HOUSTON -- The architect of the Houston Texans’ dramatic roster overhaul is rifling spirals with trademark intensity at practice, delivering passes to the wide receivers with a live arm that once set records as a John Carroll University quarterback.
That follows a long tradition for Texans general manager Nick Caserio, a former Patriots receiver coach who still enjoys throwing the football and the benefit of having a field-level vantage point to closely watch the receivers break into their routes.
Days before the Texans square off against the New England Patriots and his football mentor, Bill Belichick, Caserio remains in the midst of a construction project that carries a short-term plan of trying to build a competitive team and instill a blue-collar culture along with a long-term plan of building a championship squad.
The 1-3 Texans are mired in a three-game losing streak as they prepare to face the 1-3 Patriots on Sunday at NRG Stadium and are coming of an embarrassing 40-0 blowout road loss to the Buffalo Bills that represents the most lopsided defeat in franchise history. It was an extremely rough day as the Texans turned the football over five times, including four interceptions from rookie quarterback Davis Mills, the replacement for injured veteran starter Tyrod Taylor.
Signed to a six-year contract averaging at least $6 million annually, Caserio, 45, has earned the confidence from chairman and CEO Cal McNair and his family as the Texans face his former employer where he spent two decades and earned six Super Bowl rings.
“I'm sure he's excited to face his old team and looks forward to the challenge,” McNair said of Caserio, Belichick’s former right-hand man. “I don't think he's done with his work yet, but he's made a lot of progress. I think if we play our brand of football, we'll have a chance in all of our games. If we play like we did on Sunday, we'll have very little chance. We've just got to play better football."
Caserio has placed an emphasis on signing older players to try to instill leadership in the locker room. By all accounts, it’s a hard-working, collegial atmosphere as Caserio and the personnel department built the third-oldest roster in the NFL to open the season behind the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Chicago Bears.
The Texans have acquired a lot of older players, including wide receiver Danny Amendola, 35, running back Mark Ingram, 31, offensive tackle Marcus Cannon, 33, running back Rex Burkhead, 31, center Justin Britt, 30, return specialist Andre Roberts, 33, and linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis, 30.
The majority of the Texans’ players are signed to one-year contracts except for punter Cameron Johnston, who received a three-year, $8 million contract.
“We understood when we signed as many players that we did that we weren’t going to be able to keep all of them,” Caserio said. “I think the players took ownership. They realized it was a competitive situation, they didn’t take anything for granted.
"They understand this isn’t easy. We have to make difficult choices and difficult decisions, and there’s relationships that are established along the way between those players. They also realize, a lot of them have been in the league a long time, this is the cost of doing business.”
Caserio didn’t have any first-round or second-round draft picks last spring due to former coach and general manager Bill O’Brien trading them to the Miami Dolphins in exchange for Pro Bowl left tackle Laremy Tunsil. Caserio's top pick was Mills, selecting the former Stanford blue-chip recruit in the third round with the 67th overall pick of the draft.
For Caserio, it's about focusing on the bigger picture with as much thought as goes into the day-to-day details of roster-building and other key decisions.
“I’ll probably put my foot in my mouth for saying this, but it’s not as much outcome-oriented as process-oriented, and that’s what we’re trying to do and build,” Caserio said. “What we’re trying to do is create a foundational culture where we have players who are tough-minded, who are selfless, who are going to work hard every day, and they’re going to compete their ass off. That’s what we’re trying to do. How does that manifest itself on a field on Sunday? That’s going to be about execution and how we play.”
When Caserio reunited with former New England colleague, Texans executive vice president of football operations Jack Easterby, and joined the Texans following a 4-12 season, he inherited difficult circumstances.
That included disgruntled Pro Bowl quarterback in Deshaun Watson issuing a standing trade request shortly after Caserio was hired.
Now, Watson remains on the roster and is being paid his $10.54 million salary. Watson is also dealing with 22 civil lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct and 10 criminal complaints being investigated by the Houston Police Department and hasn't been charged with a crime.
It’s up to Caserio and the organization to navigate a difficult, unprecedented and unpredictable situation while ultimately hoping to trade Watson for a significant draft haul, perhaps as many as three to four first-round draft picks along with additional draft capital and/or players.
No trade is imminent or developing at this time as Caserio continues to interact and field inquiries from other NFL teams, according to league sources not authorized to speak publicly. The Miami Dolphins remain at the top of Watson's list among teams that he would potentially waive his no-trade clause for, according to sources.
"We'll just wait and see," McNair said when asked about the unresolved Watson situation. "It's a day-to-day thing. Nick is in charge of that, so we'll see how that works out."
When asked to rate the odds of Watson being traded by a Nov. 2 league deadline, McNair smiled and replied: "I have no idea."
Watson remains on the Texans' 53-man roster, but doesn't play or attend games. He doesn't practice or attend meetings by mutual agreement with the AFC South franchise, complying with what he's asked to do to be paid his salary. The NFL has not placed Watson on the commissioner-exempt list. Watson reported to training camp to avoid incurring $50,000 daily fines.
Watson's discontent with the organization dates back to the controversial DeAndre Hopkins trade and discontent about a lack of communication with the team during the Texans' hiring process of Caserio and coach David Culley.
Before the legal problems surfaced, Culley was told by Watson that, no offense to him, but he was "intentional" about not playing another down for the Texans.
"I think they've been put in a very tough spot, a spot that is not of their choosing and they've made the very best of it and sort of worked through it day to day," McNair said of Caserio and Culley walking into the Watson situation. "So, we'll see where it goes."
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The Texans got off to a fast start in the first game of the season with a 37-21 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars and the top overall pick, quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Since that game, though, Taylor injured his hamstring in the first half on the road against the Cleveland Browns. The Texans have struggled since the insertion of Mills, losing their past three games.
"None of us are happy about that," McNair said of the loss to Buffalo. "We think we can play better and we're gonna play better. We've gotta put it behind us. We've got a team coming in here Sunday that's a well coached team that has a lot of history of success and we're looking forward to meeting them on the field on Sunday."
Caserio is looking at more than the day-to-day, though. He’s focused on the bigger picture.
That includes cutting ties with players who don’t fit or whenever the team feels a redundancy exists.
This week, the Texans cut wide receiver Anthony Miller, a former Chicago Bears second-round draft pick acquired along with a seventh-round draft pick in a late July trade that cost them a fifth-round draft pick. The reasoning behind the decision: the return to health of Amendola from a hamstring injury and the players playing the same position.
The Texans previously moved on from wide receiver Randall Cobb, trading him to the Green Bay Packers, and defensive end Shaq Lawson, sending him to the New York Jets.
They traded cornerback Bradley Roby to the New Orleans Saints for a third-round draft pick in 2022 and a conditional 2023 sixth-round draft pick, paying $7 million of his salary.
“Some of that is the cost of doing business,” Caserio said. “I think sometimes people get too caught up in, ‘Oh, they gave up a draft pick.’ That’s fair. Everybody has an opinion on that, but if that’s what it costs to get a player in the building, and if you feel, after a risk analysis, that it makes sense to do.
“We’re not going to be afraid to do things. You’re going to miss a hundred percent of the shots you don’t take. For every decision you make, could it affect another decision? Well, that’s OK. We just have to be comfortable with it. And I would say this, from David to ownership, they’re supportive of that endeavor. So as long as we explain why we’re doing this and here’s how we can get this player on the team or here’s why it makes sense to do, then we go ahead and make a decision. You live with it, one way or another.”
The son of a concrete contractor, Caserio has long been known for his prodigious work ethic.
That included the Lyndhurst, Ohio native maintaining his conditioning during the early hours of the day in the Patriots’ weight room.
“We called Nick ‘The Machine,’ because the guy is relentless and worked out so hard until he would fall out,” a former Patriots scout said. “The dude is like The Terminator. He’s all about exercise and eating healthy, usually a salad and a bottle of water at lunch. Nick was always talking with Tom Brady about his workouts and diet to learn more. You see him on the field and you can’t really tell: Is this guy a player, a scout or a coach?
“Nick is just wired differently. The way he works out is like how he approaches scouting. Nick attacks every angle. The guy is so serious, all-business all the time. Honestly, I think the reason why Nick goes so hard is so he can have a lot of energy to do his job and because he’s a good athlete and always a football dude at heart. It’s like he’s preparing to play one final game for the championship.”
Although the Texans won division titles under O’Brien and Gary Kubiak, they are the only AFC South team to never reach the AFC championship game.
Retired NFL linebacker London Fletcher, Caserio’s college teammate, expressed confidence that Caserio is going to ultimately turn the Texans around.
“Nick is going to turn over every stone to make the Texans the best version of themselves, and he’s going to be consumed and do this night and day,” Fletcher said. “If the fans are patient and let him carry out his vision, they’ll see that nobody is going to outwork Nick.”
The Texans hired Caserio after interviewing Seattle vice president of player personnel Trent Kirchner, ESPN analyst Louis Riddick, Pittsburgh vice president of football and business administration Omar Khan and Matt Bazirgan, an assistant director of player personnel.
“Nick is the consummate professional: smart, prepared, very candid and honest; I have the utmost respect for him,” said Mike Tannenbaum, a former executive with the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins. “I think he’s the hallmark of coach Belichick’s hires. He brings in smart and talented people. He relies on them to wear a lot of different hats, and you earn your right to do more.”
When Caserio graduated, he was hired as a junior financial advisor by a Cleveland branch of Merrill Lynch. Six months later, he was moving on to pursue a career in football in 1999 as a graduate assistant at Saginaw Valley State and Central Michigan before joining the Patriots and moving up the ranks, including jobs on the field as an offensive coaching assistant and receivers coach to a personnel assistant, area scout, director of pro personnel and director of player personnel.
Now, Caserio has final-say over the Texans' roster after years of working with Belichick.
"We’re working together and sharing an apartment and Nick says: ‘My heart is not in this. I need to be in football. I’ve got to follow my heart,’” said former John Carroll wide receiver John Priestap, a wealth management specialist based in Michigan and the godfather to Caserio’s daughter, Chatham. “The rest is history. We roomed together in college, and Nick was laser-focused. He’s my closest friend in the world and the godfather to my son Cade. I’m proud of our friendship, and I’m rooting for him. What he’s done in the NFL doesn’t surprise me at all. He’s versatile. He’s a jack of all trades. He’s adaptable, intelligent and his work ethic is unsurpassed.”
The Texans sought interviews with Caserio in 2018 and 2019, but were blocked in their pursuit. The Patriots briefly filed tampering charges in 2019 against the Texans for going after Caserio, but the Texans apologized for a misunderstanding about Caserio’s contract and the tampering charges were swiftly withdrawn by Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
Under an NFL rule passed last year, teams were no longer allowed to block employees from job opportunities that represented a clear promotion and that cleared a path for the Texans to land Caserio.
“We had studied Nick and other GMs for several years and had actually tried to interview Nick,” McNair said. “He was one of the top candidates. The team rightfully declined to let us do that, which is totally their right. But when he became available we were excited to bring him in. He's extremely talented and he's going to do a great job for us.”