Texans coach Lovie Smith made it abundantly clear that he coveted an upgrade at the cornerback position to fulfill the vision he’s long held for his defense.
Before the draft, Smith emphasized that the Texans couldn’t play defense the way he wanted them to without better play at corner.
The Texans took an important step toward that goal Thursday night, drafting LSU shutdown corner Derek Stingley Jr. in the first round with the third overall pick.
Stingley has as much upside as any player in the draft, according to multiple league sources.
“When I see the ball in the air, most of the time I don't think of it as 50-50,” Stingley said after being picked by the Texans. “It's mine. .. That’s a life-long dream right there. I can’t wait to get to work.”
The only question mark that had clouded Stingley’s draft stock a bit was his durability. Stingley made a full recovery from a Lisfranc foot injury that required surgery and proved that with a 4.37 40-yard dash at LSU's Pro Day.
Stingley's upside and renewed health and combination of athleticism and football skills made the Texans feel confident in him.
“Derek has played at a high level ever since he walked in the building at LSU," Texans general manager Nick Caserio said during a late-night press conference at NRG Stadium. "Runs well, he plays with good technique, plays the ball well. He plays under control, plays with good anticipation. I think one of the benefits of watching him and following that program going back, I mean, they've had a lot of good players come through there.
"His football acumen is good, really cares about football. He is a technician. He is really devoted to understanding the techniques of playing the position. So, when you look at everything in totality, we just felt like that made the most sense for our team, and I would say just organizationally there was a consensus, so I think that's important as well."
At the LSU Pro Day, Stingley also had a 38.5-inch vertical leap and a 10'2" broad jump, displaying explosiveness. Some scouts clocked him as fast as 4.33 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Those numbers help prove that his foot is sound.
“It’s amazing, I know I feel great right now,” Stingley said when asked about his surgically repaired foot. “When I get out there to practice, training camp, I’m just excited to be out there with teammates.”
Stingley visited the Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Detroit Lions, New York Jets, and New York Giants before the NFL Draft. Stingley had drawn heavy praise from NFL executives leading up to his selection.
The Texans are coming off a 4-13 season.
“It was a good vibe over there,” Stingley said of his interactions with the Texans. “You can tell things are going to be different from the past. Everything is trending upward over there.”
Stingley said he plans to work extremely hard and prove he’s worthy of the Texans’ investment in him.
“I will always give 100 percent,” he said.
"When Stingley is healthy, there's simply no better corner in the draft," one NFL director of scouting told Pro Football Network. "He's outstanding in every way we grade football players. Players like him don't grow on trees. They're rare for a reason."
It's a strong statement considering the presence of Cincinnati consensus All-American corner Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner, who went one pick later to the New York Jets.
Based on Stingley's impressive ability and track record against elite competition in the ultra-competitive SEC, his NFL pedigree, and, importantly, his improved health, the comments had the ring of truth.
"Stingley is incredibly talented, and a lot of teams feel very confident in him," said Shrine Bowl director of football operations and player personnel Eric Galko said before the draft. "Stingley is a great athlete who has shown he can be a dominant corner. He hasn't gotten worse as a football player. He has gotten better. Stingley is a much safer prospect than people realize.
"He's a great athlete with high character and the right body type. He won't have to wait too long to hear his name called. The injuries are a short-term thing. Once someone is healthy, then they're fine. The teams do a really good job of not overreacting to injuries. The medical is just one component of the total evaluation."
As a true freshman, Stingley started for LSU and led the SEC with 6 interceptions and 15 pass breakups. That performance led to him being named first-team All-SEC and a consensus All-American.
Stingley has an extensive football pedigree. His father, Derek Stingley, played in the Arena Football League, while his grandfather, Darryl Stingley, played in the NFL for the New England Patriots before being paralyzed by a hit from Oakland Raiders corner Jack Tatum.
"I like Stingley," former Chicago Bears director of college scouting Greg Gabriel said in a telephone interview before the draft. "He's really interesting. When he's healthy, this guy is really good. There's nothing he can't do. He missed a lot of time. The key is, 'What's the character, and what does the team think about the injuries?' I've been in eight draft rooms before with (Texans coach) Lovie Smith, and Lovie is a pure traits guy.
"Lovie is huge on ball skills, getting interceptions. A corner like Stingley that can pick the football off on a consistent basis is extremely valuable for Lovie's defense."
Stingley said he patterns his game after legendary retired All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey. “Champ Bailey is always something I watched,” Stingley said.
Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert attended his pro day workout along with Washington Commanders general manager Martin Mayhew and Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley.
Stingley Jr. intercepted 27 passes during his high school career. He was a five-star recruit and ranked first overall by Rivals and a finalist for the National Gatorade Player of the Year.
Why go with Stingley over Gardner?
"I think it's more about scheme than anything else," Galko said. "Stingley is more scheme-versatile and is such a talented, long press corner. Stingley is a better athlete, but it's more about playing in different schemes that value athleticism versus Gardner lacking anything. Gardner is an easier projection as a rookie, but Stingley has more upside for the future, in my opinion."
At 6'0", 190 pounds, Stingley has ideal size. The former blue-chipper missed all but three games last season due to the foot injury and had eight ackles (3.5 for loss) and one forced fumble.
“Check all the film,” Stingley said. “If you really look at everything, you’ll know that there hasn’t been any difference.”
Stingley had 27 tackles and broke up 5 passes two seasons ago and was named first-team All-SEC while missing three games (two for an ankle injury and one due to an illness).
"We visited Derek and had a great visit with the coaching staff, had a great visit with everybody in the building," Caserio said. "He has been a productive player. He was a productive player early on in his career. He had some bumps in the road there in '20 and '21, but in the end, we felt comfortable with Derek. We think he is a good player. Kind of fits the profile of what we're trying to do."
Being able to communicate that the Texans drafted the players marks a significant moment for the players that Caserio enjoys being a part of.
This is a life-changing experience for the players.
"It's an emotional experience for that individual," he said. "This is a tremendous opportunity they've worked their entire life for. I think you have a certain level of empathy and understanding for what they're going through. It's great to see people show emotion. I think it's okay to show emotion. Sometimes even when you are showing emotion, it's joy even though might not look -- it's probably tears of joy.
"To be able to present a young kid with an opportunity, it's cool to be able to do that. You understand it's a momentous occasion in their life. It's still a people business, but it's also part of building and we have a job to do to put together a good football team. Ultimately, it's going to be about wins and losses because that's what this league is about.”
Aaron Wilson is a Pro Football Network reporter and analyst and a contributor to Sports Talk 790.