It was definitely earned, not given.
Dameon Pierce, ever since the Texans drafted him, has gone about his work diligently. He talked with his cleats, and his shoulder pads.
When the Texans' rookie running back attacked the line of scrimmage with explosive cuts and a punishing style that combines quick cuts, outstanding balance and an aggressive manner of lowering his pads and delivering the blow, he served notice that he was the top option on the roster for a running game that was the worst statistically in the league last year.
The arrival of Pierce signaled a steady climb on the depth chart, earning the right to be the Texans' primary running back. He rushed for 86 yards and one touchdown on 11 carries in two preseason games and is now a popular trending option for fantasy football managers.
The emergence of Pierce shifted the Texans' plan from initially having former Indianapolis Colts 1,000-yard rusher atop the depth chart to releasing him and then signing him back to their practice squad. While Mack could still wind up on the 53-man roster and be a contributor, there's been a clear shift in status tilted in Pierce.
“I think he's been consistent, like a lot of players," Texans general manager Nick Caserio said Wednesday during a press conference at NRG Stadium. "I'd say the rookie class for the most part has been a pretty consistent group. I think Dameon has been consistent since he got here. He's got a good attitude. He's got a good work ethic. Football is important to him. I think when you go back and look at whether it was Florida, whether it was the Senior Bowl, whether it was the combine, our different interactions with him, it's been pretty consistent."
Pierce rushed for 574 yards and 13 touchdowns last season in a Gators offensive system that platooned running backs. He averaged 5.7 yards per carry and caught 19 passes for 216 yards and three touchdowns. As a junior, he rushed for 503 yards and four touchdowns and caught 17 passes for 156 yards and one score. Now, Pierce is off to a fast start at the NFL level.
Given more carries, perhaps Pierce would have been drafted much higher.
"He just didn't really have an opportunity, maybe they split the carries at Florida," Caserio said. "They had some good backs there. They had some different backs through the years. When he had a chance, he was productive with his touches. I think he has good lower body strength, good body balance, pretty instinctive, has good vision. That’s been a small sample I would say just on the field, so I certainly think he's got a lot of work ahead of him. Nobody has played a game yet."
What isn't ambiguous is that offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton wants to emphasize what he's hoping will be an upgraded running game after the Texans were statistically the worst rushing attack in the NFL a year ago.
The experiment of older running backs Mark Ingram, David Johnson, Phillip Lindsay and Rex Burkhead was a colossal failure. Now, the Texans are hoping that Pierce along with former Indianapolis Colts 1,000-yard rusher Marlon Mack and Burkhead can combine for a stronger running game.
The Texans rushed for only 1,422 yards, 3.4 yards per run and eight touchdowns last season.
Texans coach Lovie Smith called the Texans a running team, and he sees Pierce as a big part of the equation.
“I don’t have a mask on on how I feel about things," Smith said Monday. "Dameon Pierce has played good ball pretty much since he got in the facility. He’s a good football player, right amount of power. He’ll make you miss in the open field. He can catch the ball. He can do a lot of things that NFL running backs do.”
Pierce started against the San Francisco 49ers and rushed for 37 yards and a touchdown on six carries in one series during a 17-0 preseason victory at NRG Stadium. Pierce displayed an ultra-physical demeanor against the NFC West franchise.
“I’m just taking advantage of every opportunity,” Pierce said after the game. “I’m grateful to be in this position. You can’t get too high, you can’t get too low. You’ve got to find that happy medium. Once you find that as an athlete, it’s easy to navigate. At the end of the day, you’re going to learn from it and get better from it.”
Pierce was clearly the most impressive back in practice sessions and games, including a 49-yard rushing performance on five carries against the New Orleans Saints. With Pierce, though, it’s more about the kind of crisp runs he’s manufacturing and his ultra-physical approach more so than fancy statistics.
Pierce said he gave his first touchdown ball to his mom.
“It means a lot,” Pierce said. “It’s a great organization, a great family atmosphere around here. It’s a good feeling when you walk in the building. Everybody is pulling in the same direction. It’s making it easy to buy in.”
After seeing enough out of him against New Orleans, Pierce was held out of the Texans’ preseason game against the Los Angeles Rams.
Pierce's running style is fun to watch, and it's painful for defenders to deal with.
“I don’t run with good intentions, to answer your question,” Pierce said. “I don’t be angry, just real passionate about what I do. I took bits and pieces of everybody’s game and molded it to my own style, which is violent. I like to fight for my yards. I like to punish the defense. I don’t like taking hits. I like giving hits.”
Aaron Wilson is a Pro Football Network reporter and a contributor to Sports Talk 790.
Texans notebook: Why Marlon Mack was released
Marlon Mack had an underwhelming preseason and lost ground in the competition with rookie running back Dameon Pierce.
That led to Mack being cut from the 53-man roster and then rejoining the Texans on their practice squad.
A former 1,000-yard rusher with the Indianapolis Colts who's trying to resurrect his career with the Texans, Mack showed occasional flashes of his old explosive form during the preseason. He also displayed some hesitation at times.
Texans general manager Nick Caserio praised how Mack has handled the change in status.
“Yeah, you can carry ‘X’ number of players on a roster, so I would say Marlon has had a good training camp," Caserio said Wednesday at NRG Stadium. "He's a player we wanted to continue to work with in some capacity. There was an opportunity for him to come back to the practice squad. He's had a good attitude. He's worked really hard in the preseason. He's been productive with his opportunity.
"We also understand that it's not just veteran players but any player on a practice squad, whether it's for the Texans or throughout the course of the league, is essentially a free agent. That player can leave at any point to go to a 53-man roster, whether it's Grayland Arnold, whether it's Marlon Mack. It's all about the opportunity and what the situation is. We treat the player the same way. We don't look at them any differently. Marlon has been good to work with and we're happy that we have the opportunity to bring him back on the practice squad. Nothing has really changed from his perspective or his mindset.”
He was limited to 32 carries, and 127 yards over the past two years due to a torn Achilles tendon suffered in the first game of the 2020 season,
After rushing for a combined 1,999 yards and 17 touchdowns across 2018 and 2019, Mack made a full recovery by last year. By then, though, he was behind Jonathan Taylor, a gifted All-Pro runner who rushed for an NFL-high 1,811 yards and 17 touchdowns last season. Mack requested a trade, but nothing materialized. As a free agent, he signed a one-year, $2 million contract that included a $250,000 signing bonus to join the Texans.
Mack could move up the 53-man roster at some point.
“Everything we do, we're going to look at week to week, day-to-day, so we're going to look at our team, we're going to figure out what we need for the game, what makes the most sense," Caserio said. "Mack is a good player. We're glad he's here. We're excited to continue to work with him. If there's an opportunity for him or anybody else on a practice squad or anybody else in the league that we can add to the roster, then we'll consider it.”
The Texans cut running back Royce Freeman, leaving just Pierce, Dare Ogunbawale, who's more of a pass-catching back and 34-year-old running back Rex Burkhead on the roster. Burkhead, who led the Texans in rushing yards last season, had a quiet preseason with 33 yards on 12 carries and four catches for 12 yards. He fumbled once.
“I think the players that are on the team we’re comfortable with, otherwise, they wouldn’t be here,” Caserio said. “If there’s an opportunity for us to improve the situation, we kind of have to look at it in totality. It’s not just about running back or running the ball or what that position entails. Those players are in competition other players on the team. If a player can do more things, it gives him an opportunity to create a role for themselves on the team.”
Why the Texans traded Ross Blacklock
When the Texans moved on from defensive tackle Ross Blacklock, it signaled their dissatisfaction with a former second-round draft pick who had failed to earn a starting job and was being pushed out of a role by younger players behind starters Maliek Collins and Roy Lopez.
Ultimately, the Texans traded the former Elkins High standout and TCU all-conference selection along with a seventh-round selection to the Minnesota Vikings in exchange for a sixth-round draft pick.
The Texans like their depth at the position, which includes undrafted rookie Kurt Hinish, Michael Dwumfour and rookie Thomas Booker.
“That was a tough decision," Texans general manager Nick Caserio said. "Ross was a good player for the organization for a number of years, local kid, has a lot of good athletic traits and attributes. We had pretty good competition at the defensive tackle position, so we ended up keeping I think it was five, including Hinish, Dwumfour, Book and then Maliek and Roy.
"In the end, we just felt that it was the best decision for the team, and there was an opportunity for him in Minnesota. They had expressed an interest, so we thought that it made sense for us to give him that opportunity. Certainly wish him well, and hopefully he has success. I think Minnesota is putting together a good program with coach (Kevin) O'Connell and (general manager) Kwesi (Adofo-Mensah), what they're doing kind of collectively as a team.”
The former TCU standout played in 29 games for the Texans, starting three games and recorded 36 career tackles. He had a career-high two sacks last season with one forced fumble. He had four quarterback hits. Blacklock has always had the talent, but didn't put it all together during his time with the Texans.
As a rookie, Blacklock was ejected from a game against the Baltimore Ravens and drew a stinging rebuke from former teammate J.J. Watt.
The son of former Harlem Globetrotters player and coach Jimmy Blacklock didn’t have a lot of highlights as a rookie. A former All-Big 12 Conference selection, Blacklock played in 15 games with one start and finished with 14 tackles, one for a loss and two quarterback hits. His playing time was relatively limited. Operating in a rotation, Blacklock played 255 plays for just 23 percent of the overall defensive snaps.
During his final season at TCU before declaring early for the draft, Blacklock recorded 40 tackles, nine for losses and 3 ½ sacks. A former freshman All-American and Big 12 Co-Defensive Freshman of the Year, Blacklock overcame a torn Achilles as a sophomore and finished his career with 67 tackles, 15 ½ for losses and 5 ½ sacks.
"It's hard," Blacklock said in a telephone interview after the trade. "This is always going to be home for me. The trade, it is what it is. It's an opportunity to go to another place. I'm excited to take it forward and go to Minnesota."
Texans bring in new wide receiver
The Texans were awarded wide receiver Tyler Johnson off waivers from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The former fifth-round draft pick, Johnson caught 36 passes for 360 yards last season catching passes from Tom Brady.
He played collegiately at Minnesota. He ranked second all-time in school history 213 catches and 3,305 yards and 33 touchdowns.
Johnson caught 12 passes for 169 yards and two touchdowns as a rookie. Johnson (6-foot-1, 206 pounds) has 48 career receptions for 529 yards and two touchdowns.
“He has some experience, productive player at the University of Minnesota," Texans general manager Nick Caserio said. "He came from a good program, and PJ (Fleck, Minnesota’s head coach) does a nice job, runs a good program. It's kind of one of those situations where it wasn't an opportunity for him there. Surely have an opportunity elsewhere in the league, so we don't really have a big commitment to him, but he has some size, has decent playing strength.
"He has decent run after catch, has decent hands. When we get him here, we'll see what it looks like relative to the rest of the group. It's about him taking advantage of an opportunity. If it's good enough, he'll be around. If it's not, then we'll look for somebody else. He's been a decent player. He's been productive over the course of his career at different points. We’re excited about the opportunity to add him to the club.”
Getting down to the first 53 players
This marked Nick Caserio's second year as general manager, and his second cutting the Texans' roster down to the league limit of 53 players.
That meant saying goodbye to a lot of players who had worked hard and didn't make the final cut.
"An emotional day for a lot of different people," Caserio said. "I would say there's sadness, there's joy, there's anger. I think how we try to handle it, we just try to be honest, try to be sincere about how we see the player, how we view the player, and essentially the players earn their opportunities. We don't tell them what it is. I think players are respectful and receptive to the way we handled it.
"I would say for the most part, the roster is in place, but I would expect there to be some changes between now and before we play the Colts. It's just the reality of the NFL. It's just the reality of the way this works, and we're no different than any other team."
While Caserio anticipates some changes to the roster between now and a Sept. 11 season-opener against the Indianapolis Colts at NRG Stadium, he emphasized how difficult the game will be against a team that swept the Texans last season.
"The preseason is behind us, off to a decent start," he said. "Now, we reset and recalibrate. It's time to get ready to play real football. Really our focus turns to the Colts, and that will be the first challenge in front of us next week. They've got a good football team. It will certainly be a big challenge in front of us. They kicked our ass twice last year, so we've got a lot of work in front of us and hopefully we have a good week of work."
Caserio said his interaction with Texans coach Lovie Smith in making these decisions was a great collaboration.
“It was awesome," Caserio said. "I think our job, and we have a fiduciary responsibility to each other, me to him, him to me, it's reciprocal. I think he's very open-minded, and what we try to do is take all the information in from the staff, as well, because from a coach's perspective, and I've been in that situation, you invest a lot of time and a lot of energy on a professional level, on a personal level with that player. Their viewpoint, their opinion of that player, their interaction with a player, that matters to us. It would be irresponsible of us not to take that information in.
"Ultimately, Lovie and I have to sit, we have to take everything in, and then make the decisions that we feel make the most sense for our team. Lovie has been great to work with since Day One, not just going down, cutting the roster, but Lovie is well-respected. He has the attention of the team. He commands a lot from the team, and they've responded in favor. It's been good to work with him. I'm sure there's going to be some things that we're going to have to deal with between now and the end of the season, and I think the only way you do that is you have honest, open communication, are respectful of one another, and ultimately we'll have to make a decision, live with our decisions and then move forward.”
Owens earns starting job
For the first time in his NFL career, Texans safety Jonathan Owens enters the season on the 53-man roster.
He's also a starter for the first time next to rookie Jalen Pitre.
Last season, Owens had an interception and a fumble recovery with 18 tackles in seven games and two starts.
He dislocated his wrist and tore five ligaments against the San Francisco 49ers and was placed on injured reserve, undergoing surgery to repair the damage.
Signed in 2019 by the Texans to their practice squad after being cut by the Cardinals, Owens was signed to a new contract through the 2022 season to the active roster last season.
“The word persistence probably applies in that situation," Texans general manager Nick Caserio said. "Jonathan is a great kid. He's got a good attitude. He's always had athletic traits and attributes. When you look at some of his measurables, they're as good as any defensive back in the league. That doesn't necessarily mean you're going to be a good football player because of that, but he has certain traits and characteristics that are appealing.
"I would say he ran into some bad luck with injuries at say different points. He's had some serious injuries, had different injuries, but he never wavered. Last year when he had the opportunity to play, even though it was a short period of time, he took advantage of his opportunity, played really well against the Chargers. He had a good offseason. Nobody trains harder than Jonathan Owens. I would say for multiple years since I've got here, he's been one of the most consistent, most diligent players in our program. We're fortunate we've got a lot of good players with that mindset and that attitude, and Jonathan is certainly one of them. Jonathan earned his opportunity, earned his role, whatever that's going to be."
Max Scharping release 'tough' decision
The Texans cut former second-round draft pick Max Scharping, a former starting left offensive guard.
Scharping had been eclipsed on the depth chart by first-round draft pick Kenyon Green and Justin McCray this preseason.
Scharping, a former All-Mid-American Conference selection and Senior Bowl selection from Northern Illinois, is expected to be a popular target on waivers.
The 6-foot-6, 327-pound Green Bay, Wisconsin native has played in 47 career games with 33 starts.He started the final 14 games of his rookie season in 2019.
Ultimately, it was time for the Texans to move on. Scharping wasn't surprised by the roster move, per a league source.
He joined the Cincinnati Bengals off waivers Wednesday.
The Texans attempted to trade Scharping, per a source.
"Max, that was a tough one," Texans general manager Nick Caserio said. "Nobody is as respected on a team as Max Scharping. He's done a lot of good things, started a lot of football games. He's smart, he's tough, he's played a lot of good football. In the end, we just felt like this was the right decision for our team.
"He's going to have a good opportunity in Cincinnati, going to a good team. Again, we can't really worry about what other teams think. We just have to worry about the Houston Texans and what we think. Max is a good player. This isn't about Max is not a good enough player. It's just where we were right now, we just felt this was the best decision for us, and that's how we handled it and that's how we approached it.”
Caserio attributed the turnover of draft picks, which includes trading former second-round draft picks Ross Blacklock and Lonnie Johnson Jr., cutting Scharping, not retaining former third-round safety Justin Reid as a free agent who signed with the Kansas City Chiefs, to the routine turnover of the league.
“I think that's just the NFL," he said. "You could look around the league and say there's players that are drafted that get released. There's players that are drafted that stick. There's players that are drafted that move on to other teams, other opportunities, so I think you just have to look at your situation. It's a year-to-year endeavor. I think that's the one thing that probably I've learned being in the league 20 some years. It's year-to-year. One year is different than the next year. And you can't just assume. We just have to trust what we see. All of us restart and recalibrate the next year.
"Whatever happens in 2022 quite frankly is not going to matter. What happened in 2021 is not going to matter. We're focused on now. We're focused on what we need to do really to beat the Colts. There's going to be change, and I would say there's consistent roster turnover year-after-year. 25, 30 percent of the team is going to turn over, whether it's draft picks, whether it's free agent signings, whatever it is. There's no one-set way. There's no one-set formula. We can't control that. The players ultimately control it with their performance, and then we just try to make the decisions that we feel are best for the organization.”
Aaron Wilson is a Pro Football Network reporter and a contributor to Sports Talk 790.