TeX’s and O’s: Texans gamble on coaching and upside at cornerback

It’s an unconventional strategy.

Many NFL teams who overachieve are prone to double down on their recipe for the following season. It’s hard to stray away from the formula that brought unexpected success and instead go onto a different and unknown path. The New York Giants are a notable example with their massive extension to quarterback Daniel Jones that, despite evidence it may not be the wisest idea, felt necessary after they made the playoffs in 2022.

The Houston Texans have done the exact opposite. Instead of doubling down and re-signing key players, they’ve forged ahead with a new vision for head coach DeMeco Ryans’ defense despite a strong finish at 10-7 and a playoff victory in his debut season. The team appears willing to take risks for a Super Bowl run rather than merely sit content with their 2023 success.

Nowhere is that more evident than at cornerback.

Steven Nelson had an incredible 2023 season as the Texans’ starting cornerback across from sophomore breakout star Derek Stingley Jr. He started 16 games and had a career-high four interceptions, five including his incredible postseason pick-six of Cleveland Browns’ quarterback Joe Flacco in the wild-card round. Nelson provided consistent, above-average cornerback play and was admirable in filling in during Stingley’s mid-season absence.

Rather than bring back that known commodity, Houston opted to go in a different direction. Nelson would have been one of the more expensive free agent cornerback signings and also represents a potential declining asset who is 31. Instead, they took two apparent dart throws at the position.

The Texans signed Atlanta Falcons free agent cornerback Jeff Okudah during the first week of free agency and Carolina Panthers free agent cornerback C.J. Henderson the week after. Those two players were, coincidentally, the first two cornerbacks drafted in the 2020 NFL draft at Nos. 3 and 9 overall, respectively.

Neither of the former top-10 picks lived up to their billing so far, though. Okudah has only two career interceptions and 13 passes defended in just 31 career starts between the Detroit Lions and the Falcons. Henderson has three interceptions and 16 passes defended in 32 starts of his own between the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Panthers. Both have played for multiple coordinators, struggled to stay healthy and ultimately have been unable to provide consistent play at the NFL level.

That doesn’t scare Ryans and the Texans.

Before he was drafted, analyst Lance Zierlein wrote the following of Okudah:

Head coach and general manager’s dream prospect with blue-chip physical traits, mental makeup and personal character. He has size, length and foot quickness to road-block press release and elite closing burst to close catch windows or eliminate yards after catch”. His sentiment was eerily similar for Henderson, described as a “silky smooth boundary cornerback with mirror-and-match footwork and the agility and athleticism to stay connected to routes. He has NFL recovery burst and the long speed to track vertical routes downfield.

After a season that saw Texans defenders such as Nelson, Jonathan Greenard, Blake Cashman, Christian Harris and Sheldon Rankins play some of the best football of their careers, Houston is ready to bet on themselves again. How they’ve coveted these high football trait players is a testament to how this coaching staff likely views themselves and what they believe the environment in Houston can generate.

Okudah and Henderson’s traits are evident on film. It’s believable that a staff that saw such enormous success in Year 1 may also believe they can be the first to wield these players consistently.

Okudah is a great player in man coverage and his size and speed combination is a tough draw for opposing wide receivers when he’s allowed to play simple. He’s also shown the added ability to defend when the nickel when called upon. This play of Okudah shadowing 2023 first round receiver Jordan Addison stride-for-stride before extending for a great play on the football is a great example of what Houston’s staff will look for.

Henderson has also shown flashes on film, particularly during his first year in Carolina. When he was asked to play as a No. 2 cornerback next to Jaycee Horn, he put together a career best season in Steve Wilks’ defense. His closing speed to break on the football is evident and he reads plays exceptionally well as they develop.

Both players will likely be tasked to play plenty of man coverage and quarters coverage alongside Stingley. If Stingley travels with the best receiver, as he did at the end of 2023, this assignment becomes even more straightforward. Ryans will task these talented young cornerbacks to take care of the man in front of them and play to their instincts, all while rarely facing a huge mismatch.

The scheme not only empowers their athleticism to shine but the environment with Stingley and a formidable pass rush that includes Will Anderson and Danielle Hunter will shield defensive backs to an extent on passing downs.

These players also notably fit the Houston defensive mantra of SWARM.

This shows up on Henderson’s film quite a bit. His ability to quickly read plays translates well with his willingness to tackle and kill plays that bounce to the outside. Whether it was Nico Collins, Jaylen Waddle or Jameson Williams, Henderson showed an ability to react quickly and kill screen plays. That desire and overall willingness to contribute in tackling and run support matters. There’s a similar willingness shown in Okudah who, despite being billed as a premier athlete to cover receivers, is also willing to come downhill and crash on opposing running backs.

Once you consider these thoughts, the Texans’ moves that appear to be a gamble on the surface appear far more calculated.

Coach Ryans will task two demonstrably talented and athletic corners in Okudah (6’1″, 205lb) and Henderson (6’1″, 204lb) to battle for the starting cornerback job opposite of one of the league’s premier corners. The scheme will encourage both to play fluid, fast, and take advantage of the talents that had them drafted so highly in the first place. While Stingley travels with the top receiver and the pass rush generates favorable looks, either player will be incredibly well positioned to have the best season of their career in 2024, if they can stay healthy.

Essentially, a very similar premise to the eco-system that saw great athletes like Greenard and Cashman earn huge paydays this past season. Great athletes, in good environments, are empowered to do what they do best.

While the Texans look to leap towards Super Bowl contention, these types of moves are necessary. They can’t field a team of All-Stars at every position and betting on surroundings and development will be required to maximize the roster. Surplus value has to be found and it appears the place they’ll expect it is cornerback.

Betting on DeMeco Ryans and his star-studded surrounding roster on defense, and once considered top-tier talent at the position is an avenue for general manager Nick Caserio to find just that. Fans will have to wait for training camp to see how the moves pay off.

Story originally appeared on Texans Wire