GREEN BAY, Wis. – Nick Caserio is the architect of a dramatic overhaul, an ambitious construction project still in its foundational stages.
Because the Texans’ first-year general manager and former lieutenant to New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick values experience, he’s built a roster with that priority in mind.
The Texans have the oldest average age in the NFL – 26.37 years – and that was intentional. While the Texans do have several young players, Caserio acquired 53 new players, many of them longtime starters, to try to upgrade a 4-12 team from a year ago with the intention of establishing a blue-collar, winning culture with high standards.
“I'd say with a lot of new players that have come in, their attitudes have been good,” Caserio said. “They worked hard. Just the construction of the team, as we sit here today, we have a lot of guys that have a certain level of experience in the league. Now that we are starting over, that's not as germane and relevant to all we can go is based off what we see here. The most important thing is for everybody to focus on what they can do and what they can handle.”
Now, the Texans will get to find out how much all of the changes they’ve engineered, including cutting three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt at his request, the switch to veteran quarterback Tyrod Taylor as QB1 with embattled and disgruntled Pro Bowl quarterback Deshaun Watson requesting a trade amidst legal issues and ranked fourth on the depth chart after reporting to avoid $50,000 daily fines. That evaluation starts in earnestSaturday nightat Lambeau Field in the Texans’ first preseason game against the Green Bay Packers.
While starters aren’t expected to play much with some key veterans, including outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus not required to play at all, there’s a lot of curiosity around the team to see how much all of the changes will impact a new-look team that’s hoping its rebuild will quickly lead to contender status.
Of particular interest beyond how Taylor plays as the replacement for Watson is rookie quarterback Davis Mills, a strong-armed third-round draft pick from Stanford who has improved this week after struggling with interceptions at the start of training camp.
“You talk about a guy that’s really smart, and he’s learning from his mistakes,” wide receiver Brandin Cooks said. “He’s playing faster every day. As a young guy, as long as you continue to take steps forward in training camp and show you’re playing faster, that shows everyone you’re getting the hang of it.”
For Texans coach David Culley, it’s all about seeing daily progress across the roster in all three phases: offense, defense and special teams.
And for Culley, 65, a rookie head coach after previously operating as the Baltimore Ravens’ assistant head coach, passing game coordinator and receivers coach, it’s about measuring where the team stands.
“From a consistency standpoint, from the whole total team, I see us getting better,’ Culley said. “We’re not where we need to be, but what I’m seeing is I'm seeing less and less mistakes. It's not the repeat mistakes that we've been having. It's not the same guys that are making those mistakes, and that's important. What that tells me is that they’re getting better and that the message is getting across.”
Does it matter if the Texans win a meaningless preseason game? Yes, and no.
“Well, what's important more than that for us is the evaluation process,” Culley said. “ Now, they do keep score, and whoever's in there at the end want to win the ball game, and we feel the same way about that. But the most important thing right now for us is the evaluation process and getting our players in to be able to see where we are and what we need to do to go further.”
The Texans have acquired lots of proven players, including former Pro Bowl running backs Mark Ingram and Phillip Lindsay, Pro Bowl alternate center Justin Britt, former Buffalo Bills first-round pass rusher Shaq Lawson, former Patriots starting right tackle Marcus Cannon, who’s sidelined still after offseason arthroscopic knee surgery and a calf issue, starting linebackers Christian Kirksey and Kevin Pierre-Louis, defensive tackle Maliek Collins, Pro Bowl kick returner Andre Roberts and former Pro Bowl nickel back Desmond King.
“This preseason is for growth,” Britt said. “It’s for learning. Failure is OK, but we definitely want to play our best.
“We want to start the season with the right kind of mindset and set the tone of what we’ve been working for, what we’ve been striving for.”
Defensive line and wide receiver are two of the most competitive positions on the roster. Across the defensive line, there’s a battle for starting jobs and snaps with the additions of Jordan Jenkins, Jaleel Johnson, Vincent Taylor, Lawson, DeMarcus Walker, Roy Lopez and Derek Rivers to go with incumbents Charles Omenihu, Ross Blacklock, Jacob Martin and Brandon Dunn.
“Yeah, this group is deep,” said Lawson, who was acquired from the Miami Dolphins in a trade for linebacker Benardrick McKinney. “We've got a lot of guys that played a lot of ball in this league, help teams win games. It's just been a fun group. It's a competition in that room, so it's been going great, well. The guys they keep, it's going to be wonderful because we've got a lot of guys, and each and every guy can play in there, and they've helped the team in the previous, in the past.”
Learning how to play together while avoiding mistakes are other major priorities for the Texans, especially in limited action.
“Efficiency,” said Texans running back David Johnson, acquired in the oft-criticized DeAndre Hopkins trade last year and back with the team on a restructured contract. “I think the best thing is to go out and be productive with the limited snaps and just showcase what we can do, especially with a lot of us being together for the first time and now the bullets are flying. So just to see what we can do with live tackling.
“The biggest thing is, since we’re such a veteran-led team, I think we figured out the playbook fast together. think what’s good for us is that it won’t take us so long to play together and play as a cohesive team, especially on offense. Because we have so many veterans, we all know how to be professionals. We all know how to work together.”
The Texans ranked 30thin total defense last season, last in rushing defense and had just nine turnovers.
Now, new defensive coordinator Lovie Smith, a former Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach, has installed his trademark 4-3 defense that stresses aggressiveness, speed and taking the football away.
The defense has excelled during practice with a lot of interceptions. While no one is comparing them to the legendary 1985 Bears wrecking crew, the defense does look better at camp this year. Whether that's a poor reflection on the Texans' offense remains to be seen.
“Whenever you're in a situation where there's a bunch of new guys, and you see it in training camp and you see how we're gelling together, you see how everything is coming together, the plays, offense is coming together, defense is coming together, but it's just a different feel where you actually go against an opponent and really see when it matters,” Kirksey said. “Not saying that training camp doesn't matter, but when you're keeping score against another team, you actually see what you really have. So I'm excited for that. I know a lot of guys on our team are excited to see where we're really at.”
Aaron Wilson has covered the NFL for 20 years and has previously written for The Houston Chronicle and The Baltimore Sun. He’s on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL and Instagram: @aaronwilson7128