Whitney mercilus eiq027

Whitney Mercilus isn't an elite pass rusher, but he's been productive in his role.

In part seven of our Texans offseason series, we’ll take a look at the linebackers. Since the roles of outside linebacker and inside linebacker are so different in the 3-4, we’ll approach the position  in two separate sections.

Outside Linebackers 

  • Whitney Mercilus, 27, signed through 2019, $6,018,750 cap hit in 2017
  • Brennan Scarlett, 24, signed through 2018, $541,666 cap hit
  • Gerald Rivers*, 27, signed through 2017, $540,000 cap hit
  • Eric Lee*, 23, signed through 2018, $465,000 cap hit
  • Tony Washington Jr.*, 25, signed through 2017, $465,000 cap hit

Free Agents

  • John Simon (OLB), 26, Unrestricted Free Agent, 2016 cap hit: $1,671,000 

Whitney Mercilus’ contract extension signed last year seems like a smart move by the team; Mercilus isn’t an elite pass rusher — J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney are better — but he’s been productive in his role, and his cap hit is reasonable. John Simon played a fair number of outside linebacker snaps capably and is now a free agent; I would expect the team to at least try to re-sign him. If they don’t, they might do something like move Clowney back to outside linebacker, but that would create more openings on the defensive line, as we discussed last time.

Most of the other players under contract are practice-squad players. Brennan Scarlett is essentially a special teamer who filled in some late-season snaps but probably won’t contribute regularly at the position.

I don’t think the team will spend heavily here, but if they don’t re-sign Simon — and perhaps even if they do — I would expect them to add at least one other capable NFL player at the position, either a mid-tier free agent or a mid-round draft pick. For free agents, Green Bay’s Nick Perry is potentially an intriguing option as someone whose performance finally started lived up to his athletic potential, but he also might get priced out of what the team is willing to pay at the position. The draft this year is very deep at pass rusher, so the Texans would likely be able to find someone on day two or later if they wanted. Temple’s Haason Reddick might be an ideal fit for the role if they want to take him in round one or two; an intriguing possibility in the later rounds is Pittsburgh’s Ejuan Price.

Inside Linebackers

  • Brian Cushing, 30, signed through 2019, $9,313,125 cap hit
  • Bernardrick McKinney, 24, signed through 2018, $1,457,761 cap hit
  • Max Bullough, 25, signed through 2017, $690,000 cap hit
  • Brian Peters, 28, signed through 2017, $615,000 cap hit
  • Shakeel Rashad*, 23, signed through 2018, $465,000 cap hit 

Free Agents

  • Akeem Dent (ILB), 29, Unrestricted Free Agent, 2016 cap hit: $2,625,000

The front line of the inside crew played well, with Brian Cushing playing closer to his old form and Bernardrick McKinney continuing to grow into one of the better young linebackers in the league. The other players, including Dent, are largely special teamers, though Bullough did fill in for Cushing when the latter missed time with injury. 

One major question long-term is how the team will move on from Cushing. He’s already 30 years old with a significant injury history, plus one suspension for PED use (I’m sorry, “Overtrained Athlete Syndrome”). He’s not getting younger or cheaper; he comes with cap hits north of $9 million for the next three seasons. The team can cut him after this season with only $1.2 million of dead money, or after next season with no dead money at all.

Even if Cushing keeps playing well, it’s hard to imagine the team signing him to another contract at age 33. It’s getting time to start looking at his replacement for the long term, whether that is Bullough or someone else who might be acquired through the draft. If they want to go for it straight in the first round of the draft, Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham might be the best choice if he’s available. On day two, Florida’s Jarrad Davis and Ohio State’s Raekwon McMillan are strong candidates. (McMillan and Cunningham profile more as 4-3 outside linebackers, so the team would have to determine if they would transition well to playing 3-4 inside linebacker.) 

The other major question is locking up Benardrick McKinney for the long term. McKinney’s performance so far makes him a quality inside linebacker for the future, but his contract expires after 2018. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Texans make extending him after the season a priority. 

Dent is the only free agent, and he was primarily used on special teams; it seems unlikely the team would bring back a special-teams linebacker at that age and salary unless he was a real star on the unit, but you never know.

For the most part, I wouldn’t expect much to change with the linebacking crew. As might be unsurprising on a defense that played so well last season, there are no real holes here. The biggest moves to be made are ones looking at the future of the team a year or two from now and beyond, not in 2017. John Simon is the only free agent who played significant snaps on defense, and while he was solid, he’s not irreplaceable if the Texans decide to move on. They might add a draft pick or two at linebacker, or a value free agent, but I wouldn’t expect anything beyond that.

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