If there was an H-Town-centric version of the Chinese calendar, 2021 would be The Year of The Linebacker.
Upon his arrival, new Houston Texans general manger Nick Caserio went out of his way to sign a lot of linebackers. Then, he doubled down to sign more.
Once he had them all, it was clear he couldn’t keep them all, so in a bit of general manager chicanery, Whitney Mercilus, Jonathan Greenard and Jacob Martin were all re-designated as defensive linemen. Normally, this is the sort of thing GMs do to slash the salary cap impact of EDGE rushers, in relation to how much money they would make as outside linebackers.
But, not this time. Whitney already got PAID, which seemed a precursor to trading him for a 6th round pick, or a rando non-linebacker to be cut later. But not this time!
Whitney and crew join Zach Cunningham, Christian Kirksey, Kamu Gruiger-Hill, Kevin Pierre-Louis, Neville Hewitt and Garret Wallow as your 2021 Houston Texans linebacking corps.
The Lovie Smith Effect
How do all these pieces fit in Lovie Smith’s new Texans-2 Defense? Only time will tell.
When the Tampa-2 (the precursor to our Texans-2) defense really took shape, Smith was the linebacker’s coach under defensive genius, Tony Dungy. That defense hit the pinnacle of brick-wallness in 2002 when they overran the backup-laden Oakland Raider offensive line to win the super bowl. Sort of how Tampa Bay did that last season against the backup-laden Kansas City Chiefs o-line. Would the AFC West have two more super bowl wins if the Raiders and Chiefs offensive starting lines were intact in the big game? Probably. But that’s neither here nor there.
In ‘02, Smith had Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, Anthony McFarland and Shelton Quarrels in his front 7. Unfortunately, this iteration of the Houston Texans has no such caliber of player among the linebackers, defensive ends or defensive tackles.
Thankfully, Smith seems to have done a great job getting buy-in from his players this year.
Texans’ Christian Kirksey embraces defensive signal caller role @Kirko58 @SportsTalk790 @iHeartRadio @HoustonTexans @SPORTSTARSNYC https://t.co/LG1IeiUrQ1— Aaron Wilson (@AaronWilson_NFL) August 24, 2021
Convincing them they can be better.
LB Kamu Grugier-Hill says he signed with the #Texans because this system fits him best and allows him to be the player he’s dreamed of being. Particularly likes the attack style of Lovie Smith’s defense.— Deepi Sidhu (@DeepSlant) August 31, 2021
And casting vision for the sort of “not in my house” mentality needed to be a champion.
Houston Texans linebacker Christian Kirksey says that defensive coordinator Lovie Smith seeks to have alpha males playing middle linebacker. https://t.co/PI73CJBH93— The Texans Wire (@TheTexansWire) August 30, 2021
And, along the way, he got buy-in from the existing team leaders.
.@JustinqReid on the #Texans defense getting 10 turnovers in three preseason games. The team had only nine last season: “That’s awesome. You can just see what Lovie Smith is preaching.” pic.twitter.com/wBP5c3ibxI— Mark Berman (@MarkBermanFox26) August 29, 2021
Unfortunately, Justin Reid aside, Smith just doesn’t have the level of players Romeo Crennel or Wade Phillips had in their tenures turning the Texans D into one of the more feared units in the league. The days of J.J. Watt, Brian Cushing, Jonathan Joseph, Demeco Ryans, Jadeveon Clowney and the rest dressed in battle red are just a memory.
In a base 4-3 alignment, here’re the predicted starters for this season:
Houston Texans Predicted Front 7 Starting Lineup For 2021
DE - Whitney Mercilus
DT - Maliek Collins
DT - Vincent Taylor
DE - Jordan Jenkins
OLB - Kevin Pierre-Louis
ILB - Zach Cunningham
OLB - Christian Kirksey
Expect Omenihu, Martin and Greenard to take the field on obvious passing downs as well.
With linebacker as the one position Caserio and Co. spent the most off-season effort rebuilding, unfortunately the starters don’t look that much better than last year’s list of Cunningham, Mercilus, Benardrick McKinney and Tyrell Adams. And, with little improvement on last season’s just plain bad D, and a much worse offense, the “worst team” predictions will keep raining down.
Texans are a lock for a top 3 pick. Hard not to consider them the front runner for the top pick. https://t.co/fVQrLrppSb— NFL Philosophy (@NFLosophy) September 1, 2021
While we’re sifting through the rubble, looking for signs of life, odds are the tank is on and in full effect. But, that doesn’t mean there won’t be flashes here and there, the occasional scoop-and-score or pick-6, strip-sack or raging-run-stuff to give us all something to hang onto while we wait for the #1 pick in the 2022 draft.