HOUSTON (CBS Houston) – Being the Texans first round pick and the heir apparent to replace pass rush specialist Mario Williams, you knew the expectations facing Whitney Mercilus were going to be way over the top before he ever donned a NFL uniform.
But then the Texans upped the ante even more last week during the start of OTAs by issuing Mercilus the No.59 jersey which had been worn with distinction the last six years by DeMeco Ryans aka el Capitan.
Did anybody mention pressure? It’s one thing to have to replace Williams at outside linebacker but essentially Mercilus somehow now embodies the Texans two biggest losses on this defense this offseason.
“It’s going to be a big role to fill, especially now that they gave me the No. 59,” Mercilus said in an exclusive conversation with SportsRadio 610. “DeMeco was a great player also so there are a lot of stigmas that come with being a first round pick, being compared to these two great players. So I have a lot of pressure on my back but I can handle it.”
That is certainly what the Texans were banking on when they drafted Mercilus, a virtual one-year wonder out of Illinois, to be the eventual replacement to Williams. Kind of like Williams, Mercilus seems very understated for the role of chief playmaker in Wade Phillips’ 3-4 defense.
Mercilus will have to get use to standing on his feet instead of starting from the three-point stance of a traditional defensive end just as Williams was trying to last season before a torn pectoral muscle injury ended his go-around in Phillips’ defense. But unlike Williams, Mercilus may not need to be as quick a study with the primary role of holding down the weakside in the capable hands of Connor Barwin.
Although most of his early opportunities will likely come on special teams, the comparisons to Williams will still be there. That’s something Mercilus is understandably trying to reconcile.
“I’ve heard things about Mario but he’s his own player and I’m my own player,” said Mercilus, who left Illinois after his junior year. “The thing is I’m just trying to make a name for myself.”
Mercilus began on the journey in earnest last week with the start of minicamp disguised as Organized Team Activities. His drive to make a name for himself continues this week as OTAs move into Week No. 2.
All indications are Mercilus is making progress and showing signs of mental growth in his first real taste of the NFL. They will learn more when the pads finally come on during training camp in July.
“It’s kind of hard to see much out of him but what I have seen, he’s quick, explosive and he comes with power and he’s confident in himself,” veteran defensive end Antonio Smith said. “That’s always a good combination.”
Texans coach Gary Kubiak agrees.
“He’s looked very good. (Linebackers coach Reggie Herring) catches guys up very quick. He’s a hell of a coach,” Kubiak said. “He is moving around very good and he’s going to be a great addition to our team.”
The most important thing now is for Mercilus to begin to learn mentally the difference between playing defensive end in college and playing outside linebacker in Phllips’ 3-4 scheme. At this point he is still doing way more thinking than reacting.
“What makes you successful at this level is way different than the college level,” Mercilus said. “You have to be technically sound. It’s not a one-for-one system, meaning you go grab your gap and that’s it. You’ve got to go there and make plays so learning how to practice without pads and doing everything right. It’s gone pretty smooth these last few days.”
Phillips is far from satisfied but he’s been impressed with what he has seen from the youngster so far.
“Yeah, Whit, I think it’s not too big for him, so that’s the first thing you look for in rookies,” Phillips said. “Sometimes they get overrun. He hasn’t had that problem.”
“He rushed real well, and that’s what we’re looking for him to do in the defense.”
And that is perfectly fine with Mercilus, who joins a defensive unit that became one of the best in the league last season and is expected to pick right up from there this upcoming season. Surprisingly he seems confident in finding a place on a defense that doesn’t seem to have any obvious holes.
“I see myself fitting in well with these guys and this defense,” Mercilus said.”This defense lines up great with my skill set. This 3-4 defense of Wade Phillips is perfect for my body type.”