HOUSTON, TX - OCTOBER 02: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers is sacked by linebacker Connor Barwin #98 of the Houston Texans on October 2, 2011 at Reliant Stadium in Houston, Texas.Texans won 17 to 10. (Photo by Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images)
Despite losing DeMeco Ryans and Mario Williams, this could be the best linebacker group in the NFL.
Linebackers in a 3-4 defense are more important than in a 4-3, and the Texans got great play out of this group last season. The Texans ranked 2nd in the NFL in rushing yards allowed and 6th in sacks; this group was the biggest part of that effort. The linebacker group on the surface appears to be a very stable group going into training camp. A group that you know who the starters are and there is an expectation of a high level of play. I believe that it's a very good group, but there are still some small question marks because for the most part, each guy has only done it for one year. Connor Barwin was a reserve player during his rookie season and then missed all of his 2nd season with an injury before last season's breakout with 11.5 sacks. Brian Cushing was awesome last year, arguably the 2nd best MLB in the league after Patrick Willis, but he has yet to put together back to back great seasons. Brooks Reed was a rookie last season so he's obviously only done it once, and whether it's Brady James or Darryl Sharpton at the other ILB spot; neither played any significant minutes on this team last season. On the flip side of that, Barwin, Reed, and Cushing all had great seasons last year as young players, project to only get better, and they'll have the benefit of a full off-season in Wade Philips defense this year.
Brian Cushing - The rock and emotional leader of this group. Like I said earlier, I believe Brian Cushing is the second best inside linebacker in league after Patrick Willis. Cushing has tremendous instincts and a high level of aggressiveness that enables him to seemingly always be the first guy to the ball carrier. Also a solid pass rusher when asked to blitz. Great player who will only get better.
Connor Barwin - Solid player the first half of last season, but really broke out after the Mario Williams injury. From week 9 to the end of the season, Barwin had 9.5 sacks, tying him with Elvis Dumervil and Jared Allen for the NFL lead. As a rookie, the Texans tried to make him a defensive end to mixed results. He has great hands and a quick burst, which made him pretty effective as a 3rd down pass rushing specialist; but he struggled with the other aspects of playing defensive end. Now playing as a stand-up linebacker, Barwin seems more comfortable with what he's asked to do, and I think it fits his natural gifts much better. With a full season under Wade Philips and a full season as the primary pass rusher; the sky is the limit for Barwin. I wouldn't be shocked by 15+ sacks this season.
Brooks Reed - Good rookie season, great value as a 2nd round pick. Brooks showed a good first step, played with good leverage, and showed some nice pass rushing moves. The guy is relentless, has a high motor, and I think will develop into a consistent 10+ sack a year type player. The way he dips and spins, and just never quits when rushing the passer reminds me some of Clay Matthews; he's going to be a very good player.
The Question Marks:
Brady James - He's lost a step and will likely only be a 2 down player, but so was DeMeco Ryans and James at least knows the system. Between 2008-2010 under Wade Philips in Dallas, James averaged 80 solo tackles and 2 forced fumbles per season. If he can get back to that level, the Texans won't notice much of a drop off from Ryans.
Darryl Sharpton - He showed promise before a torn quad tendon ended his season in October. He's a bit of an unknown because of the limited time he's had on the field, but when he has played; he's looked good. He's quick, he makes plays in the backfield, and has been pretty solid against the run. Sharpton is a better fit as a 3-4 ILB over 4-3 OLB which he was asked to play his rookie season. James will most likely get the job to start the season, but Sharpton has a chance to play in passing situations and eventually take over as the younger player with bigger upside.
Whitney Mercilus - Despite being labeled just a "one-year wonder" at Illinois, the expectations are high for the Texans 1st round pick; and he's embracing the challenge. Mercilus chose to wear the number 59, the same number that the recently traded DeMeco Ryans wore as a Texan. Ryans was the 2006 Rookie of the Year and a 2-time Pro-Bowl selection, so Mercilus has big shoes to fill. Unlike Ryans, Mercilus won't be asked to come in and start right away. The Texans drafted Mercilus to replace Mario Williams and provide insurance in case Barwin leaves as a free-agent after this season, but for this year, he'll be more of a situational role-player. I like the upside of Mercilus and I believe he has the talent of a multi-time Pro Bowl player. Sure he only did it for one year, but that one year with 16 sacks and 9 forced fumbles was amazing.
I believe this group has a chance to be special. They're fast, athletic, young, talented, and deep. With the addition of Mercilus, the Texans will have the flexibility to mix and match players with schemes and create havoc for opposing offenses. Barwin, Reed, and Mercilus all have the ability to play with their hand on the ground as a defensive end which will allow Philips to mix up his looks and confuse offenses. This might be the best linebacker group in the entire NFL before the season is over.