It all happened so quickly—the Houston Texans drafting Ohio State quarterback C. J. Stroud with the second overall pick in Thursday’s NFL draft, then moments later pulling off a bombshell trade to get Alabama linebacker Will Anderson Jr. All of a sudden, an organization awash in losing and apathy felt transformed by the arrival of two potential superstars.

The Texans doing something so gutsy and risky and potentially brilliant was completely out of character for a franchise that has lost 31 of its last 39 games, and Houston fans may need a day or two to wrap their heads around it. After years of little more than dismal football and dreadful controversies, there’s hope. The team’s offseason moves have brought a level of optimism not seen since the Texans joined the NFL in 2002 and pulled off an upset against the Dallas Cowboys in their very first regular-season game.

The franchise’s march back toward respectability began in January with the hiring of DeMeco Ryans as Houston’s new head coach. Ryans played linebacker for the Texans from 2006 through 2011; after retiring as a player in 2015, he worked his way up the coaching ladder with the San Francisco 49ers and spent the last two seasons as the Niners’ defensive coordinator.

When he played for the Texans, Ryans had such a reputation for smarts and leadership and people skills that many around the organization considered him a lock to be a head coach someday. When Houston announced his hiring, fans responded as if they were welcoming home a hero. Ryans’s arrival was the first sign that pro football in Houston might finally be changing for the better, and that feeling accelerated on Thursday with the addition of two rookies with All-Pro potential. Stroud and Anderson could be capable of improving everything about the Texans franchise, beginning with expectations.

Throughout his first two years as the team’s general manager, Nick Caserio has attempted to oversee a massive roster overhaul, which also included hiring and firing two head coaches (David Culley and Lovie Smith), each after one season. But Caserio’s maneuvers had no immediate effect on the team’s success—the Texans finished 4–13 in 2021 and 3–13–1 last year.

On Thursday, Caserio administered a shock to the organization—indeed, to all the fans in Houston who are desperate for winning football—by trading a bundle of draft picks to the Arizona Cardinals to move up to the third spot right after using the second pick on Stroud. He’d put himself in position to acquire the number three pick by stockpiling draft options, including extra first-rounders in both 2022 and 2023 in the deal that sent quarterback Deshaun Watson to Cleveland.

Had the Texans come away with just Stroud or Anderson, the team could have felt plenty good about night one of the draft. Instead, it got both. Stroud was considered the second-best quarterback prospect (after number one pick Bryce Young, who went to the Carolina Panthers), and Caserio pointed to Stroud’s “toughness, his competitiveness, his leadership, his accuracy” as qualities that made the franchise put its trust in the 21-year-old signal-caller.

“[He] has an edge about him in a good way, loves football, wants to compete, wants to be great. . . . C.J.’s been a productive player. He’s been an accurate player. Certainly has a long way to go. I think he’ll admit that.”

“He’s a player that our coaches spent a lot of time on, spent a lot of time with,” Caserio added. “We felt that was the best decision for us to make.”

No position in professional sports is as critical to a team’s success as quarterback. The player under center is the face of a franchise, the leader his team members will count on to give them a chance to win every game, and in the six-foot-three Stroud, the Texans now have one with a rocket of an arm. “I was super excited. I had a feeling when I woke up this morning that I was going to the Texans,” Stroud told reporters. “I don’t care about the outside noise. I ain’t going to be perfect. I’m going to make sure I work my tail off to do the right thing. You got my word on that. I’m looking at this opportunity like it’s one of a kind, because it is.”

Before Thursday’s first round, most mock drafts predicted Houston would pass on Stroud and select a defensive player—most likely Anderson or Texas Tech defensive end Tyree Wilson—with the number two pick. But the Texans needed to start mending their lineup at quarterback. Davis Mills, the 2022 starter, ranked thirty-second out of 34 NFL QBs in adjusted passer rating, according to ESPN. Granted, the Texans did Mills no favors, with a weak offensive line and a defense so porous that the offense always seemed to be playing from behind. But in 26 starts over two seasons, Mills provided little evidence to show that he could be the quarterback who would get Houston back to the playoffs.

Caserio’s biggest decision approaching this draft was in evaluating the quarterbacks not named Bryce Young. Anderson’s ex-teammate at Alabama was widely seen as the best quarterback available, and had the Texans had the top pick, they surely would have taken him. (Houston actually would have gotten to draft first overall if Mills hadn’t passed for a late 2-point conversion to defeat the Indianapolis Colts 32–31 in the Texans’ final game last season.)

After selecting Stroud, the Texans had to hustle to complete the trade with Arizona for the number three pick, and Caserio said that both parties finalized the deal with only about ninety seconds left on the ten-minute clock that counts down between draft picks. In return for the third pick, the Cardinals received the twelfth and thirty-third picks in this draft, plus first- and third-rounders in 2024. The Texans also got the 105th pick of 2023 in the swap. 

“As soon as Arizona was on the clock, then I would say the pace of those dialogues and discussion picked up,” Caserio said. No kidding.

Many NCAA football experts considered Anderson the best player in the college game over the past two seasons at Alabama. A six-foot-four, 253-pound pass rusher who routinely wrecked opposing offenses for the Crimson Tide, Anderson could be the type of dominant defensive force the Texans have lacked since J. J. Watt left Houston. “Can’t say enough good things about Will,” Caserio said, “just the person that he is, the human being that he is, his leadership.”

By the end of Thursday night’s first round, the Texans had enjoyed the kind of day that has become all too rare for a franchise that has gone 11–38–1 over the past three seasons. Caserio was hired in 2021 to clean things up, and Thursday was his and the team’s biggest step forward to date.