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What we learned from Ryans, Caserio at the combine

Houston Texans head coach DeMeco Ryans speaks during a press conference at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis, Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Houston Texans head coach DeMeco Ryans speaks during a press conference at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis, Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

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.

At the scouting combine this week, Texans' Executive Vice President & General Manager Nick Caserio and Head Coach DeMeco Ryans did 15-minute interview sessions with the media. They discussed such things as quarterback C.J. Stroud's outstanding rookie performance, the success of the 2023 season, free agency, the salary cap and the draft on April 25-27 in Detroit.

As always, Ryans and Caserio were careful not to divulge any secrets, but during their time at the podium, they did offer some interesting insights that might give fans an idea of what kind of decisions they'll be considering during an offseason that could put them in position to win another AFC South championship and contend for the Super Bowl. Here are 10 takeaways from the Ryans and Caserio interviews in Indianapolis:


There was so much to like watching C.J. Stroud in his impressive rookie season. His decision making, the way he avoided making throws that could have been interceptions, basically not making typical rookie mistakes that come with inexperience. Stroud grew up fast. Obviously, his coaches and teammates had a lot to do with his success.

Ryans on Stroud's first season in which he was voted NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year:

"He can put the ball anywhere he needs to in a very accurate manner, and I think at that position, when you have a calm demeanor and your teammates see that, it's a confidence that exudes throughout the locker room. Those are the skills that allowed him to have one of the best rookie seasons for a quarterback in our league's history. (I'm) very excited about what C.J. did, but I'm also more excited about the things he can improve and where he can get better – definitely looking for a huge jump in his growth from year one to year two."


Not only was Stroud fortunate to have exceptional coaching, but he was a sponge who soaked it all in and put it to use during the 10-7 season that also included a division title and a playoff victory over Cleveland before the season ended with the loss at Baltimore in the divisional round.

Ryans on the success Stroud experienced:

"When we talk about his growth, I think it starts with the coaches you surround him with – some young, very talented coaches like (offensive coordinator) Bobby Slowik, (quarterbacks coach) Jerrod Johnson (senior assistants) Bill Lazor and Shane Day. Having Case Keenum there, a veteran quarterback who's done it at a high level for a long time. Making sure that we had that balance around C.J. If he had question, there were guys around him he (could) ask, (guys) who could give him the answers and share with him their experiences of how they've seen other quarterbacks succeed in this league."


Jacksonville entered last season as a heavy favorite to repeat as division champion, but the Texans beat out the Jaguars and Colts to win the AFC South. All three finished with winning records. The Texans will play a first-place schedule next season, and they should go into the season as the favorite.

Ryans on the competition in the AFC South:

"Our division is definitely really good. When you think about the young quarterbacks in our division with the Colts (Anthony Richardson), the Jags (Trevor Lawrence), the Titans (Will Levis) and us (C.J. Stroud), we all have really (good) quarterbacks (with) bright futures. Four really good teams in our division. It's going to be a battle every week that we play each other. I'm excited about it. You want to play against the top competition to see where you stack up, and I'm excited to see our team develop and grow throughout the year and see where we end up."


As it stands today, the Texans have 34 players whose contracts will expire on March 13 at 3 p.m. when the new league year begins. Obviously, Caserio will have a few who have re-signed, others who'll test the market and quite a few who won't be offered new contracts, so expect a huge turnover. It's always more favorable for teams to keep players they're familiar with, but free agents signed during the offseason and during the season to replace injured players made significant contributions to winning the AFC South and defeating Cleveland in the wild card round.

Ryans on how much familiarity benefits a veteran's evaluation when making free agent decisions:

"When you have that first-hand look at guys you've spent day after day with, you know them. You know their strengths. You know their weaknesses. You know everything about the player. You know how they are when things get hot and heavy, like how do they handle it? I think there's an advantage to, 'Man, I know exactly who this guy is. I know exactly how he'll respond,' as opposed to reaching for someone on another team you may not have much information about. There's a lot that goes into it. It's like while we're at the combine, we're trying to gather as much information on these players and their background, as much as we can to identify who they are as a person. And in the free agency process, it kind of gets sped up, and sometimes you miss out on figuring out who is this person we're bringing into our building? For me, it's always person over player, and bringing the right person in is of high importance to me."


Ryans knows the Texans don't have to use a first-round pick on a wide receiver to find good ones. Just look at Nico Collins and Tank Dell. Nick Caserio drafted both of them in the third round. This is a deep and talented draft for receivers, and the Texans are expected to select one, but it would be a surprise if it was in the first round. Only three receivers – Andre Johnson (2003), DeAndre Hopkins (2013) and Will Fuller (2016) – have been taken in the first round. The highest pick Caserio has used on a receiver was John Metchie III, a second-round choice in 2022.

Ryans on what he looks for in a wide receiver:

"We're looking for guys who are separators (and) can find a way to get open. If you have that one redeeming quality that you can separate, that's what we're looking for, especially that shows up on third down. How do you win third down? How do you stay on the field as an offense and continue to produce and move the ball down the field? It's about third down and being able to convert, and the way you convert is guys who are savvy enough to find a way to always get open."


Wide receiver is a key position for the Texans during free agency and the draft. It'll be a key season for Metchie, who'll be going into his third season. Caserio traded back into the second round to select him in 2022. After recovering from a torn ACL suffered at Alabama and beating Leukemia as a rookie, Metchie was healthy last season, and big things are expected of him next season. Still, Caserio is expected to add another receiver to the roster. Think third round, where he chose Collins and Dell.

Caserio on what he looks for when evaluating wide receivers for Bobby Slowik's offense:

"The receiver kind of has two jobs – get open and catch the ball. When you talk about separation, typically where that manifests itself the most is on third down because, typically, there's a lot more man coverage played on third down (and) the coverage is going to be a little bit tighter. Some come in with quickness. Some come in with size. Some come in with speed. I think it depends on the player and his skillset. How Tank Dell gets open and runs routes is very unique. How Nico runs routes and gets open is (also) very unique. How you're going to use that player, do you need to formation a certain way, can you only align him in one spot? In the end, the job of a receiver is to get open and catch the ball however they do it, so however they create that space and separation, is going to be unique to whatever skillset they provide."


Caserio will use every avenue to keep and to bring in players he and Ryans believe will help the Texans be better next season when they play 11 games against teams that finished last season with a winning record.

Caserio on his philosophy:

"The big thing is to try to improve the team. We have certain areas and players that made significant contributions, but the big thing DeMeco and I have talked about on a consistent basis is trying to build as deep and consistent a roster top to bottom. We're trying to take advantage of our opportunities to add players. Free agency, it's a process. It's finding the right people with the right mindset and the right mentality that fit the program we're trying to build. What we're trying to do (at the combine) is to (learn) some of the things that have led to where he is at this point. Their background, who influenced them in terms of their development, who helped them the most, some of the things that they had to endure and overcome. You're not going to get it in a 15- to 20-minute interview, but you kind of get a quick snapshot. This is a people business (and you want to) bring the right people into your locker room. You want to make sure they fit the culture. This is a players' league. Players are very smart (and) very perceptive. They know if a player is sincere. Part of our job is to kind of sift through the noise and then try to create as accurate a profile as we can about what we think we're bringing into the building."


Since he was hired three years ago and given the assignment of rebuilding the team, Caserio has been careful how he spends money in free agency. He's given a lot of one- and two-year contracts. He's given only one three-year contract to a free agent: Punter Cameron Johnston, who's been excellent. The cap went up this year $30.6 million to $255.4 million. Depending on whose numbers you use, the Texans have room under the salary cap of $68.4 million ( or $64.1 million ( Either figure represents the most room Caserio has had after turning around the team's cap situation. He prefers to give extensions and new contracts to Texans he believes have earned it, and giving monster contracts to other teams' free agents hasn't been the way he's operated.

Caserio on the $30.6 million cap increase and his philosophy on using it:

"It doesn't necessarily change how we're going to approach this offseason. We were already in a decent position. Depending on what the number is, maybe it gives you a little flexibility. Could be (to) add a singular player, could be (to) add multiple players at a certain tier level, whether or not to use the money this year or push it to next year. I would say the result of what happened (record cap increase) doesn't necessarily change our thought process about how we were going to approach free agency. Free agency is case by case, so you look at the player, you look at his role, what's the value of the player, have an understanding of the market (and) what are your options? Is that the best thing for the team? It's not about one player. It's about the 2024 season, trying to put the best team together. We'll explore our options, and we'll try to make good decisions that make sense for our team."


Caserio hasn't utilized the franchise tag since he was hired in January of 2021, and he's not expected to do it this year even though he's got some important players he'd like to re-sign before their contracts expire on March 13. For instance, defensive end Jonathan Greenard is coming off the best season of his four-year career with 12.5 sacks. The franchise tag costs $20.24 million for defensive ends.

Caserio on the franchise tag:

"It has to be a part of your calculus. Anytime you assign a tag to a player, you're committed to that value. Now, it doesn't mean you can't work out a long-term contract extension with that player, but it's a fixed number. It's almost a starting point in a negotiation. You have to figure out does that make sense, or let the player get to the open market, let the market dictate what the value is? Honestly, it's a little cat-and-mouse game, so you try to take the information in, have a general understanding of the market and try to make a good decision. We have some flexibility relative to financial commitments that we might be able to make, but you don't necessarily have to use all your money up in one year. Whatever you don't do this year (spending cap dollars), that money's going to be used in future years. (Even though) you're dealing with the present (and) you're focused on the short term, part of our responsibility is to think ahead a little and try to sound decisions for the team."


After working for the Patriots for 20 years before he came to the Texans, Caserio worked for Bill Belichick as an assistant coach and in the personnel department. Caserio won six Super Bowl rings with New England, so it's not surprising he has great admiration for his former boss, who's not coaching this season after leaving the Patriots. Caserio also knows very well Belichick's replacement, former Patriots' linebacker Jerod Mayo. Caserio watched Mayo develop during his eight-year playing career and his first two seasons coaching inside linebackers before he left for the Texans.

Caserio on Belichick and the Patriots:

"Coach Belichick is the best coach in the history of not only football (but any) sport, in my opinion. He's a big reason I am where I am today, so I have a lot of respect, appreciation and admiration for him. I'd say the league is always better when people like Bill Belichick are around. I'm sure he'll figure out what he's going to do in the spring, and we're all going to benefit from it.

I'm appreciative of my 20 years in New England. Certainly (I), wish them nothing but the best. There's a number of folks in New England they have in place that they feel comfortable with. They have a lot of talented people. They're probably going through a process of trying to figure things out. That's what we (all) do each year – you try to figure things out."

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