Early in the offseason, in fact, day one back in April, Texans head coach Lovie Smith strode to the podium to meet the assembled media and was asked a question about Houston's secondary in 2021. Throughout the entire offseason, we had heard promising and encouraging discourse from the Texans leader about most every area on the team. However, when queried about the secondary, he didn't hold back on what he saw in 2021.
"It just wasn't good enough."
When a coach or GM speaks during the month of April, I typically take it with a grain of salt, given that it's Draft Month, aka Lying Season. But, the Texans' subsequent actions spoke volumes and gave Smith's statement 100% credence.
- Three 2021 starters were traded, released or signed elsewhere.
- Texans' number three overall pick in the draft was a DB
- Texans' number 37 overall pick in the draft was a DB
- Two of team's top three draft picks were those two DBs
- Five new veteran defensive backs were signed this offseason
- Two veteran defensive backs were re-signed in Houston after 2021.
- Two UDFAs signed were DBs.
Lo and behold, the secondary unit is still under construction but how much more work is needed remains to be seen. There's little question, carrying the construction metaphor a bit further, that the tools and materials are much improved but there's no telling how quickly the house can be built in 2022. How fast can this renovation take place? We'll find out very soon as we head into training camp in a few weeks. Let's take a look at the Texans defensive backs heading into the Texans 21st training camp.
Returning players from 2021 squad, in order of snaps played in 2021.
Desmond King - 927 snaps (69.3% of total snaps)
At the outset of the 2021 season, King was the team's inside slot corner but as the season wore on, King stepped outside and played the second half of the season as one of the team's starters at perimeter corner (not to mention his punt return responsibilities). Once he was inserted at that spot, he made a number of impactful plays, in particular in the rainy day win at Tennessee. He had two interceptions and knocked star WR A.J. Brown out of the game with a teeth gnashing shot to the rib cage. King re-signed with the Texans this past offseason on a two year deal.
Eric Murray - 758 snaps (66.0% of total snaps)
Murray, unfortunately, missed most of OTAs/minicamps getting his body healthy for training camp but reconfigured and extended his contract to stay in Houston. Last year, staying strictly at safety in this defense, Murray, like King, made impactful plays in key games and finished the season with 76 tackles, one interception at Miami in 11 starts in 2021. There's little question that his experience is a vital asset on this 2022 Texans roster.
Tavierre Thomas - 638 snaps (55.6% of total snaps)
No secondary player had as good a year as Thomas. His emergence sort of was like eating a jalapeno pepper. At first, the heat doesn't really kick in, but as time goes on, the heat rises and sustains itself for a while. Thomas really started catching my eye early in the season and I remember thinking "man, TT is making some DUDE plays lately", but it became that much more evident every single week HOW much of an impact he was making. Thomas stepped into the inside slot/nickel role once King moved to the outside and he took off. He tackled anything that moved, made a number of plays on the ball and even had his first pick six in the win over the Chargers. Call it a breakout year or whatever you choose, but once Thomas finally got a shot, he more than made the most of it.
Terrence Brooks - 179 snaps (15.6% of total snaps)
Brooks started three games for the Texans in 2021, the first of which was at Indianapolis. But, early in that game, Brooks got dinged up, missed most of that game and was absent for the next three contests with that injury. He started two other games during the 2021 season, including the final game against the Titans in which he had eight tackles and a pass breakup. Heading into his ninth year in the NFL, Brooks has truly seen it all and will certainly be in the mix at the safety position.
Tremon Smith - 179 snaps (15.6% of total snaps)
Smith will always be one of my favorites as I called his college games many eons ago. He became a Texans' fan favorite after his 98-yard kickoff return TD against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Teams chose to not kick him the ball after that TD return, which forced the Texans offensive staff to get creative and find ways to get him the ball. The cornerback log jam/competition will be a tough nut to crack, but Smith will always be a threat when he gets the ball in his hands, at a minimum, as a return star.
Jonathan Owens - 168 snaps (14.6% of total snaps)
In week 14 at Jacksonville last season, Owens started for the first time in his three year career and finished with eight tackles, while playing 100% of the team's 70 defensive snaps. He was just getting going, though, as the following week, he started again and had the first interception of his career, a truly key moment in the Texans' win over the Chargers. Unfortunately, early in the game at San Francisco in week 17, he injured his wrist and has been rehabbing ever since. That said, he flashed some serious potential in 2021 and Lovie Smith has often mentioned how well Owens fits the Profile for a safety in this defense.
Grayland Arnold - 3 snaps (.3% of total snaps)
Arnold came to the Texans during the 2021 season but didn't get a ton of opportunity to show what he could do as a result of that late timing. He'll get that time during training camp to prove that the former Baylor star has the versatility and toughness to impact this team in some way, shape or form in 2022.
2022 Veterans Additions (in alphabetical order)
Fabian Moreau - formerly of the Atlanta Falcons
Height, weight and speed are in abundance for the former UCLA star, who joined the Texans late in the 2022 offseason. That said, Moreau was here for a couple of weeks in June so he did get a chance to dive into the playbook and meet the rest of the defense. He spent the 2021 season in Atlanta where he started 16 games and racked up 61 tackles and 11 passes defensed.
Steven Nelson - formerly of the Philadelphia Eagles
Nelson was the team's most significant signing in the secondary this offseason as he signed a two year contract to join the Texans in 2022 and beyond. He spent the 2021 season in Philadelphia where, like Moreau, he started 16 games and finished with one interception and seven passes defensed. Nelson has started 15 games or more for the past four seasons and that experience is incredibly valuable to this still growing secondary.
Kendall Sheffield - formerly of the Atlanta Falcons
Sheffield started twenty games for the Falcons in his first two seasons in the league, but in 2021, he was stuck behind Moreau and Pro Bowl star CB A.J. Terrell. He was surprisingly released in May 2022 and GM Nick Caserio jumped all over the opportunity to add the blazing fast, Houston homeboy to the roster. Although the team was just in shorts and T-shirts, Sheffield made a handful of plays in OTAs/minicamp that caught my attention…and others.
M.J. Stewart - formerly of the Cleveland Browns
Stewart set career highs in tackles, passes defensed, forced fumbles and TFLs in the 2021 season as a member of the Cleveland Browns. He signed a one year deal to come to Houston and compete for an opportunity at the safety position. Coming out of North Carolina, he was one of my draft crushes in 2018 but he bounced around a bit, position-wise, and that may have kept him from establishing a true foundation there. Cleveland's loss is Houston's gain and Stewart will have plenty of opportunity here to take his career to a new level.
Isaac Yiadom - formerly of the Green Bay Packers
Yiadom was a third round pick in 2018 with the Denver Broncos where he started nine games in his first two seasons. Then, he moved across the country to start ten games in 2020 for the New York Giants before he signed in Green Bay for 2021. He certainly fits the body type and profile for a defensive back in this Texans secondary - 6-1, 190 lb., long arms and can run.
2022 Rookie Additions
Derek Stingley Jr. - LSU - 1st round, #3 overall
Here's my Harris 100 Scouting Report on the former LSU All-American
"Heading into the 2021 season, I firmly believed that Stingley Jr. was the no-doubt, best defensive prospect in the nation and close to being the best overall prospect in the nation. When I watched Jalen Ramsey (FSU/Jags/Rams), I saw a polished and NFL experienced Derek Stingley Jr. That said, I thought Stingley had better cornerback potential but his length, speed, recovery speed, smooth cover without mauling...man, you name it, and he's got those skills. He made Bruce Feldman's Freaks list at No. 9. Why? At the Opening heading into his senior season in HS, he clocked a 4.30 40-yard dash, a 42-inch vertical and a 4.28 short shuttle. Apparently, he's FASTER and he's definitely leaner, shaving 11 pounds to get down to 194. There were rumors about him playing offense in 2021 but he was shelved with a lower leg injury that took away our shot to see him play college football at a high level in 2021. I don't know if the injury will have a major impact on his physical future, but the fact that he played little in 2020 and was hurt early in 2021 will be discussed a ton in draft rooms. The fact that his best film and really, the only legitimately true film that he has is in his true freshman season is a concern. I thought about watching NC State OT Ikem Ekwonu two years ago and where he is now. He's LIGHT years ahead of where he was. Stingley isn't. But, he was a wunderkind as a freshman; perhaps, he can pick up right where he left off as an NFL professional and be THAT guy. The concerns are valid. The assets/elite traits are too. All of that leaves me in a quandary. In the end, I trust what I saw as a true freshman and I trust those elite traits as well, so he'll remain a top seven player in my opinion."
Jalen Pitre - Baylor - 2nd round, #37 overall
Here's my Harris 100 Scouting Report on the 2021 Big 12 Def. Player of the Year
"Pitre is one of the most versatile talents in all of college football and he's battled through one of the craziest college situations to get to the other side, if you will. Trying to figure out what his main position will be in the NFL will be a challenge for NFL squads but a good one, honestly. I was a HUGE fan of former Oregon star Jevon Holland and Pitre's number eight isn't the only thing that reminds me of Holland. The former Oregon Duck Holland played a ton of time near the box, but had the range to make plays as MOF player. Pitre has shown the same thing, especially in Dave Aranda's defense in 2021. He will make effective tackles out in space and find the football in a hurry. At the Senior Bowl, he was effective in coverage, making hits near the LOS and being the floor general/leader that he was at Baylor. There's a definite "we don't know where he's going to line up on every play" Tyrann Mathieu-like play style that makes Pitre a star. I've seen him sniff out screens. He's blitzed the edge like an OLB for sacks. He's been the backside run defender running down a zone play going the other way. He's fearless as a run defender and tackler - he's NEVER making business decisions, that's for sure. Against BYU, he blitzed off the edge against a wide zone play. The H-back caught him but Pitre never stopped his effort. When the BYU ball carrier had to slow down to cut back, Pitre made the stop from behind for a two yard gain. He's a playmaker with no flash. He makes a play and hands the ball to the ref or walks back to the huddle. With Baylor ahead of BYU by THREE touchdowns with just three minutes left in the game, he sprinted after a BYU receiver who made a tremendous catch down the field as the Bears CB fell down. Pitre ran that BYU pass catcher down to keep him out of the end zone...with a 21 point lead. My gosh, a true football baller for sure."
Jacobi Francis - Memphis - UDFA
In OTAs/minicamp, unfortunately, we didn't get a chance to see much from Francis as a Texan, but there was plenty to get excited about in his six years at Memphis. He saw the field as early as his redshirt freshman season in 2017 and started 35 games in his final three seasons (2019, 2020 and 2021). Tough, competitive and extremely smart, Francis made a ton of plays at Memphis where I wondered whether he had actually been in the opposing huddle. He has solid ball skills/tracking skills down the field. He just needs to get fully healthy before training camp and display those competitive skills in one-on-ones and on all special teams situations in training camp.
Tristin McCollum - Sam Houston - UDFA
I called Tristin's games at Sam Houston throughout his entire five year career. He was instrumental on a defense that was one of the best in the nation, a defense that led the 2021 team to a national championship in the spring of 2021. Lovie Smith has mentioned players fitting the profile at certain positions and McCollum has all those attributes - height, weight, size and football IQ. He's a gem of a young man who will need to carve out opportunities on special teams early in his career, but his speed and football acumen should hopefully get the staff's attention in due time. In that way, he reminds me of Jonathan Owens who followed that same playbook, if you will. When HIS time finally came in December to start and contribute, he starred and so can McCollum.
Check out the first look at some of the Houston Texans roster suited up for the 2022 season.