Not only is C.J. Stroud's rookie success sustainable, his path for improvement is pretty straightforward

The typical discussion surrounding a quarterback entering his second season is often capped by question marks.

Can he push the ball more?

Can he take fewer sacks?

Did his team do enough to help him?

How many #winz does he have?

There is generally a growing optimism — justified or not — within the fan base and organization that the anointed savior is actually one of the guys. A dude. A needle mover. A franchise centerpiece. Not a Robin along for the ride with some wunderkind gel-haired play-caller, but an actual Batman who delivers every time his signal is put up in the sky.

Quarterbacks are either helped or hindered by their surroundings. How much so is a never-ending discussion with an unanswerable final conclusion. We can look through the lens of statistics, which help paint a picture of what players are achieving in their current situations, but it's also nigh impossible to separate players from their environments. (Football, it’s a beautiful team sport!) We can look at their actual play and what they are attempting to accomplish by watching them or reviewing all-22 film, hopefully operating like a judge grading on a scale of difficulty in figure skating or gymnastics. We can even combine the two to give us a clearer picture of what is truly happening on the field.

However you look at it, while watching the 2023 Houston Texans offense, there was generally one conclusion that we all came to:

This C.J. Stroud fella sure can throw that football.

As I wrap up my look at the second-year starting signal-callers, it was important to watch what the young players were attempting to accomplish, as opposed to strictly the results of each play. With Stroud during his first year, the process was there, and the results followed quickly.

Stroud was nearly the unanimous Offensive Rookie of the Year, and the Texans went from having the second overall draft selection to outright winning the AFC South and a playoff game.

Stroud finished eighth in passing yards and with a higher touchdown rate than Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert, Jalen Hurts, Joe Burrow and Trevor Lawrence. He finished third in net yards per attempt. And those numbers weren’t all just Blake Bortles empty calorie specials; Stroud finished ninth overall in dropback success rate and sixth in EPA per dropback.

His EPA per dropback was the sixth-highest among qualifying quarterbacks in 2023, but it was also sixth-highest among all rookie quarterbacks in their first seasons since 2006 — behind only Dak Prescott, Robert Griffin III, Matt Ryan, Russell Wilson and Justin Herbert. Great company, especially if you focus on the quarterbacks who do most of their damage from the pocket.

It’s actually quite fitting that Prescott, Ryan and Herbert are on that shortlist. Most quarterbacks work to find that balance between being an athlete and doing their damage from the pocket, with every player coming up with a different concoction that suits them. Stroud, who turns 23 in October, plays like an old soul at the position, operating more like Prescott, Ryan, Matthew Stafford or Kirk Cousins than the typical young playmaker.

Stroud prefers to — no, he craves to — operate from within the pocket. And it’s a true joy to watch such a young player playing like a crafty veteran at such a difficult position, smoothly maneuvering up, down, left and right, like a video gamer inputting a cheat code, while bending his body and arm to find a throwing angle.

The Texans liked to use play-action, which will naturally lengthen the time to throw on most dropbacks, but Stroud had the sixth-highest average time to throw on true dropback plays, i.e. passing plays that are not run-pass options or play-action concepts. His average time to throw of 2.82 seconds was surrounded by known runners and chaos-inducers in the rankings; players like Justin Fields, Jalen Hurts, Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen, quarterbacks who finished with six of the nine highest scramble rates in the NFL in 2023.

Stroud, meanwhile, finished 19th with a scramble rate of 4.3%, which tied with (hello again) Dak Prescott. This type of throw-first, second, third and fourth style was how Stroud played at Ohio State. That caused some talent evaluators hesitation, wishing that Stroud would show more creativity with his play.

But creativity comes in many forms, and Stroud’s interpretation is to keep his eyes forever downfield, hunting chunk plays with a 20-yard gaze, and beating defenders — pass rushers and players in coverage alike — with timing, ball placement and a supernatural sense for space and angles. Stroud has a strong arm, a quick throwing motion and needs very little space to operate. His Warren Moon-like spirals are so pretty they are more comparable to an arrow fired by Legolas. He does this by getting the ball early and late, using every beat of the pass clock drum:

This isn’t to say that Stroud is a bad athlete. He’s actually quite a good athlete, something he displayed when he had to in college and also something he flashed, as a last resort, in his rookie season. But Stroud is a traditionalist, damn it. He’s a quarterback who throws and distributes to his teammates and slices a defense up from within the comfy confines of a deep pocket. And that combination of smarts, skill and athleticism makes Stroud so much fun:

Stroud finished with a minuscule interception rate of 1% during the 2023 regular season but with the second-highest average depth of target among qualifying quarterbacks — a hilarious juxtaposition that matches Stroud’s high-wire downfield act and exceptional accuracy.

Stroud benefits from some good design from offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik, but he was also a strong operator in just about every type of dropback in 2023, a good indicator to outplay whatever situation he might be plopped in the future. On 397 “pure” dropback snaps (as defined by SumerSports), Stroud finished 10th in success rate and sixth in EPA per play, which are numbers that match his ability to work through full-field concepts.

Here’s Stroud on a third-and-2 play against the Arizona Cardinals. Focus on the end-zone angle in the embedded tweet and how Stroud’s helmet moves from the Cardinals' boundary safety to calmly progressing across the field, before finding an underneath option for an easy first down:

From the safety to confirm the coverage shell:

To outside (note No. 10 Kyzir White breaking on the underneath throw):

To the over route (that the deep safety starts to break on):

To finally Robert Woods, sitting down underneath for a clean first-down conversion:

Stroud barely even moves from the hash mark while progressing in the pocket. This is a perfect encapsulation of the calmness that Stroud exudes with his play. He is sitting in the pocket for nearly four seconds with an offensive line that was often depleted in 2023, and trusting the design of the concept to open something up. And this one does exactly that, when two defenders covered the running back’s swing route.

This takes a true understanding of how the concept works, how the strings are pulled between the route distribution and the defender’s movement and when to cut that string with a throw. Quarterbacks who aren’t quite there with the trust of the play design, or their ability to read it, will often start looking for scrambling lanes or instantly switch into improvising mode. Sometimes that works and you get Josh Allen, and sometimes you get Kenny Pickett.

The potential downside of this preference-from-the-pocket archetype is that it can be too reliant on the quarterback and play design being hyper-efficient. When defenses are able to tackle and limit explosive plays, it can lead to an overall feeling of tightness and suffocation within the offense. This is something Prescott and the Cowboys' offense ran into over the past couple of seasons. That is, until the Cowboys evolved into a beautiful explosive play butterfly led by more downfield designs to CeeDee Lamb and the best and most aggressive play of Prescott’s career.

Stroud has already shown, even with an oft-injured offensive line, the ability to make tight pockets and tough situations work. He wants to launch the ball, hell or high water, but he’s so intelligent about it. (If you want to see more of Stroud’s ball knowledge and love for the game, just watch any of the videos of him on his world tour this spring with Micah Parsons.) He knows when to turn the dials and let things rip but he also knows when to throttle it down. There are times he could give up on a play and dig a throw a split-second earlier, but he already showed a high level of timing during his first season and it will only improve with more time as a professional.

I don’t think I’m breaking new ground here in hyping up what Stroud did during his rookie year. He rejuvenated a Texans franchise all the way to a division title and helped bring on impossibly good vibes under new head coach DeMeco Ryans. The things that he has to improve upon are entirely teachable and "reppable," and the things that he excels at aren’t exactly easy to teach. Some offensive line health and run game improvement will help make life easier for Stroud, especially in obvious passing situations, but it’s so good that he showed the ability to operate and excel in less-than-advantageous situations as well.

It will be interesting how the Texans utilize Stefon Diggs with Tank Dell, Dalton Schultz and star receiver (not ascending, he’s already there) Nico Collins. The Texans could benefit from unleashing Stroud with even more true dropback plays. Although Shanahan disciples like Slowik will always have a run-first attitude to play-calling, the Texans finished 19th in pass rate over expected in 2023, neatly between the 49ers in 17th and Rams in 21st. A slight increase in passes on base downs, plus an increase in those true dropback passes (the Texans ranked 14th in pure dropback passes in 2023), would allow Stroud to use the bevy of weapons at his disposal. It would also rip off the training wheels of play-action concepts and let Stroud be the monster distributor that he can be.

No matter what, Stroud has all the indicators of sustainable play. His path and progress is going to be one of the fun subplots of this season and beyond, especially given the conference and division that he plays in (all four AFC South quarterbacks will be on my own personal version of gamepass every week).

In a world of quarterbacks who play more like scoring point guards in basketball, C.J. Stroud’s combination of cleverness and polish makes him the type of traditional distributor that all football-watchers can enjoy. He's a retro modern player who has already made the position his own. It’s early, and players quickly rise and fall in the NFL, but Stroud’s underlying play, from the big things to the little in-between bits, makes it easy to call early. The Texans have a capital-G Guy on their hands,