HOUSTON — The energy at NRG Stadium for coach DeMeco Ryans’ introductory press conference felt different Friday.
Former players, current players and Houston Texans fans were buzzing.
Pictures of Ryans were plastered all over as two cheerleaders waited in front of the auditorium at the stadium waving their pom-poms as attendees walked through the doors into an electric room.
Bringing home the former All-Pro linebacker to be the franchise’s sixth coach had fused the past and present, as both generations united to give Ryans a standing ovation as he walked in.
Hall of Fame finalist Andre Johnson and former All-Pro linebacker Brian Cushing highlighted the past. Current players such as cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., right tackle Tytus Howard, right guard Kenyon Green and a few others represented the future.
Ryans’ press conference had a home-run feel, as general manager Nick Caserio and CEO Chairman Cal McNair introduced their new coach Friday, and when Ryans sat center stage, he made it clear he was “fired up.”
But now that the Ryans’ hire has crossed home plate, it’s time to attack the offseason.
“We have a lot of work in front of us,” Caserio said. “But if we get the right people with the right process in place, then build it day-by-day, okay, week-by-week, month-by-month, that’s how you build sustainable success.”
The cupboard isn’t completely bare for Ryans and Caserio as they attempt to right the ship for an organization that has won 11 total games in the past three seasons.
There’s assets, draft capital and cap space to work with, but winning happens on the field.
However, people who have worked with Ryans have unbreakable confidence about the former San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator’s coaching ability.
“He combines that unique ability to have empathy and understand players and understand as a teammate what he wanted his locker room to look like. And what he felt professional players should be,” Jets coach Robert Saleh, who was the 49ers’ defensive coordinator from 2017-2020, told ESPN. “He’s got that empathy to understand what it’s like in those locker rooms and what those players need from their coach. And then you combine it with the humility to constantly ask the questions and seek improvement to grow.”
As far as the business side, free agency begins March 15, and the Texans currently have the fourth-most cap space at $37.1 million.
One move could be to extend tackle Laremy Tunsil, who has one year left on his deal. If the Texans can reach a new deal with Tunsil — who told ESPN recently that he wants to be the highest paid offensive tackle — before free agency, it gives Houston even more cap flexibility.
The Texans also have the No. 2 and No. 12 picks in April’s draft, in addition to five picks inside the top 75. Free agency and high draft picks could help a team that finished 3-13-1 fix some of the holes on its roster, but some of those holes are big.
Step one would be to improve the defensive front seven.
The Texans finished with the league’s worst rush defense, which allowed 170.2 yards per game. They allowed 2,894 yards, sixth most in NFL history. Part of the reason for the rushing woes stemmed around former coach Lovie Smith’s system. The Texans had two high safeties against 508 pass plays (17th most) and 193 run plays (13th most).
Opposing teams ran the ball 237 times when the Texans had six or fewer defenders in the box (fourth most). Houston allowed 1,492 rushing yards (second most) and 11 touchdowns (most) on those plays, according to Next Gen Stats.
Opposing running backs averaged 2.94 yards before contact (sixth most) and partially explains why Texans safety duo Jalen Pitre and Jonathan Owens finished with a combined 272 tackles. Since 1990, only three safety duos finished with more tackles.
In contrast, in the last two seasons under Ryans, the 49ers only saw 339 rushes from opponents when playing a light box.
In total, Ryans’ defense was the standard in 2022, allowing a NFL-best 300.6 yards per game. The Texans ranked 30th, allowing 379.5.
Step two would be fixing the offense, where the glaring issue is at quarterback.
Ryans didn’t add much to what they plan to do to fix the quarterback situation, but did point out the lack of numbers at the position.
“We have one quarterback here on our roster,” Ryans said, “and we have to add more.”
That one quarterback under contract is Davis Mills, who struggled in Year 2 before being benched for Kyle Allen in Weeks 12 and 13. He regained the starting spot, but finished the season with 15 interceptions, tied with Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott for the most in the league. He also led the league with the most fourth-quarter interceptions (seven).
Ryans could also face a dilemma at wide receiver, as leading pass catcher Brandin Cooks asked to be moved right before the trade deadline and stated that he didn’t want to be part of a rebuild. But even if Cooks stays, the Texans ranked 25th in passing yards and didn’t have a receiver with more than 700 yards.
But the Texans do have a promising running back in Dameon Pierce. Despite playing in an offense that averaged just 17 points per game (tied for 30th), Pierce was 61 yards shy of rushing for 1,000 and was fourth among rookies in scrimmage yards (1,104), despite missing the last four games of the season with an ankle injury.
And the tackle pairing of Howard and Tunsil also only allowed six sacks, ranking seventh among tackles duos to start least 15 games this season per ESPN Metrics.
Step three for Ryans, which might be the easiest, will be assembling his coaching staff. For offensive coordinators, he’s interviewed 49ers offensive passing game coordinator Bobby Slowik, Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver coach Troy Walters and former New England Patriots tight end coach Nick Caley.
“How I envision the offense looking, we want to play with precision,” Ryans said. “We want to play with effort. We want to play with physicality. We want to own the line of scrimmage. We want to establish the run game first, but we want to be balanced. We want to be able to operate with play-action passes. We also want to be efficient.”
As far as a defensive coordinator, Ryans hasn’t made a decision on whether he’ll call plays or not.
Nonetheless, the rebuild is in a promising spot going into Year 3 for Caserio, but the fanfare will only last so long if all of the off-the-field efforts don’t amount to wins.
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