfield for the Texans as a rookie. By the end of the season, he was THE defensive leader in more ways than one. His infectious playing style and playmaking made him a hit with his home city's fans. He does need to improve in the tackling department, no doubt, but there's no one I'd rather have than Pitre as a pillar in this organization for his career. Total stud and the Texans need to add more like him over the next few years.

#16 Shaquill Griffin (7th NFL season) - 2023 FA signing

2022 stats (JAX) - five games - 29 tackles, four passes defensed and three TFL

Griffin's signing came as a surprise late in the offseason, but a GREAT one at that. He has 72 career starts and has started every single game he's played in since his second year in the league in 2018. But, he was injured last year in Jacksonville and placed on IR early in the campaign, which led to his release and subsequent Texans signing. During OTA/minicamp, he was able to garner some time on the field after arriving really late in the process and that was huge for this defense. Staying healthy in season seven isn't always easy for any veteran, especially after being banged up in 2022, but if Griffin is truly healthy, his addition could be one of the sneakiest hot signings/acquisitions of the year.

#20 Kendall Sheffield (5th NFL season) - 2023 FA signing

2022 season - IR/Practice squad throughout the season (HOU/DAL)

The Fort Bend ISD product is back in Houston to start 2023 as he was in 2022. He had moments early in training camp in 2022 but the organization decided to go a different way. However, when Sheffield was available this offseason, the Texans reached back out to add him back to the secondary. He's always been track fast and can run with anyone, anywhere, anytime and has experience and starts at the cornerback position.

#21 Steven Nelson (9th NFL season) - 2022 FA signing

2022 stats - 52 tackles, one INT, 1.0 sack, one FF, seven passes defensed

When Nelson was signed, I remember hearing some not so flattering things from places where Nelson had been. But, in watching him the previous years before he arrived, I thought he had played fairly well and Nelson played even better in 2022 as a Texan. He started 15 games during the season and was a steadying force at one cornerback spot all season. That type of play is needed at that position, yet again, if the Texans defense is to be a well-respected unit around the league.

#23 Eric Murray (8th NFL season) - 2020 free agent, re-signed in 2022 offseason

2022 stats - 17 games - 27 tackles

After starting the majority of games in his first two seasons in Houston, Murray spent most of the season on special teams in 2022. That said, his contributions on special teams helped the Texans become number one in the league on special teams. But, he was hugely important at the safety position as well in 2022 too, just in a different manner than the first two seasons. Over the second half of the season, he saw more time in the back end to spell the starters and contribute to the defense.

#24 Derek Stingley Jr.(2nd NFL season) - 2022 1st round selection

2022 stats - nine games - 43 tackles, one INT, 1.0 sack, five passes defensed

The future is incredibly bright in Houston and Sting is going to play a huge role in that. Perhaps no defender stands to benefit from the arrival of DeMeco Ryans more than the Texans first 1st round selection since 2019. He's just 21 years old and played the first nine games of the 2022 season before he was sidelined with a hamstring injury. When he's right and healthy, there's no more talented cover corner than the youngster from LSU. Now, he's only played 19 games in three seasons, so there's still some raw spots to work through, but his god given ability and competitiveness stand out every single day. I can't wait to see him in year two.

#25 Grayland Arnold (4th NFL season) - 2021 FA signing

2022 stats - eight games - three tackles

Arnold's early injury kept him from being more of a contributor on the defense in 2022. He was brought back from IR and was active for eight games, contributing on special teams in those games. He was fully healthy during OTA/minicamps and it showed in how well he was moving and reacting in coverage. He's made his mark on special teams but he'll be in the mix in the secondary, for certain.

#29 M.J. Stewart(6th NFL season) - 2022 FA signing, 2023 re-signing

2022 stats - 17 games - 41 tackles, two FR, 1.0 TFL

As the 2022 season wore on, Stewart was rewarded with more and more playing time on defense and it was his tipped ball that Tremon Smith intercepted at Dallas. Stewart was a rock star on special teams all year long and his play at safety improved significantly as the season progressed. He re-signed with the Texans and he's the perfect player in this locker room - he's seen some things, he's been around, if you catch my drift. Stewart didn't have a great preseason last year, but he more than made up for that throughout the regular season. He's an invaluable piece for this team in 2023 and beyond.

#30 Ka'dar Hollman(5th NFL season) - 2023 FA Signing

2022 season - Practice squad throughout the season (ATL/MIA/SF)

Hollman rejoined the Texans this offseason after he was originally traded to the Texans in 2021. He was not retained that season but fought his way back to H-Town this offseason. That journey back to Houston seemed to really create a chip, a good one, on Hollman's shoulder. Focused and driven, with size and speed, Hollman, a former walk-on in college, knows nothing is given and it's all earned. He's ready to earn it this 2023 preseason.

#36 Brandon Hill (Rookie) - 2023 7th round selection

2022 stats (at Pitt) - 67 tackles, 0.5 TFL, two PBU, one FR (one scoop 'n score)

When I did my breakdown of the secondary before free agency and the draft, I noted Hill as a player the Texans might pursue in the Draft. Consequently, I had a sixth round grade on him. They ended up getting him in the seventh round and that might be a steal, given his mindset, football IQ and football character. He was so gracious to just be drafted and during OTA/minicamp, he made it clear that he was willing to do anything to help the team. He played some snaps at the nickel spot, which he had never done before. He'll be someone to watch during training camp given his infectious nature and energy. Can't wait to see what he develops into at this level.

#37 D'Angelo Ross (5th NFL season) - 2023 FA signing

2022 season - Spent season on practice squad (MIA)

Similar to Hollman, Ross has fought to stay on rosters in the NFL, making his way to Houston this offseason. He spent the majority of the four years of his career in New England where Nick Caserio got to see him every day. When Ross was available in January 2023, Caserio signed the former New Mexico star to the roster. He's not the biggest physically, but his drive to make this team is immense and he'll have plenty of opportunities to do so against two of his three former teams (NE, MIA) in the preseason.

#38 Cobi Francis (2nd NFL season) - 2022 undrafted college free agent

2022 stats - five games - one tackle

Francis signed in Houston as an undrafted rookie free agent following the 2022 NFL Draft. He was active for five games and finished the season with one tackle. He has top notch athleticism and there's a spot on this team for athletes/competitors like him. During OTA/minicamps, in my opinion, he looked much more comfortable in all aspects and that's a great thing heading into training camp.

#43 Tyree Gillespie (3rd NFL season) - Claimed on waivers in 2023

2022 stats (JAX) - three games

Gillespie will let you know when he's around the football. Coming out of the University of Missouri a few years ago, I lauded him for the, uh, "introductions" he made to opposing ball carriers (in other words, he hit…HARD). He has played the majority of his snaps on special teams the past two seasons but he should get a long look in the defensive backfield with all the opportunity available in seven combined preseason games and joint practices.

#44 Darius Phillips (6th NFL season) - 2023 FA signing

2022 stats (DEN) - nine games - two tackles

Phillips started eight games for the Bengals in 2020 before moving on to FA after his final season in 2021. He moved around a bit in 2022, playing in nine games for the Broncos, mainly on special teams. The veteran experience is a huge need in this secondary and that's of tremendous value to this team. Phillips is a smart cover guy and will have plenty of chances to make this roster with three preseason games and four more joint practices with which to shine.

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