On the national level, there’s no lack of folks who believe your Houston Texans will have the most dominant front seven in the NFL this year. While J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus and Brian Cushing seem to get all the media attention, Benardrick McKinney is quietly turning into one of the best downhill ‘backers in the league.
The Mississippi State product is entering his third year in the pros, and if he continues his trajectory, should have a Pro Bowl caliber year in 2017. McKinney more than doubled his combined tackles and solo tackles year-over-year in his first two seasons, going from one sack to five, had two pass breakups and, oh yeah, thumped opposing skill players on a regular basis.
While the team-leading 129 combined tackles and 79 solo tackles aren’t the greatest stats ever compiled in one year, when you take all the opportunities to make a play left over after you remove the stats for Watt, Clowney and company, B-Mac is looking pretty good.
Now, McKinney has shown he can be exploited somewhat in pass coverage, particularly against fast receivers and tight ends. The addition of rangy draft pick Zach Cunningham should help offset that, allowing McKinney to pin his ears back and play downhill in most instances.
For those who missed it, BRB’s own Matt Weston had a great film piece on McKinney just after the season ended.
The Houston Chronicle asked J.J. Watt about McKinney recently, and here’s what the Texans’ superstar had to say:
“I think he’s a great player. I think he’s very underrated. I think B-Mac, he’s a guy who in our locker room we fully understand and appreciate everything that he does for our team and I think that you’re only going to see him continue to get better. He’s a very smart player but he’s also extremely physical. He’s a great player and we’re fortunate to have a guy like that. I think he can do so many different things. He can come downhill and really hit you in the mouth, but he also is very cerebral and he can play the game with his mind.”
The praise doesn’t stop there, as Bill O’Brien got in on it:
"Bernardrick's getting better and better every year. He's a guy who I have a lot of respect for. He came in here and learned the game pretty quickly. I remember his first game – he'll probably tell you this, too – he was hyperventilating on his first drive. I think he's come a long way since then.
"I thought he had a Pro Bowl-type of year last year. Last year's over but I think the guy is poised to have a really good career here. A lot of it is going to have to do with health, but I think as long as he stays healthy he's a hell of a football player."
Looking at the puzzle pieces coming together for new defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel’s unit, it’s hard not to get excited about what this defense should be able to do when those September Sundays roll around. The defense doesn’t need to take a big leap forward to land in the discussion of greatest defenses ever; it just needs to continue improving the same way it has for the last few years.
With a little help from the offense and special teams, provided the players execute, Vrabel continues to Vrabel, and everyone stays moderately healthy, with players like McKinney rising through the ranks of star players, this defense will be a treat to watch.