Secret Superstars: Houston Texans
The inside linebacker position has been a point of contention for the Texans for some time now. Brian Cushing has rarely been healthy enough to stay on the field and the spot opposite him has been a revolving door of average play. That is why the Texans’ Secret Superstar this season is a player that finally brought some steady competence to the table at inside linebacker.
Mike Mohamed may not have a full season’s worth of snaps to his name yet, but the Texan linebacker was one of the most impressive players at the position in coverage a year ago and is our choice for Houston’s Secret Superstar.
If you hadn’t heard of Mohamed before this season, don’t feel bad. The four-year veteran didn’t have a defensive snap to his name until he saw 13 snaps over four games for the Texans in 2013. Coming out of California, Mohamed was a sixth-round pick by the Denver Broncos way back in 2011. He’s been somewhat of an afterthought ever since. As a rookie he was released at the end of training camp and ended up spending the year on the practice squad. Mohamed would later be cut outright before the 2012 season. From there he bounced around from the Jaguars, back to the Broncos, and then over to the Titans all in the course of one year. Such is the life of a practice squad player in the NFL. It wasn’t until January of 2013 that Mohamed ended up in Houston and it took him until the 2014 season to finally break in to any sort of playing time.
Establishing a Role
Bill O’Brien and his staff came in to the 2014 season promising a clean slate for everyone on the roster. All players would be evaluated based solely off of what they saw in practice and not draft status or prior reputations. This couldn’t have come at a better time for the journeyman linebacker who simply hadn’t been given a chance yet in his career.
Coming out of camp Mohamed earned a starting role in the Texans sub-packages and the results were apparent early on. He didn’t allow a single catch in 33 coverage snaps through the first three weeks of the season. A very long and fluid athlete, the Texans felt comfortable leaving Mohamed manned up on tight end and running backs alike.
The attributes that make him such a threat against the pass also limit him against the run and as a pass rusher. Mohamed’s svelte build for a linebacker makes it difficult for him to attack blocks with power and he can be moved by lead blockers or linemen coming to the second level. He may never be an effective every-down player, but with the importance of coverage skills in the NFL you can live with Mohamed’s limitations in nickel/dime packages.
By the Numbers
Before a concussion ended his 2014 season, Mohamed amassed 524 snaps with 265 of those coming in coverage, 103 as a pass rusher, and 156 in run defense. He finished with a +7.3 coverage grade, the sixth best figure in the league, a -3.8 pass rushing grade, and a -2.0 grade against the run.
In terms of coverage statistics, Mohamed was targeted significantly more frequently than Brian Cushing (11.5% target rate compared to 8.5%) while they both gave up similar yards per coverage snap (.79 for Mohamed versus .73 for Cushing). Both players finished in the Top 25 for both figures out of 57 qualifying inside linebackers. As a tackler, Mohamed was extremely solid all season long. He missed only five of 60 attempts and his 12.0 tackling efficiency was the 14th-best at the position. With the numbers that Mohamed put up, it’s surprising to think that no one saw starting ability in him until this season.
Texans G.M. Rick Smith had to have Mohamed in the back of his mind when he took Benardrick McKinney with the 43rd overall pick in this year’s draft. McKinney was a run thumper at Mississippi State, but had his fair share of struggles in the pass game. Look for Mohamed to continue his role as a nickel and dime linebacker in the Texans 3-4 scheme while McKinney takes the base role next to Brian Cushing. With true every-down linebackers a rarity, the Texans approach can yield big production without needing to dole out big pay days.