How and why the Texans traded up to land Alabama pass rusher Will Anderson

HOUSTON – Nick Caserio worked the phones, maneuvering and haggling to find a way to land a coveted pass rusher. One pick after selecting Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud second overall, the Texans’ third-year general manager executed a bold and aggressive power move.

Caserio traded the Texans’ 12th overall and 33rd overall selections this year, and their own 2024 first-round and third-round picks to the Arizona Cardinals to acquire Alabama consensus All-American edge Will Anderson Jr., a two-time Bronko Nagurski award winner, and the 105th overall pick.

How Caserio and the Texans navigated the draft to get not only a strong-armed, accurate pocket passer and an impactful, relentless defensive player was the most compelling story of the draft Thursday night. The trade for Anderson and obtaining a quarterback with upside reveals an aggressive strategy, a deep desire to become relevant now and competitive soon. Caserio’s relationship with Cardinals general manager Monti Ossenfort helped him hammer out the trade with less than two minutes remaining on the draft clock.

Ultimately, it was about believing in Anderson and doing what needed to be done to acquire him after going 11-38-1 over the past three seasons and 7-27-1 during the past two seasons under coaches Lovie Smith and David Culley before hiring new coach DeMeco Ryans by popular acclaim this offseason.

Anderson had one of the highest grades on draft boards across the league, including the Texans, according to multiple league sources. That’s because he was one of the cleanest prospects in terms of skill, character and health.

“As far as the trade is concerned, it really comes down to doing what we feel is best for the football team,” Caserio said. “It was an opportunity to get a player who we thought very highly of. We knew he wasn’t going to last, and we felt that adding him to our football team was something that we wanted to do. Can’t say enough good things about Will, just the person that he is, the human being that he is, his leadership, and unsolicited before the draft, we received commentary about just the praise was just incredible.”

This marks the biggest draftday trade for the Texans since former general manager Rick Smith traded up in 2017 to acquire Deshaun Watson, the former Pro Bowl quarterback Caserio traded to the Cleveland Browns last year for three first-round draft pick. The Texans still have the Browns’ first-round draft pick in next year’s draft.

After a meaningless victory over the Indianapolis Colts meant they lost the top overall pick, which became the Carolina Panthers’ selection of Alabama quarterback Bryce Young after they traded with the Chicago Bears, the Texans were in need of a quarterback with upside. And they got one in Stroud, They still wanted the pass rusher, too.

By drafting Stroud at No. 2 overall, the Texans got a player league sources say the Tennessee Titans wanted to select at No. 3 overall and had made inquiries with the Cardinals about the spot. The Texans had much more significant draft capital to offer, primarily due to the Watson trade executed by Caserio. That set the path for getting Anderson.

They didn’t run out of time, and they got what they wanted after holding talks throughout the day. The mechanics of how it happened led to Caserio, who rarely displays much emotion, smacking a table in the draft room to celebrate.

“We made the pick with C.J. there, and Arizona was on the clock, then we were on the clock, and we were really going back and forth on the trade compensation,” Caserio said. “I would say with the trade itself was actually consummated with about 1:30 left on the clock. So it’s us to Arizona, ‘Okay, we have a deal. Us to the league, okay, we’re doing a trade with Arizona. Here are the terms. Here are the parameters.’

“They have to match it up: ‘Okay, you’re good. You’re on the clock. Be ready to submit the pick.’ So, there’s a lot happening in short period of time. We were under five minutes and then really under two minutes. We had to get the pick ready to submit on the computer. So as soon as we were on the clock, it was ready, go, get the player on the phone. So, we had dueling phones working there a little bit. I’d say we probably made the pick with less than a minute left. So, the clock didn’t run out. At least we were able to make the pick.”

After being selected by the Texans, Stroud had a hunch that something could be happening with Anderson as both were in their respective green rooms in Kansas City at the draft.

“I had just been picked, I was already juiced up, and I turned around and I was like, ‘Hold up, the Texans are still up,’” Stroud said. “So, I said, ‘Whoa, there’s no way.’ I had a feeling. Like right when I got drafted, I was, like, they’re going to have to go get Will or something like that. Something’s got to shake.”

And it did and the Texans wound up investing a lot of draft capital to get Anderson, a Lombardi award winner, two-time Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year and Bednarik award winner. He had 17 1/2 sacks and 34 1/2 tackles for losses as a sophomore, and 10 sacks and 17 tackles for losses last season.

2023 NFL Draft - Round 1

Photo: Getty Images

The Texans paid a premium to get Anderson. Yes, the point charts, including the Jimmy Johnson one and others, show the Cardinals came out ahead. The Texans’ position is, though, that the points aren’t what’s important. It’s about the player they got and his value to a defense that ranked 30th overall, allowing 379.5 yards in total offense last season and gave up a franchise-record 2,894 rushing yards and 5.1 per carry in 2022.

“Really, the trade in and of itself is just about doing what we felt was best for the team and the organization, and trades are always a product or a function of the player,” Caserio said. “Just from our perspective, it’s not about what the points tell you on the chart. If you have conviction about a player and you want a player and you think the trade is the right thing for you to do, then you go ahead and do it, which is what we did.

“We’re certainly not worried about what the points are and what the trade chart says. I mean, it doesn’t really mean anything. So the trade was really driven more by this is a player we thought would bring a lot of value to our team. So, that’s why we went ahead and did it”

The Texans have solid defensive ends in Jonathan Greenard and Jerry Hughes, but lost Ogbo Okoronkwo in free agency to the Browns. Anderson had 130 total pressures over the past two seasons and should provide a strong pass rusher and run-stopper. He finished his Crimson Tide career with 204 tackles, 58 1/2 for losses, 34 1/2 sacks and one interception he returned for a touchdown.

“You can accumulate as many draft picks as you like,” Caserio said. “How to utilize those draft picks, ultimately you have to take the information, process it, have constructive dialogue about it, and then kind of go through what if scenarios: ‘If you make this move, here’s what it’s going to cost. Are we comfortable with it? Do we have conviction behind the pick? Do we have conviction behind the player?’

“I would say staff involvement in that is a part of it. So, it’s player, how we feel the player is going to fit our program, what do they bring to the table? What do we have to give up in return? And we’re either comfortable with that or not. I think from an ownership perspective, the McNairs have certainly been supportive of what we’re trying to do. The one thing that they enable our staffs to do is really do our jobs and give us the ability to try to make good decisions for the organization. We’re certainly appreciative of that.”

Perhaps even the Texans’ first-round pick next season won’t be as high as the Browns’ selection depending on their improvement and how Watson performs after a rusty first season in Cleveland last year.

From Anderson’s standpoint, he’s simply happy to be joining a new friend in Stroud in Houston and coach DeMeco Ryans, a fellow former Alabama standout who was a two-time Pro Bowl linebacker for the Texans and an NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.

“I’m just super blessed, super excited to be a part of something so special and a part of a lot of great defensive minds that just share the same mindset and mentality,” Anderson said. “To go from one coach like coach (Nick) Saban to another coach that was at ‘Bama and knows the process and knows the standard and has the expectation, that’s exactly what I needed.”

Anderson Jr. plays the game with a dynamic, relentless style, chasing down quarterbacks with skill and determination.

He was in heavy demand, visiting the Seattle Seahawks, the Texans and the Detroit Lions before the draft, per league sources. Anderson met with the Chicago Bears and the Texans at the scouting combine among others.

Now, he rejoins two former college teammates in linebacker Christian Harris and wide receiver John Metchie III in Houston.

“It’s a big blessing,” Anderson said. “Houston, this is the place I wanted to be, somewhere where they’re getting ready to turn things around be a part of something special. I felt that authenticity when I was there. I got in the facility and it was everything I felt like I needed. God don’t make no mistakes. That’s why I’m a Texan.”

Aaron Wilson is a contributor to Sports Talk 790.

2023 NFL Draft - Round 1

Photo: Getty Images

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