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The Texans Have The Best Front Seven In The NFL

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Pro Football Focus has high hopes for Houston’s defensive line in 2017.

NFL: AFC Wild Card-Oakland Raiders at Houston Texans Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Houston Texans boasted the number one defense in the NFL last season, and now Pro Football Focus has ranked them the top front seven in football (as did NFL.com earlier this year). The talent on Houston’s defensive line, with Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus, Brian Cushing, Benardrick McKinney, Christian Covington, a rising D.J. Reader and a returning J.J. Watt, is unmatched in the league. In fact, many of these Texans players earned individual nods from PFF as well.

While Clowney racked up his best season to date in 2016 (52 total tackles, six sacks, two passes defended, a forced fumble, and a playoff performance that included an interception and two additional passes defended), Mercilus had an exceptional year of his own (53 total tackles, 7.5 sacks, one pass defended, a forced fumble and a postseason that added three sacks and another pass defended). PFF ranked both in the top 10 at their position, and together they led the most dominant defense in the NFL.

With Watt’s return from injury, the Texans’ line will only get better. Heading into the 2017 season, three Texans defensive linemen boast Pro Football Focus grades over 87. Their versatility will prove a dangerous combination for opposing QBs.

At inside linebacker, Cushing and McKinney provide an experienced and dynamic pair, while 2017 second-round selection Zach Cunningham brings athleticism and depth to the position. Cushing has been an essential part of the Texans’ defensive success, averaging 0.66 yards per coverage snap in the last four seasons (third amongst LBs over that period).

Heading into his third year, McKinney has been quietly excellent opposite of Cushing, tallying 129 total tackles, five sacks, two passes defended and a forced fumble in 2016. Perhaps the most underrated player on the line, he has continued to improve over the past two seasons. PFF has him in the top 25 at his position in back-to-back years.

Last year’s fifth-round pick Reader has also flashed incredible potential, including seven starts at the nose tackle position in 2016. He is poised to take over the starting role from veteran Vince Wilfork.

The Texans have all the tools in place to hold on to their number one defensive spot this season, thanks to a front seven that is composed largely of young talent. If Cunningham eventually takes over the bulk of ILB snaps from Cushing, Watt will be the oldest player on the line (he’s 28). That means that this top-ranked unit could be terrorizing opposing quarterbacks for years to come.

What are your thoughts, Texans fans? I assume you agree with this ranking of your Texans’ front seven. Is there anyone on the line that you are particularly excited to watch this year?