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Houston Sports and Stuff is beginning its coverage of the Houston Texans’ 2017 season by breaking down all the position groups in an 8-part series leading up to the start of training camp.
Next up, we preview the Linebackers.
The core of a 3-4 defense is the linebacking group. The defensive line has the task of holding blocks at the point of attack so that the linebackers can run free. The Texans have a line that is well equipped to do that and much more. It has taken pressure off this group and allowed them to make more plays away from the line of scrimmage in the backfield on running plays and quickly while in coverage. The longest standing play maker in this group is Brian Cushing.
The 8-year veteran has gotten a little long in the tooth, but still has plenty of football left. His major injuries are now a few years behind him and he looked more comfortable last year than he had when initially coming back from them. It helped that he was playing next to Benardrick McKinney who had a huge second year. His development was a big reason the interior of that defense so stout. The Texans will look to get the same productivity out of their starters this season as well.
Like other groups on the roster, the depth behind the starting inside linebackers is relatively inexperienced. The most veteran of those players is sixth year man Sio Moore who arrives in Houston after a year in Arizona and two years each with Indianapolis and Oakland. A likely candidate to make a move for serious playing time will be second round draft pick Zach Cunnignham. Brian Peters will be entering his third year trying to improve upon his one tackle in 12 games last season. And filing out the depth chart will be practice squad player Shakeel Rashad and undrafted rookies Dylan Cole and Avery Williams.
Whitney Mercilus had another solid season at outside linebacker for the Texans but production around him needs improvement. The other experienced player on the outside is Brennan Scarlett who played well enough in 2016 but only in 7 games. All the depth at this position is young and unproven. Practice squad players Tony Washington and Eric Lee and undrafted rookies Dayon Pratt and Gimel President will be trying to earn their spot on the team. This inexperience has to be a concern of the Texans going into camp. No one knows when or where injuries will occur or when players will begin to slow from exhaustion. Having solid depth outside is another key to success in this defense.
There is enough talent on the roster at linebacker to give the Texans the opportunity to be great again; but it may take some reshuffling. Some players may have to be ready to learn to play both inside and outside so that the best players can get on the field at the same time. If Cunningham can use the athleticism that made him a second-round selection to play opposite Mercilus, that might make for a menacing linebacking corps. Filling out the rest of the roster will be challenging and come down to the very end. When a group is as young at this one is, it may take all the preseason games before coaches can feel comfortable. We will have to watch this play out week by week and wait for the talent to rise to the top.
Read the prior installments of Texans roster preview