2022 NFL Draft

A new day in Houston: Behind the scenes of a crucial week -- and draft weekend -- in the Texans' rebuild

HOUSTON -- As he stepped away from behind the lectern this past Friday and opened the floor to questions for the team's two first-round draft choices, Houston Texans general manager Nick Caserio offered parting words to cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. and offensive lineman Kenyon Green.

"Less is more," Caserio said, chuckling as he walked away.

If that blink-of-an-eye moment didn't affirm how much Caserio has been influenced by the 20 years he spent in the New England Patriots organization before joining his current team in 2021, a pre-draft discussion did. It was the day before the opening round, and Caserio was sitting in an empty workroom at NRG Stadium, doing his best to turn down the thermostat of expectations associated with having the third and 13th overall picks.

"When you pick that high, you hope you're going to get a good football player that's going to come in and help and have a decent role," the 46-year-old GM said. "But how big of an impact? What's that impact look like? That's a subjective. Impact, what does that mean?

"This is just me philosophically, but whatever you get from a player in Year 1 is a bonus. It's not until that player has a full cycle in your building -- draft a player, comes in your building, rookie minicamp, goes through spring OTAs, goes through training camp, goes through the season, goes through the offseason, goes through training camp -- that you hope to know what you have in that player, if not maybe a little bit sooner."

Outsiders are anticipating an immediate impact from Houston's opening selections. Stingley -- who, at No. 3 overall, joined Jeff Okudah (2020), Shawn Springs (1997) and Bruce Pickens (1991) as the highest-selected cornerbacks in modern draft history -- is viewed as potential superstar. And Green -- who was selected 15th overall, after the Texans traded down two spots -- is considered a versatile talent and one of the top interior run-blocking prospects.

So try as Caserio might, there is no tamping down the expectations of a fan base thirsting for success. And while there is no way to predict how the coming season will play out for the Texans -- particularly considering they have won just four games in each of the past two seasons -- it is safe to say they finally appear ready to emerge from the fog of controversy that enveloped the franchise over the past few years.

Bill O'Brien, the power-hungry coach whose personnel decisions confounded fans and foes alike, is gone. Deshaun Watson, the star quarterback who had a falling out with the organization and spent the entire 2021 season as a well-paid healthy scratch under a serious legal cloud, relocated to Cleveland six weeks ago. And dysfunction and confusion, best friends who seemingly held permanent residence within the organization's walls, are absent at the moment.

For the first time since the 2019 playoffs, when Houston squandered a 24-0 lead and lost at Kansas City in the Divisional Round, the Texans appear to be drama-free, aiming to forge forward on the road to respectability. It is a journey that began in earnest during a five-day stretch last week, first with a voluntary minicamp and then in the 2022 NFL Draft.

* * * * *

It's last Tuesday morning, and Lovie Smith has gathered returning veterans and free-agent signees for the start of a three-day, voluntary minicamp. The players are seated in a chilly team room on the first floor of NRG Stadium. It isn't the first time Smith has communicated with many of the players since being promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach in February, but it is his first opportunity to address everyone as a group.

Smith views the occasion as critically important; he will identify his expectations for the coming season and outline his roadmap for a return to relevancy. The introductory page of his presentation is displayed on the projection screen behind him. It reads: 2022 world champs.

Smith knows this is ambitious, but four decades of coaching -- including 16 seasons as a head man -- have taught him the importance of being immediate and intentional with his messaging. More importantly, he believes that veterans must carry a coach's message when the coach is not around, which is why this first meeting is so significant: Establish expectations; remove gray areas; lay out a realistic roadmap for how to get where the team wants to go.

Without question, there is a lot for the Texans to overcome. Not just back-to-back losing seasons, but the ugliest period in franchise history -- a 795-day stretch in which they (take a deep breath):

  • lost to the Chiefs in the playoffs after leading by 24 points; traded star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona for pennies on the dollar; and fired O'Brien, who, after taking over GM duties, contributed to Houston drafting only one Pro Bowl player since 2017 and being without a first-round pick in three of four drafts from 2018 through 2021 (lacking a second-rounder, as well, in two);

(exhale, deep breath)

(exhale, deep breath)

(exhale)

Smith doesn't run from any of this, and he knows it colors how people look at the Texans' chances in the coming season. Truth is, he welcomes the doubters. He loves hearing them or seeing their writings for the same reason he felt comfortable standing before his players and telling them what can be: He has been through this before and prospered.

The year was 2005 and Smith was in his second season as head coach of the Chicago Bears. He had inherited a team that only managed one winning campaign in the eight years before he arrived, going 5-11 in Smith's first season on the job. Things looked so bleak that esteemed Sports Illustrated writer Paul Zimmerman called them the worst team in football in the magazine's 2005 preview edition, ranking Chicago 32nd among 32 teams. Zimmerman's words appeared prescient when the Bears got off to a 1-3 start and failed to score more than 10 points in each of the defeats.

However, the Bears rallied to win eight consecutive games, finished 11-5 and won the NFC North. The next year, they reached the Super Bowl.

"I talk to the guys about it, my history," Smith says, a smile creeping across his face. "When I say we've been in this situation before, I think history tells you an awful lot. Yeah, I know everybody is saying the same [skeptical things] about us. This is our reality, this is what happened. But I remember when that article came out; I was excited to see that (because it can motivate and galvanize a team).

"No one wants to hear someone talking bad about them. We're competitors. There might be reason for people to say bad things, but you just have to face reality of where you're starting off. I understand where we're starting off. I know how many games we won last year. I know what the chatter is on the outside. Our football players hear that, too. But you know what? They want to do something about it, and we have given them a roadmap for, This is how we're going to do it."

Smith didn't show up for the introductory meeting and speak extemporaneously. He had dedicated substantial time to determining how he could best get his message across. He thought to himself: What's the object or goal on every play? Answer: to score. So he had a cut-up made of an offensive, defensive and special teams play in which the Texans scored last season:

  • Dec. 19, TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville: Defensive back Tremon Smith, who is mic'd for NFL Films, paces on the sideline and says he's "itching to do something." Shortly thereafter, he takes a kickoff outside the right hashmark, runs left and cuts upfield, powers through a pod of potential tacklers and scores the first touchdown of his career, a 98-yard lightning bolt.
  • Dec. 26, NRG Stadium: After falling behind by 12 early in the fourth quarter, the favored Chargers appeared poised for a comeback. Bolts RB Justin Jackson had just scored on a 9-yard run, with Justin Herbert completing a pass to tight end Jared Cook for the two-point conversion. The Texans appear to be on the ropes. They need a score. Enter rookie Nico Collins, who catches a slant route and splits two defenders for a 13-yard touchdown, his first score of the season.
  • Dec. 26, NRG Stadium: Attempting to rally from an 11-point deficit with under two minutes to play, Herbert looks again for Cook on a shallow crossing route. There is a mix-up. Cook cuts off the route, but Herbert throws as if he expects Cook to keep running. Safety Tavierre Thomas snares the errant throw and returns the football 48 yards for a touchdown.

Smith tells the players in so many words: This is who we want to be. This is how we can achieve our goals. But he doesn't want them to get a false sense of reality, so he shows them a picture. It's the scoreboard following their Week 4 game at Buffalo, which reads:

BILLS 40, TEXANS 0.

"With most athletes, what motivates them the most?" Smith says. "Seeing things that they do well? No, because that's when you tend to exhale. That's when you feel like you've got it all figured out. But when they see something they didn't do well ... I think that motivates you just a little bit more."

Says Davis Mills, the second-year signal-caller who is seeking to build on a strong finish last year: "I'm very excited for what we can do. From the outside perspective, they're only going to give us credit for our last year and make us go out and prove it this year, but I think the guys that we have in this locker room and the feeling that everyone has about each other -- everyone is extremely confident going out there on the field each day because we know we have playmakers on this team that can go out there and perform. Everyone is looking forward to our first challenge."

* * * * *

It is Thursday night, hours after the conclusion of the Texans' minicamp, and Caserio is sitting before the media and discussing the first round of the draft. It's a far different scenario than his first year in Houston, when the franchise was without a first- or second-round pick. You would think it's a time for smiles and celebration, but there is neither. At least not publicly.

Caserio seeks consistency in everything he does, from the early-morning hour he arrives for work to the way he communicates with employees and the media. Maybe it's a reflection of his time in New England, where public displays of emotion are frowned upon. The Patriot Way is both a mantra and a philosophy -- limit expectations, control the flow of information, less is more -- and Caserio has adopted aspects of it.

"It was a fairly productive start for us," he says by way of opening statements. "Had the opportunity to pick a couple of real solid players and real solid kids."

Then, just when you think that type of matter-of-factness is all you're going to get -- generalities over specifics, detachment over engagement, flat lines as opposed to peaks and valleys -- he pulls back the curtain ever so slightly and shows he is his own man and, at times, will provide a level of frankness that is both deep and insightful. Like on Friday night, when discussing the complications of vetting personality traits in draft prospects.

"The reality is, our program is where it is for the time being. We haven't had as much success as we all would have hoped here over the last how many years," Caserio says, explaining how the team talks to prospective players. "How would you handle that transition or situation?

"You're just trying to get a gauge and a feel to the overall personality and just who they are as people, because who they are as people is going to translate over to who they are as football players. Look, this is going to be hard. It's not going to be easy. ... Some of these players are going to lose more games in one season than their whole (college) career. It's the reality of the NFL. We can't change that. Are you going to be able to get up? Are you going to be able to deal with it? Whatever happens on Sunday, can you come in the next day and turn the page and get ready for the next week and have enough competitive stamina, mental stamina, mental toughness, to be able to move forward. That's what it's going to take to have a good team over the course of however many weeks it is."

It can be difficult to evaluate intangibles, but safety Jalen Pitre, wide receiver John Metchie III and linebacker Christian Harris -- the Texans' Day 2 picks -- appeared to possess the traits Caserio and Smith seek in players. They hit all the key phrases during their calls with the media, telling reporters how much they love football, can't wait to get to work and are all about the team.

"I think they're going to be motivated to say, 'Alright, what the hell do we have to do to figure it out to make it better?' " Caserio says. "That's the kind of attitude and the type of approach that you want to have. That's what their job is. That's what our job is. It's to fix problems. It's to not bitch and moan if things don't go the way we want it to, and to come up with solutions. That's the truth."

Houston walked away with nine new players from the three-day draft, many of whom will have legitimate opportunities to contribute immediately. Needing help across the board, the Texans added pieces in the secondary, along the offensive and defensive lines, and at running back, wide receiver, tight end and linebacker. It remains to be seen what type of impact these newbies will have, but their additions are welcome on a team that believes it can be more competitive than outsiders think.

Yes, the 2021 offense ranked last in total yards and rushing yards, tied for the league low in rushing touchdowns and ranked 30th in scoring. And, yes, the defense was 31st in yards allowed and 27th in points yielded. We've already established that Houston went 8-25 over the past two seasons and is on its third coach in as many years.

But the Texans don't get caught up in outsiders' opinions. They measure themselves, first and foremost, against their AFC South brethren. The positives: They swept Jacksonville last season and split with AFC top seed Tennessee. The negative: They were 0-2 against Indianapolis, outscored 62-3.

That seems to fit perfectly with the message during minicamp: Show the players what they can be, then show them there is still work to be done.

"We need to continue to move forward, we need to continue to make progress," Caserio says. "The tangible progress will come with the results on the field, but the work that goes on behind the scenes, where nobody sees it, that's where good teams really separate themselves. So if you're consistent and purposeful with that work and those actions, hopefully it will bleed into results on the field; because, in the end, that's the bottom line."

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.

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