GREAT EXPECTATIONS

2 undeniable x-factors that will determine success for Texans prized rookie

Texans Will Anderson, CJ Stroud
The sky is the limit for Will Anderson.Photo by Alex Bierens de Haan/Getty Images
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Will Anderson Jr. feels ready to make the jump from college football to the NFL and a big reason for that is because of how he was prepared with the Alabama Crimson Tide.

“It just kind of makes me versatile,” Anderson told reporters over the weekend. “I am very excited. However they want to use me is just going to be anything I kind of did at Alabama, so you know, I am super excited.”

With the Texans trading up to select Anderson at No. 3, there will be a lot of eyeballs on his performance throughout the season. While every player is different, and there are various factors that will go into it, there will be a certain level of production that is going to be expected from the top prospect during the 2023 season.

But what exactly could be deemed successful for Anderson’s rookie campaign?

Anderson is going to be utilized as a true defensive end by the Texans. While with the Crimson Tide Anderson spent most of his time prior to snaps on two feet, he will be starting plays in three-point stances oftentimes with Houston, head coach DeMeco Ryans mentioned during his weekend availability with media.

While the change in itself will be an adjustment for Anderson, it is not going to be enough to temper expectations for Houston fans.

The last high draft pick the Texans took at defensive end was in 2014 when they selected Jadeveon Clowney as the No. 1 overall pick. Clowney didn’t have the best rookie season as he played in only four games and tallied just seven total tackles.

Whether fair or not, the chatter around the No. 1 overall pick following his rookie year revolved around his inability to stay on the field, and it was something Clowney was never truly ever to shake off during his tenure with the Texans.

In comparison, when Houston took J.J. Watt No. 11 overall in 2011, he played all 16 games. He tallied 56 total tackles and 5.5 sacks, and he was considered a key piece in Houston’s top defense that year as the Texans clinched a playoff berth for the first time in franchise history.

Looking at last year’s draft, the No. 1 overall pick Travon Walker had 3.5 sacks for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Detroit’s top pick, No. 2 overall selection Aidan Hutchinson, had 9.5 sacks for the Lions in 2022.

Hutchinson was in the conversation for the 2022 Defensive Rookie of the Year while Walker was not.

Heading into 2023, most Texans fans will want Anderson to be in the 2023 Defensive Rookie of the Year conversation if not the outright winner because of the draft picks the team gave up to select him. That is one factor to consider when deeming his rookie season a success.

Anderson will be compared to other defensive ends in the draft including the Las Vegas Raiders’ Tyree Wilson and Philadelphia’s Jalen Carter. When the 2023 season is all said and done, there will be two factors that determine the success of Anderson’s season — impact and availability.

Expecting 9.5 sacks for Anderson on a defense that struggled to create pressure on opposing quarterbacks in 2022 might not be the best watermark to gauge the success of a rookie season. Again, Watt had 5.5 sacks his first year in the league.

A number anywhere between four and eight sacks should be considered a success, especially if he is impacting opposing offenses on a consistent basis, whether it be with tackles for loss, batted passes and quarterback hurries.

For Anderson himself, the focus is on being intentional with his moves, swarming to the ball and having a relentless mindset, he said. Anderson wants to hone his go-to moves, footwork, and hand placement.

“There is no pressure,” Anderson said. “Just come in here and be you, have fun, bring energy and just be together. I think that is the biggest thing that they harp on that I am understanding, is that there is no pressure. You’ve been playing football all your whole life. You are just going out there and doing what you like to do.”

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Astros on the hunt. Composite Getty Image.

With the Astros' surge from 10 games out of first place to within two games of Seattle, catching and going past the Mariners has naturally become the top objective. It's no given to happen but it's right there. In the final series ahead of the All-Star break, while the Mariners are in the midst of four games with the lowly Angels, the last two World Series champions renew (un)pleasantries at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros enter the weekend five games ahead of the Rangers. They lead the season series with the reigning champs four wins to three. While the Astros can't quite finish off the Arlingtonians by sweeping them in this three game set, shoving them eight games back (even further back of Seattle and the current Wild Card teams) and clinching the tiebreaker would seem close to a death blow. Taking two out of three would be fine for the Astros. If the Rangers win the series, they are clearly still in the American League West and Wild Card races coming out of the All-Star break.

Last year the Rangers had the best offense in the AL. So far in 2024 they rank a mediocre eighth in runs per game. Nathaniel Lowe is the lone Ranger (get it?!?) regular playing as well as he did last season. Corey Seager has been fine but not at the MVP runner-up level of last year. Marcus Semien is notably down, as is 2023 ALCS Astros-obliterater Adolis Garcia. Stud 2023 rookie Josh Jung has been out with a broken wrist since ex-Astro Phil Maton hit him with a pitch in the fourth game of this season, though fill-in third baseman Josh Smith has been the Rangers' best player. 21-year-old late season phenom Evan Carter largely stunk the first two months this season and has been out since late May with a back injury. Repeating is hard, never harder than it is now. Hence no Major League Baseball has done it since the Yankees won three straight World Series 1998-2000.

Chasing down the Division at a crazy clip

From the abyss of their 7-19 start, the Astros sweep over the Marlins clinched a winning record at the break with them at 49-44. Heading into the Texas matchup the Astros have won at a .627 clip since they were 7-19. A full season of .627 ball wins 101 games. If the Astros win at a .627 rate the rest of the way they'll finish with 92 wins, almost certainly enough to secure a postseason slot and likely enough to win the West. Expecting .627 the rest of the way is ambitious.

With it fairly clear that Lance McCullers is highly unlikely to contribute anything after his latest recovery setback, and Luis Garcia a major question mark, what Justin Verlander has left in 2024 grows more important. With the way the Astros often dissemble or poorly forecast when discussing injuries, for all we know Verlander could be cooked. Inside three weeks to the trade deadline, General Manager Dana Brown can't be thinking a back end of the rotation comprised of Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss should be good enough. The Astros have 66 games to play after the All-Star break, including separate stretches with games on 18 and 16 consecutive days.

All-Star MIAs

Viewership for Tuesday's All-Star game at Globe Life Field in Arlington will be pretty, pretty, pretty low in Houston. One, All-Star Game ratings are pitiful every year compared to where they used to be. Two, the Astros could be down to zero representatives at Tuesday's showcase. Kyle Tucker was rightfully named a reserve but had no shot at playing as he continues the loooong recovery from a bone bruise (or worse) suffered June 3. Being named an All-Star for a ninth time was enough for Jose Altuve. He opts out of spending unnecessary time in Texas Rangers territory citing a sore wrist. This despite Altuve playing four games in a row since sitting out the day after he was plunked and highly likely to play in all three games versus the Rangers this weekend. Yordan Alvarez exiting Wednesday's rout of the Marlins with hip discomfort and then missing Thursday's game seem clear reasons for him to skip, though he has indicated thus far he intends to take part. Yordan is the most essential lineup component to the Astros' hopes of making an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Ronel Blanco should have made the American League squad on performance, but pretty obviously his 10 game illegal substance use suspension was held against him. As it works out, Blanco will pitch Sunday in the last game before the break which would render him unavailable for the All-Star Game anyway. Blanco is eligible to pitch, but given the career high-shattering innings workload Blanco is headed for, no way the Astros want him on the mound Tuesday. Just last year the Astros kept Framber Valdez from pitching in the game.

While waiting, and waiting, and waiting on Tucker's return, the Astros have also been waiting on Chas McCormick to get back to something even faintly resembling the hitter he was last year. McCormick routinely looks lost at the plate. He has four hits (all singles) in his last 32 at bats with his season OPS pitiful at .572. During the break the Astros should seriously weigh sending McCormick to AAA Sugar Land and giving Pedro Leon a try in a job share with Joey Loperfido.

*Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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