HOUSTON – Whitney Mercilus smiled and paused for a moment, reflecting on his rich legacy with the Houston Texans and the pending next chapter of his NFL career with the Green Bay Packers.
The veteran pass rusher officially joined the tradition-rich NFC North franchise for an extremely specific reason that had precious little to do with money.
Abruptly cut by the Texans in the final year of a $54 million contract despite ranking second on the rebuilding, 1-5 Texans with three sacks and ranking second in franchise history with 57 career sacks, Mercilus became convinced quickly that the Packers are his best opportunity to earn an elusive Super Bowl ring. Mercilus, who never reached an AFC championship game with the Texans, was recruited by former Houston teammate, Packers wide receiver Randall Cobb, and others and sold on the vision of “Last Dance” scenarios engineered by star quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Ultimately, Mercilus, 31, chose the Packers over competing opportunities with the Kansas City Chiefs, Pittsburgh Steelers, Los Angeles Chargers and the Denver Broncos.
For Mercilus, it’s all about chasing a ring. And the fact that Mercilus could rush standing up from a two-point stance, as he did in the past in a traditional 3-4 defense as an outside linebacker before going back to defensive end in Texans defensive coordinator Lovie Smith's 4-3 scheme, was another positive factor in his big decision.
“For me as far as the direction I want to go, it’s definitely being with a team that has a chance to make it to the playoffs and has a chance to make it to the Super Bowl and to be with a contender, honestly,” Mercilus said Tuesday, one day before agreeing to terms with Green Bay, while unveiling a remodeled kitchen at a Houston middle school and a life skills program for special needs students. “That’s the direction I want to go, as I’m in the back half of my career, to get a chance to put a cherry on the top. Honestly, it’s a blessing. I’m not sad. I’ve been blessed with the time to play 10 years in the NFL, just a kid from Akron.
“You watch the NFL change lives, change generationally. Being able to have that in my life has been amazing. I’ve impacted so many people on the field and off the field as well. One of the biggest things was talking to people and letting them see how approachable I was, just having a conversation with anybody. It’s been a blessing.”
Mercilus emphasized that he’s healthy and ready to contribute. Big emphasis on “right away.”
“Most definitely, I feel good mentally, I feel good spiritually, I feel great,” Mercilus said. “I can help out a team. I talked to a couple of guys around the league. They said, ‘Three sacks, it’s good production, not bad for a veteran like you.’ Hopefully, that gives me a really great opportunity.”
When Mercilus was informed Monday by general manager Nick Caserio and coach David Culley that the final year of his $54 million contract was being terminated as they go with younger defensive linemen, he wasn’t caught off-guard.
“It’s a rebuild phase, honestly, implementing new cultures and philosophies, getting who they want, who applies to their system schematically and philosophically as well, too,” Mercilus said. “That’s what I see. I don’t have their mind and exact words as far as what they’re thinking, but anybody can see that from the outside perspective and the thing is being in it and changing hands as far as a new coaching staff. You get used to it. As far as the adversity they were facing now, it gets frustrating to see. The guys in the locker room, that’s who I feel for the most.”
Mercilus was operating off the bench in recent weeks and the Texans have been starting Jon Greenard and Jacob Martin at defensive end, with Greenard, in particular, emerging as a strong pass rusher with a team-high four sacks.
“Reps started to dwindle, playing more of a reserve role and all that, of course, they want to get younger, cheaper and who doesn’t?” Mercilus said. “The NFL is a business. For me, I started to see what a lot of older vets had to go through and experience. I was pretty prepared for this. It came out of left field for a lot of people, but just going to take it all in stride, man.”
When Mercilus was told the organization was moving in a different direction, it was a quick, direct and professional conversation.
“It went smooth, short, quick,” Mercilus said. “The biggest thing I’m appreciative of not learning through Twitter or Facebook or something like that and then getting a call as far as being able to look me in the eye and being able to tell me exactly what it is. We talked as far as what direction both of us wanted to go. It’s cool, man.”
During his latest community event, Mercilus emphasized there are no hard feelings, only rich memories and a legacy of service in the community. It was simply time for him to leave.
“That’s tough to speak on, everybody’s interpretation,” Mercilus said. “The thing I hope for is I gave it my all for the last 9 ½ years since I’ve been with the organization. I did everything that I could. I left no stone unturned. I sacrificed blood, sweat, tears, everything. I hope that legacy is well encapsulated with the franchise and with the Texans fans and most importantly how I’ve affected so many others across the community and being able to talk with so many.
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“Yeah, it’s tough. You have so many connections. You build a life here. It’s hard. Essentially, everything you’ve known, you feel kind of disconnected to go somewhere else. I don’t want to say frustrating, it’s like a new space. For me, I take a lot of things in stride as far as changes and what I’ve had to learn in the Texans building. Honestly, for me, it’s just as they said it’s a mutual thing just parting ways. I’m just looking forward to what’s next.”
Mercilus restructured his original four-year, $54 million contract during the offseason, creating $4 million in salary cap space by converting $6 million of his $10.5 million salary into a signing bonus. The Texans voided the final years of his contract and he was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent after this season.
Mercilus still makes the full $10.5 million he was scheduled to earn, and the negotiation helped the Texans pay for dozens of transactions executed by Caserio and the team’s personnel department.
“That’s all on them as far as that goes,” Mercilus said. “It possibly could have been (contract addressed), but the restructure already happened earlier in the year and that was possibly going to be the direction anyways, if I made it through the 17th game. It was going to happen one way or another, and it just happened sooner rather than later.”
Mercilus ranks second in career quarterback hits for the Texans franchise with 115, second, too, with 13 forced fumbles, eight fumble recoveries and 13 multi-sack games. He owns the franchise record with seven sacks in eight playoff games.
He was a second-team All-Pro Associated Press selection in 2016, when he led the Texans with 7 ½ sacks and tied for the NFL lead with four fumble recoveries.
“There aren’t many players in franchise history who have impacted our organization and community the way Whitney Mercilus has,” Texans chairman and CEO Cal McNair said in a statement. “I can recall a number of times over the last 10 seasons where he stepped up for us on the field with a sack or big play in a crucial moment, but it was his unique connection with the Houston community that made him one of the most popular players in franchise history.
“Our fan base gravitated to Whitney from day one and he always found ways to give back and serve through his foundation and culinary work. My family and the entire organization will always consider Whitney a Texan.”
Mercilus was always eager to help his teammates, on or off the field.
“That’s the thing,” Mercilus said. “I built a lot of bonds and try to get guys to really instill a good spirit. I try to use what I’ve learned my experiences throughs ups and downs to coach up some of the young guys. The biggest thing I’ve tried to impart is to keep God at the center of things, not get too high not get too low, being calm in that storm.”
Mercilus leaves behind a strong example for service and giving back to the community.
Texans standout safety Justin Reid has an older brother, former NFL Pro Bowl safety Eric Reid. He also has another big brother type in Mercilus, who took him under his wing since his arrival in Houston and provided a mentoring presence and became a close friend.
“That’s just the type of guy Whitney is,” Reid said. “Ever since I came to the Houston Texans, he’s always been like a big brother to me, introduced me to the community, gave me advice on his experience and what it’s been like being in Houston and navigating the NFL life. From as far as I can remember, he’s always been a man of the community, a man of the people.
“So, it’s no shocker that even today he’s out here doing good works in the city of Houston because he’s built a life out here. I know he loves being a part of the community here. He’ll be somewhere soon. It’s just admirable to see him out here making a difference for this school and for the community.”
Mercilus was nominated for the Walter Payton Man of the Year in 2018. He and his With Merci foundation with board members Chester Pitts, a retired Texans offensive lineman who’s a team ambassador, board member and retired Rockets basketball player Mario Elie, and his publicist, Tamara Washington, have done a lot in the community. That includes helping the Houston Independent School District’s Department of Special Education, the Smartie Pants Academy Center, Easter Seals of Greater Houston and the Foundation for Autism Care, Education and Services and supporting his teammates’ charitable endeavors.
“Whit is my guy,” Pitts said. “To watch him from a baby and a rookie to see the man you see here today, the guy has a heart of gold. His commitment to the city of Houston, it’s unparalleled and unmatched.”
Aaron Wilson has covered the NFL for 20 seasons, including the Texans, Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars. He has previously written for The Houston Chronicle and The Baltimore Sun. He’s on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL and Instagram: @aaronwilson7128