Sources: Texans' Whitney Mercilus recovering from Grade 1 hamstring strain

Texans veteran defensive end Whitney Mercilus is recovering from a Grade 1 hamstring strain, according to league sources not authorized to speak publicly.

Mercilus injured his hamstring after starting and playing a dozen snaps during a 23-16 preseason loss to the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers with a magnetic resonance imaging exam conducted afterward. A Grade 1 hamstring injury usually takes three weeks to make a full recovery. There is hope that Mercilus could return within the next few weeks, depending on how quickly his leg heals. If he's sidelined or limited for the Texans' season opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Texans have a lot of depth at a defensive end position that includes Charles Omenihu, Jordan Jenkins, Jacob Martin and Jon Greenard.

When asked about Mercilus' status, Texans coach David Culley said: 'We anticipate him being ready to play," while acknowledging that the veteran pass rusher will be evaluated again next week to determine if he'll play.

"Whitney’s doing fine,” Culley said. "Again, we’ll re-evaluate him next week. We hope that he’s going to be available, but we’ll just have to see next week. The time between now and next week when we first start is very good for those guys to heal."

Greenard is still recovering from a sprained ankle suffered against the Green Bay Packers, isn't practicing and remains on the 53-man roster.

In other health updates, Culley indicated that Pro Bowl left tackle Laremy Tunsil, activated this week from the reserve-COVID-19 list after testing positive, is expected to play against the Jaguars along with safety Eric Murray, who suffered a minor injury against the Buccaneers, and safety Lonnie Johnson Jr., who missed the Tampa Bay game with a minor quadriceps strain and defensive tackle Maliek Collins, who has missed practice this week.

Before the injury, Mercilus made a smooth transition back to a traditional 4-3 defensive end from a 3-4 outside linebacker position.

Noticeably leaner and quicker than a year ago, Mercilus dropped weight and has looked comfortable at his old college position in the wake of 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.

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.

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. Mercilus has 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.

“With this profile on what we’re looking for, Whitney can run, he can rush off the edge,” Texans defensive coordinator Lovie Smith said this offseason. “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.”

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 this offseason. “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.

Baltimore Ravens v Houston Texans

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