The Houston Texans are a 4-13 team that is picking third in the draft next month, so inherently there is a lot of work to do and a lot of improvement to fulfill just to get back to respectability, let alone compete for championships. With the trade of Deshaun Watson finally done, though, it does feel like a cloud has been lifted, and we can begin to reasonably take inventory of where the franchise is compared to a year ago.
The fact of the matter is that, in many relevant areas of staffing and roster building resources, the team is better off now than they were in March 2021. Nick Caserio, overall, has done a decent enough job trying to get this looking like a normal rebuild again. It was THAT bad under Bill O'Brien. To be clear, Caserio has had to clean up some of his own messes — he DID hire David Culley as the head coach — but for the most part, it's been a massive home improvement project that is still in its infancy stage.
Of the things that Texans fans should feel better about now than they did a year ago, here are the most crucial five elements:
5. David Culley is no longer the head coach
I'll start with the only mistake which falls into the category of "Caserio cleaning up his own mess." We have no idea how much of hiring Culley was Caserio's decision, and how much influence the McNairs or Jack Easterby had, but it is on Caserio's ticket. The bad news was we had to endure one full season of a head coach who felt like a fan that won a contest to be a head coach. The good news is that the team now has a head coach who at least (a) has high level experience, (b) has the respect of the locker room, and (c) knows to accept a penalty on third down, not decline it and punt. (NOTE: I fully acknowledge that we were precariously close to having Josh McCown as the Texans' head coach. We don't, though. Moving on.)
4. Pep Hamilton is now the offensive coordinator
Coming off 2020, and with Deshaun Watson requesting a trade in January 2021, the Texans decided to keep around the one thing about the Bill O'Brien Era that Deshaun seemed to like — offensive coordinator Tim Kelly. Once the Texans realized they'd have to trade Watson, and once the lawsuits began flying, then Kelly was just an awkward fit whose career was on a shit clock. The fact that the offense got even WORSE at running the football in 2021 than they were in 2020 made the fit go from awkward to infuriating. The promotion of Pep Hamilton, who's played a role in the development of some of the better young quarterbacks in recent years (Andrew Luck, Justin Herbert) is cause for optimism. Again, like Lovie Smith, Hamilton is a RESPECTED mind.
3. They have draft capital, LOTS of draft capital
This time of year, around the NFL, even the good teams are getting amped about the draft and the influx of youth (and cheap labor) the draft provides. We haven't had that feeling much over the last four off-seasons. From 2018 through 2021, the Texans had a total of one first round pick (Tytus Howard, 2019). Over the last two drafts, the Texans have selected just ten players total, OVER TWO YEARS. In the upcoming draft alone, with pick numbers 3 and 13, they have more first round picks than they've had over the previous four years, and with eleven picks overall, they have more picks than they used in the last two drafts. This will be a much younger, and probably a much more fun, team in 2022.
2. The salary cap is nearly cleaned up
Bill O'Brien did several things poorly as general manager of the Texans. With a series of horrific trades, he is the biggest reason they've had a deficit of draft capital the last few years. We touched on that already. O'Brien was also responsible for some of the worst contracts in recent NFL history — Whitney Mercilus, Zach Cunningham, Randall Cobb, Eric Murray, just to name a few. Nick Caserio has bitten the bullet on many of these, and while the short term result is the Texans' carrying the most dead cap money (over $50 million) in the league into 2022, they are positioned to head into the 2023 offseason with over $100 million in salary cap space. Salary cap order has been restored.
1. Jack Easterby appears to be (sort of) fading into the background
The ending of the Josh McCown saga, where the completely green head coaching candidate (like, literally NO coaching experience, is the barometer here. McCown looked like the odds-on favorite to become the next Texans head coach until Brian Flores (the other finalist, by the way) filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against the NFL. The Texans pivoted, seemingly for THAT exact reason, off of a white, inexperienced candidate, to not Flores, but Smith, a highly experienced, Black candidate, albeit one that wasn't even on the publicized finalists list. McCown is a known Easterby favorite, so some would say McCown making it to finalist status is enough evidence that the highly controversial (and very unpopular) Easterby still holds some sway. Others would say that the hiring of Smith was the organization coming to its senses and Easterby not getting his way, for once. Either way, this at least APPEARS to be Caserio's ship to steer, and perhaps Easterby is being pushed into the background role that his title (Executive Vice President of Football Operations) conveys.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.