Houston Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud hasn’t just solidified himself as the frontrunner for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, he’s also surged into the discussion for the league’s Most Valuable Player award. He’s done so through 10 games by displaying every skill necessary to be an elite NFL quarterback for years to come.
We haven’t seen a rookie quarterback this polished since Andrew Luck in 2012. Stroud is playing the position like a seasoned veteran. He’s winning from the pocket, throwing on time and throwing receivers open with pristine ball placement. There wasn’t much doubt during the draft process that Stroud was a well-rounded prospect and that he could do everything at a satisfactory level. He wasn’t seen as a “generational” prospect or sure-fire first pick because his ceiling was put into question. In college, he didn’t create second-reaction plays consistently and recently, almost every young quarterback who has broken through to the elite tier has had a pension for playmaking.
Not even the most staunch Stroud believers could have predicted just how quickly he’s grasping the pro game. Stroud has even shown high-level creation ability. He made some incredible throws outside of the pocket in the Texans’ 30-27 win against the Bengals on Sunday.
We are witnessing one of the best rookie quarterbacks ever and he seems to be improving each week. Among rookie quarterbacks all-time with at least 200 pass attempts, he ranks sixth in EPA per dropback while ranking first in touchdown-to-interception ratio and second in yards per attempt (8.3). The most amazing part about this is that most standout rookie quarterbacks were supported by strong running games. The Texans are among the worst running teams in the league.
Only three of the top 10 rookie quarterbacks in EPA per dropback didn’t have top-tier running games. The Steelers’ EPA per rush with Ben Roethlisberger in 2004 was just outside of the top 10, but they also led the league in rush attempts that year. For most of the quarterbacks on this list, their offenses were run-first teams. Cam Newton, Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin’s abilities to run were vital to how effective their teams’ rushing attacks were but they all had long developmental curves as passers. Those teams weren’t asking their young quarterbacks to carry most of the load throwing the ball. Luck and Justin Herbert’s arms were the engines of their offenses and now, the Texans are asking the same of Stroud.
Houston has made dramatic strides on offense from last season. The Texans were dead last in the league in offensive EPA per play in 2022. They rank sixth through 10 weeks this season. Third-and-long (seven or more yards) is a good barometer for quarterbacks because it’s a pure passing situation in which play action isn’t useful and the defense knows a pass is likely coming. The Texans were 30th last season on third-and-7+ conversions (17 percent). This season, they rank sixth (30.8 percent).
The offense has added some key pieces in addition to Stroud but the offensive line has been ravaged by injuries. Dalton Schultz is an upgrade at tight end and rookie receiver Tank Dell has been exceptional, but they aren’t bonafide superstars yet. Stroud has a very good receiving corps but there’s no true No. 1 this year. Stroud is elevating the talent around him and he also had one of his best games this season without his top receiver, Nico Collins, against the Bengals.
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How a quarterback performs from a clean pocket is usually a very stable indicator from year to year because chaos could be unpredictable and vary each season. Stroud’s EPA per dropback from a clean pocket ranks third in the league. Stroud wins in ways that are sustainable. He understands what the defenses are doing, he has a plan to beat what they throw at him, he manipulates defenders with his eyes and beats them with ball placement.
Week 8, 14:42 remaining in the second quarter, third-and-10
Here, the Texans had Dell run a double move to the weak side while Noah Brown was in the slot running a “thru” route. Against two deep safeties, Brown has to stay vertical before trying to squeeze inside of the safety to open space.
The defense was in quarters and the corners were playing soft and with depth. Dell couldn’t get behind the defense, so Stroud had to progress to Brown but he also had to beat the weak side safety Xavier Woods by throwing the ball before he could close on Brown.
Because Stroud was looking to Dell as he was dropping, as he got to the top of his drop, he was able to set his feet to the other side of the field and throw to Brown without a hitch. If he took a second longer to process, he might have had to hitch and he would have been late.
In a flash, Stroud fired a bullet to Brown with anticipation and accuracy. The ball placement was perfect. He didn’t lead Brown into a big hit from Woods. He put the ball low and behind so his receiver could protect himself.
Stroud’s play in clutch situations has been a revelation. He’s already led the Texans to go-ahead scores in three games near the end of regulation. And again, he’s making plays from within the pocket when it matters most.
Week 9, 0:16 remaining in the fourth quarter, second-and-10
The Texans needed a touchdown down 37-33 to the Buccaneers. The drive began with 0:46 left but on this play, there were only 16 seconds left and the Texans were out of timeouts. Houston had a deep smash concept called.
The defense was in Cover 2 and was prepared for a smash concept, knowing that the Texans needed a chunk play and they needed to get out of bounds to stop the clock. Both corners dropped deep, which would usually discourage quarterbacks from throwing deep. The corners dropped with their hips inside to gain depth and Stroud saw that cornerback Zyon McCollum didn’t have enough depth or width and loaded up for the shot.
While taking a big hit, Stroud put the ball in the absolute perfect location for Dell to easily catch, get his feet down, and go out of bounds. There are so many quarterbacks who would take the short route and try to set up a long shot to the end zone on the next play. The ability to understand where potential opportunities are based on a defender’s body language separates elite quarterbacks from good ones — I’m not saying Stroud is there yet, but this is an important trait.
0:10 remaining in the fourth quarter, first-and-10
Stroud said after the game that the play they ran on the game-winner was one they hadn’t practiced since training camp. The concept was double posts with Brown in the slot and Dell outside. This concept is designed to beat quarters, which was the coverage the Bucs were in.
Stroud already is so good at manipulating the defense with his eyes and shoulders. As he got to the top of his drop, he lined up his shoulders and eyes to the inside vertical to ensure that the safety and underneath defender went with Brown.
He then calmly took one hitch and started his throwing motion before Dell made his break. Considering that the Texans haven’t practiced this play, it’s very hard to throw with anticipation and to a spot without a lot of familiarity with the timing of the play.
Regardless, Stroud placed the ball exceptionally. It’s a little above Dell’s helmet, which is where you want balls thrown in the red zone. Stroud made the catch an easy one for Dell, who ran an excellent route, for the game-winning touchdown. The execution of the two-minute plan and each passing concept was nearly flawless and it had to be with how little time was left.
The Texans found themselves needing another late score the following week. With the score tied 27-27, the Texans got the ball back with 1:33 remaining. Again, Stroud hit big chunk plays with the game on the line.
1:11 remaining in the fourth quarter, third-and-6
On third-and-6, the Bengals showed a Cover 0 blitz look. It looked like Stroud gave a signal to Brown on the outside to run a shorter route in case he would have to quickly get rid of the ball. The two seams inside would be tough to hit against a zero-blitz.
But as the ball was snapped, the defense dropped into a Cover 3 zone. Stroud didn’t panic, saw the defense drop and worked the two seams, which is exactly what you want to do against Cover 3.
As he dropped, he looked to the seam to this right. He set his shoulders and eyes to the right and got the free safety and hook defender, Germaine Pratt, on the other side of the field to move in that direction, leaving Schultz wide open on the opposite seam.
Stroud quickly snapped his body to line himself up to throw to the opposite seam. Pratt was caught by surprise and slipped trying to react to Stroud’s eyes, feet and shoulders quickly getting aligned to the left seam. The only other defender who could have made a play was the corner, but Stroud put the ball just enough inside so that the corner wasn’t a factor.
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Barring major regression, it seems that Stroud should have the Offensive Rookie of the Year award locked up. The question is could he become the first rookie to win MVP since Jim Brown in 1957? That would cement this season as the greatest rookie season ever.
MVP voters typically look at stats, memorable moments and a candidate’s final win total. Stroud’s numbers are strong and if he continues to produce, he should finish in the top five in touchdown passes. He already has a few memorable late-game moments but he’ll need one or two more in games with playoff implications. If he is able to take the Texans from a two-win team last year all the way to the playoffs this year, it’ll be difficult for the voters to ignore him, especially with some of the top quarterbacks in the league having down years. Regardless if he wins or not, it looks like the Texans have a legitimate game-changer at quarterback for the foreseeable future.
(Top photo: Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)
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