HOUSTON -- Around 8,000 Houston Texans fans swarmed the Miller Outdoor Theatre in Houston before the NFL draft began on the last Thursday of April as the Texans hosted a draft party that featured a historic day that no onlooker could forget.
A jumbo screen showing the live action taking place in Kansas City, Missouri, was the star of the party featuring current Texans players anxiously awaiting potential new faces of the franchise.
All eyes were locked onto the screen as the Carolina Panthers selected quarterback Bryce Young out of Alabama at No. 1 with the Texans on the clock for the second pick. Almost every fan rose eagerly for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to announce the selection.
Fans hung on each word, and once Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud's name was announced, the sounds of the crowd's joyous celebration and standing ovation reverberated. And the waiting game began as the Texans were slated to pick at No. 12 next.
Until they weren't.
As emotions died down, a surprise announcement happened before a shocked crowd. Yes, the Texans had traded up to No. 3 (where they would draft Alabama defensive end Will Anderson Jr.).
But that moment wasn't about that pick. That 15-minute span of excitement was about how the Texans put together a plan that would take years to execute.
Here's how they got there.
WHEN GENERAL MANAGER Nick Caserio began in January 2021, it was the end of a Texans era featuring former coach and GM Bill O'Brien, quarterback Deshaun Watson, wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and pass-rusher J.J. Watt -- a trio of players who led the organization to four AFC South titles from 2015 to 2019 and a coach who has the only record over .500 in franchise history.
The Texans were coming off a 4-12 season in 2020 when O'Brien was fired after an 0-4 start. Watson demanded a trade that same month as Caserio was hired, Watt asked to part ways the next month to avoid being a part of a rebuild and Hopkins was traded in the previous offseason to the Arizona Cardinals after voicing his frustrations.
Caserio had only $20 million in cap space to work with in his first year. Also he didn't have a first- or second-round pick after O’Brien traded the franchise's first-round picks in 2020 and 2021 and a second-round pick in 2021 to the Miami Dolphins for left tackle Laremy Tunsil and former receiver Kenny Stills in 2019.
In Caserio's second offseason, he was able to trade Watson for first-round picks in 2022, 2023 and 2024 as well as a 2023 third-round pick and a 2024 fourth-round pick, but a ballooning dead cap number that reached $77.9 million in 2022 limited the cap space last year ($15 million).
The Texans limited who they committed to long term over the past two offseasons, as they had 42 players take at least one snap while playing on a one-year deal during that span. That number was tied for the fifth most (the Cardinals were first with 47).
Houston also let starting safety Justin Reid, linebacker Jacob Martin and receiver Will Fuller V walk in free agency, and linebacker Zach Cunningham was cut in December of 2021 after he signed a four-year, $58 million contract extension in 2020.
Caserio did commit to wide receiver Brandin Cooks in 2022 and Tunsil in 2023 with contract extensions, but Cooks demanded a trade last season. Cooks got his wish in March when he was dealt to the Dallas Cowboys for a fifth-round pick in 2023 and a sixth-round pick in 2024.
But the Texans' cap issues didn't prevent them from adding young talent. It created flexibility for aggressiveness to draft the next wave of Texans as one of those picks turned into running back Dameon Pierce, who was seventh in rushing (939 yards) even though he suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Week 14. The Texans also used their second first-round pick in 2022 to take left guard Kenyon Green.
The rest of the Texans' 2022 class featured safety Jalen Pitre, who became the eighth player in history to finish with more than 140 tackles and five interceptions, in the second round, and cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., who didn't allow a touchdown in coverage, was the No. 3 overall pick.
But while trying to fill the roster with younger talent and adding players on one-year deals, Caserio struggled to find the coach of the future. He hired and fired two head coaches in back-to-back seasons -- David Culley (4-13 in 2021) and promoted defensive coordinator Lovie Smith (3-13-1 in 2022).
DURING THIS OFFSEASON, Caserio hired one of the hottest candidates in the coaching cycle in former All-Pro linebacker for the Texans DeMeco Ryans. He also had about $40 million in cap space to work with and only $5.55 million in dead cap to absorb.
The Texans signed former Cowboys tight end Dalton Schultz to a one-year deal worth $9 million to replace the production of tight end Jordan Akins, who signed with the Browns after leading the Texans in touchdown receptions (5). In the past three seasons, Schultz totaled 2,000 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns, ranking seventh among tight ends in receiving yards, fourth in catches and fifth in touchdowns.
They signed wide receiver Robert Woods to a two-year, $15.25 million deal after finishing with 527 yards in 2022 with the Tennessee Titans. The offensive line was beefed up after trading a sixth-round pick for right guard Shaq Mason from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Mason, who had a 92.7% pass block win rate (27th in the NFL), per ESPN Stats & Information, and allowed only three sacks last season, signed a three-year extension with the Texans on Wednesday.
Mason joins an offensive line anchored by tackles Tunsil and Tytus Howard, who had 12 sacks attributed to them (tied for the second fewest). That trio is why Mason believes the Texans' offensive line can "definitely be one of the best lines in the league."
On the defensive side, they signed defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins to a one-year deal worth $10.5 million and added former San Francisco 49ers safety Jimmie Ward on a two-year deal worth $13 million.
Rankins will have familiarity with the Texans' new defensive system, as he played the past two seasons for the Jets and coach Robert Saleh, and Ryans and Saleh run the same scheme after severing as the last two defensive coordinators for the 49ers. Both will be able to help teach the system to their teammates, as Ward already sees himself as "an extra coach."
"Obviously, I know this defense," Ward said. "I'm not perfect. Sometimes, I'm pretty sure I make mistakes. [I'll] just try to bring the younger guys along because I've been through a lot going on my 10th year in this league."
The hope is that those defensive acquisitions, including Anderson, fix their run defense that allowed the sixth-most rushing yards in a single season (2,894) ever and ranked 30th in total defense, allowing 379.5 yards per game in 2022.
That said, after giving up picks Nos. 12 and 33 and a future first-rounder to acquire Anderson, the Texans hope that all the patience that it took to get to that moment was worth it.
"I think the goal every year each step of the way is add players that we think have an opportunity to help us," Caserio said after the draft. "Through that lens, hopefully, we've done that. We'll find out more when they actually are here and then when they actually get started in our program."