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Houston Texans: 2022 Preseason Predictions and Preview

Davis Mills, Houston Texans

Texans' rebuild continues with Davis Mills entrenched at quarterback and Lovie Smith taking over as head coach.

The additional first-round draft picks the Texans acquired by trading quarterback Deshaun Watson to the Browns accelerated a massive rebuild that is entering its second year. But to ensure that the franchise doesn't field a dysfunctional and disastrous team for yet another season, general manager Nick Caserio and newly promoted head coach Lovie Smith will be relying on the young talent infusing their roster to quickly live up to its potential.

The team's top pick, cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., must strengthen a secondary that too often blew coverages and surrendered explosive plays. Rookie Kenyon Green must solidify a patchwork interior offensive line and pave wider lanes for free agent acquisition Marlon Mack to improve a run game that was the worst in franchise history. The veterans retained from last year's roster overhaul must continue to be steady. And if Davis Mills emerges as a franchise QB in his second year, the Texans could actually become a team worth watching.

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OFFENSE

It is imperative for the Texans to upgrade their run game into an even remotely functional unit if they want to avoid posting a four-win season for the third consecutive year. Pep Hamilton is getting his second shot as a full-time NFL offensive coordinator after spending last season as Houston's passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Smith called it "a must" to retain Hamilton for the progression of Mills, but Hamilton also still believes the run game is a key tool that identifies and exploits defensive weaknesses. Smith says he "wouldn't have a coordinator that didn't believe in that."

Hamilton's West Coast offense often uses power run-blocking schemes, and by drafting Green 15th overall, Caserio added a "big-ass physical offensive lineman that moves people." They want to be a tough, physical team, and by restructuring star left tackle Laremy Tunsil's contract, exercising utility tackle Tytus Howard's fifth-year option and signing veteran center Justin Britt and guard A.J. Cann on two-year contracts, Caserio has secured moderate stability up front while facing immediate cap space restrictions.

Mack was a quality rusher for the Colts before tearing his Achilles in 2020. Best-case scenario: He becomes Houston's much-needed lead back. Worst-case scenario: Mack regresses and the Texans too often rely on nine-year veteran Rex Burkhead and rookie Dameon Pierce to carry the load.

The Texans will become bigger spenders in free agency next year, and Caserio dug into that future pile of cash by extending veteran wide receiver Brandin Cooks through the 2024 season. Mills desperately needed more dynamic receivers, and Caserio traded back into the second round and drafted 5'11", 187-pound wide receiver John Metchie III — a player Caserio says "has some position versatility." Metchie tore his ACL in the SEC Championship Game in December, which was likely to delay his debut to begin with, but at the start of training camp, it was announced that he had been diagnosed with a form of leukemia. Metchie said because of the diagnosis that he likely won't play at all this season so he can focus on his health and recovery.

Keep an eye on how Hamilton uses multi-tight end packages. He doesn't yet have an all-around player at the position. Brevin Jordan can split out as a receiver. The 6'6", 258-pound Pharaoh Brown has the frame, but the four-year veteran led all tight ends in penalties last season. In the fifth round, the Texans picked 6'6", 259-pound Teagan Quitoriano, who should give them more blocking bulk.

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DEFENSE

The Texans had the NFL's second-worst rush defense, surrendered 20-plus-yard pass plays at the league's third-highest rate and were blown out frequently enough to stick the franchise with its worst total point differential (-172) in history. Smith, who spent 2021 as Houston's defensive coordinator, will still be calling defensive plays. So, there will at least be consistency in the 4-3 scheme. But Houston lost star safety Justin Reid, who signed a lucrative contract with the Chiefs in free agency that the salary cap-strapped Texans weren't willing to pay.

Caserio did identify a few core players. Christian Kirksey, the team's Mike linebacker, and Maliek Collins, a powerful 3-technique defensive tackle, both returned on two-year deals. The rest of the defense could be filled by rookies or free agent acquisitions.

Caserio emphasized the secondary heavily in the draft. The Texans picked cornerback Stingley third overall, giving Smith his most talented cornerback since Charles Tillman in Chicago. Stingley is a ball hawk who thrives in both man and zone coverages. Smith places a high value on takeaways, and he's slowly acquiring versatile defenders who can close quickly against both the pass and run.

Jalen Pitre, the team's first Round 2 selection (37th overall), is a prime example. He's a hybrid defensive back Caserio says "plays with his hair on fire" and can play safety and nickel. If Pitre starts at safety, he'll line up next to Eric Murray, who hasn't yet lived up to his considerable contract but progressed toward the end of last season.

Caserio's biggest splash in free agency, seven-year veteran Steven Nelson, will likely be the No. 2 corner in a secondary that needed an overhaul. That means Desmond King II will return to his original position at nickel after spending his first season on the defensive perimeter out of necessity.

The Texans don't often deploy more than two linebackers at once, which means there will be a major training camp battle to see who starts next to Kirksey. Kamu Grugier-Hill sometimes lacked the size to fight off blocks between the tackles, and Caserio drafted 6'1", 226-pound linebacker Christian Harris 75th overall. His build and speed — he ran a 4.44-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine — gives him a significant edge to play right away. Harris began his career at Alabama in the secondary, which fits the profile of the rangy linebackers Smith loves.

The Texans still need defensive line depth for a front that pressured quarterbacks at the league's fifth-lowest rate in 2021. Caserio didn't pick an edge rusher in the draft but almost immediately signed Rasheem Green, a veteran defensive end who should complement Jonathan Greenard after his breakout season. The team also welcomes former Bills pass rushers Mario Addison and Jerry Hughes.

SPECIALISTS

Second-year special teams coordinator Frank Ross must stabilize a unit that performed on both extremes of the spectrum. Veteran kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn set a franchise record with a 61-yard field goal last season but missed too many kicks and extra-point attempts at crucial moments. His dead money hit decreases and doesn't offer as much protection if he's cut this year. Punter Cam Johnston has become a fixture and should continue his accurate punting after ranking second in the league with 37 punts pinned inside the opponent's 20. It's a vote of confidence that the Texans did not sign anyone to compete with either Fairbairn or Johnston.

Tremon Smith will continue returning kicks after snapping the franchise's 12-year drought a year ago by returning a kickoff for a touchdown. King should return punts again unless Stingley is involved. King's 9.1 yards per return ranked within the league's top 15.

FINAL ANALYSIS

Caserio is in the second year of a massive rebuild, but there are added expectations after firing former head coach David Culley, promoting Lovie Smith and adding five top-75 picks. Chairman/CEO Cal McNair anticipates the Texans will be competitive this season, and Caserio can't afford another embarrassing season while courting a city that's only moderately regaining interest. Playoff expectations are still at least a season away, but if the Texans are repeatedly pummeled with hope-sucking losses on a schedule that includes the AFC West, the questions for Caserio could get more difficult.

Prediction: 4th in AFC South