On Monday evening, Houston sports journalist Aaron Wilson broke the news that the Houston Texans were cutting veteran edge rusher Whitney Mercilus.
The 31-year-old former first-round draft pick, who is now in his 10th season in the league, has played his entire career in Houston. According to Wilson, the Texans are making the move as part of head coach (and former Chiefs wide receivers coach) David Cully’s desire to go with a “youth movement” along the defensive line.
Sources: Texans cutting Whitney Mercilus @SportsTalk790 @iHeartRadio https://t.co/6GHyxhxvEc— Aaron Wilson (@AaronWilson_NFL) October 18, 2021
Shortly after the news broke, Mercilus confirmed the news via his Instagram page, posting a lengthy farewell to Houston.
“It was 10 years ago I received the call that would forever change my life. The Houston Texans organization welcomed me with open arms and the City of Houston became home.
To the McNair family... Thank you for believing in a kid from Akron, Ohio.
To my teammates who have become my brothers for life... Thank you for the talks, thank you for having my back on the field and thank you for always coming through for my work in the community.
Texans fans... You have been amazing! We’ve been together through both exciting and challenging times, and I’ll always admire the heart and perseverance of the Houston community. No matter what, you’ve always showed up and supported me on and off the field.
God always has a plan, so now I await what’s ahead…Rock Boy out! ”
Hours before Mercilus was cut, Pro Football Focus salary cap analyst Brad Spielberger tweeted that both the Chiefs and the Los Angeles Chargers were looking to add players along their respective defensive lines.
Hearing the Kansas City Chiefs are currently exploring options to add along the defensive line@JFowlerESPN mentioned recently the Chargers were as well, perhaps an arms race for two AFC West teams— Brad Spielberger (@PFF_Brad) October 18, 2021
Chiefs team run defense & pass rush grades both currently dead last per PFF
Then, in a follow-up to his original tweet, Wilson added to the speculation by saying the Chiefs and Mercilus had “mutual interest” in perhaps striking a deal.
Kansas City Chiefs are among the NFL teams with strong mutual interest in veteran pass rusher Whitney Mercilus following his pending release from the Texans, according to league sources.— Aaron Wilson (@AaronWilson_NFL) October 19, 2021
Can the Chiefs afford him?
Prior to him being cut, the answer had been no. There had been some buzz that the Texans might have leaked the news to try and spur a trade offer from another team (as we saw with Stephone Gilmore), but they officially announced the move on Tuesday.
If multiple teams are in play to sign him, we could expect a one-year deal for him to still be relatively low — in the range of $1-2 million. The Chiefs — with $2.4 million in cap space — could afford that, but they would have to be creative.
However, if there isn’t a lot of competition to sign him — and Mercilus is motivated to come to Kansas City — he could probably be persuaded to sign a veteran salary benefit deal, which would be based on Mercilus’ NFL minimum salary of $1.08 million. Pro-rated for the remainder of the season, this would cost the Chiefs around $640,000 against the cap — something they can definitely afford — and they’d be able to give Mercilus a $137,500 signing bonus with no additional cap consequences.
Does Mercilus still have anything left in the tank?
Mercilus’ best season came in 2015, when he was lined up next to all-pro defensive end JJ Watt. Mercilus finished the season with 12.0 sacks that year.
Since then, he has only topped 7.5 sacks in twice. That being said, Mercilus is more athletic than his numbers might suggest. Prior to this season, Mercilus played outside linebacker for the Texans and was frequently utilized in pass coverage.
Coming off a bad year in 2020 when Pro Football Focus gave him an overall defensive grade of 39.5, Mercilus has rebounded in 2021. As of Tuesday, his current PFF grade is 61.1, with a pass-rush grade of 60.8.
This is by no means a world-beating grade, but to put things in perspective, it would be good enough to rank second on the Chiefs’ defensive line, trailing only Tershawn Wharton’s grade of 61.2, and Mercilus would be tied for the lead in sacks on the team with three.
A couple of weeks back, Houston Texans lead film analyst John Harris broke down one of Mercilus’ sacks as part of Houston’s “Telestrator” series on YouTube.
Just based on this single rep, it would appear that even at age 31, Mercilus still possesses the athletic ability to beat a top-tier tackle off the snap, and he has the bend to get around the corner and get to the quarterback.
In the video, Mercilus does an excellent job of utilizing his inside hand to rip down on the tackle's outside arm, preventing the lineman from getting into his body, allowing himself to stay clean and outside of the tackle’s frame. That provides him the leverage needed to turn the corner with very little contact and get after the quarterback.
This is only one play. But it’s enough for me to say that I might take a swing on Mercilus on an affordable one-year deal.
Is there an actual chance that the Chiefs land the veteran pass rusher?
In short, yes. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and there seems to be a lot of smoke surrounding this story. Despite the fact that the Chargers may also be bidding for Mercilus’ services, I think that it makes sense for him to choose Kansas City.
For starters, his former college roommate and Texans teammate Jeff Allen reside in the Kansas City area, and the two remain close to this day. Mercilus and Kansas City’s defensive leader, safety Tyrann Mathieu, played together in Houston in 2018.
When everything is said and done, it wouldn’t shock me if Mercilus is wearing red and gold by the end of the week.