The Texans' linebacker corps is a clear strength of the team in 2012. The unit features four players who were drafted in the first or second round over the last four years: inside linebacker Brian Cushing (first round, 2009) and outside linebackers Connor Barwin (second, 2009), Brooks Reed (second, 2011) and Whitney Mercilus (first, 2012).
Cushing was voted the Texans' 2011 MVP after leading the team with 114 tackles. He also had 4.0 sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. He was named a team captain at midseason and second-team All-Pro at season's end. He will play the Mo position on the weakside in 2012 after playing at Mike on the strongside in 2011.
Barwin led the Texans with 11.5 sacks in 2011. He tied for the NFL lead with 9.5 sacks from Week 9 through the end of the season after moving from Sam on the strongside to Will on the weakside following a season-ending injury to Mario Williams. He also led the Texans with 27 quarterback hits and had seven passes defensed.
Reed, the starter at Sam, set a Texans rookie record with 6.0 sacks last season. He moved into the starting lineup after Williams' injury and soon afterward recorded a sack in five consecutive games. Reed had 3.5 sacks in the playoffs, tying for the NFL postseason lead.
Bradie James enters training camp as a projected starter after signing from the Dallas Cowboys in free agency. James, 31, played for Phillips and linebackers coach Reggie Herring in Dallas from 2007-10, leading the team in tackles each season. He will call the Texans' defense from the Mike position on the inside.
"All four of those guys are challenging each other every day," Herring said. "They're competitive. They're spirited. They're what I would call an excellent, excellent group of linebackers. All of 'em are pros, accountable. They demand the best from each other, and the chemistry is unlike I've ever been around. That gets you excited as a coach."
James could be pushed for his starting job by Darryl Sharpton, a 2010 fourth-round pick from Miami (Fla.) who is coming off a season-ending quadriceps injury.
Mercilus, drafted 26th overall out of Illinois, is expected to be the Texans' third outside linebacker and play in a rotation with Barwin and Reed. Mercilus led the NCAA with 16 sacks and nine forced fumbles in 2011.
Other linebackers to watch are outside linebacker Bryan Braman, a second-year undrafted pro from West Texas A&M with exceptional athleticism; outside linebacker Jesse Nading, who's entering his fifth season with the Texans; and inside linebacker Tim Dobbins, a seventh-year veteran and special teams standout who re-signed with the Texans this offseason.