Recall that the headline of this article refers to the “hardest remaining cuts.” The release of his first-round choice from the 2012 draft would be the hardest cut for general manager Rick Smith to stomach.
Recall that Mercilus was chosen as the eventual replacement for Mario Williams, a free-agency loss in the 2012 offseason.
Connor Barwin would handle the role of pass-rushing outside linebacker until the former defensive end from the University of Illinois could handle the myriad tasks associated with his new position. Barwin was also going into a contract year in 2012 and might not have re-signed, making the rapid development of rookie even more essential.
Forget the seven sacks Mercilus was credited with in 2013, his first season as a starter. Most were the result of good fortune and not good play. In fact, 4.5 of them came in three of the first five games, back when Brian Cushing was still in the lineup.
Forget the declaration that Mercilus was the worst 3-4 outside linebacker as graded by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) if you can. His placement at the bottom of the OLBs has dogged him across the web, from Rotoworld to CBS Houston to Fox Sports and beyond.
The arrival of Jadeveon Clowney knocked the former starter down to the second-string “Jack” linebacker, a pass-rusher by trade who must also handle some coverage duties. The speculation surrounding the shift of Brooks Reed from outside to inside linebacker was rampant before the start of training camp. This switch should have put Mercilus in the driver’s seat to take over Reed’s job on the strong side.
During the first week of camp, Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle (subscription required) implied Mercilus had the right combination of skills to make the move:
With Cushing and Reed stacked inside and Clowney adjusting to weakside outside linebacker, Mercilus has the potential for an NFL breakout in 2014. Offenses must account for Watt, Cushing and Clowney on every play, often leaving the Texans' strongside outside linebacker free to roam. Mercilus' rare combination of speed, strength and on-field intelligence should help him constantly stream through holes while opponents focus on the Texans' star defensive trio.
After all this buildup, Reed opened the Arizona Cardinals game in his usual spot at right outside linebacker. Not only was Mercilus nowhere to be seen in the starting lineup, he wasn’t even the first OLB to fill in on either side of the formation. Quentin Groves replaced Clowney, and Jason Ankrah replaced Reed before Mercilus even made it off the bench late in the second quarter.
This pattern changed somewhat against the Atlanta Falcons, with Mercilus getting the bulk of the snaps (32) in relief of Clowney, per PFF. Chris McAllister, an undrafted rookie free agent out of Baylor, was close behind with 27 snaps, making the veteran’s hold on the position feel rather tenuous.
All this evidence is largely circumstantial. The odds that the 26th overall selection of the 2012 NFL draft will end up on waivers are slim.
Smith has already lost considerable face regarding the 2013 draft with the dismissal of both of his third-round picks, Brennan Williams and Sam Montgomery, and fourth-rounder Trevardo Williams. Cutting ties with a first-rounder would further weaken his position and reputation.
But Bill O’Brien has not been shy about showing players the door if they don’t fit the system or the plan. Witness the players above, along with Danieal Manning, Owen Daniels, Brice McCain, Alan Bonner and Cody White.
Clowney has shown that all the hype about his otherworldly athleticism was justified. Reed has the training to play two positions. Ankrah and Groves have shown enough in limited action to both have a shot at surviving the final cuts.
Mercilus has some value as a pass-rusher but may be too one-dimensional to make this team. That value might translate into trade possibilities given the NFL truism that states “You can’t have too many pass-rushers.”
If a seventh-round pick ends up being the return on the first-round investment in Mercilus, then it might as well be considered a cut.