CAMP COUNTDOWN

Texans training camp preview: Linebackers

Bernardrick McKinney anchors the middle of the Texans defense. Bob Levey/Getty Images

If I had to pick one position group as my favorite it would be this one. These players represent all of the right pieces to control the game near the line of scrimmage and keep a lot of what happens in front of them. They have pass rushers with double digit sack potential, they have thumpers in the middle who can clog the rush lanes, and they have guys with coverage ability on tight ends and running backs. With this group on the field the defense can really help every part of the team.

Yes, 2017 was a down year for the Texans pass rush. J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus went down with season ending injuries and took about 15-20 sacks away from the defense. That left the team exposed and the bulk of the work to Jadeveon Clowney. He played every spot in the front seven last year as a creative way to get him in position to make plays. Not knowing where he would line up kept the opposing offenses off guard on the protection calls. That will continue this year where he will probably play a lot more snaps standing up at an outside linebacker.

Mercilus is back and he will apply the pressure that helps Defensive Coordinator Romeo Crennel use his personnel with maximum effectiveness. Having him and Clowney on the field at the same time is going to make it hard for offenses to set the edge. But Clowney won’t always be standing up on the outside with Whitney so it’s good that the Texans still have Brennan Scarlett to hold down a back-up role. He is entering his third season and has developed well for an undrafted free agent.

Also returning to the team this year is Ufomba Kamalu, the NFL’s largest outside linebacker at 6’6” 295 lbs. He’s a former defensive end who got some starting experience due to injury last year. He did well in his nine games overall and can continue to learn the position while serving as a pass rush specialist when called upon. He will be back on the field with LaTroy Lewis, another young player who saw game action last season and seemed to make the most of it.

The Texans are also bringing in a few rookies to add some competition for depth. They drafted Duke Ejiofor from Wake Forest in the sixth round this year. Later in the same round they selected Peter Kalambayi from Stanford. Late round picks don’t always work out but taking two of them in the draft is another example of Brian Gaine sending a clear message that there is room for the young guys to fight for a position. That includes undrafted rookie Davin Bellamy, who played his college ball at Georgia.

If the outside linebackers have the talent and depth to do their jobs well then the inside linebackers should be free to terrorize the middle of the field. That starts with the proud holder of a new contract, Benardrick McKinney. His ability on the inside has been a constant for the defense in his time. He will continue to get better and boost the play of those around him.

Second year man Zach Cunningham will benefit the most from playing alongside McKinney and vice versa. Cunningham was a stand-out rookie with 90 tackles, 1.5 sacks and 6 passes defensed. He’s versatile in this defense and is key to making the starting linebackers the best position group on the team.

Returning to fill out the inside position are Brian Peters and Dylan Cole; two able-bodied players who did well last year. But when you have starters like McKinney and Cunningham it gives you leverage to bring in plenty competition in training camp. That’s why the Texans have Ben Heeney, Josh Keyes, and Kennan Gilchrist on the team. The back-up role will be important for the long season ahead and if they have it right the defense can reclaim its spot near the top of the rankings.

Getting the most out of the linebackers is essential to Romeo Crennel’s defensive scheme. But the new NFL is requiring a lot more out of the position. The versatility of Jadeveon Clowney as an outside linebacker and Zach Cunningham on the inside are in line with the new way. Benardrick McKinney and Whitney Mercilus represent the old way of playing the position, and they do it at a high level. The linebackers will be all over the field and be a big part of the reason the team wins the close games they lost in 2017.


 

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