When the Houston Texans unveiled their No. 1 draft pick on the first day of organized team activities, eyes were definitely on the top prize.
"He's pretty ready to go," Texans head coach Gary Kubiak relayed to team insiders after getting a first-hand look at his first round pick. "We’re just excited about him. Getting him out here and getting him to work, and having him here in the city of Houston is exciting for everybody, including this guy."
This guy is University of Southern California linebacker Brian Cushing, whom the Texans selected with the No. 15 pick in last month's NFL draft. Cushing became Houston's fifth defensive first round pick in the organization's eight-year history. The Texans have chosen a defensive player with their first pick in five of the last six years.
Since 2003, the team's second year in the league, Houston has finished no higher than 22nd in the NFL in total defense. In two of those seasons, the Texans' defense ranked 31st in the 32-team league.
After selecting quarterback David Carr with the first pick in franchise history in 2002, Houston ranked 16th in total defense.
That begs the question: What kind of an impact will Cushing have as defense once again remains a focal point?
"I'm really trying to get the base defense down," he said. "I'm sure as camp progresses and the more I learn, I can also work in the nickel a little bit. The biggest thing for me right now is to get out there and run around. I'm not going to know everything, but the biggest thing is effort.
"I'm going to try to learn this playbook inside and out, know what every single player's doing on the field, and like I said, help this team as best as possible."
Cushing found himself soaking up the system from fourth-year linebacker DeMeco Ryans, the Texans' first pick of the second round in 2006.
"It's been a privilege already to play next to him," Cushing said. "All-Pro linebacker, just an unbelievable talent, so I'm going to try to get everything I can from him. He was in the same situation, and he's just been doing a great job since day one."
Ryans has started every game since he's been in the league. He's also led the Texans in tackles in each of those previous three seasons. In his rookie season, he had a career-high 156 tackles and three-and-a-half sacks, while picking off one pass, and recording five pass deflections. Last year, Ryans had a team-high 112 tackles, a sack, and four pass deflections.
In 13 games at USC last year, Cushing had 73 tackles, including 10.5 for loss, and three sacks. His 73 stops was second on the team behind Rey Maualuga's 79. Cushing had six pass breakups, one interception, and a forced fumble.
A team captain, Ryans silenced rumors he would skip the non-mandatory OTAs after he missed several weeks of offseason workouts while negotiating a new contract with the Texans.
"It just lets them know that I care about them and I'm here to win games, and that’s what it's all about," Ryans said in an interview with HoustonTexans.com.
"We're here to accomplish the goal of winning games. With me being here and all the other guys seeing me here, that just lets them know that that's what I'm about. I'm about winning, winning first. That's what it's going to take for us to move forward as a franchise is to start winning games."
Ryans’ presence registered well with his coaching staff.
"DeMeco's upholding his end," Kubiak said. "He’s busting his tail. He's out here leading his team, which everybody expected him to do. We understand the issue he's working through and those type of things. That's part of football, but the thing that's always been impressive about him, and continues to be, is that he's going to take care of his business, and everybody out here knows that he will do that."
What kind of influence Ryans has on Cushing remains to be seen. Either way, the Texans haven't been shy expressing they are pleased with their investment.
"I can't tell you enough how excited we are to have Brian," defensive coordinator Frank Bush said after making the USC linebacker the team's top pick. "Brian was a kid that we targeted all along. We just like the way he plays football. I like the energy he brings, the intensity he brings."
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