The great thing about the NFL is that there are so many positions that every year, there is almost always at least one player who has a breakout year on every team, no matter how good or bad the team is. This is one part in a 32 part segment detailing one potential breakout player (rookies don’t count) for the 2013 NFL season on each NFL team. For the Houston Texans, that player is rush linebacker Whitney Mercilus.
Mercilus was a first round pick, 26th overall, of the Houston Texans in 2012. I gave him a top-10 grade, calling him the best pure pass rusher in the draft class, comparing him to Aldon Smith, and praising his work ethic. Mercilus comes from humble beginnings in more ways than one. He grew up as the son of Haitian immigrants, but he was also just a 3-star recruit in the 2008 draft class, a rarity among 1st round picks.
Mercilus did well to bulk up from 225 to the 260 range while in college and after recording just 2 sacks in his first 2 seasons as a backup, Mercilus earned his way to a starting job in 2011 and made the most of it. He led the country in sacks, with 16, and also had 22.5 tackles for loss and 9 forced fumbles. He showed a wide variety of pass rush moves and never took a play off. At The Combine, he flashed excellent athleticism for his size, running a 4.68 at 6-4 261 and putting up 27 reps of 225.
However, as a rookie, he struggled. He managed just 6 sacks, 1 hit, and 15 hurries, including playoffs, on 327 pass rush snaps, a mediocre 6.7% pass rush rate, splitting snaps with Brooks Reed opposite Connor Barwin. He was ProFootballFocus’ 29th rated 3-4 outside linebacker out of 34 eligible and his pass rush productivity was 26th out of 32 eligible.
That being said, plenty of players struggle as rookies and then go on to have excellent NFL careers. Mercilus still doesn’t turn 23 until July and he still has plenty of natural ability and upside. With Connor Barwin gone, he’ll be an every down player opposite Brooks Reed with rookies Sam Montgomery and Trevardo Williams sprinkled in as depth. He’s expected to line up almost exclusively at right outside linebacker, the primary pass rushing position in Wade Phillips’ scheme (the DeMarcus Ware, Connor Barwin role), rather than moving around the formation, as he did as a rookie. This could very well help him, especially since he played almost entirely on the right side in college at Illinois. He’ll have every opportunity to shine and I expect him to breakout.