After OLB Mario Williams left Houston to sign the richest defensive contract in NFL history this offseason with the Bills, the Texans knew they needed a third pass-rushing outside linebacker for defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ pressure-filled scheme. With the 26th pick in the first round, the Texans filled their need with the selection of former Illinois DE-OLB Whitney Mercilus.
Phillips is sporting a big grin right about now. The raw and athletic Mercilus, who registered an eye-popping 16 sacks and nine forced fumbles as a junior last season, will have the opportunity to contribute readily next to OLBs Connor Barwin (11½ sacks) and Brooks Reed (six sacks) in the Texans' sub-packages. Phillips relies heavily on his OLBs to be regulars in the backfield, and Mercilus showed a knack for doing just that in his last year at Illinois. What’s more, he strengthens the unit's depth, giving Phillips the flexibility to spell Barwin and Reed more than he could last season. Remember, Williams went down for the season in Week Five, leaving Barwin and the rookie Reed to play an awful lot of snaps. Nonetheless, the Texans’ defense didn’t flinch, and it stands to reason that this move will make them an even more ferocious pass-rushing unit in 2012.
The selection doesn’t come without some risk, though. Mercilus’ numbers last season were extraordinary, but he qualifies as a one-year producer after notching just two sacks in his first two seasons in Champaign. He is considered a raw, developmental player brimming with upside, but he is nowhere near a finished product. He relied a lot on his athleticism in college and needs to refine his fundamentals and add bulk. In other words, he needs to be coached up.
My guess is GM Rick Smith, who likely had Phillips’ approval with this pick, took comfort in the fact that Phillips will be working closely with the club’s newest addition. After all, Phillips earned numerous accolades, including the Pro Football Weekly/Pro Football Writers of America Assistant Coach of the Year award, for the tremendous work he did with Houston’s young “D” in 2011. Smith undoubtedly recognized the great deal of success Phillips had in turning Barwin and Reed — both of whom previously played end — into rush outside linebackers in such a quick time period last season, and he will now attempt to do the same with Mercilus, who will also be asked to transition from end.
Mercilus couldn’t have found a better landing spot than Houston. He joins a talented and ascending defense that puts a premium on pass rushers, and a coach in Phillips with a sterling track record for getting the most out of his players right away.