By keeping Brandin Cooks and Laremy Tunsil, Houston Texans show they believe they can win with Davis Mills

HOUSTON -- After the Houston Texans traded away quarterback Deshaun Watson, it would have been easy for the franchise to trade away the few proven veterans they have left to give general manager Nick Caserio even more of a blank slate to build a team.

Instead, Caserio signed wide receiver Brandin Cooks to a two-year contract extension and kept left tackle Laremy Tunsil, converting his base salary to a signing bonus that effectively ties him to the organization for the remaining two years of his contract.

By keeping those two players, the Texans are not only showing they’re not totally against winning, but that they want to give Davis Mills a legitimate shot to be their quarterback of the future.

The Texans have also given Mills, a third-round pick in 2021, consistency in his coaching staff, despite letting go of coach David Culley this offseason, by promoting defensive coordinator Lovie Smith to head coach and passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach Pep Hamilton to offensive coordinator.

When the Texans drafted Mills last year, they had no clarity on Watson’s future, no first- or second-round picks and little hope that they’d be competing for a playoff spot in the near future. While Mills struggled at first after veteran Tyrod Taylor went down with a left hamstring injury in Week 2, he showed enough improvement down the stretch of the season when he again replaced Taylor, who struggled after returning from injury, to earn the opportunity to compete for the Texans’ starting job this season.

“It’s huge that we signed [Cooks] back,” Mills said. “I’m extremely excited to continue working with him. He has a ton of talent and makes it really hard on defenses to game plan to go out there to stop him. … He’s also a great leader for our team.”

And while there was no doubt that keeping Cooks and Tunsil makes the Texans significantly better, with a roster with plenty of holes, it might have made sense for Caserio to get the bigger contracts off the books and focus on building around a quarterback in this draft or the next.

Instead, Caserio paid Cooks a contract that averages $19.8 million over the next two years, with $36 million guaranteed. Had the Texans chosen to trade Cooks instead of paying him, they were looking for a second-round pick, a source told ESPN.

The Texans already have five of the top 80 picks in this month's draft, including pick No. 3 and the 13th pick from the Browns via the Watson trade. The two first-rounders are more than they’ve had in the last four drafts combined.

When Caserio was hired in January 2021, he spoke about the importance of building the right culture in Houston. He did that by turning over the roster -- signing veteran players to one- or two-year contracts -- and trying to improve a situation that saw the faces of the franchise -- Watson and defensive end J.J. Watt -- decide to leave.

After a season that Caserio called “not as much outcome-oriented as process-oriented," he re-signed several of the players who he felt were part of the “foundational culture" that features players who are "tough-minded, who are selfless, who are going to work hard every day, and they’re going to compete their a-- off.”

The result was Houston re-signing linebackers Christian Kirksey and Kamu Grugier-Hill, center Justin Britt and cornerback Desmond King II.

“The people that he signed back, the people that he brought in, you could look at them and they’re just high-effort leaders who have won a lot of games and know what it takes,” Britt said. “I can’t speak for anyone else, but I can [say] that I’ll show up every day the same way.”

And while Kirksey said building a culture “doesn’t happen overnight,” it’s clear Caserio and Smith believe retaining those key players, like Cooks and Tunsil, is key to building a winner in Houston.

“It’s a process that’s put in place, and the guys that are brought back on the team are part of that culture that [Caserio] is trying to build,” Kirskey said. “But the next step, to me, is trusting. We’ve got the right guys, now we’ve got to trust the system. We’ve got to trust what the coaches are saying. The coaches have to trust us to go out there and produce. I think that’s the next part. Right now, we’re building that trust with one another.

“As you know, there are going to be more additions to the team in the draft, and now they have to hop on board to the culture that we set. Just because we had a [four-win] season doesn’t mean that work wasn’t done in that season last year. I think that we’re stirring the pot. I think that we’re continuing to put the right ingredients to what we want to be and who we want to be. We’ve just got to continue to trust it and things will happen.”