HOUSTON -- DeMeco Ryans left his first draft as a head coach feeling optimistic.

For starters, Ryans believed the Houston Texans had just landed "two staples" to build their roster around.

First, they selected quarterback C.J. Stroud with the No. 2 pick and then they surprised the draft world when they traded up to the third pick and selected defensive end Will Anderson Jr.

"When I knew we had the ability to trade and get Will [along with] C.J., it was 'OK, it's on,'" Ryans told ESPN. "You don't always get the top guys that you want. So for us to get two top guys, we wanted at two key positions at quarterback and defensive end, that was the start."

On Day 2, the Texans drafted selected wide receiver Tank Dell in the third round.

"Then to come around and get our favorite receiver in the draft in Tank. ... I knew that things started to shape up the right way just adding those three guys," Ryans said.

Their rookies are a major reason the Texans advanced to the playoffs. Now Houston heads to the divisional round, where they will visit the AFC's top-seeded Baltimore Ravens on Saturday (4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN/ABC/ESPN+).

On paper, Houston believed it had taken a step in the right direction in the draft, but Ryans knew that he needed to see what the players could do to turn his optimism into belief.

"Watching the guys when they stepped on the field in practice, you get them on the grass and you see who they really are and how they play," Ryans said. "And it was special."

That draft class helped turn around an organization that went 11-38-1 from 2020 to 2022 and led the Texans (10-7) to the AFC South title for the first time since 2019.

Stroud had quite the playoff debut in Houston's 45-14 win over the Cleveland Browns in the wild-card round. He threw three touchdowns, tying a record for most touchdown passes by a rookie in a playoff game. He also passed for 274 yards and had no turnovers. Defensively, Anderson finished with a sack and a team-high seven pressures.

"Nobody has said this, but we should have the offensive and defensive rookie of the year," Ryans said. "Both guys have stepped up big time for us -- C.J. with the offense and Will on defense."

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Texans' 1,866 snaps by rookies was the sixth most during the regular season. They had 688 snaps on offense (second most) and 1,178 (16th) on defense. The offensive snaps were the most by a team to win a postseason game since 2000.

Houston Texans first-round draft picks C.J. Stroud, left, and Will Anderson Jr. pose during their introductory news conference. Kevin M. Cox/AP

C.J. Stroud

Stroud became the first rookie to lead the NFL in touchdown-to-interception ratio (23:5) and revived an organization that needed a franchise-caliber quarterback.

"C.J. is the reason why we're in this position," Ryans said Saturday. "He's a special young man and special player and continues to shine. No matter how big the moment is, our whole team is leaning on him, and he has the shoulders to carry the weight."

Stroud became the first quarterback drafted in the top two of the draft since 1967 to start and win a playoff game in his rookie season and became the youngest to win a playoff contest, passing Michael Vick.

He finished the regular season with 4,108 passing yards -- the third most for a rookie behind Andrew Luck (4,374 in 2012) and Justin Herbert (4,336 in 2020). Stroud's six 300-yard passing games were tied with Luck and two behind Herbert for the most all time by a rookie. His 470 passing yards in Week 9 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were also the most by a rookie.

"If all 11 of us are on the same page on the offensive side, are getting into their spot, get into their assignment, we feel like nobody can play with us," tight end Brevin Jordan said. "Especially when you have No. 7 back there."

Will Anderson Jr.

Beginning at OTAs, Ryans knew what he had.

"Seeing Will be relentless, [to the point] we're like, 'Hey, you need to slow down a little bit,'" Ryans said about early practices with a smile, "we knew we had the right dude."

During the regular season, Anderson set a franchise record for sacks by a rookie (seven), tied for most quarterback hits (22) and led the team in pressures (64), according to Next Gen Stats.

Anderson also ranked third in pass block win rate (25.8%) behind the Dallas Cowboys' Micah Parsons and Browns' Myles Garrett. He was sixth in run-stop win rate (36%) among defensive ends with at least 400 snaps.

The sack production didn't come right away, but he had six (tied for 19th) from Weeks 9 to 18 despite missing two games after suffering an ankle injury against the New York Jets in Week 14.

"Play after play, we know he's battling an injury, but he's one of the toughest guys I've ever been around," Ryans said. "We have to drag him off the field. He's not coming off. He continues to fight -- was able to be productive and get sacks -- which is what we needed."

From the moment Anderson stepped foot in the organization, his mindset was centered on changing the franchise. And he wasn't the only rookie thinking that way.

"We had our first rookie meeting, and I could just see like how excited everybody was," Anderson told ESPN. "You always tell whether they're bulls--- guys or are they coming to work and about business. I felt like it wasn't like 'He just finna go party, he's in the NFL now and he got his money.' Everybody was here to work and to change the culture."

Stroud, right, and Anderson warm up during rookie minicamp. Alex Bierens de Haan/Getty Images

The rest of the class

Dell had 709 receiving yards and ranked 22nd entering Week 13 before suffering a season-ending leg injury against the Denver Broncos. He also had the winning touchdown catch with six seconds left in Week 9 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when the Texans marched 75 yards in 40 seconds. Dell finished with six catches for 114 yards and two touchdowns.

Stroud and Dell's connection of 709 yards was the most through the first 12 weeks by any rookie quarterback-receiver tandem.

The duo's seven touchdowns were the most by a rookie duo since 2012 when the Indianapolis Colts' Luck and T.Y. Hilton had seven and is also tied for the fourth most by rookies.

On the interior, the Texans' sixth-round pick, center Jarrett Patterson, started the first seven games after their second-round pick, Juice Scruggs, sustained a hamstring injury during the last preseason game against the New Orleans Saints. That landed him on injured reserve and forced him to miss the first 10 games.

Patterson replaced Scruggs until Week 8 when he suffered a season-ending leg injury against the Carolina Panthers. Offseason free agent Michael Deiter replaced him.

Once Scruggs was activated from injured reserve in Week 12 against the Jacksonville Jaguars, he didn't start immediately. But he was thrust into action after left guard Tytus Howard suffered a season-ending knee injury. He went on to start the rest of the season.

"Really proud of Juice," Ryans said. "You talk about a guy who's missed -- he missed pretty much the entire season -- and for him to come back at the time that he came back, we know it wasn't all good with him coming back. We knew that there would be growing pains there. He played center all throughout training camp for us, and for him to come back and step in at the guard position, he had to get familiar with that spot.

"He's gotten better each week, which has helped our offensive line and their success."