With this past weekend’s addition of Neville Hewitt, your Houston Texans now have 11 players defined as linebacker on the roster: Christian Kirksey, Zach Cunningham, Kamu Grugier-Hill, Nate Hall, Tae Davis, Kevin Pierre-Louis, Joe Thomas, Duke Ejiofor, Garret Wallow, Hardy Nickerson Jr., and of course, Hewitt. This list doesn’t include players like Whitney Mercilus, Jacob Martin, and Jonathan Greenard, who used to play linebacker in a 3-4 scheme.
Apparently Nick Caserio decided he missed a few linebackers when he tried to sign ALL the linebackers back in March. Since then, the team has added several in both free agency and in the draft. The mantra coming out of NRG all offseason has been “competition, competition, competition”. However, in switching from Romeo Crennel’s 3-4 defense to Lovie Smith’s 4-3 Tampa 2 defense, one would think you’d need less linebackers, not more.
The Tampa 2 was created by former Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Tony Dungy and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin as a way to combat the formerly trendy West Coast offense created by legendary San Francisco 49ers head coach Bill Walsh. For many years in the ‘90s and ‘00s, Walsh and his acolytes employed the West Coast scheme, using quick, short passes to gain first downs and matriculate the ball down the field. While a handful of teams do still employ a modified West Coast scheme, mainly ones with Walsh disciples in power (the Kansas City Chiefs, Las Vegas Raiders, Los Angeles Rams and Chicago Bears, to name a few), the glory of that system lies in the past.
The NFL is now primarily a deep pass, big play league. However, the Texans’ brain trust believes combating the West Coast offense is the way to go, so here we are.
Projecting the Houston Texans Starting Linebackers for 2021
Looking at the player list above, Cunningham is the only one assured a starting spot this season. The rest will compete, compete, compete. Previous Texans linebackers will most likely move to defensive line, or stand up on the EDGE in different sub packages. This doesn’t remove the possibility that others may end up playing linebacker despite their current position designation.
Mercilus and Cunningham are known commodities to the Houston faithful. Whitney has yet to live up to his full potential, having flashed greatness while sharing snaps with Jadeveon Clowney before getting lost in a pile of offensive linemen since Clowney was traded for what is now Jacob Martin. Cunningham could really shine if he was surrounded by better talent; he has done well considering the circumstances. The question is whether Cunningham can he back to his previous level on a defense where Justin Reid is the only other high caliber player. How much will the loss of J.J. Watt affect Mercilus and Martin? Only time will tell. It’s expected for both players will start in Houston’s 4-3.
Kirksey graded out at 43.8 overall by Pro Football Focus last season. He carried a 49.4 rating against the run, 56.7 when rushing the passer, and 44.6 in coverage. Hardly the sort of competition that inspires confidence. Maybe Kirksey becomes the next Barkevious Mingo, the other guy acquired in the ill-fated Clowney trade.
Martin has shown flashes of brilliance, similar to Mercilus, and would be the safe bet to earn the third starting spot. In 2020, PFF graded Martin a 53.8 overall, 41.7 against the run, and 60.3 when rushing the passer.
Greenard is also working towards meeting his potential. The 2020 rookie landed a 51.9 overall score from PFF, with a 51.7 against the run and a 62.6 against the pass. If Lovie Smith and his staff can coach up Greenard, he might prove he’s truly the next man up.
Ejiofor is another x-factor in this group. Drafted in the 6th round in 2018, Duke landed a sack in his first ever pro game. However, it’s been all down hill from there. He spent 2019 on injured reserve with a torn Achilles and then tore his ACL in 2020. If he can come back healthy, he might just have a shot at achieving some NFL glory. That’s a big *if* though.
While many teams will start cutting players this summer to get down to the 55-man roster limit, Nick Caserio will surely get one more drink from the linebacker well, at which point he may sign even more ‘backers. For now, these are the men anchoring the middle of the Houston defense.
Who do you predict will line up in the starting spots when the Texans take the field on September 9th?