Beyond the Boxscore
The way Wade Phillips figures it, the Houston Texans landed a 2013 Top 10 pick. Only, they did it in 2012.
That's how high Phillips is on Whitney Mercilus, the Illinois outside linebacker the Texans grabbed with the 26th pick in a wild, trade-happy first round of the NFL Draft. Mercilus' doubters call him a one-year wonder, a flash who hasn't proven he has any staying power. Phillips looks at it differently. The defensive coordinator who changed everything for the Texans believes that general manager Rick Smith swooped in on a player whose stock would have inevitably risen.
"If he had (come back) and played another year, he probably would have been in the Top 10," Phillips says on a Thursday night at Reliant Stadium that turns into another Wade night. "He'd have been Top 10 in the league. If he did the same thing another year, he'd be a Top 10 pick. Without a doubt."
" They say 'One-year wonder,' " Wade Phillips says. "But I wonder why they didn't play him the year before."
What Mercilus did as a junior at Illinois is lead the nation in sacks (16) and come up one short of the single-season NCAA record for forced fumbles with nine. Many mock drafts projected that the Chicago Bears would grab Mercilus with the 19th pick. Instead, the Texans patiently waited and watched another toy for the mad scheming Phillips fall right into their laps.
"When I signed my contract with Mr. (Bob) McNair, he said we could get a first round player on defense every year," Phillips cracks. "That's part of it."
One could debate that the Texans need another play-making wide receiver more. Georgia Tech's Stephen Hill is starting to look more and more like one of those dropping steals after his first night green room stay went for naught. But it's hard to argue with a pick that Phillips believes in this much, especially not after what Smith and Phillips pulled off with J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed last year.
And it's hard not to like Mercilus even more once you hear him on the phone.
"It means they play nasty," he says of the Texans' ranking No. 2 in the NFL in total defense last season. Later, Mercilus goes into how that fits his own defensive personality.
"I'm nasty," he says. "I get after the passer. I'm not going to give up. I give 110 percent all day, every day."
There's some natural doubt over whether the newest Texan always did that of course. When this type of player starts only two games as a sophomore in 2010 for an Illinois team that didn't exactly dominate the Big Ten with its talent, flags are raised.
Phillips doesn't care.
"They say 'One-year wonder,' " Phillips says. "But I wonder why they didn't play him the year before."
What the heck was that since-fired Illinois staff thinking?
The Bold, Patient Move
This pick seems to have the fingerprints of Rick Smith all over it rather than the more conservative, safe Gary Kubiak touch. Smith and Kubiak can talk about how they work together all they want. But in the end, you have to think one push matters more.
Phillips says that the Texans considered moving up from 26 with the aim of landing Mercilus. On a night when everyone else seemed to move (eight trades in all), it had to be tempting. Instead Smith gambled and still got a player Phillips loves.
"He's like a guy we have," Phillips says. "And that’s why we really liked him. He’s a smart player. He’s athletic. He’s tough and physical, but he’s a self-starter, a high-motor guy that plays with ability. You want those high-motor guys."
Phillips talked about a high motor when he raved about J.J. Watt after last year's draft. It's insanely unfair to expect Mercilus to have anything close to the same impact. After all, Watt was a much higher pick (No. 11 overall) and he ended up playing like a Top 3 pick (despite my well-documented doubts — yes, I thought it was a major mistake not to take Nick Fairley instead). Watt and Mercilus also play completely different positions, have different roles.
You don't get two J.J. Watts. Mercilus is not the next Mario Williams either, despite the inevitable link.
This pick seems to have the fingerprints of Rick Smith all over it rather than the more conservative, safe Gary Kubiak touch.
But Phillips will still let Mercilus loose. Phillips himself brought up Reed and Connor Barwin as more apt comparisons for Mercilus. Those two might have been second-round picks, but they've played like first rounders. If you get the same from the 26th pick in the draft, you can't feel bad about that.
Mercilus just might have more upside than that too.
He name drops Julius Peppers and Dwight Freeney — only two of the most devastating pass rushers in recent NFL history — himself. Why aim low?
Mercilus has already shown his toughness by coming back from losing part of his left index finger in a scary weight-lifting accident at Illinois. He doesn't figure to be intimidated by the NFL's big stage. He wasn't invited to Radio City Music Hall's major stage for the draft. Instead, Mercilus watched things back in Akron, Ohio, — the land of LeBron — with family and friends.
On a night when Texas' other NFL team made a bold move to jump from No. 14 to No. 6 and take the cornerback they hope is the next Patrick Peterson, the Texans sat back and waited their turn. Waited as long as the franchise has ever waited before.
Then, Smith made Wade Phillips happy. There is nothing wrong with that logic.