HOUSTON – On Sunday, Kyle Allen will be under center for the Houston Texans. The franchise is eight months removed from trading quarterback Deshaun Watson, who along with wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and pass-rusher J.J. Watt, made the Texans a perennial playoff team.
The Texans won the AFC South four out of five seasons from 2015 to 2019 with that trio. Now, Houston (1-9-1) is last in the NFL and has the best odds to net the No. 1 pick in the 2023 draft.
But there are glimmers of hope for the next wave of success in Houston. The starting point is the Texans’ rookie class, led by running back Dameon Pierce and the future assets assembled from the trade that sent Watson, who hasn’t played in a regular-season game since Jan. 3, 2021, to the Browns on March 20. The Texans received five draft picks, including three first-rounders in exchange for the quarterback.
“It’s all about what you do with whatever assets you've acquired,” Caserio told ESPN. “So everything looks good on paper. Once it comes to fruition, what's the reality of it? It gives you more flexibility but doesn't guarantee anything. ... It's just about maximizing the opportunities. That's really the team building.”
Pierce is the first building block. He has emerged as one of the league's top running backs and is eighth in rushing with 180 carries for 788 yards and three touchdowns. He also has 27 catches for 143 yards and a touchdown.
“It’s a blessing, man,” Pierce told ESPN. “Knowing where I come from – country boy, small city, small town. Just the fact I can be a catalyst for somebody trying to follow my footsteps. Just the fact that that can lead the way, be a spark in my community, and not only in my community back home, but this community in Houston for a wonderful franchise. They got good guys up front, great coaches, great players, great teammates, just all around [it’s] a good organization.”
The Texans’ other 2023 first-round pick -- coming from the Browns -- could also land in the top 10. Coach Lovie Smith prefers not to discuss the future as he focuses on winning games.
Smith, who was the defensive coordinator in 2021, was hired as head coach this past offseason when David Culley was fired after one season. Culley replaced former coach and GM Bill O’Brien after he was fired in the middle of the 2020 season.
Smith has been in the building for two seasons now with Caserio so he understands the vision the GM has for the franchise.
“You start building,” Smith said. “And that's what we're doing. We're building, and eventually we're going to get it done. Right now it's kind of easy to take shots at us because we're not quite there. So we'll take that, but eventually we'll get over the hump.”
In addition to Pierce, the Texans took other steps to secure other building blocks last offseason. Caserio extended wideout Brandin Cooks for two years worth $36 million guaranteed that averaged $19.8 million over the next two seasons.
Caserio also converted Laremy Tunsil’s $17.85 million salary to $16.815 million signing bonus and made his base salary $1,035,000 in the offseason.
Cooks leads the Texans in receiving yards (520), receptions (44) and targets (71) this season, but has become disgruntled with the losing and wanted to be moved before the trade deadline. He remains on the team.
Tunsil on the other hand sees things differently.
“Feels pretty good to be a key piece to a rebuild,” Tunsil told ESPN.
Tunsil has been one of the best left tackles in the NFL this season. He has the highest Pro Football Focus pass blocking grade (90.8), and he’s only allowed nine pressures, fourth fewest in the league.
Beyond Cooks and Tunsil, building through the draft can help a team sustain success, and the Texans’ 2022 draft has provided youthful building blocks beyond just Pierce.
With the No. 3 overall pick they took cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. from LSU. Stingley became a starter in his rookie season and has yet to allow a touchdown when in coverage.
The Texans traded the No. 13 pick (which they acquired from Cleveland in the Watson trade) to the Philadelphia Eagles for the No. 15 pick, along with a fourth-round pick (No. 124) and two fifth-rounders (Nos. 162 and 166). They then used the No. 15 pick to take Texas A&M guard Kenyon Green, who has started 10 out of 12 games at left guard.
In the second round the Texans discovered a starter at the safety position in Baylor’s Jalen Pitre, who’s third on the team in tackles (76, with 5 for a loss). His two interceptions also lead the team.
The Texans traded the No. 68, No. 108 and No. 124 picks to the Browns for the No. 44 pick where they selected Alabama wide receiver John Metchie III. In Metchie’s last two seasons with Alabama, he caught 14 touchdowns and had 2,058 yards.
Metchie was diagnosed with a form of leukemia in the offseason, but there’s hope he can be a key contributor when he returns.
“The rookie class, most young players in general, they're gonna have some moments,” Caserio said. “Some players have had better moments than others. For the most part, the group has been pretty consistent. But overall, they've had a good attitude, they work hard and care about football. It's important to them.”