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Red Zone Play: Pro Bowl Or Bust

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Will 2017 be the year of Merci?

NFL: AFC Divisional-Houston Texans at New England Patriots Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Every season a player who doesn’t get much attention on the national stage rises up and makes his presence known to the world at large.

There’s a lot being made of whether J.J. Watt returns from injury at 100% or is simply a shadow of the maniac that won three Defensive Player of the Year awards. Could Watt contend for a fourth DPOY this season, or will he be a wounded lion sadly stalking the edges of greatness but never reaching his full potential again?

Another angle on the Return of J.J. story spotlights how high Jadeveon Clowney’s star can rise with Watt back in the lineup. Clowney took a huge step forward last season and if all indications are accurate, he will do so again this year, especially if #99 is grabbing the lion’s share of attention.

What most have overlooked, however, is the third superstar caliber player in the Houston Texans‘ vaunted pass rush, Whitney Mercilus.

In the time Mercilus has been in Houston, his tackle totals have risen from 25 in 2012 to 53 last season. He’s racked up 37.5 sacks and six forced fumbles. While it’s hard to find a definitive number, the amount of times he’s made his presence known in the backfield without actually securing a tackle while negatively impacting the offensive scheme has steadily risen as well.

Each year, Mercilus has improved without the benefit of having the one-two punch of Watt and Clowney at their best.

This year should be the year all that changes.

Even a 75% healthy J.J. Watt is better than the majority of NFL defensive linemen. Just having him on the field forces opposing offenses to account for him. The x-factor of his presence, chatter, and knowledge provide a distinct advantage for his team on every down.

A fully healthy Jadeveon Clowney is exactly what he was drafted to be: a generational talent with freakish ability and the potential to wreak havoc on any given play.

Very few teams have the ability to nullify two great players on every down. No team has the ability to take out three such players play after play.

With more time in the Crennel/Vrabel system, less pressure from opposing offenses frantically trying to hold off Clowney and Watt, and the rising arc of his talent, skill and will, this should be the year Whitney Mercilus becomes a household name.

In the bold prediction category, here’s what I’m going to toss out as Mercilus’ final stat line for the upcoming season:

2017 Whitney Mercilus Stats:

71 combined tackles

28 tackles for loss (includes sacks)

14.5 sacks

5 turnovers (forced fumble, batted pass or strip sack)

1 fumble recovery

1 touchdown

No matter where he lands on the stat chart, 2017 should be the Year of Merci.

What do you think? Where will 2017 fall in Whitney’s career? Pro Bowl or Bust?