GREEN BAY, Wis. – Thinking about the bruised-and-battered state of the Green Bay Packers’ roster and the additions that kept the machine humming on Wednesday, quarterback Aaron Rodgers couldn’t help but take a trip down memory lane.
“This season is beginning to remind me a little bit of a season over a decade ago, where we’ve had a number of injuries and in the course of the season added certain pieces to the mix that ended up playing a big role down the line,” Rodgers said. “I think you guys can imagine what season I’m talking about, which is a good thing.”
That was 2010, the last Super Bowl season for the Packers and the redshirt sophomore season at Illinois for a backup defensive lineman named Whitney Mercilus.
Fast forward to Thursday, with Rodgers leading the Packers to five consecutive wins and Mercilus getting his shot to lend a helping hand in Rodgers’ annual quest to finally get the franchise back to the NFL’s championship game. Mercilus, a first-round pick by the Houston Texans in 2012 with 57 sacks in nine-plus seasons, is the latest veteran to join the team’s pursuit for that elusive championship.
“I’m just grateful to be here,” he said. “Been accepted with open arms, love it. The energy, it’s amazing. Honestly, it just pumps new life (into me) because I’ve only seen the same four walls for years and to see something different is pretty cool.”
Released by Houston on Tuesday, Mercilus said he was courted by Green Bay, Kansas City and Pittsburgh, among other teams. On Wednesday, he decided to join the outside linebacker-needy Packers. On Thursday, he signed in time to participate in practice.
“It’s not even about the money at this point. It’s more so trying to get a championship,” Mercilus said after practice. “For guys like me on the back half of their career, the best option I thought was coming here with the winning mentality. I just want to be a dog and add to that.”
Life is good for the 31-year-old Mercilus. A man who generally sees sunshine on a cloudy day, he remained upbeat even as the Texans went from four playoff berths in the five seasons from 2015 through 2019 to 5-17 since the start of the 2020 season.
On Tuesday, with the rebuilding Texans off to a 1-5 start and outscored 96 points during their five-game losing streak, the “grim reaper,” as he put it, called. Even with deep roots established in the city he’d called home for 10 years, the chance to be a free agent for the first time was instantly embraced.
“I was like, ‘Oh, my time’s come,’” Mercilus said. “I wasn’t really surprised but it came as a shock to everybody, also myself at that time. To be honest with you, it was like, ‘All right, that’s fine.’ I’ve accepted as far as doing everything that I could over there.”
The Texans wanted to give Mercilus’ snaps to some of their younger players. The Packers, on the other hand, have a lot snaps to give to Mercilus. With Pro Bowler Za’Darius Smith joined on injured reserve by backups Chauncey Rivers and Randy Ramsey, and with veteran Preston Smith dealing with an oblique injury, Green Bay’s outside linebacker depth chart had been obliterated.
That’s a problem. The best pass defenses combine rush with coverage. The Packers have problems on both sides of that equation because of injuries. Without Za’Darius Smith, who had 26 sacks over the previous two seasons, Green Bay is tied for ninth with 14 sacks but only 19th with 53 pressures. Without All-Pro Jaire Alexander, arguably the best cover man in the game, and Kevin King, Green Bay was without its starting cornerbacks against Chicago and might be again this week.
That might not be a problem against Washington on Sunday but that two-pronged weakness could be a hurdle too tall to overcome in the following five games. By passer rating, Arizona’s Kyler Murray is third, Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes is 11th (but leads the NFL in touchdowns and is the 2019 MVP), Seattle’s Russell Wilson (if healthy) is first, Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins is eighth and the Rams’ Matthew Stafford is second.
With that kind of firepower, those five games could be a make-or-break stretch in terms of playoff positioning.
Enter Mercilus, who should help the rush now and be a key piece to the puzzle if Green Bay ever gets healthy for the stretch run.
The opportunity to contribute to a contender was the attraction.
“I talked to so many people,” he said, mentioning “former mentors” as well as former Texans receiver-turned-current Packers receiver Randall Cobb. “And I did my due diligence as far as guys who played at KC, guys who played with the Steelers, Tennessee, everywhere, just to pick their minds as far as the systems and the environment, the culture, things like that, things that are going on in the league, as well, looking at schedules. Did my pros and my cons and all that, and I prayed on it and, ultimately, all signs led to here.”
In 2010, the Packers picked up outside linebacker Erik Walden off the scrap heap and he became a key contributor opposite Clay Matthews. Walden was just a 25-year-old, third-year player at the time. Mercilus is in his 10th season. While he believes he’s got another five years in his career, at age 31, there’s also a realization that this might be his best opportunity to win a Super Bowl.
“Man, look, I’m just going to say I’m blessed, thankful,” he said. “To have everybody who saw me come up on the release block and for them to say, ‘We want you here,’ meant a lot. As far as in my career right now, to have a chance to really go for gold, man, it’s really a blessing.”