Back to the defensive side of the ball we go as we take a look at the Texans' linebackers. It's a pretty safe assumption that Pro Bowl middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans and 114-tackle-a-year weakside linebacker Morlon Greenwood aren't in any danger of losing their starting jobs any time soon. As for the Texans' strong side linebacker? Well, since there isn't one on the roster who started a game last season, that race is up for grabs.
Danny Clark and Charlie Anderson departed in free agency, leaving Zac Diles as the last linebacker standing. The 2007 seventh-round draft pick out of Kansas State enters his second NFL season as the favorite to win the starting job. Why? He has a year of experience in Richard Smith's defense, a year's worth of chemistry with Ryans and Greenwood and a year of having built the confidence of his head coach, Gary Kubiak, after excelling on special teams and in spot reserve duty on defense last season.
Diles is eager to earn the starting spot this offseason, but he'll have to fend off some serious competition, as the Texans added more linebackers through free agency and the draft (three) than they did at any other position with ex-Brown Chaun Thompson, former Seahawk Kevin Bentley and rookie Xavier Adibi.
Thompson and Bentley played together in Cleveland in 2003 and 2004, and both have NFL starting experience – Thompson with 30 starts in five seasons, Bentley with 22 starts in six. Thompson is a speedy player with upside and big playmaking ability, while Bentley has good range and coverage skills. Bentley also has the most playoff experience of any linebacker on the Texans' roster (in fact, only one other Texans LB has any playoff experience: Greenwood, who played one postseason game in 2002 with Miami. Bentley has eight playoff appearances to his name).
Adibi, meanwhile, is one of those players who seems to find his way into every tackle pile. Last season, he led Virginia Tech – college football's fourth-rated defense in 2007 – with 115 tackles. The Texans' staff feels it got great value for him in the fourth round.
Texans coaches have to be feeling good about their linebacker corps. If Diles doesn't earn the final starting spot, it means one of the new players will have wrestled the job away from a player who made a big impression on the staff last season. If Diles does end up the starter, the competition from the three challengers will have made him a better player.
- Nick Scurfield