February 21, 2018

Positional Review: Houston Texans 2018 Outlook on the Inside Linebackers

A closer look at the Houston Texans inside linebackers heading into the 2018 season with a 2017 review on their performances.

Brian Cushing (163 defensive snaps, 5.28% of total team snaps)

There were already questions on how much Brian Cushing had left in the tank but that was all thrown out the window prior to the start of the season when he tested positive for DHEA, a banned substance on the NFLs PED list. The Texans held onto Cushing for ten games throughout the suspension before activating him late in the season and moving him to outside linebacker. Cushing was kept around due to the rash of injuries hitting the depth of the roster and the team opted to keep its three younger inside linebackers in position to get the bulk of the work there. It is clear that the future of Cushing with the Texans is in doubt and with a high cap hit and younger options at all the spots at inside linebacker, the time is closing for one of the longest tenured Texans. Cushing was a spot filler on the edge and it was clear that he was overmatched at times in the run game and in coverage. The Texans could easily use his cap savings to roll into a current player needing an extension or a potential free agent target who would help the team instantly.

Key Notes: Missed ten games due to a failed PED test prior to the start of the season.

2018 Status: Under Contract

Benardrick McKinney (959 defensive snaps, 93.65% of team’s total snaps)

The top snap getter on the defense, Benardrick McKinney continues to be a staple for the defense. The clear future leader for the defense, McKinney had a dip in production after being selected as an All-Pro in 2016. The decline stemmed from the big plays that opposing offenses used to take advantage of the secondary in the passing game. Added help in coverage from rookies Zach Cunningham and Dylan Cole took pressure off of McKinney to work to his strengths in run stopping and rushing the passer in nickel and dime situations. McKinney was only in coverage in pass situations 21 times and held those catches to 7.8 yards a catch. That is a clear improvement from 2017 where McKinney was targeted 39 times and gave up 11.5 yards a catch. He still has up a high clip of completion percentage but did a much better job of limiting yards after the catch. McKinney had 20 run stuffs and 19 total quarterback pressures which were close to his numbers in 2016. McKinney had to learn to play without another run stuffer in front of him and was asked to play the edge a little more than usual. His best play happened with him in the middle but this past season showed that there is plenty of room to grow as a player.

Key Notes: 95 total tackles with 12.6% of those plays made for a loss. Add in 8 quarterback hits to go along with 3 sacks. Led the Texans in tackles. Led the defense in total snaps played in 2018. Also played 85 special team snaps

2018 Status: Under contract and entering the final year of his rookie deal.

Zach Cunningham (812 snaps, 79.3% of team’s total snaps)

It took a little while for Zach Cunningham to hit his stride but he was able to show the ability to stop the run and cover the pass in both man and zone coverage. When Cunningham was drafted, there were questions on whether he could clean up his tackling on the NFL level and he did just that. He even showed a little more toughness than was expected inside the box against the run. Cunningham was a perfect fit for the skill set of his counterpart, Benardrick McKinney. Used primarily in pass situations, Cunningham did register 23 run stuff on the season with 11 of those coming in the last five games of the season. He did give up 10.2 yards a reception but he was asked to do more of the coverage work especially against running backs and tight ends. Cunningham showed his versatility to be able to drop in coverage and create tough throws for quarterbacks. His best football came late in the season and the arrow is clearly pointing up for the talented linebacker.

Key Notes: 8 total quarterback pressures, 1.5 sacks, 2 quarterback hits and 5 hurries. 47.8% of Cunningham’s run stuffs came in the final six games of the season.

2018 Status: Under contract

Dylan Cole (227 snaps, 20.2% of team’s total snaps)

One of the gems of the rookie class, especially being added as a rookie free agent after the draft, Cole is an explosive player who won a roster spot coming out of training camp. Cole’s ability was just too good to keep on the sidelines in defense sets. Paired with Zach Cunningham, Cole showed he can play the run but can also cover in zone and man situations. Cole showed he can cover downfield and had the awareness to know where routes are developing. His hamstring injury really put a damper on what started as a strong start to Cole’s rookie season but having him on the roster heading into 2018 will make him a key piece for the defense.

Key Notes: Second on the team in interceptions with 2, returned one for a touchdown. Also, had 3 pass deflections.

2018 Status: Under contract

Others of note

Jelani Jenkins – Filled in for Cushing after he was suspended and was put into action after Cole missed time with a hamstring injury, Jenkins played with his hand in a cast for majority of the season and was able to produce 10 tackles and a TFL in limited work.

2018 Status: Free agent

Brian Peters – Peters is on the roster because of his special teams work but he has not been the same impact player on special teams that he has been in the past. 9 total special teams tackles ranked him as second on the team and he helped in a pinch at inside and outside linebacker. With the Texans special teams performing so poorly, Peters was part of a unit that has not improved which could mean he could be fighting for a roster spot if retained for 2018.

2018 Status: Restricted Free Agent

2018 Outlook

Easily the strongest defensive group in 2017 and with McKinney, Cunningham, and Cole, the defense has the strongest core at inside linebacker in some time. This is the chance for the Texans to continue to add younger depth behind the three and continue to build their defense and special teams. Expect expanded roles for both Cunningham and Cole in 2018 and with McKinney entering a contract year, a decision for the Texans on whether the price tag for him could be worth it for the long haul could be on deck. With Brian Cushing still under contract for the upcoming season, his production plus his second positive PED test which caused him to miss 10 games could mean the end of the line and nearly a $7.6 million in cap savings plus $17+ million over the final two years of his contract. That cap savings could be used to haul in a much-needed player via free agency or roll that money into an extension for someone like Jadeveon Clowney. Either way, the Texans top three options at inside linebacker allow the front office to look to other positions to fill with this group in solid shape.

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