Pass rusher Whitney Mercilus 'revitalized' to be joining contending Packers

Ryan Wood
Packers News
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GREEN BAY - In the back of his mind, Whitney Mercilus anticipated for weeks his time with the only NFL team he’d ever known might be coming to an end. 

The veteran pass rusher watched his Houston Texans pivot their course this offseason. The Deshaun Watson turmoil had thrown the franchise from contender into rebuild. And a rebuild is no place for a 31-year-old outside linebacker owed $10.5 million in his 10th season. 

Mercilus knew he could be changing zip codes for the first time in his career. Still, there’s no preparing for the reality of that first call into the general manager’s office. When the end finally came earlier this week, it was jarring. Mercilus spent an afternoon reviewing film from the Texans’ loss to the Indianapolis Colts, putting another defeat behind him. 

Then GM Nick Caserio and coach David Culley approached at the start of this week. They needed a word. 

“The grim reaper told me to come into the office,” Mercilus said. “I was like, ‘Oh, my time has come.’ I wasn’t really surprised, but it came as a shock to everybody, also myself at the time. To be honest with you, it was like, ‘All right, that’s fine. That’s fine.' I’ve accepted as far as doing everything that I could over there. Everything, as far as trying to win a Super Bowl, win playoff games, get to the AFC championship. Different cultures as well too, different coaches. 

“So I could accept it at that point.” 

Former Texans linebacker Whitney Mercilus (59) brings pass-rushing savvy to Green Bay.

The Texans were the only team Mercilus had ever known. They drafted him with the 26th overall pick in the first round in 2012. Suddenly, he was a free agent, and his phone kept buzzing. The Packers were among several playoff contenders, including the Kansas City Chiefs and Pittsburgh Steelers, lining up to inquire about Mercilus. He started doing his homework, calling contacts throughout the league, anyone who could fill him in on schemes, culture, whatever he wanted to know about each of the teams interested in signing him. 

Mercilus entered his first foray into free agency already knowing one thing: He wanted to win. The lack of winning had facilitated his departure from Houston. As his snaps dwindled, given instead to younger players the front office needed to evaluate, Mercilus felt out of place.

"That’s not the direction that I wanted to go," Mercilus said.

Naturally, the Packers were high on his list. Mercilus said he spoke with GM Brian Gutekunst, head coach Matt LaFleur, defensive coordinator Joe Barry, outside linebackers coach Mike Smith. He even chatted with Packers receiver Randall Cobb, who shared a locker room with Mercilus in Houston last season. 

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Like anyone exiting an unsuccessful partnership, years of mediocrity conditioned Mercilus to have a keen eye for what he wanted in his next team. The Texans had gone 12-4 in Mercilus’ rookie season of 2012, winning the AFC South and even a playoff game, but they dropped to 2-14 the next season. They wouldn’t have another double-digit win season until 2018, rummaging through five straight quarterbacks before finally landing on Watson, who changed everything. 

Suddenly, with one player, the Texans were contenders again. 

Mercilus kept that in mind as he searched for his new team. Inevitably, he was attracted to the idea of playing with Aaron Rodgers. 

“I don’t want to say mediocre quarterbacks or anything like that,” Mercilus said of his drought seasons with the Texans. “Anybody who makes it to the league, makes it for a reason. But to have somebody as special as 12, it’s a blessing, man. I’m telling you, as you’ve seen in this league, quarterbacks make the team, man.” 

The Packers hope Mercilus can make them an even more ferocious defense. The edge of their pass rush is depleted with injury. First, Za’Darius Smith went on injured reserve after playing only 18 snaps in the season opener. This week, an oblique injury threatens to end Preston Smith’s streak of 102 straight games played in his career. 

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That the Packers are 5-1 despite only two sacks and six quarterback hits combined from the Smiths is in part a testament to Rashan Gary, who continues to ascend with 1.5 sacks and 11 quarterback hits. Gary ranks fifth in the NFL in knocking down the quarterback, but he is just one player. Behind him, the outside linebacker depth chart is missing experience and production. 

Mercilus has three sacks in six games this season. That ties Kenny Clark for most on the Packers' defense. Coach Matt LaFleur remembers preparing for Mercilus when the Packers played the Texans last season. Though Mercilus had only one sack in that game, LaFleur walked away impressed. 

“Everything I’ve heard about him as a man,” LaFleur said, “is A-plus. And then I’ve been on teams that have gone against him, and he’s always been a problem to play against. So I think we’re pretty fortunate to get a guy of his caliber in at this time of the season.” 

Given his age, how welll Mercilus can still rush the passer is unknown. Yes, he has those three sacks, but they’re accompanied by just three quarterback hits. From 2013 to 2019, Mercilus averaged more than 15 quarterback knockdowns in each of his six full seasons, effectively one each game. 

He topped out with 22 quarterback hits (and 7.5 sacks) in 2016. Mercilus was a second-team All-Pro that season. Though he has never made a Pro Bowl, Mercilus had a career-high 12 sacks (and 16 quarterback hits) in 2015. 

Only five pass rushers in the NFL had more sacks that season. 

It’s doubtful Mercilus will provide that kind of production at this stage in his career. Considering how difficult it is to acquire pass-rush production in October, the Packers are surely optimistic. Mercilus is similarly thrilled to be in Green Bay, where he will no longer be asked to chase Rodgers. 

Early in his introductory news conference Thursday, Mercilus was asked about Cobb’s comments upon arriving from Houston to the Packers at the onset of training camp. Cobb had compared it to being released from prison, the hope that joining a contender provides. 

Mercilus didn’t have as much joy. The Texans were all he’d ever known. Mercilus saw “the same four walls for years,” he said. Separation is a hard part of life. 

There’s no question Mercilus is pleased at the chance to win, however. He feels he can contribute to that effort, even now.

“I feel like I’ve got a lot, man,” Mercilus said. “I felt great out there today, and it just feels revitalized. The youngness in me is back. Because new environment, you feel the vibe of the team, it’s not heavy. It’s not a heavy vibe or anything like that. If I can get another five more (years) in this thing, to be honest."

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