The Houston Texans are in a peculiar position at linebacker. Last season this squad featured a healthy mix of veterans and young athletic players who can all make plays.
It was one of their deepest positions on the field because injuries did not hamper their production.
Mario Williams was on pace to have a great season before he tore his pectoral muscle. In five games, the imposing 6’8’ backer had five sacks. He was always in the backfield causing havoc and he made others around him on the line better.
Gone also is DeMeco Ryans, the team’s defensive leader. Sure, he’s on the downside of his career and he doesn’t play all three downs but you cannot easily replace veteran leadership.
The Texans are attempting to fill that void with young talent.
Wade Phillips blitzes from all areas of the field. The Texans have a group of talented versatile pass rushers and pass defenders.
The likely starters are a combination of Darryl Sharpton and Bradie James at one position and Brian Cushing manning the other position.
Cushing has to be a leader now. Coming into his fourth year, he is a veteran and a pro bowl level talent. He is the most accomplished player amongst the team’s crop of linebackers.
And with Ryans no longer in Houston, it’s his defense.
Cushing has to be the leader now. He has to help the youngsters around him get better while keeping up his standard of play.
Cushing is a playmaker; he recorded 114 tackles, 4 sacks and picked off 2 passes.
Perhaps Cushing’s biggest talent is his ability to get to the QB from the inside. That gives Wade Phillips plenty of options on third down. In passing situations Cushing can move to the outside and cause problems for opposing o-lines.
We know what we are getting from Cushing though. A combination of Sharpton and James is the big unknown.
Sharpton made some good plays last year. He has a nose for making plays but he is not consistent. You can’t depend on him as a starter. But as a rotation guy, there are not many better.
Bradie James is interesting. He hasn’t been good in Dallas since Phillips was unceremoniously fired. James is looking for a fresh start. He is reunited with the coach where he had his best years as a pro.
Can he recapture that form?
That’s yet to be seen. But, if he has the talent to still play he can be a big help to the Texans on the inside.
That’s an if though. This combo concerns me but surrounded by talent, James and Sharpton only need to hold their own. They don’t need to be spectacular.
Expect Tim Dobbins to provide some depth on the inside as well.
Coming into this year, the Texans top three pass rushers from the OLB position have a total of four years of pro experience.
The oft injured Connor Barwin will be expected to take a step up without Mario Williams. Will Barwin become a dominant player? That’s the question for him.
His defensive coordinator has a track record with edge rushers. Is the third year OLB the manifestation of the next great Wade Phillips linebacker?
He has the talent to be a force. He can get to the QB pretty regularly. Barwin had 11.5 sacks last season.
At least early in the season, Brooks Reed will play opposite to Barwin. Reed was a good player. He recorded 45 tackles and six sacks, not too shabby for a rookie season. We know that he can get after the QB, but can he make the next step?
He will be game planned against this season, as he and J.J. Watt were perfect rookies.
Reed also has Whitney Mercilus on his heels, searching for playing time however you don’t know how a rookie will perform.
His speed and athleticism are off the charts. He has the potential to be a great player. But will he be a great player? For sure not this year but he can contribute. Without Mario Williams the Texans need Mercilus to contribute.
Even without Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans, the Texans have A+ talent at linebacker. Expect a lot of backfield havoc. With a talented young DL and an improving secondary you can expect this unit to produce. The can and should produce.