National Football League
With Danielle Hunter, revamped defense, Texans look to close gap with AFC elite
National Football League

With Danielle Hunter, revamped defense, Texans look to close gap with AFC elite

Published Mar. 13, 2024 3:45 p.m. ET

The Texans entered this offseason in prime position to be aggressive in building around C.J. Stroud with plenty of cap space. And to this point, with the new league year starting, they've followed through — on defense. 

Houston is revamping the unit under coach DeMeco Ryans. But will it be enough to close the gap with the Chiefs and Ravens in the AFC? 

The Texans' biggest splash came Tuesday, when they agreed to terms with free-agent defensive end Danielle Hunter on a reported two-year deal for $49 million, including $48 million guaranteed. They've also added a pair of former Titans: linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair (reported three years, $34 million deal) and versatile defensive lineman Denico Autry (two years, $20 million). 

Defensive lineman Foley Fatukasi and cornerbacks Jeff Okudah and Lonnie Johnson Jr. — a Texans second-round pick in 2019 — are headed to Houston as well. As of early Wednesday afternoon, the Texans hadn't agreed to terms with an outside free agent on offense (they did, however, acquire veteran running back Joe Mixon from the Cincinnati Bengals).  


On paper, Hunter is an upgrade on the edge from Jonathan Greenard, who's joining the Vikings on a reported four-year, $76 million deal. The 29-year-old Hunter last season tied an NFL-high 23 tackles for loss and ranked fifth with 16.5 sacks. By comparison, Greenard tied for 10th in sacks (12.5) and 13th in TFLs (14). 

Greenard posted better numbers than Hunter in stop rate (7.6% to 6.3%) and pressure rate (15.7% to 14.6%), according to Next Gen Stats. He's also three years younger. But Hunter is a top-end talent to pair with reigning Defensive Player of the Year Will Anderson Jr., and his short-term contract is better suited for maximizing the window of Stroud's rookie contract. Hunter's two-year deal expires in the 2026 offseason, when Stroud becomes extension eligible. 

It's difficult to say the Texans made a clear upgrade with Al-Shaair, who reunites with Ryans, his linebackers coach and defensive coordinator with the 49ers. In his lone season with the Titans, Al-Shaair had a career-high 163 tackles, fifth-highest in the NFL. 

Al-Shaair will replace Blake Cashman, who, like Greenard, is joining the Vikings. Al-Shaair is a year younger and has more familiarity with Ryans, but Cashman had the higher tackle rate (16.8% to 15.6%) and stop rate (9.9% to 8.6%) last season, per Next Gen Stats. Seeing just four fewer targets last season, Cashman also allowed a significantly lower passer rating when targeted (74.7 to 107.5), showing that he was better in coverage. The two also had the same get-off speed (0.86 seconds) and Cashman had one more quarterback pressure despite playing 32 fewer pass rush snaps, per NGS. Al-Shaair will be making $2.83 million more per year than Cashman. 

Jared Allen reveals why Danielle Hunter, Vikings excelled at pass rushing

But then there's Okudah and Autry, who could turn out to be great value signings. 

Okudah's deal (one year, $4.75 million) is low-risk, high-reward for a player who will have a chance to stabilize the cornerback spot alongside Derek Stingley Jr.  A starter for Houston the past two seasons, free-agent cornerback Steven Nelson isn't expected back. 

Autry turns 34 in July, but he has posted at least 7.5 sacks each of the past four seasons, including a career-high 11.5 last season. He appears to have some juice left in the tank. 

It's no secret that Ryans has wanted to bolster the defensive line. And it's likely that the Texans aren't done there, even after adding Autry and Hunter. Houston is reportedly trading starter Maliek Collins to San Francisco, leaving a gaping hole at defensive tackle. 

"Everything I believe in, it starts up front with the rush," Ryans said at his end-of-season press conference in January. "We'll continue to build with our fronts. Start at the front and build backwards. That's how I envision it." 

What he's envisioned is starting to come to fruition. 

Whether it's enough for the Texans to contend with the AFC's elite in the end, with a first-place schedule on their slate in 2024, remains to be seen.

Ben Arthur is the AFC South reporter for FOX Sports. He previously worked for The Tennessean/USA TODAY Network, where he was the Titans beat writer for a year and a half. He covered the Seattle Seahawks for for three seasons (2018-20) prior to moving to Tennessee. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benyarthur.


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