The Good – For the linebacker group to exceed expectations the five key performers, Mercilus, Clowney, Simon, Cushing and McKinney, must stay healthy and exceed their performances of 2015.
Whitney Mercilus must build upon his 2015 breakout season by adding game-to-game consistency. He must apply quarterback pressure in every game, not just in spurts against weaker tackles, while continuing to improve against the run.
Jadeveon Clowney must stay healthy, continue his strong play against the run, and elevate his pass rush to reach double-digit sack totals.This is essentially Clowney’s second year considering the number of games played. The second season is generally considered the year when most players make the biggest move so a breakout season is a real possibility.
John Simon joined the Texans in October, 2014. His play has improved steadily and must continue to do so. Simon can drop into coverage as well as pressure the passer and play the run. That balance allows Romeo Crennel to have all three of his outside linebackers on the field in some defensive sets.
Brian Cushing was very average coming off injury in 2014, but was much better in 2015. Usually it would be unreasonable to expect further improved play from a 29 year-old linebacker entering his eighth season, but Cushing was All Pro in 2011 before suffering the knee injuries. He probably won’t return to that level, but he appears motivated to do more than replicate his 2015 season.
2015 rookie Benardrick McKinney took hold at midseason and improved steadily. He is now embraced by Cushing as co-leader of the inside linebackers and his needle is pointing up. McKinney, who can cover, stop the run and rush the passer, should make that second year jump.
If all goes well the Texans linebacker position group will be exceptional. The Good is within reach.
Next: The Bad