Houston Texans 2023 NFL Preview: Building up with new head coach DeMeco Ryans and 2 exciting rookies

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Hannah Lucca)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Hannah Lucca)

With the first pick in the second round of the 2006 NFL Draft, the Houston Texans selected Alabama linebacker DeMeco Ryans. They took Ryans over linebackers D'Qwell Jackson and Rocky McIntosh, who went with the next two picks. Then-Texans head coach Gary Kubiak said he was "really surprised" Ryans was available.

Had a team at the end of the first round taken Ryans, or if the Texans had liked Jackson or McIntosh a little more, or had Houston not been looking to add linebackers to its new 4-3 scheme, maybe things are different in 2023.

The Texans should not have been an attractive head coaching opening for a fantastic defensive coordinator like Ryans. Houston was 11-38-1 the past three seasons, and due to some bad trades and draft picks, the roster wasn't loaded up with exciting young talent. There was no quarterback of the future on the roster and the Texans didn't even get the first overall draft pick, slipping to second when they had an improbable win in the final game last season. The dysfunction in the front office was well known. Houston became the first team since the San Francisco 49ers in the 1970s to have two straight one-and-done coaches. What were the Texans going to sell to candidates? The opportunity to take the second-best quarterback in the draft?

But Ryans, who had six good seasons with the Texans and became a popular figure among fans, had a soft spot for Houston. He wanted to coach the Texans. Had the Seattle Seahawks taken Ryans over Kelly Jennings with the 31st pick in 2006 or the New York Giants had chosen him over Mathias Kiwanuka, maybe Houston wouldn't have been a "dream job" for the top up-and-coming coaching candidate in the NFL.

That's blind luck for the Texans. They needed to catch a break.

"There is no place I wanted to be any more than H-Town," Ryans said after he was hired, according to the team's site. "It was an easy pick for me. It was a no-brainer to be here, be home. It was a no-brainer. It wasn't a difficult decision at all. It was very easy."

Not every hot assistant works out as an NFL head coach, but Ryans checks a lot of boxes. He did a fantastic job running the 49ers' defense. He has respect from the players after a 10-year NFL career. And he has the energy it will take to carry the Texans back to respectability.

DeMeco Ryans was a Pro Bowl linebacker for the Houston Texans before coming back to be their head coach. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
DeMeco Ryans was a Pro Bowl linebacker for the Houston Texans before coming back to be their head coach. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

The future will revolve around a pair of top-three draft picks. The Texans took quarterback C.J. Stroud with the second pick, then traded up to take pass rusher Will Anderson Jr. with the third pick. They gave up way too much to move up to No. 3 for Anderson, including their 2024 first-round pick that could be as high as first overall. Team owner Cal McNair had to shoot down speculation that he pushed the Stroud pick, which led to the team's front office overpaying to move back up to take Anderson, the player they wanted. Whatever happened, Stroud and Anderson are very good prospects at high-value positions. Houston might have some remorse when the Arizona Cardinals are using their first-round pick next year, but that's for another day. At least they got a pair of good players.

Houston needed positive news. You can see a little more promise on the roster, including a QB to be hopeful about. It has an exciting young coach. Houston hasn't had much to cheer about the past few years, but there are finally reasons to believe there are better days ahead.

That second-round draft pick in 2006 might end up changing the franchise more than anyone realized.

Offseason grade

The Texans haven't gone after high-priced free agents at a prime age in the past few years, preferring to mostly add stopgap veterans. This year, tight end Dalton Schultz was the only free agent they added who got more than $3.5 million per season and was also younger than 28 years old. Schultz got just a one-year deal for $6.25 million. The biggest deal in total was $15.25 million over two years for receiver Robert Woods, who is 31 years old. Houston didn't pay up to keep defensive end Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, who got $19 million over three years from the Cleveland Browns. The Texans did trade receiver Brandin Cooks to the Dallas Cowboys after an acrimonious 2022 season. A low-cost trade for guard Shaq Mason helps an offensive line that might be greatly improved. It's hard to judge the Texans' draft without factoring in the cost of Will Anderson Jr. He's a good prospect, and any team taking two players with the first three picks will get great draft grades. But the price the Texans paid to move up and get Anderson — a first-, second- and third-rounder — was outrageous. We'll see how that plays out. But grabbing quarterback C.J. Stroud was a savvy move for a team that needed to do something to fix that position.

GRADE: C-plus

Quarterback report

If McNair pushed for his team to draft a quarterback, it's not egregious. Spinning their wheels with Davis Mills for another year was not going to make anyone happy. Stroud went on a roller coaster in March and early April with his reported draft stock going up and down. Ultimately he was the right choice at No. 2 overall. Stroud doesn't have a lot of weaknesses: He's accurate, athletic enough to move in the pocket, seems polished at going through his reads and was a productive player at Ohio State. Stroud might never win an MVP award, but he can be a top-10 quarterback in the NFL if he hits his ceiling.

BetMGM odds breakdown

Unlike the Cardinals, I won't be quick to take the under on the Texans' win total of 5.5 at BetMGM. There are signs of improvement, though plenty of holes remain. I'll gladly buy stock in DeMeco Ryans as an NFL coach and maybe he can energize the franchise. The slight optimism for the 2023 Texans doesn't lead me to take the over either, but I'll be cautious about fading Houston early this season.

Yahoo's fantasy take

From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "If you’re a running back tied to a losing NFL team, you generally need receiving chops to pull your weight as a fantasy factor. Dameon Pierce didn’t show those chops last year. There were 39 different backs who caught 25 passes or more last season, and Pierce ranked 37th in yards per catch and 36th in yards per target among that group. Sure, some of that blame falls at the feet of Davis Mills and the entire Houston offensive infrastructure, but it’s unfair to expect rookie QB C.J. Stroud to be a miracle worker right away.

"Pierce was a value find for Houston in the fourth round last year, but he’s not a special back in any way. He’s currently being drafted around RB22, ostensibly a starter in most fantasy leagues, but it’s far more prudent to target him as your third or fourth back, and if you don’t land him at those reduced expectations, so it goes."

Stat to remember

The Texans needed some young stars to build around and had two top-15 draft picks in 2022. Both players still have a lot to prove.

The Pro Football Focus grades on cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. (third pick) and guard Kenyon Green (15th pick) were ugly. Stingley ranked 111th of 116 qualified cornerbacks and Green ranked 77th of 77 guards. Even if you account for rookie struggles and any skepticism about PFF's grades, that's not a good place to start. Stingley did have some promising moments and didn't allow a touchdown all season, but he gave up a lot of yards, went on injured reserve after just nine games and will always be compared to 2022 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Sauce Gardner, who the Texans passed up when they took Stingley. Green allowed too many QB pressures (47 by PFF's count, fourth-most among guards), didn't distinguish himself as a run blocker and fell into a rotation at guard for a few games in the second half of the season. Both players are just starting their careers, but the Texans need both to play much better their second seasons.

Burning question

Can Will Anderson Jr. be a star for Houston?

A lot has been and will be said about the Texans' trade that landed them Anderson, a fantastic pass rusher from Alabama. The cost of the trade was substantial for Houston, but it won't matter if Anderson is the player the Texans think he can be.

Anderson, who will be transitioning from a stand-up outside linebacker to a 4-3 defensive end in DeMeco Ryans' scheme, was a dominant player for the Crimson Tide. He won the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, given to the nation's top defensive player, two seasons in a row. There was some question from draft experts about his true ceiling as a pro, but the Texans are banking he'll be an elite pass rusher. It's crucial for the Texans' future that Anderson hits.

“With Will, I’ve watched him for a long time now, seen a few of his games, but just seeing again the fierce competitor he is,” Ryans said. “Every time watching Alabama, when they needed a play on defense, it was 31. That was the guy stepping up and making a play. Everyone knows the leadership qualities that Will possesses.”

Best-case scenario

There are signs of hope for the Texans. They might not be a surprise playoff team in 2023, but it's possible some young building blocks like C.J. Stroud, Dameon Pierce, Nico Collins, John Metchie III (whose return from acute promyelocytic leukemia will be one of the best stories of this season), Will Anderson Jr. and Derek Stingley Jr. have productive seasons and the Texans graduate past being one of the worst teams in the NFL. DeMeco Ryans was a great hire. There are some exciting pieces in place. Perhaps we start to see the progress this season.

Nightmare scenario

Maybe the Texans' costly trade for Will Anderson Jr. works out, with Anderson looking like the next Von Miller and Houston winning some games. But what about this possibility: The Texans are bad again, Anderson doesn't look great and Houston's 2024 pick is first overall? The Cardinals will either use that selection on a top quarterback, like Caleb Williams, or trade it for a franchise-changing haul of picks. If the Texans have the NFL's worst record and watch someone else use their top pick of the draft to turn their fortunes around ... not good.

The crystal ball says ...

The Texans should be improved. That might not mean a huge spike in wins, but by the end of the season Houston should feel better about its trajectory. C.J. Stroud was a smart pick and he should show himself to be a competent quarterback of the future. DeMeco Ryans will be a good head coach. The Texans' record won't be that pretty, but there will be some optimism going forward. That's a successful season for them.

Other previews

32. Arizona Cardinals

31. Houston Texans

30. Chicago Bears

29. Tennessee Titans

28. Los Angeles Rams

27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

26. Indianapolis Colts

25. Washington Commanders

24. Las Vegas Raiders

23. Carolina Panthers

22. Denver Broncos

21. Atlanta Falcons

20. Green Bay Packers

19. New England Patriots

18. New York Giants

17. Minnesota Vikings

16. New Orleans Saints

15. Pittsburgh Steelers

14. Cleveland Browns

13. Los Angeles Chargers

12. Jacksonville Jaguars

11. Seattle Seahawks

10. Baltimore Ravens

9. Miami Dolphins

8. New York Jets

7. Detroit Lions

6. Dallas Cowboys

5. San Francisco 49ers

4. Buffalo Bills

3. Cincinnati Bengals

2. Philadelphia Eagles

1. Kansas City Chiefs

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