Texans' Mercilus transitions to full-time role

SAN DIEGO -- Last season the Houston Texans didn't use outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus much, but when they did he made a difference.

Their first-round draft pick from 2012 only played 469 snaps last season, putting him in the bottom half of playing time for defensive first-round picks from 2012. Only Fletcher Cox's production rate was higher than Mercilus's last season. With some help from ESPN Stats & Info, I counted impact plays as forced fumbles, fumble recoveries, tackles for loss, sacks, pass breakups and interceptions. The last column, in the chart below, shows on what percent of their snaps each player made an impact play.

Tonight, Mercilus begins his first season as an NFL starter, replacing Connor Barwin, who left in free agency. It's perfectly reasonable to expect his production rate to go down in his new full-time role. Add to the fact Mercilus missed the preseason, forced to be patient while healing a hamstring injury, and there could be an ajustment period.

But Mercilus learned a lot through the course of last season and that's a process every rookie goes through.

"I think I would be able to produce double-digit sacks and I’m pretty confident in myself," Mercilus said. "It’s just a matter of putting in the work to get there."

It's something the Texans could use. Last season a majority of their sacks came from their defensive ends J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith. Outside pressure is hugely important and they expect the return of inside linebacker Brian Cushing to create mismatches that help their outside linebackers.

"It's actually huge," Mercilus said. "They can’t just focus on one person if we have edge pressure. It’s going to free up J.J. It’s going to free up Cush. It’s going to free up me, (OLB) Brooks (Reed), Antonio when he gets back, and it’s just you can’t just game plan for one guy. As soon as we get that pressure on the outside, guys on the inside are going to come free. Get the pressure on the inside, guys on the outside are going to come free."