With the start of training camp inching closer, it’s time to preview the Houston Texans inside linebackers. This unit, coupled with the outside linebackers, help to shape one of the NFL’s top defensive units in 2011. Equally vital as the OLBs, the inside linebackers are a focal point in the 3-4 defensive scheme used by defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
Last season’s team MVP and current team captain Brian Cushing leads this group. Named a second-team All-Pro, Cushing led the Texans with 114 tackles to go along with 4.0 sacks, two interceptions, and two forced fumbles. Perhaps the heart and soul of the defense, Cushing will continue to patrol the field at one ILB spot.
The second starting ILB spot will see competition between newly acquired free agent Bradie James and Darryl Sharpton, who spent much of last season on IR with a quadriceps injury. The offseason departure of Demeco Ryans signaled a change at inside linebacker in terms of responsibilities and the type of player needed to play the position. James comes over from the Dallas Cowboys where he played in Phillips’ defense for three and a half seasons. James’ familiarity (and success) with the defensive scheme will make him a contributor from the onset.
Sharpton was already taking snaps away from Ryans before he went down with his injury last season. The injury was certainly a setback, but Sharpton should at least contend for some serious playing time, if not work himself into a situational rotation with James. Despite James’ experience with Phillips and his version of the 3-4, James is 31 years old and showed signs of slowing down the past couple of seasons in Dallas. This leaves the door open for Sharpton to potentially work himself into some snaps, if not win the starting job outright.
Four other ILBs will be competing for roster spots: Mister Alexander, Tim Dobbins, and undrafted free agent rookies Shawn Loiseau, and Greg Williams. As usual, the veteran with a positive track record with the team has the leg up, and that’s Dobbins. Dobbins signed with the Texans prior to the start of last season and was a standout on special teams. Unlike some of the other position groups, anybody kept on the roster at inside linebacker not named Cushing, James, or Sharpton will likely be a special teams player only. Where many positions on this defense feature rotations of players to keep everybody fresh, Cushing will not be coming off the field. He is a three-down linebacker with a tremendous motor. A two-man rotation is probably the maximum at the other ILB, so baring injury any other backup ILBs are unlikely to see much time on the defensive side of the ball.
This opens the door for the younger guys, Alexander, Loiseau, and Williams. Ideally, your special teams contributors are also developmental players who could one day work themselves into a starting role. If the Texans were to keep five ILBs, it would probably open up a spot for one of these three guys. And of course with young players, there is always the possibility of making the practice squad.
Expect Dobbins to be the Texans’ fourth ILB with Alexander, Loiseau, and Williams vying for a fifth slot on the depth chart. Inside linebacker is yet another position on the Texan defense that is loaded with talent and depth and should be a strength in 2012.
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