Much has changed since 2021, when general manager Nick Caserio walked into one of the most toxic situations imaginable. Over the previous two years, he purged the team of many of its poor cap decisions, restocked the team’s draft picks, and after parlaying Deshaun Watson into extensive draft capital, made a calculated, but stunning, move to obtain some new franchise cornerstones. Throw in some of the nice acquisitions from the 2022 draft, and not saddling the team with many short-sighted overpays, and the team should be closer to contending for a winning season than for the #1 pick again.
Yet, the Houston Texans viewed Caserio as a GM candidate long before 2021. Back in 2019, the Texans organization made overtures to Caserio, who was then part of the personnel braintrust for the New England Patriots. Already filled with many Patriots alums and looking for its second GM in two years, it was not a shock that Houston sought Caserio. However, New England wasn’t happy, calling out Houston for tampering. Deciding not to test New England, Houston backed down, and eventually went with a strange conglomeration at GM, with Head Coach Bill O’Brien and the recently acquired football front office guru, Jack Easterby. The results of relying on that personnel tandem are known all-too well. Having seen how things went in 2019-2021 for the Texans from a personnel perspective, and comparing with the seemingly more stable, if not perfect, personnel actions of 2021-2023, what if the Texans decided to call the Patriots’ bluff and make a deal to get Caserio as their GM.
Dealing with New England:
Given the near two-decade run of success in New England, losing people within the Patriots’ organization to other franchises was hardly alien to Bob Kraft. However, Caserio’s situation was slightly different. The Patriots, in their contract with Nick Caserio, had a clause blocking his movement from the team (this was removed at the direction of the NFL when the Patriots extended it later that year). Additionally, the Patriots called out the timing of then Texans GM Brian Gaine’s firing, coming one day after the Patriots had their ring ceremony. Supposedly, Easterby used that reunion to talk with to Caserio about a job in Houston.
New England objected to Houston’s move, from the contract issue to the fact that Kraft likely held Easterby in lower regard for bailing on the Patriots in the wake of Kraft facing criminal charges for sex crimes/human trafficking at a massage parlor in Florida earlier that year (irony alert). Belichick, with overall personnel control, may not have wanted to see Caserio go. A tampering charge would led to some painful interactions between the Texans and Patriots, likely leading to the Texans, if guilty, losing draft picks.
Ultimately, Houston still sabotaged their drafts with seemingly little to show for it. If the Texans were willing to sacrifice high draft picks on personnel decisions, would it be a bridge too far to trade draft picks to New England for the right to hire Caserio? If Cal called Kraft’s bluff, and using back-door negotiation channels, New England may have taken them up on the offer. Kraft did this when he obtained Belichick’s services as head coach back in 2000, giving up a 1st round draft pick to the New York Jets as compensation. Perhaps another first rounder with an additional lower round pick or two might have sated Kraft.
With Caserio on-board, how do the 2019 and 2020 off-season moves pan out?
Even if Caserio becomes GM the team still faces some big issues. Clowney has not signed his franchise tag, and the team still needs to protect Watson with a quality left tackle. Perhaps the team still makes a run at Laremy Tunsil. What might that deal look like under Caserio? Figure on at least a first going out (perhaps the 2021 first, especially if the 2020 one had to go to New England to get Caserio). However, it is not likely that Caserio would also deal the second round pick for Kenny Stills. Caserio has shown willingness to go big on deals (see the 2023 draft). Maybe some combination of a first, third or fourth and some other lower picks with some other players (Davenport is probably still part of the package). Yet, Houston, while short of first round picks in 2020 and 2021, would not sacrifice so many of their second rounders as did BO’B. Caserio might be more likely to try to get Tunsil on-board with a more team-friendly deal of an extension pre-trade, thus reducing the cap burden on the team for a couple of seasons.
As for Clowney, it is likely that the former #1 pick still starts the 2019 season in a different uniform. Could Caserio persuade Clowney to go to Miami to avoid so much draft capital being spent? Possible, but not likely. Clowney didn’t show any inclination to play in Miami at that time. Perhaps Caserio still makes the deal with Seattle. Would the return be better than the conglomerate? Possible. Clowney would still have leverage, and while maybe Caserio could finagle a better pick (say a second vs. a third), it may not have been that much better a deal.
Where Caserio would make a huge difference is in the 2020 off-season. It is hard to see the trade that went down for DeAndre Hopkins going down the way it did with Caserio vs. BO’B. Easterby likely still presses the organization to jettison Hopkins. However, expect with Caserio a better draft haul for trading an All-Pro WR and then taking on the bloated contract of David Johnson, if Caserio would even entertain that later thought. Perhaps Arizona surrenders an actual 1st rounder, or more day two picks to get Hopkins, something akin to what Kansas City got when they traded Tyreek Hill. Additionally, the major overpays for players like Eric Murray would likely not manifest themselves. Perhaps Murray still plays for Houston, but at a far more tolerable price. Caserio’s current modus operandi as GM is loading up on lower-priced free agents to fill in depth gaps. Caserio is likely to keep to that mind-set here.
Would Caserio survive the “Game of Texans Thrones” atmosphere surrounding the team?
While Easterby was the biggest advocate of Caserio at first, Caserio and others in the Texans staff were able to marginalize his role in player personnel actions by the time of his dismissal in 2022. Yet, that was in 2021/2022, when the team was paying dearly for the mismanagement overseen by Easterby. Could Easterby be so neutralized in 2019/2020, as his power was growing within the organization and the ill-effects of his leadership hadn’t come to fruition? Than again, Caserio as the “man” for personnel matter may have kept Easterby out of the GM office. Unfortunately, Easterby still becomes the terror of the front office staff, and he probably is the subject of some national sports media articles.
Additionally, BO’B always had a cantankerous relationship with the GMs, from Rick Smith to Brian Gaine. How long before Caserio and BO’B start butting heads? Caserio’s position would not be easy in Houston, but he is likely to withstand the power struggles, given he is the new guy, and Cal might likely blame any shortfalls of the Texans on BO’B vs. Caserio.
What of the timeline after the start of the 2020 season?
Given all the flaws on the Texans’ roster coming into 2020, it is likely that the squad would still take a significant step back from 2019, even with Caserio mitigating the damage. Maybe they don’t crater to 4-12, but the defensive issues and lack of overall depth stunt the team. BO’B never becomes GM, but if the Texans miss the playoffs, he is still fired, especially if Easterby and Caserio somehow unite in a power alliance against BO’B. As for Easterby, perhaps he has Caserio’s ear and vice-versa, at least for a while, but Caserio is far more adept at personnel actions than either Easterby or BO’B. It is likely Caserio still outlast Easterby, but if Easterby never moves in on the personnel action, then the Texans like still employ both in 2023.
With BO’B still out of the picture, what of the head coach. In no world does the David Culley hire age well, but does Caserio make that kind of move having been with the Texans at least two seasons vs. only a few weeks? In this case, figure that Caserio looks to the New England tree. Perhaps it is Josh McDaniels, especially if the Texans still need to replace Watson after the 2021 revelations. Whoever the head coach, they face the challenge of replacing Watson. Perhaps a better option QB-wise awaits Houston if they have a second round pick for 2021, but if Houston didn’t have a first rounder in 2021, they likely wait to reload for 2022, or seeing how poor the quality is for 2022, go all-in for 2023, using the draft capital from a Watson trade (in this timeline, he still goes to Cleveland for a boat-load of draft picks).
Ultimately, the Texans still remain a team in transition. Maybe they aren’t quite bottom-of-the-barrel like they have been since 2020. In this timeline, the team does have more quality picks and is less hamstrung by poor cap decisions. Caserio has not been perfect as GM (see the management of Brandin Cooks and his trade), but he would have been a better option than what the Texans suffered in 2019-2020. Perhaps he mitigates the rising power of Easterby, and saves the organization from needless pain. Maybe they hover around 4-7 wins a season over 2021-2022. However, Caserio would still be under significant pressure in this timeline coming into the 2023 season. Even with a different coaching structure, the team would still be three years removed from the playoffs and still likely looking for the next franchise QB. Perhaps Caserio still makes the big gambles in this draft, but likely his job is still on the line.