The Texans finished the 2015 season with 6 inside linebackers on their roster and now have 7 inside linebackers on the current 90 man roster, and two of those are undrafted free agents. Akeem Dent‘s place on the opening day 53 man roster appears secure, but security is a relative thing in the NFL.
The Texans obvious starters are Brian Cushing and Benardrick McKinney. Cushing appears healthy, though he may have lost a step due to two severe knee injuries, but his performance in the last half of 2015 proved he is still capable. His coverage skills are suspect, yet Cushing is strong against the run and can provide interior quarterback pressure. He is also a respected team leader.
McKinney came on strong as the season progressed. He is stout against the run, can pressure the passer, and demonstrates improving coverage skills. He is a player on the rise. Cushing and McKinney are a strong duo in the Texans’ base defense.
After that the inside linebacker position gets sketchy. Max Bullough is a smart player with a football heritage. He is good against the run when he can get there. His coverage skills are limited due to his marginal speed which also limits his special teams contribution. In many ways he is a less experienced Akeem Dent clone, but perhaps with more upside.
Brian Peters is a safety turned linebacker who has struggled through the pro football hinterlands until finally making the Texans roster last year. He is primarily a special teams player with speed that may allow him to develop into a coverage linebacker.
Shakeel Rashad is an undrafted free agent from North Carolina. He showed flashes of dominance in college but is still raw. His coverage potential may exceed all the linebackers on the Texans roster. Special teams is his path for making the 53 man roster.
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Ryan Langford is an undrafted free agent from New Mexico who survived a 3 day tryout to be invited to OTAs. He has good speed which makes him a potential special teams contributor and coverage linebacker. Most likely he has a ticket to the 2016 Texans practice squad.
In 2014 Akeem Dent was acquired from the Atlanta Falcons in a trade for quarterback T.J. Yates, following a report that Yates was being released. That report left the Texans with little leverage which suggests the Falcons considered Dent to be expendable.
Dent’s primary attributes are his veteran presence, smarts, and strength against the run. He appears to be a good teammate and hard worker. Arguably as OTAs conclude Dent is the Texans’ number three linebacker.
So how can the apparent third linebacker be on the bubble? Dent lacks size and speed. His coverage skills are below average. He is a willing special teams contributor but limited by foot speed. He has struggled to stay healthy. Dent is third currently more because of the inexperience and skill deficits of the remaining linebackers on the roster rather than because of his own strengths.
As the Texans strive to increase team speed, players who lack speed, unless they display an offsetting exceptional skill, are vulnerable. As the NFL becomes more of a passing league and teams spend less time in their base defense inside linebackers who can’t cover become one and two down players.
Teams need fewer of them, thus they are replaced by hybrid safety/linebacker types who can run and cover while still being able to play in the box.
Will Akeem Dent be on the Texans’ opening day roster? Probably. Given the current roster Dent is vulnerable only If Max Bullough becomes a better clone, if Shakeel Rashad lives up to his potential, if Brian Peters is outstanding on special teams and pass coverage and if the Texans decide a hybrid safety is more important than a sixth inside linebacker. That is a lot of “ifs”.
The real threat to Dent is not on the Texans’ roster. The Texans have a history of supplementing their roster when veterans become available as teams cut down to the required 53 man level. It is very possible that a veteran linebacker whose skills exceed Akeem Dent’s may become available. If that occurs Akeem Dent could be the odd man out.