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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Let him cook! Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

The Houston Rockets are in the midst of a rebuild. Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr are studs. KPJ just signed a four-year extension with the team. Other guys like Jabari Smith Jr, Kenyon Martin Jr, Alperen Sengun, Josh Christopher, Tari Eason, and Jae'Sean Tate are really good pieces to surround Green and KPJ with. The only issue with this group: they're REALLY young! Tate is the elder statesman at 27 of the young nucleus. Most are barely old enough to buy a drink. Some still aren't old enough! They're a bunch of green bananas waiting to turn yellow to slightly brown and be ripe enough for consumption.

We need to give it time. Just like bananas, they take time to ripen. Coach Stephen Silas is known for developing young players. His most prized student is the star player for that team in South Oklahoma up 45. Number 77 for that team credited Silas with helping him realize his All-Pro potential while Silas was a part of the coaching staff there. To a man, all his former players credit him with being a positive influence on their careers. So why are fans in a rush to get rid of him?

When you look at the Rockets' record over the last few years, it's gross. Sure, they've been a lottery team the last couple of seasons, but that was by design. As part of the Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook trades, they gave away pick swap rights. Had they not been that bad, they wouldn't have been able to draft Green or Smith Jr. Those two guys are building blocks for the future, along with KPJ. Giving those picks away would've put this team further down the totem pole of developing themselves into a contender. Losing pays off when you can hit on high lottery picks.

If you give a chef dirt, bread, ham, molded cheese, and spoiled mayo, can you expect anything else but a nasty ham sandwich? How about if the chef was given a steak that is almost rotten, potatoes with root growth, and spoiled butter? Could you expect a better meal than the sandwich? Yes! However, that meal may still cause a stomachache. Now, give said chef a full complement of gourmet groceries and guess what you'll get?

This is why I say let Silas cook. He's the perfect coach for this group of kids. He can teach them all the fundamentals of the game at this level and help them grow into their full potential. If there's a change to be made on the sidelines, move Silas into a front office role, but DO NOT get rid of him! Guys like him are too valuable. Why do you think Mark Cuban hated losing him, but knew he couldn't retain him because he had a head coach already? Cuban knew what he had in Silas and what Silas did for Luka Doncic. He can do something similar for the Rockets if given the time to work his magic.

Should Tilman Fertita find the need to move on, I'd look for a more experienced coach who can guide them from bottom of the playoff ladder into top four in the West and real contenders. For now, Silas is the head chef. Continue giving him the groceries he needs, and he'll continue giving these kids the lessons they need to develop. Changing the coach now could stunt their growth. Let him cook!

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