Whitney Mercilus endured a slow burn during the strangest year of his NFL career, contending with the frustrations and uncertainty of playing football during the coronavirus pandemic.
It was an extremely rough season for the Texans’ veteran outside linebacker as his usual productivity dipped dramatically after signing a four-year, $54 million contract that was restructured this offseason. Two voidable years were added to the deal as he was paid a $6 million signing bonus, and the 30-year-old former first-round draft pick is scheduled to become a free agent after this season.
Mercilus tested positive for COVID-19 in December, ending his season with four sacks, 21 tackles, five for losses, seven quarterback hits with one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
Since the end of the season, Mercilus has rededicated himself to his fitness regimen and is following a stricter diet. He’s noticeably leaner after returning to his training roots, with his physique reminiscent of how he looked two years ago when he recorded 7 ½ sacks, four forced fumbles and two interceptions. He's utilizing last season’s struggles as motivational fuel.
“A lot of people, and lot of teams got thrown off last year,” Mercilus said during a recent charity dodge ball event at Pitch 25. “All over the country, whether you’re playing football or whatever, things are starting to normalize and you’re seeing guys get back on top of their game. I’m just happy to get back in the building and train and get my body right and let my body feel the fire so I’m ready for the season.
“When everything opened back up in Arizona, I was training at my usual spot and it was great to be back with my trainer and get prepared for the season. I definitely want to get after it: rushing the passer, stopping the run, all of that. So, expect me to do that again. That’s exactly what I’m trying to gear up for.”
Mercilus grew accustomed to making an impact during his first eight years with the Texans after being drafted out of Illinois. Explosive and powerful, Mercilus built a reputation as a dangerous edge rusher with 54 career sacks, 13 forced fumbles, 68 tackles for losses and 112 quarterback hits. That’s why his sudden drop-off last year came as a surprise as he had trouble escaping from blocks and wasn’t nearly as fast in pursuit as the Texans finished 4-12 and 30th in total defense.
“Of course, I want to have the best season ever coming off of last year along the team and the entire organization,” said Mercilus, who’s due a total of $11.117 million this year, including a guaranteed $4.5 million base salary, plus a $617,647 roster bonus under a 17-game schedule. “I want to be able to get back to the playoffs and have a chance to go for the big trophy. We’re definitely trying to have a winning concept.”
Under new defensive coordinator Lovie Smith, the Texans are converting from a 3-4 to his trademark 4-3 attacking scheme. Mercilus was a defensive end in college who converted to a 3-4 outside linebacker. He’s comfortable operating out of a three-point stance or a two-point stance.
“When I came out of college, I was in a 4-3, so it’s going right back into what I’ve done: Go see ball, go get ball,” Mercilus said. “I like it.”
A former Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach, Smith’s reputation precedes him with Mercilus
“Man, Lovie is really cool,” Mercilus said. “Great person, and I can’t wait to play for him.”
It’s been a time of constant change surrounding the Texans, including hiring new general manager Nick Caserio and coach David Culley, defensive end J.J. Watt signing with Arizona after being cut at his request and star quarterback Deshaun Watson facing 22 civil lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct in the wake of requesting a trade. Expectations are understandably down about a team that’s coming off a losing season after winning consecutive AFC South division titles in 2018 and 2019.
“No doubt, we’ve got to build the chemistry,” Mercilus said. “Once we build that and understand the defense, we’re going to do some good stuff. Any given Sunday, any given team can win. That’s been proven time and time again in the NFL. You can’t count anybody out.”
Aaron Wilson has covered the NFL for 20 years. He's on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL and Instagram: aaronwilson7128.