Say what you will about the Houston Texans' modus operandi when it comes to personnel, but they have been pretty consistent in one thing — if they like their first-round picks, then they typically come at them with a contract extension a year early rather than a year too late. Duane Brown, Brian Cushing and J.J. Watt all received extensions with a year to go on their then-current deals. Kareem Jackson was offered an extension, but chose to test free agency before coming back to the Texans.
Last offseason, the contract extension for 2012 first-rounder Whitney Mercilus was met with significant skepticism among Texans fans. When the outside linebacker signed a modest four-year, $26 million deal ($10.6 million guaranteed), there were many who said, "Yeah, you're not breaking the bank, but what has Whitney Mercilus done to earn an extension a year early?"
It was a fair question. For a guy who was a supreme playmaker in college at Illinois, Mercilus's difference making on the pro level had been sporadic at best his first three seasons in the league. It probably didn't help his confidence when the team used the No. 1 overall pick in 2014 for a player at his position either, transcendent as Jadeveon Clowney may have been perceived.
Now, one full season into the Mercilus extension, we can go ahead and say it — the Texans appear to have gotten a bargain with the Mercilus extension. Mercilus run stopping capability has improved significantly, and he's become a disruptive force as a pass rusher, notching a total of 11.5 sacks.
On Wednesday, Mercilus's improvement was recognized on a broader scale as he was named the AFC Defensive Player of the Month for December 2015. Here are Mercilus' numbers for the month....
A few thoughts and observations pertaining to this honor:
1. Kudos to Whitney Mercilus for piling up his numbers and garnering this award in the same month that J.J. Watt had to work a majority of the calendar with full use of just one hand. We've been complaining for years now about someone else stepping up with all the attention Watt receives, and Mercilus picked the perfect month to do it.
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2. It's no secret that Mercilus has put together his best games this season when Jadeveon Clowney is out nursing the Clowney Injury of the Week, whatever that may be. Then, every time Clowney comes back from the injury, Mercilus gets moved out of his normal comfort zone on the right side, and has to readjust. Well, it's the playoffs. No more kowtowing to Clowney. Mercilus deserves to play where his abilities can be maximized, and Clowney gets worked in on the margins. End of story.
3, On top of being a good player, Whitney Mercilus is a good guy and a hard worker. (I would imagine Bill O'Brien would categorize him as a "good teammate" as well.) Former Texan Chris Myers shared a story from 2014 earlier this year in which he told us that Mercilus spent hours after practice during the season in 2014 working with a hands coach on technique because he was fearful of losing his spot. Good to see hard work pay off. Also, kudos to linebackers coach Mike Vrabel for his work with Mercilus.
4. Worth mentioning, the improvement of Mercilus removes the biggest question mark from the Texans' streak of drafting productive first rounders — Duane Brown (2008), Brian Cushing (2009), Kareem Jackson (2010), J.J. Watt (2011), Mercilus (2012), DeAndre Hopkins (2013). The jury is still out on Clowney (2014) and Kevin Johnson (2015), but I'd bet on both being plus-level NFL players when the full report card can be assembled.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 7 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.