When Connor Barwin left for the Philadelphia Eagles via free agency, his loss meant an opening at outside linebacker in the Houston Texans 3-4 defense. Insert Whitney Mercilus into the starting lineup, who will add more pass rushing, big play prowess than his predecessor did this past season. Mercilus, the Texans’ first round pick in 2012, is coming off of a productive rookie season despite having a limited role.
He finished third on the team with six sacks and two forced fumbles in his situational role. By comparison, Barwin recorded only three sacks despite starting all 16 games and playing many more defensive snaps than Mercilus. Mercilus did start four games when Brooks Reed was out with injury. He now will become a full time starter in his second season, which should spell bad news for the other quarterbacks in the AFC South.
More snaps means Mercilus will have to get stronger against the run, but he can flat out get after the quarterback. That is the reason that Houston selected him with their top pick a year ago. As a senior at Illinois in 2011, Mercilus was the most disruptive defensive force in college football. He led the nation in sacks with 16, forced fumbles with nine, and tackles for a loss with 22.5. That triple crown earned him the Ted Hendricks award for the best defensive end in college football.
Expect him to wreak similar havoc in his second NFL season in 2013. While Barwin was very popular in the locker room, among fans, and developed as a solid defender in his four seasons with the Texans, the pass rush will be better with Mercilus at the rush linebacker spot. Barwin is very solid, but Mercilus will bring the potential for more game changing plays on the defensive side of the ball.
Too many times last season, NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt was the only Texan in the front seven making disruptive, drive killing plays in the backfield. With Mercilus now slated to start and Brian Cushing in line to return after playing only five games before suffering a torn ACL, that will not be the case in 2013. The Texans attempted to retain Barwin, but his loss opening the door for Mercilus amounts to addition by subtraction.
After gaining valuable experience as a rookie and another offseason to improve his technique, Mercilus will post double digit sacks and be the breakout player of Wade Phillips’ defense in 2013. Of course his elevation to the starting lineup means his snaps as the third outside linebacker will have to be replaced. Houston may attempt to sign a veteran free agent to fill that role or they may choose to promote from within. If they choose to go the latter route, special teams demon Bryan Braman and second year man Delano Johnson will get the shot. Braman is the Texans’ best special teams player and also one of the best in the league, while Johnson spent his rookie season on the practice squad.