My theory on draft day decisions is that every choice is a message to someone or about someone on the current roster. Every time a player is chosen or a prominent player is bypassed, we should ask "What does it say about [fill in name of current player here]?"
So as the first round of the NFL Draft played out on Thursday night, and Kentucky edge rusher Bud Dupree was on the board for the Texans with the 16th pick and they passed in favor of cornerback Kevin Johnson, a couple of messages were sent.
First, the team is clearly planning for life after Johnathan Joseph, finding a cornerback to pair with Kareem Jackson beginning in 2016 for the next 4 or 5 years. (Johnson should get on the field plenty in nickel packages in 2015, for what it's worth, though.)
Second, with a top ten talent like Dupree on the board and the Texans passing on him, we could begin to glean what they think of their outside linebackers. We could take solace that perhaps last season's first overall pick, Jadeveon Clowney, might be progressing in his rehab from microfracture surgery just fine. Also, we could perhaps see this as a sign that there's a belief in the future of 2012 first rounder Whitney Mercilus.
However, when Sunday's deadline to exercise Mercilus' fifth year option for 2016 came and went, the signals seemed to be crossed up. Did this mean that they're going to let Mercilus play out his deal and hit free agency? Well, the answer to that rhetorical question came pretty quickly the day after the May 3 deadline.
On Monday, the Texans and Mercilus agreed to a four year contract extension worth $26 million. The deal has $10.8 million guaranteed and a $5.25 million signing bonus. Financially, it's a more cap friendly deal than if the team had exercised and Mercilus had played under an $8 million option for 2016.
The early signing of Mercilus, who has one year left on his rookie contract he signed in 2012, means that the Texans have now re-upped with five straight first round picks of theirs, four of them one season early so that they would not hit free agency. Duane Brown, Brian Cushing, and J.J. Watt all signed deals a season before their current deals were up. (Kareem Jackson, 2010's first round pick, was reportedly offered a contract a year early, but chose to play it out and hit free agency before re-signing with the Texans.)
The question with Mercilus is "Was doing a deal with him a year early necessary?" Brown, Cushing, and Watt had all been to Pro Bowls when they signed their second contracts. They'd have been highly sought after by other teams, and their services hitting free agency eBay could've become cost prohibitive for the Texans. Those three all made sense at the time, even Cushing's, despite his coming off of a knee injury.
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Mercilus, on the other hand, is still trying to reach his potential. Some would argue that he hasn't come close, not consistently at least. Pro Football Focus rated him one of the worst pass rushing outside linebackers in the league for 2014, which is an issue for someone who was drafted to sack quarterbacks. To the naked eye, Mercilus played better as the 2014 season went on, but this contract extension is clearly a bet that he will show similar improvement on top of that in 2015.
Put simply, if Mercilus duplicates his 2014 season, this is an obvious overpay. If he improves and is able to take advantage of a healthy Clowney and J.J. Watt's presence, then you have a veteran who knows your defense at a reasonable price. Either way, this is a fantastic deal for Whitney Mercilus, who's getting a second contract in the front seven with Clowney and Watt without having really accomplished what the team expected of him during the first contract.
There are times as we go along this Bill O'Brien journey where we're going to have to trust what he sees (and to a similar extent, what Romeo Crennel sees). This Mercilus extension is one of those times.
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