What the Texans defense will look like in 2024

Texans head coach DeMeco Ryans is a defensive guru.

He played the position in college and the NFL for years before cutting his teeth as a coach for the 49ers. Now, he’s leading the Texans’ defense with Matt Burke as his defensive coordinator.

As we outlined earlier this offseason, the Texans are a base 4-2-5 defense. Houston ran their nickel defense more than 78% of the time in 2023 with five defensive backs.

The Texans then spent the 2024 offseason building up the key personnel in that unit and adding depth at defensive end, linebacker and defensive back. Houston is three-deep at most positions on the defensive side of the ball.

Here’s how Houston’s 4-2-5 defense will look with their expected starters, depth and positional battles in camp.

What the Texans defense will look like in 2024

Defense ends

Will Anderson Jr. enters his second season after collecting the Defensive Rookie of the Year award in 2023. Now, he’ll be joined by veteran Danielle Hunter who has amounted at least 14.5 sacks in three of the past five seasons. Only 12 players have accumulated at least three seasons of the feat in their careers since sacks became an official stat in 1982. Of those 12, only two are still active — Hunter and Steelers edge rusher T.J. Watt.

Anderson and Hunter are a dynamic and elite duo of bookend pass rushers for the Texans who will be together for at least the next two years.

Former No. 14 overall pick Derek Barnett will depth behind them. Houston claimed Barnett off waiver late this past season after the Eagles got rid of him. Barnett went on to start the final four games of the regular season for the Texans and the Wild Card game against the Browns. In those five starts, he totaled 19 tackles, 12 QB hits, seven TFLs and 3.5 sacks.

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After Barnett, it’s all youth left at the position. Dylan Horton was a fourth-round selection for the Texans in the 2023 Draft. Horton played in 10 games as a rookie, seeing 26% of the defensive snaps in those games in which he tallied 13 tackles, two QB hits, a TFL and a fumble recovery. Towards the end of his rookie season, he was diagnosed with Stage 4 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Now, he’s in remission and has recently finished his final treatment. 

It’s great news for Horton personally and professionally. While he’s working back into game shape, the Texans have two rookies who can get into the mix on the edge. Seventh-round pick Solomon Byrd will compete to push Horton for the fourth defensive end spot. Also, the Texans signed an undrafted free agent in Pheldarius Payne who can play inside and outside like Denico Autry and Mario Edwards. 

The Texans have their two elite starters, veteran backup and three young guys to complete the three-deep at the position. 

Defensive tackles

The top 3-4 players at the position in 2024 could all be new to the team, depending on how the depth chart shakes out. The Texans starters at defensive tackle this past year have both since departed. Sheldon Rankins left for more money with the Bengals, while Maliek Collins was traded for a seventh-round pick to the 49ers. 

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Collins and Rankins played around 60% of the defensive snaps in Houston. They were extremely productive this past, totaling together 78 tackles, 28 QB hits, 17 TFLs and 11 sacks. 

It’s impressive numbers that the Texans are looking to replicate through a group effort. They added four outside free agents at the position with Autry, Foley Fatukasi, Tim Settle and Mario Edwards. They also re-signed Khalil Davis and drafted Marcus Harris in the seventh round. The undrafted free agent Payne could compete to get in the mix at defensive tackle or on the edge. 

While all of his production won’t come from the inside, Autry can fill up the stat sheet. He totaled 50 tackles, 17 QB hits, 12 TFLs, 11.5 sacks with had four PDs and two forced fumbles in 2023 with the Titans. It’s not apples-to-apples with Collins and Rankins due to Autry’s position flexibility, but his addition does fill a lot of the void left by the duo’s departures.

Collins and Rankins were talented enough to each take reps at the one- and three-technique at defensive tackle. Settle can offer some of the same versatility and will be heavily involved in the rotation. The Texans will fill the rest of their needs at the position with talent with specific skill sets.

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Fatukasi will be the run-stuffing force. Harris is the young, developmental talent at the position that can blossom into a bigger role. Davis continues to get better and will be in the mix to compete for backup reps. Hinish will be a contributor from the three-deep. Edwards could get edged out of a roster spot with Autry providing better talent and Payne providing better upside, as players with similar position versatility.

The group doesn’t have the big-name, pure defensive tackle at the position but they have more than enough firepower to replace Collins and Rankins’ 60% defensive snap shares and production. It’s not a flashy group but it’s a deep and versatile group that will produce in the roles they are put into. 

Linebackers

The top of the 2024 linebacker depth chart is made up in Ryans’ image with his former linebacker from the 49ers Azeez Al-Shaair joining his two Alabama linebackers of Christian Harris and Henry To’oTo’o. 

Listen to Al-Shaair speak about anything and it’s easy to see why Ryans loves him. If you’re still not sold, listen to his head coach talk about him and you’ll be fully sold on Al-Shaair as the middle of the Texans’ defense. Work ethic, character, talent and authenticity describe Al-Shaair in a nutshell. 

Harris started to play to the speed he displayed in college this past season. Year 2 under Ryans and with Al-Shaair next him is going to be a highlight fest for the duo. Ryans’ other Alabama backer, To’oTo’o should be the front-runner for the third linebacker when the Texans switch to a 4-3-4 look.

Veteran Jacob Phillips will push To’oTo’o for that third spot. They’ll also each be competing for the top option to step up if Al-Shaair or Harris were to miss time or come out of the game for a breather. Phillips was someone Ryans studied when he was coming out of LSU as a prospect back in 2020. He was selected by the Browns at pick No. 97 that year but has struggled to stay healthy. 

Phillips has a similar parallel to former Texans’ linebacker Blake Cashman. Neither could stay on the field in their first three seasons. Cashman played in 14 out of a possible 49 games to start his career whereas Phillips played in 20 out of a possible 50 to begin his. 

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The Texans took the chance on Cashman and in two seasons in Houston, he played in 30 of 34 regular season games and turned his play into a massive payday. Can lightning strike twice for the Texans? Phillips did miss all of last season on top of the 30 games he missed in his first three years. 

Houston knows they’re thin at linebacker behind their big two. They have To’oTo’o, the Phillips reclamation project, some veteran special teamers and three rookies at the position. Neville Hewitt is a stud on special teams and one of the linebacker spots should go to him. Al-Shaair, Harris, To’oTo’o and Phillips could look up four other spots. 

Rookie sixth-rounder Jamal Hill and the two undrafted rookies at the position, Max Tooley and Tarique Barnes, could factor into the equation. Hill has the best opportunity to take the sixth linebacker spot. If the Texans keep seven or don’t keep one of the previously mentioned players among the top six, they could choose to go with the youth of Tooley or Barnes or elect to keep another special teamer in Jake Hansen or Del’Shawn Phillips.

Cornerbacks

The cornerback position may be the “Jenga-block position” on the entire roster. Houston is shaky here in talent and depth. It has the possibility of making the entire defense and team as a whole collapse.

Derek Stingley Jr. played like the best cornerback in the entire NFL over the second-half of his second season. He’s a complete cornerback who can shutdown an entire side of a football field. Health is the only concern with Stingley Jr. as a player. If he’s healthy, he’s rising to the top of the league this year.

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Opposite of him the Texans have a rookie in Kamari Lassiter who is better suited to play in the slot or even at safety but will get looks in a competition to start opposite of Stingley Jr. He’ll be competing with two former top-10 picks in Jeff Okudah and C.J. Henderson who now each joined their third new team for their fifth NFL season.

The Texans could have a decision on their hands of whether to use Lassiter on the outside despite his lack of length and speed or trust Okudah and/or Henderson with their length and speed combinations to attach band-aid coverages by slowing receivers off the line and keeping windows tight off of the receivers’ releases by utilizing their speed and length.

If Lassiter wins the outside cornerback position, Desmond King II and Myles Bryant would be the first up to play the slot. If Ryans feels that Lassiter can take on multiple roles as a rookie, he may elect to have Lassiter play outside only in sub-packages like 4-3-4, when there are only two cornerbacks in the defense. Then in their base 4-2-5 Lassiter would predominantly play in the interior.

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There are layers to these evaluations. How much can Lassiter learn and how quickly? Is Okudah or Henderson on the outside with Lassiter in the slot better or worse than Lassiter on the outside with King II or Bryant in the slot? There are so many variables surrounding the cornerbacks and getting the five best defensive backs on the field, that this one isn’t likely to play out any time soon. This will be a long watch.

Ideally, the Texans would sign a veteran like Stephon Gilmore to a one-year deal and alleviate the concerns. There are several trade targets at the position as well.

Safeties

Jalen Pitre recently spoke to the media and seemed like a man more at peace. He seemed level-headed, accepting of past mistakes and understanding of where he’s at in his development and comfortable with what’s coming next. 

He hasn’t played up to his draft status to this point in his career, but he’s heading into a pivotal Year 3 and the second under Ryans. Pitre’s best ball is still ahead of him in the NFL. The veteran leadership of Jimmie Ward is like having a second coach on the field with Pitre. Ward has struggled to stay healthy throughout his career but he’s a smart, talented defender when he’s out there.

The Texans would love for Ward to play at least games this year and be the perfect bridge of on-field play and leadership to passing the baton to Pitre and rookie Calen Bullock. Both young safeties were Day 2 picks and should be relied on in some capacity in 2024 with both needing to provide key roles in 2025. 

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Going back to the conversation of getting the five best defensive backs on the field in 4-2-5, the Texans have the need at cornerback with the talent at safety to throw Bullock in the outside cornerback competition. Unlike the cornerback Lassiter, Bullock has prototypical outside cornerback size, length and speed.

Can he play outside cornerback? I don’t know the answer to that but in an open competition at outside cornerback and with two starters ahead of Bullock at safety, I’m for sure going to find out the answer to that question. 

The fear of putting too much on Bullock as a rookie would be understandable and maybe the team would rather play him at one natural position. Bullock is clay to mold with tackling issues. His value is in his versatility. The Texans should at least kick the tires and see if he could factor in the competition at the biggest position of concern on the entire roster.

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