Houston Texans linebacker Brian Cushing may have proven his value more in his absence than with his presence in 2012. Lost to a season-ending knee injury in Week 5, Cushing capped off the rehab efforts that will see him start this Monday night against the San Diego Chargers with a new six-year contract extension. According to multiple sources, Cushing and the team agreed to the new deal on Tuesday. Albert Breer of the NFL Network reports that the extension is for $55.643 million, with $21 million guaranteed. The guaranteed money is similar to the $23.62 million St. Louis Rams inside linebacker James Laurinaitis received in his September 2012 extension.
According to ESPN.com's Tania Ganguli, the Texans made room for the extension by re-structuring receiver Andre Johnson's $10.5 million base salary in 2013 to $5 million in base and $5.5 million in bonuses.
Cushing, the team's first-round pick in 2009, was in the last year of his rookie contract. The Texans have a policy against negotiating contracts during the regular season, so time was of the essence.
Cushing was playing like a leader on a dominant defense last season until New York Jets guard Matt Slauson injured him with an illegal block last Oct. 8. In the 2013 offseason, the league changed its rules to specify that any blocks to the back of a defender's knees that happened inside the tackle box would be illegal. Previously, such blocks were only illegal outside the tackle box.
“It makes me feel better," Cushing said of the new rule in May. "Obviously it was not a good situation for me, but if it prevents further injuries in the future, then it’s a good thing.”
In 2012, the Texans had a dominant defense up the middle when Cushing was healthy. But between his injury and the trade of veteran linebacker DeMeco Ryans to Philadelphia, Houston's front seven was often vulnerable against the run, and Cushing's acumen against the short pass was also missed. The Texans tried Bradie James, Tim Dobbins, Daryl Sharpton and Barrett Ruud in those spots with middling success at best. Were it not for lineman J.J. Watt's historically great season, the loss of Cushing would have been even more damaging.
After the deal, Watt made it clear to Cushing that at least one new responsibility came with all that new money.
Asked on Tuesday if he thinks he's a better player now than he was before the injury, Cushing said that he does.
“I do, because I’ve learned a lot about myself and I’ve been through a pretty tough year. I think it’s made me stronger mentally and physically. I also don’t take anything for granted anymore. Every single practice I go out there and I’m excited. I know I’m back. Six or seven months ago, I wasn’t anywhere near that. So I mean, just the road to recovery, being back has made me just a better person overall.” Cushing, selected with the 15th overall pick in 2009 out of USC, was the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year. He totaled 86 tackles in that rookie season, and 81 in 2011, his only other full NFL season. In 2010, the NFL gave him a four-game suspension for a violation of the league's policies on performance-enhancing substances.