Sean Pendergast

Four Thoughts on the Texans' Release of Whitney Mercilus

Whitney Mercilus' Texans career finally came to an end on Monday.
Whitney Mercilus' Texans career finally came to an end on Monday. Photo by Eric Sauseda
The Houston Texans have watched a lot of players come and go over the last two years, most of them carrying some degree of acrimony toward the organization with them on the way out the door. Hell, this weekend, we will get to see two of those guys up close, as the Texans will face DeAndre Hopkins, J.J. Watt, and the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday.

Rare is the longtime Texan who is traded or released during the Age of Easterby where it is still roses, puppy dogs, and ice cream for both sides as the team moves on, but that's precisely the case with defensive end Whitney Mercilus, who was somewhat surprisingly released by the Texans on Tuesday afternoon.

The Texans' decision was actually reported Monday by Aaron Wilson of SportsTalk 790, and shortly thereafter, acknowledged by Mercilus himself on his Instagram account:
From there, the Texans released a statement on Mercilus' release, in which Texans Chairman and CEO Cal McNair had this to say about Mercilus' time with the Texans:

“There aren’t many players in franchise history who have impacted our organization and community the way Whitney Mercilus has,” said Texans Chair and CEO Cal McNair. “I can recall a number of times over the last 10 seasons where he stepped up for us on the field with a sack or big play in a crucial moment, but it was his unique connection with the Houston community that made him one of the most popular players in franchise history. Our fan base gravitated to Whitney from day one and he always found ways to give back and serve through his foundation and culinary work. My family and the entire organization will always consider Whitney a Texan.”

The team then honored Mercilus with this video montage:
That's a lot of love for one of the more complicated player legacies in team history. Who is Whitney Mercilus to Texan fans? Is he the average to slightly above average edge defender, who finished his Texans career as the second all time leading QB sack artist (57 total, trailing only Watt), or is he the player who gleefully accepted arguably the worst contract extension in team history from GM Bill O'Brien prior to the 2020 season?


The answer can be "both." Let's examine this move by the Texans, and what it all means:


What is Whitney Mercilus' legacy as a Texan?
We will put aside the obscene amount of money that Mercilus will have made over 2020 and 2021 for a moment, and just look at the player and the person in answering this question. As a player, Mercilus was fine for what he was, a late first round pick, who peaked about four or five seasons into his career, was a key role player on some division championship teams, and someone who, at times, took on assignments that were uncomfortable for the sake of the team overall. (Anyone remember Mercilus taking numerous reps at INSIDE linebacker in 2018? Yeah, me too.) As a person, he was right there with Watt in terms of overall charitable activity within the community. Hell, even yesterday, less than 24 hours after learning he'd been fired, he was at a charity event for a local school:

Again, really good human being, who regressed into a woefully underwhelming football player by the end. Which brings us to....


Mercilus 2019 extension was the worst contract of the O'Brien Era
You can't write the history of Whitney Mercilus as a Texan (nor Bill O'Brien as Texans GM) without dedicating a full chapter to the massive contract extension Mercilus received at the end of the 2019 season — four years, $54 million, $28.5 million of which was guaranteed. For $28.5 million, the Texans got 33 tackles and seven sacks, a walking PSA for anybody looking to hire a hothead head coach to also be a team's general manager. The broad strokes on Mercilus' release are that the team is going to take about an $8 million cap hit THIS season, and a $7 million cap hit NEXT season just to have Mercilus go away. It seems like bad business, but there is no good solution for an awful contract. If anything, perhaps GM Nick Caserio is using this as a message to other Houston Texans, that if someone as cap crippling and well liked as Mercilus can be cut, then anybody can be cut.

What now for Papa John's and the Rock Boyz?
It's somewhat ironic that, on the heels of a 2020 season where Mercilus looked a little out of shape, he thought it was a good idea to become a spokesperson for Papa John's. I don't know, if I were a highly paid athlete for whom conditioning is key, and I looked fat the season before, pizza would be way down on the list of products I'd be endorsing. (And I say this as someone who is a BIG fan of Papa John's!) So now Papa John's may need a new spokesperson. Additionally, Mercilus was the founder of one of the lamest gimmicks in Texans history, the 2019 linebacking group who dubbed themselves the "Rock Boyz," and reminded everyone that they were the "Rock Boyz" by doing a lame air guitar celebration after each sack. I would imagine when you kill the king of the Rock Boyz, that's it for the faction. At least, I hope it is.

Who's next in the Great Caserio Purge of 2021?
Well, the answer to this question as pertains to "who's next after Mercilus," came just minutes later on Monday, as kick returner Andre Roberts (and his $2.5 million guaranteed cap hit) was cut loose by the Texans. The former Pro Bowler had done nothing since signing here in the offseason, except fumble a crucial punt early in the loss to the Browns in Week 2. From there, I would expect something to happen — trade or release — with names like Zach Cunningham, Lonnie Johnson, Charles Omenihu, Eric Murray, Phillip Lindsay, and possibly David Johnson over the next couple weeks. The trade deadline is Tuesday, November 2. Circle the date.

Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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