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McClain: Texans made amazing transformation between their 2023 and 2024 scouting combines


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.

What a transformative year it's been for the Texans.

Consider where the Texans were at this time a year ago compared to where they are now. In 2023, Executive Vice President and General Manager Nick Caserio returned from the scouting combine with a first-year head coach, offensive coordinator and quarterback coach.

Caserio, DeMeco Ryans, Bobby Slowik and Jerrod Johnson knew they needed a franchise quarterback. They also knew Ryans wanted an edge rusher, too. With the second overall pick in the draft, they knew they couldn't solve both needs with one selection. There was the upcoming free agency period to help solve issues on both sides of the ball.

Decisions, decisions.

Now consider where the Texans are today after returning from another week in Indianapolis. The difference is amazing. Caserio and Ryans still have needs, of course, but Janice, Hannah and Cal McNair – as well as everyone else in the organization – have to feel so much more confident about where their franchise is today compared to this time last year. From the McNair family to Caserio and Ryans, everyone knows so much more about the team than they did after last year's combine.

"When you look at last year, there were a lot of new people," Caserio said at the combine. "DeMeco did a great job putting the staff together. Offensively, specifically starting with Bobby (and) coaches like (senior offensive assistant) Bill Lazor, (senior offensive assistant) Shane Day (and) Jerrod. When we put the staff together in February, we didn't know what our team was going to look like, who the quarterback was going to be. We knew we were going to evaluate a number of players during the spring.

"There's a lot of work that goes into it. You learn about each other from where we were to where we ended up at the end of the season, almost like night and day. There are things we learned this year that, hopefully, we can utilize. There's some areas we, hopefully can improve (and) some things we didn't do as well."

Last year, Ryans attended his first combine as a head coach, who, along with Caserio, was involved in the decision-making process. He had a lot of new coaches and was on the verge of acquiring a lot of new players in free agency and the draft.

Quarterback C.J. Stroud had thrown at the combine and put on a show that attracted everyone's attention. Caserio, Ryans, Slowik, Johnson and the other coaches were impressed with Stroud's performance, but there was a long way to go in the scouting process, including pro days, private workouts, lunches, dinners and bringing in 30 players for visits.

"Yeah, at this point last year, we had seen C.J. play over a couple seasons," Caserio said. "We (talked) to him at the combine, but in terms of interactions with him, it was very limited from a one-on-one basis because he was an underclassman, so you (didn't) have access to the underclassmen (until the combine).

"Essentially, (before the combine) we were relying on our information from the school that we gathered from the scouts and then just from observing the player play. Then we interviewed him at the combine, and we brought him into our facility. This (combine) was sort of the beginning stage of the process."

Things worked out so well during the 2023 offseason that the Texans made the biggest improvement in the NFL. Ryans led them to a 10-7 record and an AFC South title. In their first playoff appearance since the 2019 season, the Texans defeated Cleveland at NRG Stadium before being eliminated at Baltimore in the divisional round. Ryans did such an outstanding job he finished a close second to the Browns' Kevin Stefanski in voting for NFL Coach of the Year.

Slowik was a finalist for the NFL Assistant Coach of the Year. He and Johnson did their jobs so well that both were pursued for promotions with other teams.

But they're staying put; the Texans rewarded them with well-earned contract extensions.

After the turnaround Caserio engineered, a strong case was made for him to win the NFL Executive of the Year Award. He finished second to Detroit's Brad Holmes. Not only did he hire Ryans – with the McNair family signing off, of course – but after using that second overall pick on Stroud, Caserio orchestrated a trade up with Arizona to select defensive end Will Anderson Jr. with the third overall pick.

Those decisions to draft Stroud and Anderson worked out so well Stroud was voted NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, and Anderson was NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. Caserio solved the team's most pressing issues by drafting Stroud and Anderson, who should be cornerstones as the Texans continue their mission to become bona-fide Super Bowl contenders.

"Wow, that was an exciting draft last year to be able to get two of the top players in (the) class," Ryans said. "To get C.J. and Will – two anchors for our team (and) for our locker room – that was very important for us.

"How do we follow that up this year? We'll continue to add guys who fit the Texans' culture. And that's guys who're made of that relentless mindset, are true competitors, love football, love pushing their teammates to be their best (and) who want to be the best at what they do. We add those type of players to our locker room – that's how we follow up last year's great draft."

One thing that's been so impressive about the Texans' transformation has been the way Caserio and Ryans are on the same page with decisions they make. Caserio has final say on personnel decisions, and he tries to get Ryans the kind of players he and the coaching staff want to be successful. After watching what they did together last year, it should be even more exciting to see what they can accomplish during their second offseason together.

"Every season you start over," Ryans said. "Last year was last year. It was a good run for us. It didn't end the way we wanted it to (and) now it's a clean slate. I'm looking to build as we start this offseason. Who're we going to be? I'm excited to build our team again (with) guys looking to compete, guys who want to play for each other (and) guys who want to hunt."

But now the cleats are on the other foot. The Texans are the defending AFC South champions for the first time since the 2020 season. They become the hunted rather than the hunter. Based on what we saw last year, those cleats should be a perfect fit.

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