Plugging the holes: AFC South

Brian Cushing

AFC East | AFC North | AFC South | AFC West
NFC East | NFC North | NFC South | NFC West

Welcome to the 2014 version of Plugging the Holes, an eight-part examination from Football Outsiders of the biggest needs for every NFL team, division by division, going into the offseason.

Earlier in the week we examined the AFC East and  AFC North. The series continues Wednesday, with Outsiders' look at the AFC South. The AFC West will follow on Thursday.

Houston Texans: Linebacker

Obviously, the Texans' biggest issue is their desperate need for a quarterback with an NFL future, but chances are they will select one with the No. 1 overall pick. So let's go ahead and put a check in that box for now, as it is a pretty well-identified need by this point.

The biggest non-QB problem last season was at linebacker. The Texans signed a six-year extension with Brian Cushing in September, only to watch him end a second consecutive campaign on injured reserve with a torn LCL and a broken fibula. Cushing returned from his first injury in good shape, and though his medical history is starting to make the contract look a little scary, LCLs and broken fibulas aren't devastating injuries in the long run.

But Cushing hasn't been the problem; it's the players around him who have disappointed. Former first-rounder Whitney Mercilus went from part-time pass-rusher to full-time player following Connor Barwin's departure last offseason, and he went from 6.0 sacks (in 2012) to 7.0 mostly because he picked up 2.5 against a battered Seattle Seahawks line early in the season. Mercilus also had a few misadventures with the concept of setting the edge. Former second-rounder Brooks Reed has had so many issues as a pass-rusher that he has continually been hounded by rumors of a position switch to middle linebacker since Cushing went down. That's what happens when you notch 5.5 sacks in your past two seasons combined. Then there's former fourth-rounder Darryl Sharpton, who is injury-prone, a free agent and has the zone coverage instincts of a fish out of water.

Veteran run-stuffer Joe Mays and waiver claim Jeff Tarpinian filled out this sad-sack unit that helped lead Houston to just two negative (i.e. better than average) defensive DVOA game scores over the final nine games of the season. (DVOA is Football Outsiders' defense-adjusted value over average metric, explained here.)

Assuming Houston uses its first pick on a quarterback, the Texans will miss out on most of the best pass-rushers in this class. And, assuming they bet on Cushing to rebound (which, contractually, they have almost no choice but to do), it's unlikely they'll use a high pick on a second middle linebacker to fill out Romeo Crennel's 3-4 defense. So, the hope is likely that they'll find an edge rusher at the top of the second round.

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