We are officially three days away from Texans rookies reporting to training camp, which means we are officially three days away from sort of having real things to talk about. For now, however, the BRB Masthead will continue to talk about our pre-camp expectations for all of Houston’s high profile rookies. Kevin Johnson got his turn on Tuesday– today we switch focus to linebacker extraordinaire Benardrick McKinney.
Let's leave the fact that I hated this trade-up on the cutting room floor. McKinney is a strange projection for me because purportedly they'd like him to be a run stuffer and also think he can rush the passer. The last guy who I remember coming out of college who was hyped in those two areas? Akeem Ayers. I'm a big believer in being able to do one thing really well, and if McKinney has an NFL calling card -- I'm waffling on how much I believe it in -- it's run defense. And that leaves him as a low-ceiling player. I'm expecting about 600-700 snaps, average run defense as he learns the system, and a lot of question marks as to why he is ever on the field on third down that can only be snarkily answered by the phrase "who else do they have?"
One thing is certain – BOB likes his players big. Big isn't the best way to scout, though, which is why I have mixed feelings about McKinney. If this was 1990, he'd be a fantastic pick; a true downhill run thumper of an ILB. But it's not 1990, it's 2015, and the game is simply different today.
While McKinney's straight-line athleticism is solid, he's laterally challenged, posting very middling three cone and 20 yard shuttle numbers at the Combine, which is reflected on his film. He was also tied for the least number of bench presses. On the other hand, he has a nose for the football, and he will wrap and tackle. Combined with his 40.5" vertical and his ability to stack and shed, there's plenty to like here.
For the season, I think he'll get about 700 snaps. If he proves he can cover to some degree, he could increase his snap count in sub packages. That's a lot for a rookie to handle, so I don't see this in 2015, but there's a good chance he'll be forced into a lot of action with our current depth.
I admit that I look at all of our ILBs that aren't named Cushing as essentially Cush's foil. McKinney et al. are there to help out as necessary and allow Cush to do his job. Therefore, I don't really have high expectations for any of them--not because I don't think they're talented, but rather because I think they basically exist to serve as his bookend. Unfortunately, the situation with Cush's lower half and his contract means that either he's going to return to form entirely, or some of these "foils" may find themselves as full-time 3-down LBs in the few years – that latter possibility scares me.
I recently read that BM compares to the retired bust Aaron Curry and got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. My personal hope is that he's brought along slowly (no injuries to our starters, please) and allowed to develop so that the obvious weaknesses in his game, such as recovery speed and hand techniques, can be worked on with Vrabel.
It was heavily rumored that the Texans were looking to trade with the Patriots to get back into the first round, possibly for a wide receiver, and many speculated that it might have been the speedy Phillip Dorsett on Houston's radar. When the Colts drafted Dorsett with the 29th pick, the trade with New England was off the table. The frenzied run on wide receivers continued, with nine being snatched up in the first 41 picks of the draft, so Houston headed in a different direction.
Instead of holding tight with their 19th pick in round two, the Texans traded up to the 11th pick in the second round with the Cleveland Browns. The cost to Houston was their 2nd round pick (51 overall), a 4th round pick (116 overall) and a 6th round pick (195 overall). The Texans used that to invest in Benardrick McKinney - ILB (Miss. St), and they also received a 7th round pick from the Browns (229 overall).
Since Houston passed up opportunities to add a pass rusher in their first two picks of this draft and allowed Brooks Reed to depart in free agency, we can assume a couple of things:
1. They have great confidence in what Whitney Mercilus can deliver in 2015 after re-signing him to a four-year contract.
2. Jadeveon Clowney is well on his way to a complete recovery.
McKinney must have been very high on the Texans' draft board for them to make that bold move. O'Brien said: "I remember when we went to Missisippi State and we worked him out. You could tell that he was an instinctive, bright guy that could communicate." He continued, "I think he showed that during that weekend and he is a guy that we really thought that could fit our defense."
I can see the Texans liking the run-stopping ability that McKinney brings as a big inside linebacker, and he can also line up on the edge as a pass rusher. Clearly O'Brien wants as much versatility from his players as possible, and McKinney can be moved around as needed. If Brian Cushing and Mike Mohammed remain healthy, then McKinney may have limited snaps on defense his rookie year. Word has it that during OTA's he was already able to lineup the defense as a MLB, which is impressive for a rookie that is still trying to absorb a complex playbook in Romeo Crennel's system. McKinney should benefit greatly with Mike Vrabel as his position coach; If he can develop pass-coverage techniques, then he should be a solid and dynamic player for the Texans for years to come.
I expect Benardrick McKinney to start the season as a rotational inside linebacker and hope he becomes a thumping, consistent run-stopping, starting presence next to Brian Cushing by the last quarter of the season. While I am reserving judgment on McKinney's ability to be a three-down linebacker or a difference maker in the pass rush and think that Mike Mohamed (yes, Mike Mohamed) may limit McKinney's snaps, I am hopeful we'll enter next offseason feeling like ILB is solid, if not a pronounced strength.
Honestly, I don’t expect much from McKinney in his rookie year outside of some contribution on special teams and in heavier short yardage packages. Brian Cushing and Mike Mohamed will probably get the majority of the team’s snaps at inside linebacker as the league continues to tilt towards three wide sets becoming the "new base" offense, and McKinney (for now) is way too stiff-hipped to be a reliable defender in coverage against shifty running backs and tight ends. If McKinney does see significant action in 2015, it will likely be because of some kind of catastrophic injury to Brian Cushing. For Cush’s sake, let’s all just hope that McKinney has no reason to see the field this year, okay?