RUNNING WITH THE ONES?

Early leader in Houston Texans quarterback competition revealed

Houston Texans CJ Stroud
Rookie CJ Stroud is playing with the second-team offense at OTAs. Photo by Alex Bierens de Haan/Getty Images.
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The Houston Texans are still months away from opening the 2023 season against the Baltimore Ravens, but that is not stopping fans and media from talking about the quarterback position as the team gets into voluntary organized team activities, or OTAs.

Houston opened its first OTA session to media on Tuesday and while a lot of the work on the field was as basic as vanilla ice cream, it was quarterback Davis Mills that was going first in the team’s reps ahead of No. 2 overall pick C.J. Stroud.

“I’m competing for that starting job,” Mills told reporters on Tuesday. “Since I’ve been drafted in the NFL, I have been in a competition. I don’t think anything is going to change. It’s been great getting to know C.J. so far. He is an extremely hard worker. It will be good to see how we go out there and compete every day and make each other better.”

Before sounding any alarms or creating the headlines, it is still way too early before any unofficial depth charts get released. Almost every player top to bottom on the Houston roster is learning the quirks and intricacies of the new offensive and defensive schemes.

For both Stroud and Mills, there is a lot to be determined between now and Sept. 10 when the Texans kick off the new year.

“I’m loving it man,” Stroud said. “This team has been very [accepting] of me, very honest and very transparent. What I love about it is nothing has been given to me. I have to earn everything, which I love, so it has been like that my whole career. It is nothing new.”

While Texans fans might have penciled in Stroud as the team’s QB1 since NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell called his name in Kansas City, inside the building at NRG Stadium there is a lot more nuance to naming a starting play caller.

The focus for both quarterbacks right now is not on who is going first in OTA drills, but rather improving each day. Mills said he has been focused on himself and putting a lot of work into addressing his weaknesses.

Stroud said right now he wants to learn as much as possible including what his receivers like, timing on routes and absorbing Bobby Slowik’s offense methodically. Both play callers also have the benefit of learning from veteran Case Keenum.

“It is a blessing,” Stroud said. “It has been something that I definitely knew that I needed it. Just that guidance and that confidence that [both Mills and Keenum] had because they have both played in the league and have been starters. They have been very helpful.”

With first-year head coach DeMeco Ryans tasked to oversee everything revolving around the Houston Texans, his advantage is that players seem to respect his perspective as a former NFL player and his experience as a former Texan himself.

“He knows what comes with playing here and I mean he has just been great,” Stroud said. “Very vocal. He is really funny too, so it is cool to have a coach that is not all stuck up all the time or super mad. He has been amazing. Very transparent, communication has been great. He’s going to be a great head coach.”

When Ryans speaks, players listen, and his youth doesn’t hurt either when it comes to connecting with the current players. Coming out of Tuesday’s availability, it appears that Stroud is already two feet in Ryans’ vision for the Houston Texans.

“I think I am a natural-born competitor, so that is what I am here to do,” Stroud said. “But at the same time, being a great teammate is more important. So that is what I have been on just trying to embrace the relentless swarm that coach Ryans wants us to be on. That is what I plan to do. Just be a great teammate, be a great leader, be vocal [and] be confident.”

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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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