Coinciding with our Texans TV 2009 season preview series with "Voice of the Texans" Marc Vandermeer, HoustonTexans.com takes a position-by-position look at the Texans in the days leading up to training camp. Our seventh position preview looks at the Texans' linebackers.
Key players:DeMeco Ryans (2008: 112 tackles, 1 sack, 2 FF, 3 FR), Brian Cushing
Additions: Cushing (first-round draft pick, USC), Cato June (free agent, Tampa Bay), Buster Davis (free agent, Indianapolis)
Subtractions: Morlon Greenwood (released)
2008 breakdown: Ryans played through an ankle injury last season and had 112 tackles. Since entering the league in 2006, he leads the NFL with 19 double-digit tackle games and 310 solo tackles.
Zac Diles, a 2007 seventh-round pick, was leading the Texans with 66 tackles when he suffered a season-ending leg injury in November. Rookie fourth-round pick Xavier Adibi overcame illness and injuries to start five games in the final two months of the season. He earned league all-rookie honors with 34 tackles.
Veteran Kevin Bentley started seven games on the strongside after Diles' injury. He also backed up Ryans at middle linebacker and led the Texans in special teams tackles. Chaun Thompson was slowed by a hamstring injury but finished the year with one sack. Weakside linebacker Morlon Greenwood's production dropped off after four consecutive 100-tackle seasons. He was replaced in the starting lineup by Adibi late in the year.
The big question:What kind of impact will Cushing have as a rookie?
Cushing became the Texans' starting strongside linebacker the moment he was drafted 15th overall out of USC. At 6-3, 262 pounds, he's already bigger than the rest of the team's linebackers and plays with a nasty disposition. He can drop into pass coverage or rush the passer, but his biggest asset is his strength against the run.
"You look at him on the practice field at OTAs, and he just pops out because he's so large," Vandemeer said. "The size at linebacker he delivers, the caliber of play he demonstrated at USC, makes you think he's going to be a big-time NFL linebacker, so we're all very excited to see him on the field at training camp and in the preseason."
Camp battle to watch:Weakside linebacker position
The starting weakside spot is up for grabs. Diles was playing as well as any Texans defender at the time of his injury last season, but it's unclear exactly how healthy he'll be at training camp. Coach Gary Kubiak tabbed him as "very close" to being full speed during OTAs, when Diles participated in non-contact drills with the team.
Adibi is coming off a rookie season in which he showed promise but also missed time with injuries and an illness that caused him to lose weight. After vigorous offseason training, the speedy youngster has bulked up to 243 pounds. June is a former Pro Bowler and Super Bowl winner with the Colts. His big-game experience and veteran savvy could give him a shot in the competition.
"It's interesting because you have Xavier Adibi and Zac Diles who played so well for this team before getting hurt," Vandermeer said. "But you look at the signing of Cato June, and here's someone who has a Super Bowl ring and always plays at a high level… I think he's going to be very well-noticed."
Roster size (2009 vs. 2008):Heading into Week 1 of the 2008 season, the Texans had six linebackers on the active roster: Ryans, Adibi, Diles, Thompson, Greenwood and Bentley. Kevis Coley was on the practice squad.
Six is the likely cut-off point in 2009 as well. June will have to prove that he can play on special teams to make the roster. Thompson, Davis and undrafted rookie Toddrick Verdell also will compete for a spot on the team.
Final thought:Linebacker was one of the Texans' thinnest positions heading into the 2009 offseason. By adding Cushing and June, Rick Smith and his staff have turned it into one of the team's deepest. That improved depth will give coaches more opportunities to rest Ryans, who has been nicked up for both of the past two seasons.
They might have a tough time trying to convince Ryans to leave the field, but it's a good problem to have.
"Think about this linebacking corps — if Cushing is as good as advertised, and Diles or Adibi or June or whoever is on the other side, how good is DeMeco going to be if healthy?" Vandermeer said. "This is a position group that's emerging as one of the strongest position groups on the team, so that has to excite a lot of fans for 2009."