Reporting Nate Griffin
HOUSTON (CBS Houston) – With the 26th pick of the 2012 NFL Draft, the Houston Texans select…Whitney Mercilus, defensive end/outside linebacker, from the University of Illinois.
The crowd at Reliant Stadium on Thursday night erupted in joy with the utterance of those words as the Texans selected a defensive player to replace a departed Mario Williams. Back in March, he signed a 6-year contract with the Buffalo Bills worth $100 million that includes a guaranteed $50 million.
The Texans had to think of a way to compete or get the same or better value in free agency – even better, in a draft pick. It was evident that the Texans would not compete and therefore went the route of the draft.
Mercilus was a terror in the Big 10 last season as he led the country with 16 sacks. As a junior, he finished number two nationally in tackles for loss with 22.5 behind Houston’s Sammy Brown with 30. He finished number one in the nation with 9 forced fumbles. This feat was accomplished after only one season as the full time starter.
WELCOME TO THE NFL
Let’s now fast forward to training camp and a season of expectations. There is one specific question that we will ponder before the season begins as we watch guru defensive coordinator Wade Phillips help this young first round pick of the Texans develop his talents.
The question is which of these first round picks will finish with the most sacks in 2012? Will it be Whitney Mercilus, or will it be the 2006 number one overall pick who in March signed the richest contract for a defensive player in the history of the NFL, Mario Williams? There’s a case to be made for Mercilus.
If Wade Phillips schemes the defense in such a way to allow Mercilus opportunities for big plays, it’s just a matter of him understanding his position and allowing his natural gifts to take over.
“Anytime you look at those guys, when they play defensive end in college, they’re going against huge offensive tackles,” said Phillips. “He’s 260 pounds. So, they’re not going to look as strong in a three-point stance. But they look a lot stronger when they’re rushing the passer on third down in those situations.”
Under former Illini Head Coach Ron Zook, Illinois ran a multiple defensive formation where Mercilus generally played at defensive end. Meanwhile, the Texans finished the 2011 season as the number one ranked defense in the league. Most of the same players that comprised the 2011 3-4 defense are in position to do the same or come close in 2012.
One can reason that Mercilus will learn and get support from linebackers Bradie James, Brian Cushing, Connor Barwin, Brooks Reed, and Tim Dobbins. In fact, the Texans just became a daunting unit with the addition of the young pass-rusher.
Add the defensive front of J.J. Watt, Antonio Smith, and Shaun Cody and Mercilus is free to perform the way the Texans drew it up on paper prior to the draft.
“When you play at outside backer, which we project him as, now he’s playing against tight ends and backs and so forth,” said Phillips. “I had Shaun Phillips who was the same way. They said he was too small because he played against offensive tackles.”
Wade Phillips is referring to eight-year San Diego Chargers veteran LB Shaun Phillips who is 6’3” 250 and played collegiately at Purdue of the Big 10. In 2004, Phillips was in his first season as Chargers defensive coordinator largely responsible for molding Phillips.
It was in 2006, Wade Phillips final season as the Chargers DC that dividends paid off for drafting Phillips in 2004 with the 2nd pick of the 4th round. He would start all 14 games and finish the season with 11.5 sacks.
Phillips has proven that he can develop young players.
WILLIAMS ON THE OTHER HAND -
While Mercilus will be challenged to learn and develop the NFL style of play, seven-year pro bowler Mario Williams will have pressure to perform against the zeroes in his new contract. He will be playing alongside all new players in a new defensive environment.
Many will be curious to see how the Buffalo defense will improve after a season-ending league ranking of 26. The Bills allowed 371.1 yards per game in their 3-4 defense. It is unknown at this time whether or not the Bills will run that same defense in 2012.
The Bills drafted South Carolina cornerback Stephon Gilmore with the 10th pick of the first round on Thursday night to offset pass-happy offenses.
Either way, the question is whether or not Williams will get the help he needs in Buffalo to top the rookie, Mercilus. Williams best season as a pass rusher was his second in 2007 as he got to NFL quarterbacks 14 times. He managed 4.5 sacks in 2006 – Williams didn’t have the benefit of having Phillips around.
So, with Wade Phillips grooming the young linebacker and using Mercilus specifically as a situational pass-rusher, there’s a good chance that Mercilus could top Williams in sack totals during his rookie season.
“You don’t get 16 sacks in that league, (Big 10), without having some natural gifts,” said Phillips. “He has those.”
Former Houston Texan linebacker and Illini alum, Danny Clark, who will announce Friday night’s second-round pick from New York, had this to add.
“I’m truly excited that the Texans got an Illini to replace Mario Williams. Those are big shoes to fill. But, my guy is fully capable of exceeding expectations.”
What are your thoughts?