The first wave of free agency is over. The Houston Texans came into free agency with more money to spend than most teams and while some were underwhelmed by their efforts, they actually added more solid football players than most people think. Roster construction is a lot like a jigsaw puzzle. Teams utilize free agency and the draft to add the pieces they need to compete for a playoff spot.
Obviously, the Texans come into the 2023 season with a lot of holes. The odds of them filling every hole is slim, but they can put a good dent in it with all of the draft capital they have. Looking at the state of the roster following free agency can give us some clues as to what they will target in April.
In order to look at the current guys we will utilize Pro Football Focus. Their grades are not the end all be all of human existence, but they are a good start. We will look at the secondary’s overall grades, grades against the run, grades as a pass rusher, and grades in coverage. Typically, any player with a grade over 50 will find themselves on a team’s roster. Players with grades over 60 will be rotational players. Players with grades over 70 will be starters.
Desmond King— 916 snaps, 73.2 Overall, 69.8 Run, 80.0 Pass Rush, 71.8 Coverage
King is a perfect example of someone that has certain skills that you can take advantage of. He is a very good slot corner. He gets exposed when he has to cover outside. He had to do that extensively in 2021 and struggled. Last season he was able to stay inside and thrived. As much as we blame Lovie Smith for Derek Stingley and Christian Harris, we should give him credit for King. He got more out of King than most defensive coordinators.
Tavierre Thomas— 409 snaps, 70.0 Overall, 62.2 Run, 43.5 Pass Rush, 75.0 Coverage
Caserio gave Thomas another contract during free agency, He signed for a $1.5 million base salary and $500,000 signing bonus. That’s not much for a solid depth piece in the secondary. Sometimes, re-signing your own guys feels underwhelming to fans, but when they are solid performers there really is no downside.
Steven Nelson— 957 snaps, 66.7 Overall, 39.2 Run, 91.1 Pass Rush, 72.0 Coverage
When you find ways to limit his exposure against the run then he is a legit starting level corner in this league. As one of the few guys that does well on the outside, he could be invaluable to this defense. His cap hit for a starting corner is pretty damn low. Nelson is an excellent contender for the best signing for Caserio in 2022.
Derek Stingley— 599 snaps, 49.1 Overall, 43.4 Run, 63.6 Pass Rush, 49.9 Coverage
There is no more infuriating example of Smith’s inability to take advantage of talent than Stingley. Stingley came in as the best one on one cover corner prospect in the 2022 draft. He was asked to play zone because that’s what the Tampa Two calls for. Ryans has to tap into that potential for his own sake and to justify picking him third overall. If Stingley doesn’t improve or doesn’t stay healthy then Caserio will have a major black mark on his record.
Team Needs— The Texans probably have fewer needs at cornerback than any individual position group on the roster. They also could see more growth there than any other position group. Stingley might be the single most important player on the roster. If he makes good on all of that potential then he could be the shut down corner they need. If he doesn’t then corner could be a priority in 2024.
Jimmie Ward (FA)— 640 snaps, 80.6 Overall, 91.4 Run, 57.6 Pass Rush, 76.9 Coverage
Ward could go down as the best free agent signing for Caserio in 2023 offseason. Sheldon Rankins got more money, but Ward so perfectly fills a need for the position. The team goes from Jonathan Owens at safety and his terrible run grades to Ward. Ward has also played slot corner in his career, so he can fill a number of roles. Yet, he will be at his best next Jalen Pitre.
M.J. Stewart— 178 snaps, 70.1 Overall, 62.5 Run, 59.3 Pass Rush, 70.5 Coverage
Like with Thomas, bringing back Stewart might seem underwhelming, but he performed well in limited action in 2022. In particular, he was good in coverage and anytime you can have defensive backs good in coverage you want to keep them around. He will ultimately count less than three million against the cap. That’s a reasonable amount for a good reserve and special teams performer.
Eric Murray— 118 snaps, 65.1 Overall, 69.3 Run, 65.9 Pass Rush, 58.5 Coverage
The Texans could have cut him, but instead he signed a two year deal to spread his cap figure over two seasons rather than one. On the one hand, when you look at only the numbers above you can see the benefit to keeping him around. On the other hand, his place on the roster gives the fanbase PTSD. He isn’t making the same $6 million he made under Bill O’Brien. The contract is much more in line with his value to the team, but maybe cutting him would have been better for public relations.
Jalen Pitre— 1088 snaps, 54.7 Overall, 38.5 Run, 70.6 Pass Rush, 65.8 Coverage
Pitre had a huge tackling problem last season. It very much overshadowed his five interceptions and success as a pass-rushing safety. If Ryans can help shore that part of his game up he could move from shaky starter to potential Pro Bowl safety. If he can’t then he might need to be put in a position to limit his exposure against the run.
Jonathan Owens— 970 snaps, 48.3 Overall, 45.9 Run, 61.4 Pass Rush, 49.0 Coverage
Owens might not make the final roster. If he does make the final roster he could be limited purely to special teams duty. Like Christian Kirksey, he is a perfect microcosm of the past couple of seasons on defense. He tries hard. He’s a good guy. He’s just not very good. He often led the team in tackles, but those tackles all came ten to twenty yards down the field. Replacing him with Ward might be the single biggest upgrade we see on defense this season.
Team Needs— Like with cornerback, the team does not need any impact safeties at this point. However, they could use a developmental one. Ward signed a short-term deal and is likely only here for a year or two. Don’t be surprised if the Texans draft a safety in the middle of the draft so that player can be an understudy for Ward.