Former Houston Texans defensive end Whitney Mercilus would provide the injury-depleted Packers with a pass-rushing boost

Tom Silverstein
Packers News
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GREEN BAY - There aren’t a lot of options for replacing a veteran pass rusher in the middle of an NFL season, but the Green Bay Packers believe free agent Whitney Mercilus can fill some of the void created by injuries to outside linebackers Preston and Za’Darius Smith.

Aaron Wilson of SportsTalk79 in Houston first reported the expected agreement between Mercilus and the Packers. Coach Matt LaFleur wouldn’t confirm the addition, but all but confirmed the Packers’ intent by saying he couldn’t comment until it was official.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) scrambles away from Houston Texans linebacker Whitney Mercilus (59) during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020, in Houston.

The 6-4, 258-pound Mercilus has been a mainstay on the Houston Texans' defense since joining the club as a first-round pick in 2012, manning the spot opposite All-Pro end J.J. Watt, who departed this past offseason. Mercilus, 31, has 57 career sacks with a high of 12 in 2015, but over the past four years he has had four, 7½, one and four. In ’17, when he only had one sack, he missed 11 games due to injury.

This season, Mercilus has three sacks and a tackle for loss. He started two of the Texans’ six games before they decided to part ways. Mercilus has $6 million of his contract guaranteed this year, but the Packers won’t have to pay that. Since he was exempt from waivers, the Packers didn’t have to pick up his contract and were able to negotiate a new deal.

The Packers were surviving without Za’Darius Smith, who is out indefinitely following back surgery, but an oblique injury to Preston Smith suffered against Chicago on Sunday has created a depth problem.

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Preston Smith is questionable for the Washington game Sunday and if he were to not play, the Packers’ outside linebackers would consist of Rashan Gary, Jonathan Garvin and La’Darius Hamilton. Gary has fulfilled the team’s expectations for him as a pass rusher this season (1½ sacks and 11 quarterback knockdowns, the latter of which ranks fifth in the NFL) and Garvin has 1½ sacks, four quarterback hits and a tackle for loss.

Hamilton was signed off Tampa Bay’s practice squad Sept. 20, and he has played in two games, logging one quarterback hit in 31 snaps. In addition, the Packers have used inside linebacker Oren Burks outside and could use him there extensively if necessary.

Mercilus might be able to help the Packers as soon as this week’s game against Washington. The Packers would easily be able to create a third-down “sub” package for him that wouldn’t require a lot of knowledge of the defense.

As for whether Mercilus can help the Packers, scouts differ.

One scout was adamant that he was not a pass-rushing threat anymore and was “just a guy.”

Another scout, whose team studied Mercilus after he got cut, said he thought he could help the Packers to a degree. If they need him just to rush the passer, he thought he could fill in as a backup.

“He is a skilled rusher with good hand use and overall ability to set up a blocker with a good rush plan,” the scout said.  “He's on the decline from an overall athletic, speed, run-defense standpoint, but I think he still has value as a rusher in sub.

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“I figured a contender would snatch him up quickly and I think he'll help Green Bay, especially without Za’Darius Smith.”

Quarterback Aaron Rodgers said that he thought Mercilus could have an impact if he’s getting a reasonable amount of pass-rushing snaps per game. The Texans rank 26th in yards allowed and tied for 25th in points allowed and they haven’t been in many games this year.

The losing probably weighed heavily on Mercilus and the Packers are hoping a new team will spark increased production.

“Whitney, he's a pass rusher, so when it comes to pass rush — I think there's obviously some schematic stuff for him to figure out — but if we can get him 15 to 20 rushes at least in this first game I think it'd be a big plus for our squad,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said.

Mercilus reportedly had multiple offers upon being released, including the Kansas City Chiefs. When the Packers signed linebacker Jaylon Smith two weeks ago, he had a chance to play elsewhere also. Being 5-1 and on track to reach the playoffs, the Packers have something to offer.

General manager Brian Gutekunst has not been shy in replacing injured players with players from other teams or who have been recently released. Instead of calling up players from his practice squad, he has signed players such as Smith, cornerback Rasul Douglas, cornerback Quinton Dunbar (since released) and tackle Dennis Kelly, all of whom are veterans with at least five years in the league.

In each case, they were brought on to fill a hole caused by injury.

“Guys like that, they want to come to a winning team, and when you go from 1-5 to 5-1, that's a whole new outlook on life,” Rodgers said of Mercilus. “I think now Jaylon obviously went from a good team (Dallas) to a good team, but for Whitney I think it can breathe some life into a player like that, for sure.”

LaFleur said it’s not a given that Preston Smith will miss the Washington game. He said Smith is really looking forward to play against his former team and will be given the entire week to prove that he’s healthy enough to play.

Smith got hurt in the Bears game and only played eight snaps. Gary played his highest percentage of snaps (80%) of the season, but it wasn’t an extraordinary amount (49). Garvin played a career-high 44 snaps against the Bears, while Hamilton chipped in 12.

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