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J.J. Watt And Whitney Mercilus Are Gone, So Now What?

How Houston can pick up the pieces without two of their best defensive players.

Houston Texans v New England Patriots Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images

Life moves on. You won’t feel this way forever. Eventually enough days will pass and all of this will go away.

These are all things people say to other people who go through something traumatic. If you have dealt with these things before, you know what sounds empty, like most cliches, are actually truthful. The Texans are going to have to learn how to live differently after losing both Whitney Mercilus and J.J. Watt for the 2017 season.

The last time the Texans were without Mercilus was Week 15 of the 2016 season against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Houston won 21-20 in the infamous [name redacted] benching game. Akeem Dent was the official starting outside linebacker, but Brennan Scarlett played 62% of the snaps, or 37% more than Dent. Scarlett ended up with only two assisted tackles. Sunday night was similar. Scarlett took over at outside linebacker with Mercilus out. He played 90% of the defensive snaps and had three tackles. From here onward, it’s expected to be more of the same. Scarlett will sit in Mercilus’s seat, and Ufomba Kamalu may get some time here and there.

If Scarlett doesn’t produce, or if Houston doesn’t feel comfortable playing the rest of the season with him at outside linebacker, there aren’t many options out there. Among those at home playing “Rock Band” and staring at the phone waiting for someone to call, Dwight Freeney is the only player I like. Even then, Freeney would only be used as a twenty snaps per game bullpen pass rusher. Someone to use some spin moves and fake spin moves to try and get to the quarterback in specific situations. The Texans of course didn’t do this. They signed Lamarr Houston, who tore his ACL in Week Two of the 2016 season after coming off the best year of his career in 2015.

If Houston and Scarlett/Houston don’t work out and the Texans decide to make a trade, there are two options that interest me. One is Elvis Dumervil. Per Football Outsiders, Dumervil has eight hurries and 3.5 sacks this season. He has played outside linebacker the majority of his career in both Denver and Baltimore. Houston doesn’t have a first or second round pick, but they are expected to have one third round and two sixth round compensatory picks. A third would be too much to give for Dumervil, but Houston could maybe able snag him for a later round pick. San Francisco is 0-4. Brian Hoyer is their starting quarterback. They aren’t competing this year. Dumervil is under contract for two years and could be useful in 2018 because a team can never have enough pass rushers.

The other option is more out there. Duane Brown hasn’t played yet. He has two years left on his deal. If he stays on the team and plays, he was due to make $9.4 million (it’s less now, as he’s losing money every week he continues to hold out) this year and $9.75 million next year. The Dolphins are 2-2 somehow with Jay Cutler at quarterback, but they are a bad football team. The Texans could trade Brown for Cameron Wake straight up. The salaries match up. Wake’s cap hit is $7.5 million this year and $8.625 million next year. Wake is 35, but he has been productive this year with seven hurries through the first five weeks and 2.5 sacks.

The inability to pass block is one of the the staples of Miami football in recent years. Brown can help with a lung cancer ridden, whooping coughing, slow moving Cutler at quarterback and next year when Ryan Tannehill is back. Miami would have to move Laremy Tunsil back to guard and stunt his development at tackle for a year at least, but it would improve their offensive line tremendously. The Texans can get a productive pass rusher who has a contract they could get out of next year with only a $500,000 dead money hit. With Deshaun Watson at quarterback, the tackle position isn’t as important because of his mobility. If they are dying for pass rush help, Freeney, Dumervil, and Wake are all options.

At defensive line, Houston has already made a move. They signed Kendall Langford, one of the disastrous signings from the Ryan Grigson era in Indianapolis. He’s a body to sit around the line of scrimmage and clog things up. There’s nothing to expect here. The problem is that there isn’t much to expect from what’s already here in Houston. Christian Covington had a good 2015, a bad 2016, a great game against New England, and has been disappointing the rest of the time. Joel Heath grades out well athletically, but he hasn’t produced. Brandon Dunn is whatever. These are players you get excited for in May because they are on your favorite team, but they aren’t even a blip on the entire league’s radar.

The one rocket in Houston’s pocket is Jadeveon Clowney. The dreaded hellbeast was spectacular last season at defensive end. He was one of the best run defenders in the NFL. Teams couldn’t run at him at all. They averaged just 3.25 adjusted line yards running at Clowney. He also led the team in pass pressures with 31.5 and had six sacks. So far at the outside linebacker position this year, he hasn’t been as disruptive as he was last season. He only has 4.5 pressures through the first five weeks, with three sacks total, one of which was a Tom Brady fall down. Clowney hasn’t been nearly as disruptive at outside linebacker this season compared to what he did at defensive end last season.

The move for Houston to make is to drop Clowney down to defensive end, start Scarlett at outside linebacker, and then figure out the other outside linebacker position from there. The options would be to start Scarlett and Lamarr Houston, start Scarlett and make a trade similar to any of the ones outlined above, or sign another JAG (just-a-guy) at the Labor Finders, move the very fast Zach Cunningham to outside linebacker, and start Dylan Cole at inside linebacker. To me, a trade for Dumervil makes the most sense. San Francisco is 0-4 and gets an asset for a player who would have to play until he’s 36 to be on the next good 49ers team. A fourth round pick could do it. Dumervil and Scarlett at outside linebacker, with Clowney at defensive end to replace Watt, is Houston’s best option.

Regardless of whatever is done, it’s still putting on a hazmat suit and walking into a nuclear meltdown for this defense. The strength of this team is their front seven. They just lost two of their three best players from it. Kevin Johnson isn’t playing this week and was expected to miss four to six weeks three weeks ago. Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson, Jackson especially, have been shoddy in coverage. Strong safety has been an issue. Andre Hal has been able to impact downfield throws, but he still can’t tackle. The front seven already had problems getting a pass rush. Mike Vrabel hasn’t been effective as a play caller or as a game planner. Now he will have to do what Romeo Crennel did last year—manufacture a pass rush in a variety of different ways. The Texans’ entire identity has switched with these season-ending injuries to Watt and Mercilus. They are probably going from a team that has to score 24 points to win to having to score 31 to win.

The Texans don’t have many options to move forward, but they have to. It’s up to Rick Smith to do the best job he can to minimize the impact of these losses. More importantly, it’s going to be up to rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson and the offense to carry this team.

It took one week for the Texans to become a completely different team.