NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Houston rookie C.J. Stroud threw his first touchdown as a pro before being named the Houston Texans’ starting quarterback to open the regular season.
Meanwhile, Jimmy Graham looked determined not to let his mysterious medical episode and run-in with police last week derail his NFL comeback with the New Orleans Saints.
Stroud’s short touchdown pass to Nico Collins helped the Texans defeat the Saints 17-13 on Sunday night in the preseason finale for both teams.
Afterward, Stroud said his starting role going forward is “something that I think I worked for and definitely earned.”
“Nothing else really changes. I’m still going to work they way I have been working — even more now,” added Stroud, the second overall pick out of Ohio State in the 2023 NFL Draft. “So, blessed enough to be a starter so young in this league, which isn’t the easiest thing to do. But I know my coaches have trust and faith in me.”
While Stroud provided a glimpse of his potential, the 36-year-old Graham offered evidence that he can still make the type of plays Saints fans remember from his first five NFL seasons in New Orleans from 2010 to 2014.
The five-time Pro Bowl tight end, who signed with the Saints last month after spending the previous season out of football, caught three passes for 34 yards and a touchdown.
“It was nice to see Jimmy had a couple of nice catches — contested catches,” Saints coach Dennis Allen said. “We’ve said this that we don’t have to see it every day from these guys, particularly the veteran players, yet at some point we have to see it — and we saw it tonight.”
His catches were reminiscent of the way he played when Drew Brees was his quarterback. He established leverage with his 6-foot-7 frame in tight coverage and came down with contested catches. His score on a 3-yard pass from Jameis Winston came shortly after his 25-yard grab had given New Orleans a first down on the Houston 11.
“Jimmy has been Jimmy since he first walked in the building,” Winston said. “I just think that a lot of other tight ends have had opportunities” this preseason.
After his touchdown — which delighted a Superdome crowd longing to see the ever popular Graham score for the Saints again — the former Miami basketball player leapt up toward the goal post as if to dunk the ball over the cross bar. He aborted, however, and avoided a flag by instead firing the ball off the padded wall behind the end zone.
Dunking the ball over the cross bar became a rule violation in 2014, in part because Graham’s former trademark TD celebration forced a delay during a 2013 Thursday night game when he knocked a goal post out of alignment.
Graham sat out New Orleans’ second preseason against the Chargers in Los Angeles last weekend. That game was played two days after Graham was arrested by Newport Beach police during what the Saints have described as a likely seizure that caused the 2013 All-Pro to become disoriented.
Graham was charged with suspicion of being under the influence of a controlled substance and resisting officers, and was released into the Saints’ care at a hospital early on the morning of Aug. 19. He returned to practice on Wednesday.
Graham has not spoken publicly about his arrest and declined to meet with media after the game, but the Saints provided a comment from Graham about his performance.
““It just reminded me of all the amazing moments I had here in front of these fans … so many special moments and wins,” Graham said. “I’m looking forward to continuing to capitalize and let this feeling become even bigger.”
The Texans opened scoring with Stroud’s 3-yard pass to Collins, capping a drive began on the New Orleans 43 after a 26-yard punt return by Texans rookie Tank Dell. Dameon Pierce rushed four times for 27 yards during the series.
Stroud “did a really good job this week,” Houston coach DeMeco Ryans said. “The ball placement was really nice.”
Veteran running back Mike Boone put Houston in front 17-10 with a spinning, tackle-slipping 11-yard run in the third quarter.
Saints undrafted rookie kicker Blake Grupe, who has been competing for a job with incumbent Wil Lutz, hit field goals from 38 and 50 yards before missing from 60.
New Orleans had two chances to take a late lead. Safety Grayland Arnold thwarted the first when he intercepted rookie QB Jake Haener in the end zone. Cornerback Cameron Dantzler’s diving interception of Haener in the final minute sealed the result.
Guard Jarrett Patterson required attention from medical staff, but walked off on his own, after recovering a fumble caused when Saints defensive tackle Malcolm Roach sacked and stripped QB Davis Mills.
Texans: Open the regular season at Baltimore on Sept. 10.
Saints: Host Tennessee on Sept. 10.