Houston Texans: Breaking down inside linebacker competition
By Jair Lopez
Breaking down the Houston Texans group of inside linebackers heading into the 2020 NFL regular season.
The majority group of Houston Texans inside linebacker core is returning with Benardrick McKinney, Zach Cunningham, Dylan Cole, Peter Kalambayi, and Tyrell Adams, all forming part of last season’s active roster.
Nate Hall is also returning after signing a future/reserve contract. Hall spent short stints with the Dallas Cowboys and the Buffalo Bills as an undrafted rookie before signing to the Texans’ practice squad towards the later portion of the 2019 regular season.
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Houston made only one inclusion to their depth chart in the offseason with the signing of undrafted rookie free agent, Jan Johnson. Johnson became one of Penn State’s captains in the locker room and came a long way after joining the football team as a walk-on. He finished with 150 total tackles, 7.0 tackles for loss,1.5 sacks, and two interceptions through 26 games with the Nittany Lions.
Johnson faces an uphill climb to making the Texans active roster as an undrafted rookie, but there exists the opportunity for him to put his name for possibly the fifth and final spot on the depth chart.
Cunningham, McKinney, Cole, and Kalambayi are locked in to make the final roster for the Texans, but a fifth player may be kept for special teams due to possible injuries that have been prevalent in the past. Texans kept only four inside linebackers last season before promoting Adams to the active roster from the practice squad.
Cole remains one of the tantalizing players on the Texans defense with his ability to drop back in coverage in passing situations and contribute on special teams. Injuries have played a part in his lack of playing of time with an ACL injury cutting his season short in 2019. However, he has a lot to prove after re-signing to a one year deal with the Texans and becoming a free agent in 2021.
The Texans starters in McKinney and Cunningham have emerged as one of the better tandems in the AFC with McKinney being the player who relays the plays on the defense and Cunningham serving as the do it all linebacker. Dropping back in coverage hasn’t been one of McKinney’s fortes, but he is more than capable of being an enforcer against the run and be an additional blitzer that can pressure the quarterback on third downs.
Meanwhile, Cunningham is entering his fourth season in the league and has incrementally improved on the Texans defense. This upcoming season could be his breakout year after earning Pro Bowl honors in 2019. He finished last season with 142 tackles, seven tackles for loss, two sacks, and two fumble recoveries.
Texans have a solid group at inside linebacker, and their starting tandem will be a crucial component in the success of the defense heading into next season.