When cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. was drafted No. 3 overall by the Texans in the 2022 NFL Draft, his selection came with immediate pressure to perform, both to follow through on the expectations placed upon him by his high pick, and to be a defensive leader for a Houston team in the midst of a rebuild.
And to an extent, he made good on those expectations, putting together a strong first half of the season before injuries took him out of commission.
Now, the hope is that a year of NFL football under his belt and enhanced offseason training will lead to a 2023 season of healthy football and even more impactful defensive contributions. And so far, Stingley is seeing the difference both physically and mentally.
"Oh, I feel like I've improved and I'm seeing the whole field at a faster rate," Stingley Jr. said this week, via Aaron Wilson of Click2Houston.com. "I could kind of see it last year and in the years before that, but Year One to Year Two, you can see the pace a little bit more. Nothing's really unexpected. Nothing really catches you off-guard anymore. I mean, it's nice."
Stingley's rookie year looked to be off to a promising start. Through his first nine games the 22-year-old collected 35 tackles, five passes defensed, an interception and a sack, not allowing a single touchdown pass. But at that point injuries got in the way, and a strained hamstring that never got better meant Stingley finished the season on injured reserve and missed almost half the season in total.
In his effort to come back stronger and build on that encouraging first effort, Stingley has devoted himself to conditioning this offseason, carefully building muscle to make himself more durable without sacrificing the quickness that defines his game.
"I put in a lot of work every day with (conditioning) coach Mike (Eubanks)," Stingley said. "I didn't even realize it until I started seeing everybody saying, 'You got big, you got swole.' Even when I was in high school, I always had muscle. It is a little different now."
Stingley will be expected to hold down the secondary for the Texans in 2023 alongside fellow 2022 pick, safety Jalen Pitre, who started 17 games in 2022 and had 147 tackles and five interceptions. The pair helped Houston become the 10th-ranked passing defense last year, a bright spot amidst the team's overall struggles, and Stingley said the duo's bond is even stronger going into their sophomore seasons.
"I know with Jalen on my side, I can trust him," Stingley said. "He's going to do what he's going to do, and I'm sure he can trust me, too, to take care of my job. Everybody, we all trust each other. We're all communicating and we're making sure we're good from the front end to the back end."
The Texans will go into 2023 with the goal of getting out of the basement of the AFC South, and will be undertaking this effort behind an all new coaching staff led by DeMeco Ryans and young stars on both sides of the ball. With all of the changes afoot in Houston, a healthy and possibly even more dangerous Stingley will be a key piece for moving beyond 2022's three-win total.