Inside Texans' costly plan to draft C.J. Stroud, Will Anderson Jr.

ByKevin Seifert ESPN logo
Thursday, May 4, 2023

TWO HOURS BEFORE the NFL draft started last week, no one outside of Houston knew what the Texans would do with the No. 2 overall pick. Neither, as it turns out, did the Texans.

It had been widely reported the Carolina Panthers would select Alabama quarterback Bryce Young at No. 1, clearing the runway for Houston to make its decision. But the Texans were still trying to reconcile their love for Alabama pass-rusher Will Anderson Jr. with the sober realization they needed a franchise quarterback, according to multiple sources. In those final hours, the best guess among sources inside the Texans' facility was Anderson would be the pick at No. 2, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

Ultimately, Texans general manager Nick Caserio settled on a way to avoid the either/or scenario: He would do both, no matter the cost. The Texans had 12 picks coming into Thursday, including five in the top 75. After Anderson was drafted Thursday night, Caserio said in a news conference he had worked on outlining a deal to send a massive collection of draft capital to the Arizona Cardinals for the No. 3 pick to select the pass-rusher. Caserio then pivoted to Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud at No. 2.

What appeared to some to be a brilliant smokescreen, and to others a tightly held secret plan, was instead a genuinely fluid situation until the moments before the Texans picked Stroud, based on ESPN reporting in the days since. The Texans didn't fool the world; they bid an exorbitant price for No. 3 -- sending the Cardinals the No. 12 pick, their second-round pick (No. 33) and first- and third-round picks in 2024 -- in the last available moments to circumvent what would have been an agonizing choice.

"The decisions that we make," Caserio said at the post-draft news conference, "[are] what we feel is in the best interest of the organization."

The Texans spent two years in the quarterback wilderness after Deshaun Watson's final game with the organization following the 2020 season. Watson asked to be traded, vowing to not play for the Texans again. Then more than two dozen women made allegations of sexual misconduct against the quarterback, who was traded to the Cleveland Brownsin March 2022. The Texans compiled the NFL's worst record since 2021 (7-26-1).

But the Watson trade, which included three No. 1 draft picks, gave the Texans multiple chances to reload with premium players. They entered the 2023 draft with their own pick at No. 2 and the Browns' at No. 12. Those spots could not provide complete fulfillment, however. They could either draft Anderson or they could grab one of the year's top quarterbacks at No. 2, but the other would almost certainly be off the board by No. 12.

The player who sparked the most excitement within the team's brain trust, especially first-year head coach DeMeco Ryans, was Anderson.

ACCORDING TO MULTIPLE sources, Anderson was the top-rated player on the Texans' draft board for most of the offseason -- ahead of Young, Stroud and every other quarterback available. Ryans played at Alabama and consulted with Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban throughout the pre-draft process, according to a source. Ryans envisioned Anderson as the kind of game-changing edge rusher all great defenses have, similar to the one he had built around in his previous job as the San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator: Nick Bosa.

Anderson's pass-rush production at Alabama (34.5 career sacks) suggests he could flourish in Ryans' 4-3 scheme, although some teams around the league considered Texas Tech's Tyree Wilson as an equal or better pass-rushing prospect. Anderson twice earned unanimous All-America honors as well as the Nagurski Trophy as college football's best defensive player, having compiled 130 pressures from 2021-22 -- 42 more than any other FBS player in that span.

"I appreciate it so much," Anderson said at a Friday news conference about the Texans trading up to select him. "I told them a dozen times probably, like I'm so appreciative of them. I don't take this for granted. That showed me how much they actually wanted me here."

The Texans haven't had a player produce a double-digit-sack season since J.J. Watt in 2018, and other than quarterback, there is arguably no position more valuable in the modern NFL than pass-rusher.

Ryans added he and Caserio were "on the same page" about Anderson's projections. But their consensus left a question. Could the Texans get away with drafting Anderson at No. 2 and then almost certainly missing out on a quarterback at No. 12?

Caserio was entering his third draft as Texans general manager. Watson's absence and subsequent departure had disrupted the team-building plan he arrived with, and circumstances left Caserio with few options. The Texans' previous regime had traded away their first- and second-round picks in 2021, so he selected quarterbackDavis Millsin the third round. The 2022 quarterback class was one of the weakest in memory and offered no options of value at the Texans' No. 3 overall pick, where Caserio selected LSU cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. Pitt's Kenny Pickett was the first quarterback of the board at No. 20.

But given the presence of Young, Stroud and Florida's Anthony Richardson this year, it would be much harder to defend coming out of the draft without a more permanent solution. How could the Texans justify passing on a potential franchise quarterback to a fan base that had watched so much losing in the wake of Watson's departure?

UNDER THOSE CIRCUMSTANCES, some NFL owners would demand a quarterback. Texans chair and chief executive officer Cal McNair isn't one of them. Two days before the draft, Caserio told ESPN's Ed Werder that McNair had given him space to operate as he saw fit.

"The biggest thing he's just been supportive of what we're doing," Caserio said. "They've fully appreciated what we're trying to do. And they've enabled us the opportunity to kind of do what we feel is in the best interest of the organization."

Caserio acknowledged he would need to inform McNair "about what we're going to do and the rationale behind it," but added: "They've been great from the standpoint of just kind of allowing us to kind of work through it."

At the same time, an NFC front-office source said Caserio did not need a push from the owner to know he needed a quarterback. On top of compiling the NFL's worst record over that span, primary starter, Mills, has ranked No. 32 in the league in Total Quarterback Rating. Ryans is his third coach in as many seasons. Caserio is running out of time to give the Texans hope, much less turn them into a winner.

Stroud was the team's next-highest-ranked quarterback after Young. Caserio said later in the post-draft news conference: "He's a competitive player, has an edge about him in a good way, loves football, wants to compete, wants to be great. Good size, comes from a good program." He added: "Certainly has a long way to go. I think he'll admit that."

But neither Caserio nor Ryans could shake the idea of losing Anderson in the pursuit of a quarterback. So in the days leading up to the draft, Caserio set out to see if he could move up high enough from No. 12 to get both.

He had preliminary talks with Cardinals general manager Monti Ossenfort, with whom he had worked with the New England Patriots from 2003 to 2004 and 2006 to 2019, to find out "whether or not this was something we were interested in doing," he said. Later, he asked the Indianapolis Colts (No. 4) and the Seattle Seahawks (No. 5) about their interest levels.

Ultimately, sources said, the Texans were concerned the Tennessee Titans could trade up from No. 11 to No. 3 to draft Stroud. And if the Cardinals opted to keep their pick, Anderson would have been a prime target for them.

Buzz around the league at the time centered around the Texans' apparent preference for Anderson. Caserio's time with the Patriots taught him the value of keeping his business secret, and only a handful of people knew he was working to move into the Cardinals' spot. In the days leading up to Thursday night, according to sources, people who had personal relationships with Caserio in Houston and New England tried to get an idea what he was up to. They couldn't. Stroud's agent, David Mulugheta, did not know that the Texans would target Stroud if they could make the trade, although Caserio did tell Werder that Mulugheta's previous representation of Watson would have no effect on their decision.

In reality, the Texans didn't know what was going to happen, either. Ossenfort and the Cardinals drove a hard bargain, which is why the best guess from Texans sources Thursday afternoon was Anderson would be the pick. But as the draft opened, Caserio was confident enough in the pending deal that he selected Stroud at No. 2. (Had he chosen Anderson first, the Cardinals might have gotten new offers at No. 3 from teams seeking either Stroud or Richardson.) But there was no wizardry involved as he and Ossenfort agreed on the trade during the 10-minute allotment they had at No. 3. To get the deal done, Caserio committed the second-biggest overpayment of draft capital for a non-quarterback in the past 20 drafts, according to ESPN Analytics' approximate value-based draft-pick valuations tool.

The only deal for a non-quarterback during the past 20 drafts to exceed the Texans' deal was the Atlanta Falcons' move from No. 27 to No. 6 in 2011 to select receiver Julio Jones. The Falcons also gave up their first-round pick in 2012, two second-round picks and a fourth-round pick.

A closer comparison can be traced to 2013, when the Dolphins traded with the Raiders to also move up from No. 12 to No. 3. The Dolphins drafted pass-rusher Dion Jordan at No. 3. In exchange, they gave up only a second-round pick (No. 42 overall).

Writing on Twitter, former Philadelphia Eagles and Browns executive Joe Banner called the Texans' trade last week "one of the biggest overpayments of all time."

Caserio, however, brushed aside questions about the terms of the deal after the draft.

"From our perspective, it's not about what the points tell you on the chart," Caserio said in the news conference last Thursday. "If you have conviction about a player and you want a player and you think the trade is the right thing for you to do, then you go ahead and do it. ... The trade was really driven more by: This is a player we thought would bring a lot of value to our team."

Internally, the Texans settled Thursday on a more nuanced justification, according to sources. They considered the trade to be their cost for drafting a quarterback. Without it, they wouldn't have drafted Stroud and would have missed out on Richardson. Anderson would have been the pick. It wasn't a secret. It wasn't a smokescreen. It was a frenzied conclusion of their efforts to find a different answer to the either/or question.

ESPN's Ed Werder, Seth Wickersham, DJ Bien-Aime, Jeff Legwold and Seth Walder contributed to this report.

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