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The Five Best Linebackers in Houston Texans History

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Alfred Blue had more than Brian Cushing to fear.

San Francisco 49ers v Houston Texans Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

While the Houston Texans are far from the Chicago Bears when it comes to a storied history of Hall of Fame linebackers, Houston has still had its fair share of great linebackers playing for them, particularly when placed under the lens of the franchise’s short lifespan. Over the course of 18 years, the Texans have had one of the best defenses in the league many, many times.

Even if last season’s defense was a bit of a train wreck, the history of run-stuffing, quarterback-terrorizing schemes from the minds of Wade Phillips and Romeo Crennel gave the Texans a well-deserved reputation of having a staunch defense. With players like J.J. Watt, Brian Cushing, Johnathan Joseph, Mario Williams and more, it’s easy to see how that reputation came about.

At the heart of every great defense, you’ll often find a feared linebacker, if not two. In the case of the current Texans, they’re actually set with three on this list. While none of the current guys may actually strike fear in opposing offensive coordinators, they surely make an impact on game plans.

#5 Zach Cunningham

Straight out of Vanderbilt (is that a hot new rap song? No? Ok, nevermind...) the Pinson, Alabama native was the first unanimous All-American in school history. A Dick Butkus Award finalist and SEC Most Valuable Linebacker, Cunningham left his mark on the toughest conference in college ball.

Draft guru Mike Mayock touted Cunningham as the fourth best linebacker entering the NFL in 2017. Taken with the 57th overall pick in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft, Cunningham filled the void left by Texans staple Brian Cushing when Cush was suspended (again) for using performance enhancing substances. Cunningham’s rookie campaign saw him start 13 games and finish with 90 combined tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, 6 passes defensed, and 1 forced fumble. By 2019, he started all 16 regular season games, contributing 142 tackles, 7 tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks, 2 passes defensed, and 2 fumble recoveries.

Cunningham has already climbed to #12 on the Texans’ all-time solo tackles list with 220, behind guys like J.J. Watt, Johnathan Joseph, Brian Cushing, and Jamie Sharper.

Often mentioned as one of the most overlooked defenders in the league, Cunningham is poised for a breakout year in 2020.

#4 Benardrick McKinney

Another second rounder and former highly acclaimed SEC defender, McKinney spent his collegiate career at Mississippi State, where he shared SEC Freshman of the Week honors with Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel. Thankfully, McKinney’s NFL career has been far more fruitful than Johnny Football’s. McKinney would go on to win ALL-SEC Freshman honors, First Team Freshman All-American, and in his junior year, First team All SEC and All-American.

The same draft guru who said Cunningham was the fourth best linebacker in 2017 ranked McKinney as the second best in 2015. The general consensus of draft mockers was McKinney would surely go in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft after opting to leave college at the conclusion of his junior year.

Somehow, McKinney slid through the first round before the Houston Texans traded their second, fourth and sixth round picks to the Cleveland Browns to move up and take McKinney with the 43rd overall pick. Originally slotted behind Brian Cushing on the depth chart, it didn’t take long for McKinney to crack the starting lineup. He started eleven games in his rookie season. To date, McKinney sits at #8 on the Texans’ all-time solo tackles list with 295, 8th on the all-time tackles for loss list with 34, and 9th on the QB hits list with 30.

McKinney is the epitome of the Bill O’Brien “speak softly and carry a big stick... or lunch pail” player type, letting his play do the talking for him. While this doesn’t bring a ton of drama/attention his way, you can bet opposing offenses are paying attention every down McKinney is on the field.

#3 Whitney Mercilus

The ‘tweener’/converted defensive end has seen more time as an outside 3-4 linebacker in Houston’s defense than he has at DE. Not unlike Jadeveon Clowney, Mercilus could have landed on the Top Five Defensive Linemen list if it were a little less crowded. Yet many recognize Mercilus as a linebacker, and looking at him through that lens earns him a spot in the dead center of this list.

Mercilus (#1 on the Best Named Texans List), led the NCAA his junior season with 16 sacks and 9 forced fumbles while dressing for the University of Illinois. This performance led to him winning the Ted Hendricks Award, Bill Willis Award, CFPA Defensive Player of the Year award, and unanimous First team All-American honors.

Unlike McKinney and Cunningham, the Texans didn’t let Mercilus slide out of the first round, grabbing him with the 26th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. Merci would only go on to start four games his rookie year, fighting for time behind Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed, but he broke through in 2013 and hasn’t looked back since.

Despite never quite consistently and fully achieving the potential he’s flashed throughout his career (arguably due to the defensive coordinators inability to scheme him alongside Watt and Clowney for many, many years), Mercilus is still a special player. Landing at 13th on the all-time Texans’ solo tackles list with 216, he lands #4 on the all-time tackles for loss list with 63, second on the all-time QB hits list with 105 (the only Texans not named J.J. Watt with triple digit QB hits), third on the all-time sacks list with 50, second on the all-time forced fumbles list with 13, and second among defenders with 8 fumble recoveries.

Add to that his work in the community through his With Merci Foundation, dedicated to helping families of children with special needs, and it’s pretty clear #59 is an all-time Texans great.

#2 Demeco Ryans

Another SEC second round draft pick of the Houston Texans, Ryans was a gem in Houston’s defense from the moment they drafted him in the second round of the 2006 NFL Draft. His pile of NCAA honors reads like a list of all the available awards one could possibly win, including Cotton Bowl Defensive MVP, SEC Defensive Player of the Year, and many more. The Alabama Crimson Tide ‘backer anchored their defense for years before doing the same for the Texans.

Ryans grabbed 12 solo tackles his first game in battle red and never looked back. He finished his first NFL season as NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, coming in second among all defenders with 155 total tackles (31 more than the next nearest rookie). Unlike many payers these days, Ryans was an every down kind of guy, a true “quarterback of the defense,” and a player others looked to for leadership, both on and off the field.

My heart still breaks remembering the moment I heard Houston had inexplicably traded him to the Philadelphia Eagles on March 20, 2012. It was the same feeling I had when I heard Clowney was traded to the Seahawks and then DeAndre Hopkins to the Cardinals.

Ryans sits atop the Texans’ all-time career tackles list with 479, 5th on the tackles for loss list with 43, 12th with 25 hits on the quarterback, 6th with 6 forced fumbles, and 5th with 8 fumble recoveries. If the Texans had allowed Ryans to finish his career in Houston, there’s no doubt he would be #1 on this list and in competition with J.J. Watt for the top seed on the Texans’ All Time Defenders list. Sadly, we never got to see that reality.

#1 Brain Cushing

There’s an old football adage that a defender can’t truly bring his best unless he plays angry. Enter Brian Cushing.

The only other Texans’ first round pick on this list, Houston drafted Cushing out of USC with the 15th overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft to some, ahem, criticism. Cushing wasted no time making his mark in Houston when he scored a safety during their Week 4 29-6 rout of the Oakland Raiders.

Over the course of his career, Cushing was everything you’d ever want in a middle linebacker and then some. Unfortunately, the “and then some” included multiple suspensions for performance enhancing substances that seemed to bookend a potential Hall of Fame career.

Over the course of nine seasons with the Texans, Cushing landed third on the all-time tackles list with 424, holding the top spot when you filter out plays others made with teams not located in H-Town. He lands at 6th on the tackles for loss list with 42, 6th on the QB hits list with 57, 4th on the forced fumbles list with 9, and 1st on hits on Alfred Blue during “Hard Knocks”.

Despite the way he went out, Cushing has earned his place in the Texans Ring of Honor, the NFL Hall of Fame, and the top of this list. While he’s not Dick Butkus, he’s the closest thing your Houston Texans have ever had.

Now, while guys like Connor Barwin, Brooks Reed, Jamie Sharper, and Barkevious Mingo (j/k) have certainly left their mark on the Texans, the men ranked above are the best of the best.

There it is, the linebacker list, to add to your collection of Top Fives.

What do you think of this list? Think someone was snubbed? Feel like the order is all wrong? Give us your Top Five in the comments.