On paper, it was one of the more obvious moves to be made this offseason, but considering how the Houston Texans had handled Brian Cushing the last few years — no salary reductions, open arm "welcome backs" after a ten game PED suspension — nothing is a given. However, on Sunday night, John McClain of the Houston Chronicle broke the news:
The Texans have told ILB Brian Cushing that he'll be released sometime before the league year begins March 14. The emergence of second-year ILBs Zach— John McClain (@McClain_on_NFL) February 19, 2018
Cunningham and Dylan Cole made Cushing expendable. They'll save $7.64 milliion under the salary cap when he's released.
Indeed, the Brian Cushing Era is coming to an end. Whether Cushing decides to pick up the pieces somewhere else remains to be seen (without Gary Kubiak in Denver, these next steps for departed Texans get harder to piece together, although Wade Phillips IS in Los Angeles, where Cushing played college ball, so maybe.....).
For now, we are left to examine why this went down, Cushing's place in Texans history, and where the Texans go from here. So let's ask the pertinent questions, shall we?
Why is Cushing getting cut?
I believe it is, in large part, because of the reason McClain gives — the inside linebacking corps with Zach Cunningham, Bernardrick McKinney, and Dylan Cole is one of the more (only?) stacked positions on this roster. However, Cushing's scheduled base salary of $7.25 million would have made it awfully difficult to justify keeping him, given how his level of play had dipped these last few years. Two knee injuries and a number of other medical issues — McClain reports Cushing has had upwards of 20 surgeries as a Texan — had turned Cushing into a shell of the player he was early in his career, before the two season-ending knee injuries in 2012 and 2013. I would add here that he had two PED suspensions, and say that's a reason he might be getting let go, but the team welcomed him back, and made him a captain again, when he returned from last season's ten game suspension.
What, specifically, are the Texans gaining in cap space by releasing Cushing?
I'll let John McClain handle that one, as well....
Brian Cushing is scheduled to make a base salary of $7.25 million. He'll save the Texans $7.64 million under the cap. Before his release, the Texans are $56.6 million under the cap, according to https://t.co/LHULapLJ2K.— John McClain (@McClain_on_NFL) February 19, 2018
At what point in his career did we see "peak Cushing"?
It stuns some Texans fans when you tell them this, because the perception of Brian Cushing is that he was regularly among the best at his position in the first half of his career, but he only made one Pro Bowl, and it was in his rookie season of 2009, when he was named Defensive Rookie of the Year. Cushing was an outside linebacker on that team, and brought a swagger and play-making ability that this team had been bereft of for years. That said, I think the best version of Cushing was in 2011, after Wade Phillips came in, moved him inside, and Cushing anchored the best defense in the history of the franchise. Cushing was a ridiculously valuable player on the 2011 and 2012 teams, as manifested by the way the defense eventually fell apart after he was injured in the fifth week of the 2012 season against the Jets on a Monday night.
Where does Cushing stack up on the all-time Texans list?
Let's see. Off the top of my head, I would, for sure, put the following players ahead of Cushing — Andre Johnson, J.J. Watt, Arian Foster, Duane Brown, Johnathan Joseph, DeAndre Hopkins, Chris Myers, Owen Daniels, Matt Schaub, Aaron Glenn, Jadeveon Clowney, DeMeco Ryans, maybe Mario Williams, with Whitney Mercilus and Deshaun Watson being one or two good years away from passing him. So probably on the fringe of the top 12, with a few guys ready to leapfrog him.
Yikes, the long line of Texan first round picks continues to dwindle!
Indeed it does. Just a couple seasons ago, the Texans could proudly trumpet that they were the only team to still have all of their first round picks going back to 2008:
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2008, Duane Brown
2009, Brian Cushing
2010, Kareem Jackson
2011, J.J. Watt
2012, Whitney Mercilus
2013, DeAndre Hopkins
2014, Jadeveon Clowney
2015, Kevin Johnson
2016, Will Fuller
2017, Deshaun Watson
Overall, a mostly productive group for their careers. However, Brown was traded last year amidst all sorts of vitriol over a variety of team-related topics, and now Cushing is being released. On top of that, in 2017, Jackson had his worst season since his rookie year, and Watt, Mercilus, and Watson all suffered season ending injuries. Finally, Johnson played worse than Jackson in 2017. So the first round pipeline now has some sizable holes in it.
And the Brian Cushing Era is over. The time is up for one of the more star crossed players in the history of the team.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.