Sean Pendergast

Houston Texans 2020 Offseason Position Preview: Linebackers

Whitney Mercilus will need to live up to his new deal.
Whitney Mercilus will need to live up to his new deal. Photo by Eric Sauseda
When it comes to the Texans' defense, which statistically was one of the worst in football last season, there is absolutely talent in certain spots, and there were times in a 10-6 season where they produced at relatively high levels. If we're charting the strong suits of the defensive unit, you can probably work front to back. The defensive line is the strength, and the secondary (particularly cornerback) is the Achilles heel.

Then there is the linebacking crew, the mass of humanity in between the defensive front and the back end. On the Texans, it's a group that is a bit of a conundrum. The inside linebacking crew, from a run stuffing standpoint, might be the best in the league. From a pass coverage standpoint, they're a liability. The edge linebackers are solid enough in setting the edge in the run game, but can't generate a pass rush to save their lives without J.J. Watt on the field.

So, without further ado, here are three burning questions on the Houston Texans linebacking crew this offseason:

Does Zach Cunningham get a new deal?
Cunningham is entering the final year of his rookie deal that he signed after being selected in the second round of the 2017 draft. He has steadily become more consistent over his three seasons, and in 2019, he was one of the most productive run stuffing linebackers in the league. He fits the profile of a player that the current O'Brien regime would want to lock up before he hits free agency — smart, tough, and dependable (and available, Cunningham rarely misses time). The issue for the Texans is that a market level deal for Cunningham would be around $12 million per year, and that would mean having well over $20 million per year invested in their two inside linebackers (Bernardrick McKinney being the other one). I'm not sure that's a great allocation of cap resources, especially when you consider that....

Can Whitney Mercilus live up to his new deal?
... they just invested $13 million per year in Mercilus over the next four seasons. This will be one of the more fascinating (and possibly, frustrating) contracts handed out by the new regime. Moved back to his normal edge rusher spot after the trade of Jadeveon Clowney, Mercilus came out of the gates like gangbusters in 2019, including a Defensive Player of the Week award for Week 2. However, he only tallied two sacks after Watt went down with his pectoral injury in Week 8, and the entire defense began to flounder with virtually no pass rush being generated in Watt's absence. It's a gutsy, possibly reckless, move to pay $13 million per year to a guy who, eight years in, has never been to a Pro Bowl and whose productivity seems to require a Pro Bowler opposite him, whether it's Watt last season or Clowney in 2015 and 2016, Mercilus' most productive seasons. This may be one that O'Brien is going to have to answer for after the 2020 season. I hope I'm wrong.

Do they seek an edge rusher with the 57th overall pick?
The weakness in this group is fairly obvious — they don't have anybody who can wreck an opposing pocket in a dynamic, "singularly talented" kind of way. Finding that type of player at 57th overall in the draft might be difficult, as "rucking the passer" is a skill that tends to be drafted too early, not too late. That said, here are some names to look out for — Zack Baun of Wisconsin, Terrell Lewis of Alabama, Josh Uche of Michigan, and Julian Okwara of Notre Dame.

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Sean Pendergast is a contributing freelance writer who covers Houston area sports daily in the News section, with periodic columns and features, as well. He also hosts afternoon drive on SportsRadio 610, as well as the post game show for the Houston Texans.
Contact: Sean Pendergast