In a lot of ways, the Houston Texans could be the most relatable franchise in the NFL.
In 2019, they were riding high, a 10-6 division winner with a bright future. Then 2020 hit and everything that could go wrong, seemingly did. The societal parallels are easy to spot.
Since then, the team has been ripped down to the studs for a rebuild and the results on the field have reflected it. Not many people would be lining up to stay with a 4-13 team with a franchise quarterback on the outs and its third head coach in two years, but Antony Auclair has always charted his own path.
The Canadian tight end re-upped with the Texans earlier this week, choosing to put pen to paper before the NFL’s legal tampering window. In so doing, Auclair passed on the opportunity to hear from other teams, but there was only ever one organization that he wanted to play for.
“It’s all about comfort with your team, your teammates and the city. For me, going back to Houston was a priority,” Auclair told assembled Canadian media on Wednesday. “We didn’t want necessarily to go to free agency, free agency was really a last resort for us.”
It’s clear the Texans didn’t want the Quebecois work horse to hit the open market either. Houston general manager Nick Caserio has been a vocal fan of what Auclair brings to the table and said at the NFL Combine last month that he would be a priority to retain.
That’s rare praise for a depth blocker who does much of his work out of the spotlight, but in Auclair the second-year GM has exactly what he always coveted. A disciple of Bill Belichick’s role-oriented approach to team-building, he loaded up his struggling franchise with depth free agents last off-season, looking for under-the-radar role players who could shine in a new system.
A Super Bowl champion with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Auclair was among the least coveted initially. It took him until April to find a home in free agency and he had to start the year on the Texans’ practice squad, but in the end his hard-nosed style impressed the coaches and staff. Effort was rewarded with contractual certainty.
“I’m really happy and I’m really grateful. Last year, it wasn’t the same situation,” Auclair said. “I was coming back from an injured season where I had to prove myself again, which I did last year and it’s paying off now.”
Auclair played 16 games for the Texans during his first year with the franchise, making five receptions for 47 yards and one touchdown — the first of his career. That was equal to half of his previous career production in four seasons with the Bucs, while showing off his physical blocking ability on a career-high 32 percent of offensive snaps.
The Texans have placed their faith in him with a new deal and while a simple one-year extension may not look like much of mark of confidence from the outside, the details tell a different story.
“It’s all about guarantees,” Auclair explained. “You could have a three-year deal with nothing guaranteed for your second and third year. For us, it was all about the commitment to us from the team and we got what we wanted.”
Valued at $1.9 million total, the Canadian’s new contract came with a $300,000 signing bonus and a fully guaranteed $1.3 million salary. That’s great for his pocketbook, but also a pretty solid indication in the Texans’ faith in his ability to make the roster and contribute. What Auclair does isn’t flashy, but it is vital for team success.
“It’s not about statistics. Sometimes you give yourself a goal to reach — 20 catches a year — but the reality is it’s all about doing your job,” he said. “We get a grade every game from the coaches or the scouts. For me, being a 75 or 80 percent guy [is the goal], it’s winning football. I’m just here to do my job and whatever they ask me to do, I take pride in doing it.”
Of course, the fortunes of a franchise don’t hinge on retaining the best blocking tight end on the market. That will ultimately be determined by the quarterback position, where the Texans are finally approaching an end to the Deshaun Watson saga.
Auclair never played with the disgruntled quarterback, whose off-field issues were taboo in the building last season, but he does see promise in his young replacement. With Watson at home and veteran Tyrod Taylor injured, the Texans rolled with third-round rookie Davis Mills for 11 games and his tight end liked what he saw.
“We threw Davis out there as young rookie, but he went to Stanford, so he’s pretty smart,” Auclair joked. “He kind of figured it out as the year went on and really got better. I think the future is bright for Davis Mills, for sure.”
Preparing for his sixth NFL season after entering the league undrafted out of Laval University, Auclair does know a thing or two about bright futures.