After doing a grade of the Texans wide receivers, it is time to move over to the defense side of the football and focus on the linebackers. The Texans linebackers have been a longtime strength for the Texans, but some of the standouts weren’t able to be graded. For example, powerhouse outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus only played five games before suffering a season-ending chest injury, so he will not receive a grade. In addition, strongside linebacker Brian Cushing only played five games due to a combination of suspension and injury so he can’t receive a grade as well.
Zach Cunningham – Inside Linebacker – B
A second round pick out of Vanderbilt, Zach Cunningham admirably filled up the inside linebacker role left by Brian Cushing and then Whitney Mercilus. These injuries and suspensions have allowed Cunningham to be the 21st ranked inside linebacker in football, with an 80.6 grade on Pro Football Focus, which capped off a season that included 45 tackles and 1.5 sacks. This followed a junior year at Vanderbilt, where he was one of the best linebackers in college football and recorded 125 tackles. This ability to find the football and tackle runners has transferred from college to the pro level where he had 45 tackles, which is a promising thing to see. While he wasn’t great this season, Zach Cunningham was a decent replacement for Cushing and Mercilus, and was able to quickly adjust to the pro level.
Jadeveon Clowney – Outside Linebacker – A+
Jadeveon Clowney solidified himself as one of the best linebackers in football, being ranked the 49th best player in football on the NFL Top 100 segment. In addition, Clowney was ranked the 14th best edge defender with a 88.3 grade on Pro Football Focus. Clowney’s 2017 included career best’s in sacks (9.5) and tackles (41), which are mainly the result of being able to play all 16 games for the first time in his career. The cherry on top of Clowney’s best season to date is the fact that he had two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries, both tied for the team lead. Drafted first overall in 2014, Clowney finally had a season that showcased his abilities and proved that he could stay healthy for an entire season.
Benardrick McKinney – Inside Linebacker – B-
Benardrick McKinney, along with Zach Cunningham, had a solid 2017 season for the Houston Texans. He was the 25th best inside linebacker in football with a 79.7 grade on Pro Football Focus. Like Jadeveon Clowney, McKinney showed off his durability this season, starting all 16 games for the second season in a row. This capped off a season where McKinney had 62 tackles, which led all of Texans linebackers. Three sacks as an inside linebacker is not to shabby as well. While he didn’t have a great season, McKinney had a decent year and was a solid run-stopper for the second year in a row.
Overall Grade: A-
Even though they might deserve slightly less because of McKinney and Cunningham, the unit as a whole performed very well and continued to be one the Texans biggest strengths along with the defensive line.