New Texans LB Azeez Al-Shaair always knew Houston was home

Following Week 15’s win over the Tennessee Titans, Jalen Pitre maneuvered through a flock of players to find linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair. The former San Francisco 49ers star had been on a tear during a 19-16 overtime loss, totaling 13 tackles, including two of a loss a third down.

Pitre, a standout defensive back, felt like he knew Al-Shaair based on film study. First-year head coach DeMeco Ryans needed to get his roster up to speed with his “Swarm” defense, so much of the film was devised during his time with the 49ers.

That was the first of several signs that Al-Shaair was destined to find his way to Houston for a reunion with Ryans sometime in his career. Entering the offseason, it was a no-brainer where he was headed.

“I’m glad he’s on our team,” Pitre said Tuesday following practice. “He’s a guy who knows the system very well and is going to help us a lot.”

Signed to a three-year, $34 million deal, Al-Shaair should be the anchor up the middle for the reigning AFC South champions entering a new era of Texans football. He already knows what Ryans is looking for up the middle, so the transition from a 3-4 front to a 4-3 unit should be seamless.

Despite a breakout season from Blake Cashman, the middle linebacker role was a weak point in Ryans’ top 10 unit last season. Denzel Perryman, who signed a one-year deal, was hit-and-miss in coverage and missed three games due to suspension. Rookie Henry To’oTo’o was better used as a rotational option in space instead of a full-time starter.

With Al-Shaair, the Texans are getting a blend of both players. Last season, the former undrafted free agent was exceptional in run defense and also took a step forward in coverage with four pass breakups.

“The sky is the limit for myself,” Al-Shaair said. “I have high expectations for myself, and DeMeco coming in, he was hard on me. And I’m grateful for it, because there’s nobody that can outdo the standard I have for myself.”

Those expectations played a factor in Al-Shaair passing up playing with Ryans last season. The two sides had talked in the offseason, but the NFL is a business and at the time, Al-Shaair was a sub-package linebacker, splitting reps behind All-Pro Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw.

To elevate any potential future long-term deals, Al-Shaair bet on himself, signing a one-year $5 million deal with the Titans, allowing him to become a full-time starter.

Not only did Al-Shaair earn the green dot in the helmet as the quarterback of the defense, but he also totaled a career-high 163 tackles, fifth-most in the NFL.

While the stats weren’t evident out in the Bay, Ryans credited Al-Shaair’s leadership and attentiveness, something he first recognized when they met at the combine in 2019.

“He allows the other guys around him to be calm and to play faster because of what he brings to the table when it comes to communicating,” Ryans said. “Not only that, communicating, but he can also go make the plays, and that is what you have to have at that linebacker position, and that is what he can do.”

Even before talking with former teammate Jimmie Ward or Ryans, Al-Shaair knew Houston was on his radar. Pitre, who since has become a close friend of the former Florida Atlantic star, only enhanced the feeling of home during their two meetings last season.

Al-Shaair said the transition to Houston has been seamless, largely due to his familiarity with Ryans’ scheme. In the locker room, however, he immediately felt like he belonged as part of the group.

A year away from Ryans might have been best for both sides. Now, it’s a strength for a budding future in Houston.

“This doesn’t feel like I’m coming into a team I’ve only known for a couple months,” Al-Shaair said. “It feels like I’ve been here. It’s a good feeling for sure.”

Story originally appeared on Texans Wire