HOUSTON -- When Nick Caserio traded quarterback Deshaun Watson to the Cleveland Browns in the 2022 offseason, the Houston Texans' general manager wanted to use the trade to "put together a foundation."
Fast forward two years and the draft picks that the trade yielded helped the Texans capture the AFC South title last season with their young nucleus. Offensive Rookie of the Year and Pro Bowler C.J. Stroud might not have been a direct result of the trade, but when the Texans sent shockwaves through the NFL with their 2023 draft-day trade -- announced moments after they took Stroud with the No. 2 pick -- they used assets from the Browns trade to take defensive end Will Anderson Jr. at No. 3.
"Moving into the future and next year, we like where we are with the young nucleus of guys that we have," DeMeco Ryans said coming off his first year as a head coach. "I feel like we have a good group to build off of."
The Browns sent the Texans their 2022, 2023 and 2024 first-round picks, a 2022 fourth-round pick, a third-round pick in 2023 and a fourth-round pick in 2024.
Caserio noted that the potential looked "good on paper" but understood the organization had to "maximize the opportunity."
So far, the 2023 draft has seen the biggest dividends. Anderson was named the Defensive Rookie of the Year, and he and Stroud joined Jerome Mathis (2005) and Brian Cushing (2009) as the only Texans rookies to be named Pro Bowlers. Caserio sent the Browns' 2023 first-round pick (No. 12), their own second-round pick and their 2024 first-round pick (No. 27) to acquire the No. 3 pick from the Arizona Cardinals to select Anderson. Through two drafts, Anderson is the lone Pro Bowler after finishing with 7 sacks, 10 tackles for loss, 22 quarterback hits and ranking third in pass rush win rate (25.8%).
"Will, man, he's probably the most talented player -- one of the most talented players I've ever been around in my life," Stroud said. "His mentality -- not only does it match up with his talent, but it probably [exceeds] his talent -- the tenacious will to win, the grit that he brings to the locker room and just his personality. His talent is great, don't get me wrong, but at the same time, if you can match that with what he has, it's a force to be reckoned with."
Houston also used the Browns' 2023 third-round pick (No. 73) in a package to move up four spots and acquire the Los Angeles Rams' pick. They took wide receiver Tank Dell, who in the 2023 season was on pace for 1,205 receiving yards before suffering a Week 13 season-ending injury against the Denver Broncos in the first quarter. Dell and Stroud still finished with the eighth-most passing yards for a first-year quarterback and wide receiver duo (709) ever.
The picks from the 2022 draft seemed to have more promise heading into the 2023 season, but question marks arose as the season went on. The Texans used the No. 15 pick on left guard Kenyon Green and selected running back Dameon Pierce in the fourth-round (No. 107).
Pierce and Green were considered building blocks, but they entered this offseason with something to prove heading into Year 3.
Green started 14 games as a rookie, but he allowed a 13% pressure rate -- the worst among left guards according to Next Gen Stats. He missed all of last season after injuring his shoulder in the final preseason game against the New Orleans Saints.
Pierce looked promising as a rookie, rushing for 939 yards in 13 games before being placed on injured reserve (ankle). Ryans wanted the offense to flow through him, stating in training camp that "for us to be a good offense, we have to have Dameon at his A-game."
But in 2023, Pierce simply wasn't effective before Devin Singletary surpassed him on the depth chart.
Through the first eight weeks, Pierce ranked 10th in carries (109) but averaged 3.0 yards per attempt, the fourth worst among running backs with at least 40 carries.
Pierce then missed three games with an ankle injury, and Singletary rushed for 288 yards in his absence -- elevating him to RB1.
Pierce had 36 carries the rest of the season and had 18 offensive snaps in the last four games, including the two playoff games.
When Ryans was asked what the plan was for Pierce going into 2024, he was noncommittal.
"We'll see where all of the guys and all the positions are on our team," Ryans said. "We'll look at the roster -- me and Nick -- and see where we are and where we have to improve our roster, and I think that's our job is to continue to improve our roster as best as we can."
The Texans made it to the divisional round of the playoffs before falling to the AFC's top seed, the Baltimore Ravens. But they actually helped their draft position when they beat the Browns in the first round last month since they own the rights to the Browns' pick.
The deeper the Browns would have gone in the playoffs, the later the selection would have been. Now, Caserio will have to be a bit more strategic with his selection at 23.
"You still have to add more pieces," Ryans said. "You're always adding and always looking to acquire talent and get better, and that's where we'll look to spend our offseason. Who can we find to help us get better?"