With Deshaun Watson traded, clock ticking on GM Nick Caserio to turn Houston Texans around

HOUSTON -- The cloud hanging over the Houston Texans organization is gone.

On Friday, Texans general manager Nick Caserio traded quarterback Deshaun Watson to the Cleveland Browns for five draft picks, including three in the first round. They will also get a 2023 third-round pick and will swap a 2024 fourth for a 2024 fifth.

When Caserio was hired by the Texans in January 2021, he thought he was taking over a roster led by Watson, who had signed a four-year, $156 million contract extension less than six months prior. Instead, almost immediately, the quarterback requested a trade. The Texans did not plan to grant Watson's trade request until they realized the scope of his legal situation.

Between March 16 and April 14, 2021, 23 civil lawsuits were filed against Watson with allegations ranging from sexual assault to inappropriate behavior during massage sessions. Last week, a Harris County, Texas, grand jury declined to indict Watson on criminal charges, but there are still 22 active lawsuits, after one was dropped last year.

More than a year since the first lawsuit was filed, Watson is gone. Now Caserio must begin his rebuild of the Texans roster in earnest. The general manager’s first head coach hire -- David Culley -- lasted less than a year. Now, Caserio is on his second head coach in as many seasons -- Lovie Smith -- and no longer has Watson tying up the roster.

When team CEO and chairman Cal McNair hired Caserio, he committed to him long-term by giving him a six-year contract. Caserio is one year into that contract, but this trade gives him a timeline in which to succeed. The last first-round pick from the Browns will be in 2024. If the team has not shown significant improvement from where they are now -- with the increased draft capital -- this will define Caserio’s tenure as a general manager.

How good those picks are, of course, will also depend on how well Watson and the Browns play in the next three seasons. While the 2020 season showed that even a quarterback leading the league in passing yards cannot overcome a bad team -- the Texans went 4-12 and fired head coach/general manager Bill O’Brien after an 0-4 start -- Watson will have a direct effect on the draft capital Caserio has to work with.

In the same way the Texans counted on the two first-round picks they traded to the Miami Dolphins for Laremy Tunsil being selections in the middle or end of the first round, the Browns hope Watson elevates their team to make this a good value. With Tunsil, it worked out 50/50 in that only one pick had significant value for Miami. The Dolphins had the No. 26 pick in 2020 and the No. 3 pick in 2021.

Now the Texans are scheduled to have six first-round picks in the next three drafts, including Nos. 3 and 13 overall next month. If that holds, Houston will have more picks (two) in the first round this year than they have had in the last four drafts combined (one).

The Texans are also moving on from a quarterback who counted $15.9 million against the cap last season while not practicing with the team or playing in a game. While the Texans could make another move at quarterback before the start of the season, it seems most likely the Texans will build around second-year quarterback Davis Mills.

Mills was Caserio’s first pick a year ago, and after he struggled to start, he played well enough at the end of the season to give the Texans confidence. In 13 games, including 11 starts, Mills completed 66.88% of his passes for 2,664 yards with 16 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Whether he’s the answer in the long haul under center remains to be seen.

That will be the story of the Texans in 2022, whether Mills can be a reliable quarterback for the foreseeable future. Houston’s roster is void of noteworthy talent all over the field, but quarterback will be the most important position to get right.

The Texans with Mills could continue to struggle, and it wouldn't be surprising if Caserio and McNair understand that. The question becomes how many down seasons the owner deems acceptable before there’s significant on-field improvement.

This trade, for the first time, gives Caserio and the Texans a timeline. The clock is ticking on improvement.