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Re-signing John Simon would help Texans' depth at linebacker

HOUSTON -- As free agency gets closer, here’s a look at who the Houston Texans have returning and what they might need to add this offseason at each position.

Linebackers

Under contract for 2017: ILB Brian Cushing, OLB Whitney Mercilus, ILB Benardrick McKinney, ILB Max Bullough, ILB Brian Peters, OLB Tony Washington, ILB Shakeel Rashad.

Free agents: ILB Akeem Dent, OLB John Simon.

How they fared in 2016: Mercilus had a slow start to the season, but he ended up leading the Texans in sacks. After Jadeveon Clowney made the switch from playing outside linebacker to defensive end and Simon missing five games late in the season, Mercilus' role increased even more.

In his sophomore season, McKinney took a big step forward, nearly doubling his tackles. He finished the year with five sacks, a forced fumble, two passes defended, 11 quarterback hits and eight tackles for a loss. McKinney and Cushing provide a consistent, stabilizing force in the middle of the Texans' defense.

The Texans’ run defense struggled to start the season, but they improved as the year went on, allowing an average of 99.7 yards per game. McKinney's emergence helped that cause, and there was some improvement after Cushing returned from an early-season two-game absence.

Position outlook: The Texans are set at inside linebacker between Cushing and McKinney. Bullough, entering his fourth NFL season, is a capable backup, as well; he filled in for Cushing while he was injured.

Simon is a free agent, and if Houston does not re-sign him, they will need to add depth at outside linebacker, especially after Clowney made the (what appears to be permanent) move from outside linebacker to defensive end last season.

“He’s a tough, physical, relentless player that we enjoy playing with," Texans head coach Bill O'Brien said of Simon. "Just knowing how much he loves the game and I think he really proves that and shows that with the kind of style of play that he has and goes out there every week."

The Texans could add some depth at linebacker, but they are already returning the pieces that helped the unit finish the regular season ranked No. 1 in the NFL in total defense.

Level of need (low, medium or high):: medium

By the numbers

4: Defensive fumble recoveries Mercilus had in 2016, which was tied for the most in the NFL.

129: Tackles McKinney had to lead the Texans and finish 11th in the NFL, which was a single-season career high. McKinney also recorded a career-high 5.0 sacks, making him the only player in the NFL in 2016 with at least 100 tackles and 5.0 sacks.