Smith: In Nick we trust? How Texans GM Caserio fares in draft holds answer

Texans GM Nick Caserio is going into his third, and most important, NFL draft for Houston.

Texans GM Nick Caserio is going into his third, and most important, NFL draft for Houston.

Elizabeth Conley/Staff photographer

Lovie Smith is gone.

David Culley is gone.

Jack Easterby no longer has a role inside NRG Stadium.

Bill O’Brien, Deshaun Watson and J.J. Watt have all moved on, while Davis Mills could be the Texans’ third-string quarterback after the 2023 NFL draft.

Who connects all of the above?

Who holds an unsightly 7-26-1 record on Kirby Drive yet is still entrusted by the McNairs to ignite a rebuild that, thus far, has done little but lose, lose and lose?

Third-year general manager Nick Caserio.

Not the rookie head coach who is still learning faces and names and might be lucky to win six games in his year one.

DeMeco Ryans’ huge, smiling face stares back at you when you slide off the interstate and drive toward a huge spaceship-looking stadium that doubles as the home of Houston’s NFL team.

But two weeks before decision day for the Texans, this isn’t Ryans’ draft.

This is Caserio’s. And all the young names that are called out for three consecutive days in Kansas City, Mo., could define Caserio’s time in Houston, either extending or abbreviating his ability to keep calling the front-office shots on Kirby.

Ever since Caserio’s Texans inexplicably gave away the No. 1 overall pick in this draft — Ryans was still with San Francisco and had no part in that unbelievable foolishness, by the way — we’ve 99 percent assumed they would take their next franchise QB at No. 2.

But does Caserio believe C.J. Stroud is the one for the Texans?

Heck, does Caserio even believe it’s worth taking a QB at No. 2, when his roster is still filled with holes and lacks the necessary depth to compete at a high level during a brutal 18-week season?

I wrote last Sunday about smokescreens , intentional misinformation and the spy-versus-spy game that has hovered around Carolina ever since the QB-desperate Panthers leapt over the Texans and traded for the No. 1 pick.

What’s happened within the national media this week?

More smoke. More fluff. And the growing buzz that the Texans will trade out of No. 2 , allowing another QB-desperate team to take Stroud after Carolina pounces on Bryce Young.

That theory either sounds super exciting to you or already has you pounding your fist against the table, swearing the Texans must draft a QB at No. 2 because it could be a decade before they’re staring at another franchise-changing opportunity like this.

The Texans woefully undervalued the QB position last season, partly because they were Rockets-like and not designed to win games.

Ryans didn’t return to Houston to lose, lose, lose, and it’s on Caserio to find the new HC a real QB who can last in the pocket and win in the playoffs.

What if Caserio wants Young but isn’t nearly as high on Stroud?

What if the Texans believe they can trade out of No. 2 and still get their QB of the future later in the first round?

Hendon Hooker was a rising national name and serious Heisman Trophy candidate at Tennessee before a knee injury cut short his 2022 college campaign. Someone will either miss by taking Hooker in the early rounds or end up with a huge draft-day steal.

Caserio’s biggest investment in the most important position in sports has been Mills at No. 67 overall in 2021. At this moment, 11-year veteran Case Keenum has a better shot at being the Texans’ Week 1 starter than a third-year QB with a 5-19-1 career mark.

The Texans are moving forward under Caserio.

But are they on the right path and on schedule?

In Nick We Trust still isn’t a real thing in Houston.

This draft, highlighted by the No. 2 and 12 picks, is his best chance to stamp his name all over the Texans’ rebuild.

The latest round of free agency was solid but also safe and frugal — the Texans still look like a five- or six-win team on paper. It’s not a coincidence that when the way-too-early NFL power rankings appear, Ryans’ new team is ranked in the same spot as the squad Smith and Culley used to coach.

The mock drafts that drive Football America now have as many as five QBs going in the first round, yet none is even close to Trevor Lawrence or Joe Burrow (or Peyton Manning).

The tanking/rebuilding/losing Texans have been building toward this draft for years.

Caserio is the only big name at the top who remains since January 2021. Coaches, QBs and former superstars have all departed NRG.

This is his draft. These are his picks. This is his time.

Caserio is going to nail this.