Houston (CBS Houston) – In a star studded defensive unit for the Houston Texans, it’s Benardrick McKinney that has quietly become one of the best players on the team.

The Texans’ defense has a handful of players that have names that jump off the paper at you. Starting with JJ Watt, the most popular defensive player in the NFL. Then there’s Jadeveon Clowney, the formal number one overall pick. Brian Cushing has the name value and the cache of being a solid player in the league for a long time. Same thing can be said for Johnathan Joseph to a lesser degree. Whitney Mercilus, last season’s sack leader for the Texans is another popular name, but what if Benardrick McKinney is the most consistent, and versatile of them all?

Last season, in McKinney’s second season, he led the team with 79 tackles and was third on the team with 5 sacks, while emerging as the best middle linebacker on the team.

In a season that saw Watt play just three games due to injury, the emergence of a healthy Clowney, the decline in Cushing and what appears to be the final season in Vince Wilfork’s career. It was McKinney who developed into a player that could be counted on the most.

“He’s a pro, he’s a pro. He loves the game. He prepares. He loves meetings, loves practice, loves everything about football,” Bill O’Brien said. “He’s one of our leaders now. He’s on the inside there with Cush and that’s a good duo on the inside. He’s come a long way since his rookie year, and he’s one of our better players.”

To see O’Brien sing McKinney’s praises isn’t just hyperbole either. The seriousness that O’Brien talks about McKinney emphasizes the point that he wants everyone to know, “he’s one of our better players.” He isn’t just a piece of the puzzle, he isn’t a complimentary role player alongside Watt, Clowney, Cushing or whoever else. O’Brien wants you to know that McKinney isn’t a rung below those guys. He’s right at the top of the ladder with them, if not higher.