Houston Texans: Young defensive leaders set to emerge

JACKSONVILLE, FL - NOVEMBER 13: Benardrick McKinney
JACKSONVILLE, FL - NOVEMBER 13: Benardrick McKinney /

The Houston Texans have the best defense in the NFL and that looks to continue as young players start to become new leaders.

No defense, even one as good as the Houston Texans, can be the league’s best for long without churning the depth chart. For some teams, that means dropping out of the top rankings as younger players falter when older players depart. For the Texans, that may not be a problem. Young defenders are stepping up and ensuring that the transition from the “old” guard will be seamless.

When thinking of the Texans defense one name quickly comes to the forefront: J.J. Watt. At 28 years of age, Watt still has plenty of good football in front of him and he figures to do most of it in a Texans uniform (Watt is signed through 2021). Yet, Watt is already part of the established older guard of Houston defenders. He helped build the foundation for the NFL’s best defense and with only three game appearances in 2016 it was proven that the foundation he built is strong.

Watt, together with 28-year old cornerback Kareem Jackson, 29-year old linebacker Brian Cushing, 32-year old cornerback Johnathan Joseph, and 31-year old safety Quintin Demps are not necessarily the future. In point of fact, Demps has already moved on to the Chicago Bears.

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Three-year veteran Jadeveon Clowney, third-year pro Benardrick McKinney and 26-year old Whitney Mercilus were all able to pick up where Watt left off and contribute at least five sacks each. McKinney led the team in tackles. Jackson was the oldest primary contributor in 2016 at age 28 with 51 tackles (second most on the team).

The foundation is strong. The future appears to be, too. McKinney is shaping up to be a leader and has been called such by head coach Bill O’Brien. While A.J. Bouye‘s departure to the division rival Jacksonville Jaguars shows that the young players can always be poached, with the right incentives the Texans can keep the defense strong as players like Cushing, Joseph, and others begin to decline.

The transition to the next group of leaders is difficult for most teams. Few front offices are talented enough to bring in the next group of leaders year after year to the point that the Texans have. Yet it appears that there will be no snags for Houston as the household names begin to give way to the young guns.

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Still expect good seasons or even great seasons from Watt and Jackson and Joseph. Still expect those players to grab headlines. But expect some of the younger guys to begin to make names for themselves in 2017 and beyond. The turnover isn’t immediate and it will take time, but that time is coming closer and closer. Texans fans can rest easy knowing that the next leaders are already on the roster.