For all the talk about Mario Williams this offseason, another key Texans defensive player who's switching positions seems to be getting overlooked.
His name is Brian Cushing.
The 2009 AP Defensive Rookie of the Year will be the Mike linebacker, inside on the strongside, in the Texans' 3-4. Linebackers coach Reggie Herring said he thinks that Cushing (6-3, 263) has an "unlimited" ceiling at the position.
"I've always dreamed of a Mike linebacker with his stature, his physical stature," Herring said. "His demeanor is second to none as far as the way he plays on film. He tries to hurt people when he tackles. He's relentless in his effort. He's a big, physical guy. He's going to line up to the tight end side and alls he's got to come do is run inside-out to the football and control that inside hard-nose run game, and I think he's a physical matchup for any guard or fullback leading on him.
"If you have instincts and you're a football player, you can play inside linebacker in our scheme. And that's what he has. He has instincts, he has size, he can run and hit. And we hopefully now instead of having him outside, we'll have him inside where he can be in position to make more plays."
Cushing was a 4-3 outside linebacker in his first two NFL seasons. Playing on the strongside, he led the Texans with 133 tackles as a rookie along with four interceptions and four sacks. He had 76 tackles last season after missing the first four games due to suspension.
The Texans think he'll be just as productive, if not more, from inside in the 3-4.
"That's part of putting him in the middle is so he can make a lot of plays," defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. "You've got a chance to make over 100 tackles from the inside, and with his abilities, we think he can be able to make that. When you put a guy on the side, one side or the other, then they can run away from him. If he's in the middle, can't run away from him."
Phillips likes Cushing's aggressive demeanor, and he isn't concerned about a perceived drop-off in Cushing's play last season.
"I saw the same things in him last year that I saw in his rookie year, which were he is talented, he can run, he's tough, very physical, he's athletic," Phillips said. "All the things you want."
Cushing will line up next to DeMeco Ryans, who's moving from the Mike position in the 4-3 to the Mo weak inside position in the 3-4. Ryans and Cushing thrived off one another's play in 2009, when both made the Pro Bowl and finished as the Texans' two leading tacklers. They played together for only one-and-a-half games in 2010 before Ryans suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in Week 6.
"The unique part about a 3-4 is you've got two guys inside that can make a lot of plays, so it gives you a chance to get a playmaker in a spot where he can make plays," Phillips said.
Herring is quick to point out that Bradie James led the Dallas Cowboys in tackles in each of the last four seasons from Cushing's Mike position, and that he led all NFL inside linebackers with eight sacks in 2008.
"We're going to be bringing him up a lot inside on blitzes," Herring said of Cushing. "DeMeco as well. Both of them ought to be battling for the leading tackler on the team and the league, and that's going to be our mentality.
"We feel like (Cushing) rushes the passer actually more effectively, better, up inside with his power and burst and explosion. (He) can present more problems with pass rushing inside."
Phillips said that Cushing will be doing plenty of that from his new position.
"Oh, yeah," Phillips said. "(Herring) probably told you, Bradie James had eight sacks one year from the inside. But I just think he's going to be able to make so many more plays and interceptions and things like that. Putting him in the middle is a key place for him."