As the sun began its steady climb down the horizon at 4:00PM EST on Tuesday, August 29th, the first chapter of the 2023 Houston Texans season came to close. That Tuesday evening marked the deadline for NFL teams to cut their roster down to 53 players - not including injured reserve or practice squad players - signaling dreams made for some, and dreams crushed for others.
Many of the 53 athletes that made the final roster were never in danger of losing their spot. Players like CB Steven Nelson, LB Denzel Perryman, and DE Will Anderson, Jr. were never a few snaps away from getting cut loose, unlike many other players. Their exceptional talent, quality starting experience or rookie status ensured a position on the roster. For other players, such DT Khalil Davis, LB Jake Hansen, and CB Ka’dar Hollman, training camp and the preseason represent a viciously intense battle to make the team; every snap, a precious opportunity to become an NFL player.
Much has been made about the preseason and its uses. Depending on who you ask and what team you’re watching, the preseason can be purely for starters getting their feet wet, backups and 3rd-strangers battling for position, or for no reason at all. For the Houston Texans coaching staff, the star players and blue-chip rookies were only sparingly used, playing just a few possessions in each of the preseason games. Instead, the Texans’ coaching staff opted to focus on giving more snaps to backups, 3rd-stringers, and 4th-stringers. In this three-week long mini-season, the Houston Texans’ gave several lesser-known players 50, 60, or even 70+ snaps to showcase their abilities, guaranteeing that even the fringes of the roster had been vetted.
Of these many, many backup players on the preseason roster, five stood out to me on both sides of the ball. Whether through highlight-reel plays, gradual improvement, or high PFF ratings, these players caught my attention. In this two-part series, I will rank the top five preseason players on both sides of the ball, and first up is the side that everyone likes the most: the defense!
5: DT Khalil Davis
Finishing with PFF total of 61.8 in three games, Khalil Davis was a menace along the line-of-scrimmage. More of a pass-rusher than run-stopper, Davis likes to take advantage of his size and strength to cause chaos in the middle of the field. In this play vs. the Miami Dolphins, watch Davis (#94) shove past the left guard Isaiah Wynn (#77) and reel in the running back with an ankle tackle:
A former Nebraska Cornhusker, Davis was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 6th round of the 2020 NFL Draft. While he didn’t make the final 53-man roster, Davis was signed to the practice squad, and is likely to get called up come game day if the starting lineup absorbs some injuries. He finished the preseason with nine total pressures, five hits, six tackles, and a sack.
4: LB Neville Hewitt
One of Houston’s top-rated linebackers of the preseason, Neville Hewitt finished August with a PFF score of 68.1. In this play against the Dolphins, watch how fast Hewitt (#57) sidesteps left guard Isaiah Wynn (#77) and clobbers the running back, That’s two bad plays for Wynn and two good plays for Houston’s defense!
A former starter for the New York Jets in 2019 and 2020, Neville Hewitt has been in the league since he was signed by Miami as a free agent in 2015. He finished the preseason with one pressure, six tackles, and four stops.
3: LB Henry To’oTo’o
It didn’t take long for the 2023 5th-round pick to start making an impact in Houston. Henry To’oTo’o, similar to his college and now professional teammate LB Christian Harris, has already shown the vision and tackling ability to be a real pest for the opposing offense. Although, exhibiting some key mistakes in coverage both against Miami and the New Orleans Saints, he still has some ways to go before I’m comfortable calling him a future star. In the play below, you can see how his awareness and speed can be a major element to bringing Houston’s run defense back from the dead:
Hailing from head coach DeMeco Ryans’ alma mater, To’oTo’o made a name for himself at Alabama for his heads-up plays and tackling prowess. He finished the preseason with three pressures, five tackles, four stops, and a PFF rating of 65.9.
2: CB Ka’Dar Hollman
A 2019 6th-round pick by the Green Bay Packers, former Toledo Rocket Ka’Dar Hollman improved week-after-week in the preseason. DeMeco Ryans said as much during Wednesday’s press conference:
Hollman, another 2022 San Francisco 49ers player that followed Ryans to Houston, played excellent coverage all throughout the preseason. His tackling was also exceptional, finishing the preseason with five tackles, one stop, a 50 percent reception percentage, three total yards given up, and a PFF rating of 83.4. Besides a rather unfair matchup vs. the New Orleans Saints where he gave up a touchdown to TE Jimmy Graham, Hollman showed he can be a quality player in regular season games.
1: CB Shaquill Griffin
Here’s your #1 defensive player of the preseason! The Houston Texans signed Shaquill Griffin to a one-year deal back in May, and that decision is already paying major dividends. Cut in March by the Jacksonville Jaguars after a back injury sidelined him for 12 games in 2022, Griffin has since recovered and returned to the coverage excellence that made him a pro-bowler for the Seattle Seahawks in 2019. While it’s still far too early to tell, the pairing of Shaquill Griffin and Ka’dar Hollman behind starting CBs Derek Stingley Jr. and Steven Nelson has made the Houston secondary potentially the strongest group on the team, maybe even in the entire division. If Griffin and Hollman’s preseason performance is any indication, it looks like the Texans are going to have a pretty strong pass defense in 2023.
LB Jake Hansen: One of the highest graded run-defenders of the preseason, Hansen finished with 11 tackles for loss and three stops.
CB Cameron Dantzler: Even though he was only signed just a few days before the preseason finale, Dantzler still had a PFF score over 90 and made a game-sealing interception to end the preseason.
DE Adedayo Odeleye: An international player from Britain, Odeleye finished the preseason with three pressures, one sack, one hit, one tackle for loss, and two stops.
There’s your top five defenders of August (plus a few extra…for the road)! What do you think? Is Shaquill Griffin really that good, or should I have moved some other players around to make space for S Grayland Arnold? Fortunately, there were a lot of good defenders to pick from this preseason, hopefully signaling that the Houston Texans will have a much better defense than last year. Only time will tell, and in time, you MUST return to Battle Red Blog in order to read part two of this series, wherein I will rank the top five offensive players of the preseason! See you then!
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