HOUSTON -- Instinctively penetrating the backfield with his fast reactions and aggressive style, Houston Texans inside linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill has emerged as an especially difficult blocking assignment.
Grugier-Hill is tied for second in the NFL in tackles for losses among off-the-ball linebackers with five, one less than Buffalo Bills standout linebacker Matt Milano.
Overall, Grugier-Hill has 23 tackles and one sack in four starts.
Signed to a one-year contract with a maximum value of $3.25 million that included a $1 million signing bonus by Texans general manager Nick Caserio, Grugier-Hill keeps demonstrating how productive he can be when given extended playing time.
Grugier-Hill built a reputation for speed, versatility and toughness during his first five NFL seasons.
“Just on how we look at him, you see, he’s gotten more and more reps and when he’s gotten opportunities, he’s kind of stepped up to the plate,” Texans defensive coordinator Lovie Smith said Thursday. “ A lot of time you have chance to make a tackle in the backfield, knowing exactly what to do, but he’s got a good skill set. He’s a smart guy. He can play the run. Those stats are saying that.
“For him to be playing more in third-down situations, kind of tells you a little bit of what we think of him as a pass defender. He would probably talk to you about the interception he let get away from him a couple of weeks ago, but I think his football is all up there going forward.”
A former Patriots sixth-round draft pick from Eastern Illinois where he was teammates with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, Grugier-Hill has run the 40-yard dash in 4.45 seconds with a 38 ½ inch vertical leap and a 10-9 broad jump.
The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Hawaii native recorded one sack and 21 tackles last season for Miami, playing under a one-year contract for Dolphins coach Brian Flores, his linebackers coach in New England. He has recorded 149 career tackles, 17 tackles for losses, three forced fumbles and three sacks.
Grugier-Hill didn’t stick with the Patriots as a rookie as he was cut during the final major roster cutdown. Acquired off waivers by the Philadelphia Eagles, he intercepted his first NFL pass off New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning. He earned a Super Bowl ring in a victory over the Patriots. During his final season at Eastern Illinois, Grugier-Hill showcased his instincts with 16 ½ tackles for losses and 6 ½ sacks.
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Grugier-Hill instructed his agent, Steve Caric, to try to arrange for him to play for an NFL team in Texas. That wish worked out this offseason.
“I love it out here, man,” Grugier-Hill said. “It’s funny because I told my agent when I was a young player, I was like, ‘if I ever get a chance to play for a Texas team, I’ll take it.’ I don’t know. It’s just the hospitality around here and just the love that I feel from the people, it’s definitely very similar to back home. I’m loving it back here.”
Back from missing one game on the reserve-COVID-19 list as a high risk close contact of defensive tackle Ross Blacklock who tested positive for COVID, Cunningham played just 33 snaps (52 percent overall) on defense as a substitute Sunday and had three tackles. Christian Kirksey and Grugier-Hill started at linebacker and played every snap. Kirksey leads the Texans with 41 tackles. Cunningham ranks second with 31 tackles in four games and three starts.
The Texans aren't as secure in Cunningham in pass coverage, which has never been his forte. The former second-round draft pick from Vanderbilt has excelled in the past as a fast, run-stopping linebacker. Earlier this season against the Cleveland Browns, Cunningham didn't start and missed the first quarter for "disciplinary reasons," which stemmed from lateness issues. He missed a preseason game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for "personal reasons," as a no-show after not attending a practice session leading up to that August contest before rejoining the team two days later and getting back to work.
“It’s pretty simple for everything,” Smith said. “We put the best combination that we think gives us the best chance to have success out there, period.”
Now, Cunningham's on-field role is changing and that raises questions about his future. Will Cunningham regain his starting job? Will the Texans move on at some point? Could he be traded?
Cunningham is due remaining base salaries of $10 million, $11 million and $12.5 million in 2022, 2023 and 2022.
“Zach’s starting for us, so we like what he does,’ Smith said. “In the nickel situation, we like the other combination that we use out there then. Why we think a certain way, what we think, is always about putting our best group out there that we think we need to put out there to win games. Simple as that."