Veteran pass rusher Whitney Mercilus is working diligently to put a frustrating and relatively unproductive season behind him.
The early returns have been encouraging from the Texans’ new coaching staff in their evaluation of Mercilus’ transition from a 3-4 outside linebacker to a 4-3 defensive end.
Noticeably leaner and quicker than a year ago, Mercilus has dropped weight and provided some optimism for new defensive coordinator Lovie Smith after a rough season last year. When the Texans drafted Mercilus in the first round out of Illinois, he was making the shift from a 4-3 college defensive end to outside linebacker. Now, Mercilus is going back to his roots.
“With this profile on what we’re looking for, Whitney can run, he can rush off the edge,” Smith said. “We start with that with our upfront guys. In an ideal world – some places say, ‘Hey, to get pressure, we’ve got to blitz.’ We start off saying that we need to be able to get pressure with our four-man rush and a part of that is our outside guys being able to win.
“Whitney has proven in his time in the NFL that he can win on the outside. He’s in good shape right now. He’s going to play lighter than he played last year. That body type has had success in our system. We talked about a lot of the young players, but to have an older player that’s done it the right way and has been a great Texan, so I’m excited about him, too. He’s going to have a good year for us.”
Signed to a four-year, $54 million contract a year ago, Mercilus’ contract 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 an unrestricted 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. He looked heavier than normal, too.
Rededicated to a stricter diet and training regimen, Mercilus’ physique is now 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. “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. Of course, I want to have the best season ever coming off of last year along with the team and the entire organization.”
Mercilus has 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.
Getting back into a three-point stance and being turned loose to get after the quarterback is what the Texans have planned for Mercilus.
“With Whit, the funny thing is when we talked about the hand in the dirt, that’s the only thing that’s different about what’s going to be his role this year,” Texans defensive line coach Bobby King said. "He said, ‘Coach, I haven’t put my hand in the dirt consistently since my junior year at Illinois.’ I said, ‘Well, that was about 10 years ago.’ That’s going to be the big thing.
“To be honest, he’s come in and he’s looked pretty natural doing it, hitting the sleds. Now, we’re not going against offensive linemen, obviously, right now, but it’s been a pretty natural transition and I hope to continue to see that.”
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, Mercilus is happy to be back at a familiar spot.
“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.”
Aaron Wilson has covered the NFL for 20 years and has previously written for The Houston Chronicle and The Baltimore Sun. He’s on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL and Instagram: @aaronwilson7128