This week’s under the radar player doesn’t come from the Cowboys, but from a different Texas team.
Whitney Mercilus, outside linebacker for the Texans, has been fantastic throughout the first three weeks of the season.
Mercilus built a reputation as a great pass rusher throughout his time in college at the University of Illinois and his first six seasons in the NFL.
Last year, after returning from a significant injury in 2017, he struggled mightily and finished the year with only four sacks.
The Illinois product was easily forgotten among the Texan’s front seven as continually people referred to the likes of JJ Watt or Jadeveon Clowney when they thought of the Texan’s pass rush.
Mercilus often played out of position as a coverage backer because Clowney was dominating the snaps as the one edge rusher in the Texans defensive scheme.
Mercilus struggled in this position because he isn’t natural in coverage. His frame is too wide and can look stiff when faced against shifty running backs because his lateral movement isn’t top end.
This offseason the Texans traded away Clowney, as they didn’t want to pay him to be a top defender in the NFL, and so Mercilus regained his most natural position, edge rusher.
This trade drove Mercilus back into his most natural position—his body profiles perfectly for an edge defender. His wide shoulders are beneficial against the run and his flexibility makes him a dominant pass rusher because he can bend his hips to maneuver around offensive linemen.
Mercilus flourishes when he uses his speed and quickness to get around the edge and can counter offensive linemen with his ultra quick spin move.
This has resulted in the eight-year veteran already having four sacks, which is tied for fourth among all NFL players and matches his total from all of last year—with thirteen more games to play.
Mercilus also leads the league in forced fumbles with a total of three, two of which have been game-altering plays.
Last week against Jacksonville the Texans were in a defensive battle. Neither team could score a touchdown on a full field and the Texans were routinely starting their drives inside their own 20 yard line.
Then, Mercilus may have had the biggest play of the game.
Mercilus had been trying to get around the edge of tackle Will Richardson the whole game and was quite successful.
Richardson had to overcompensate for Mercilus’s speed so he overcommitted to the speed rush, dropping too far back into his shuffle, knowing he had the guard to help him on the inside.
Unfortunately, Mercilus was too quick for the guard to play any factor in the play and he spun inside of Richardson, sacking Bortles inside his own 15 and causing him to fumble.
The Texans recovered the fumble, scored on the ensuing drive and won the game by one point.
Mercilus’s game-changing play was beautiful and if someone thought his season couldn’t get off to a better start than that, he followed up his performance with another game-changing play.
In the third game of the season, the Texans were trailing for most of the game against the Chargers until Mercilus had another strip sack. This one caused Philip Rivers to fumble. JJ Watt recovered the fumble and the Texans never looked back. The team scored on its next drive and never conceded the lead.
Mercilus’s unbelievable start to the season has resulted in plenty of great stats— leading the league in forced fumbles, top 5 in sacks, and even having an interception off Drew Brees— but what is most impressive is how his impact plays have come in the biggest moments.
Mercilus is slowly making all Houston fans forget about the infamous trade, which let star defensive linemen Jadeveon Clowney walk for practically nothing.
He is this week’s under the radar player.