In committing to Whitney Mercilus, the Texans played it safe

One big question about Houston’s offseason was answered early on Saturday, on the eve of their game against the Titans, when the team officially signed Whitney Mercilus to a contract extension. Mercilus had been one of the team’s priority free agents, and Bill O’Brien had expressed interest in keeping him a Texan for a long time in a press conference earlier this month.

Per Aaron Wilson, the deal is for four years and comes with $24.5 million in guarantees.

If you want a window into where that fits in the NFL landscape, compare to this list of EDGE rusher contracts — Mercilus was not valued as a top-tier EDGE, but he did fairly well for himself against contracts signed last offseason.

via Over The Cap

To me, the contracts signed last offseason are the most instructive. That means the easiest direct comparisons are to players like Preston Smith, Brandon Graham, and, just above this tier of players by average salary, ZaDarius Smith.

On just the pure terms of value, I don’t think the deal is bad. You have to factor in a slight bump for the rising salary cap. Neither Smith was playing up to the level they have this year before they signed their current contracts. Graham is practically a Philly institution and has never created gaudy sack totals. You can see how each of these players had warts, as Mercilus does coming into this contract.

But, do you commit to Whitney Mercilus no matter what?

That’s where I’m a bit confused by the terms of this deal. Mercilus is 30, and though he created 7.5 sacks (through the first 15 games), he also had long stretches where he was practically uninvolved as a pass rusher. In fact, a lot of his early sack prowess came because of the exploits of fellow free-agent-to-be D.J. Reader:

Mercilus finished the year with very strong box score stats, but he was never dominant, and has a marked split of being better against bad tackles. His biggest game of the year was over Jaguars backup tackle Will Richardson:

So look at what Mercilus is, and then look at what the market was going to have available — and I’m going to be nice and pretend Jadeveon Clowney isn’t an option. Yannick Ngakoue is scheduled for free agency. Dante Fowler. Shaq Barrett. Bud Dupree. Matt Judon. Kyle Van Noy. Robert Quinn. Jason Pierre-Paul. Some of those players would have been franchised, sure. But some of them have also been able to get consistent rush this year from one-on-one situations, which is something I don’t think you can say about Mercilus.

Once you sign Mercilus, and you commit to keeping Romeo Crennel around, you know that the Texans aren’t going to be signing another big contract at EDGE. The team struggled to effectively use Mercilus with Clowney in the fold. They played him in zone coverage heavily, which I wrote about for The Athletic at the time.

I think Whitney Mercilus is a nice player. I think he’s overextended as someone’s No. 1 pass rusher, which we learned this season as he disappeared for weeks at a time after J.J. Watt went down. But I think you look at him as the fifth- or sixth-best player on your defense and that said defense is probably doing pretty well.

The Texans believe in his intangibles and value them highly. They value who he is, rather than what class of player he is. I don’t think they’re necessarily wrong to value those intangibles, but if you wanted to launch a critique of the signing, you would start with the fact that there’s not a lot of hidden upside left to tap and end at “so why not wait to see what the market bears for everybody?”

It’s been weird getting older and talking about player contracts. Coming from a standpoint of efficiency, you sort of got indoctrinated in to this field of “is this contract good for the team?” and the general perspective is — paying good money to non-elite players when you can still chase elite players isn’t great. At the same time, I’m happy for Mercilus, who stuck out some real issues in 2018 and rebounded from his torn pec to become a solid contributor. Mercilus converted the season-altering interception return off Justin Reid’s breakup in the end zone against Tennessee. There’s a lot more emotion in me about things like this than there used to be.

In the end, the Texans took the safe route. Mercilus is a known, and free agency could have left them scrambling for an unknown.

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Bryan Anger also re-upped on Saturday. I have a lot less to say about this, but Anger has been an exceptional punter this year and I understand why the Texans valued him as much as they do. Aaron Wilson says the total value of the contract is three years, $7.5 million, which values Anger as one of the top 10 punters in the NFL on average salary.

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