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Mercilus wants to prove worth to Bears

They were 1 of teams that passed on Texans rushing linebacker out of Illinois in draft

Dan Pompei

On the NFL

8:10 PM CST, November 8, 2012

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In the April draft, the Bears chose Shea McClellin in the first round and passed over Illinois' Whitney Mercilus.

On Sunday, during his first visit to Soldier Field, Mercilus would like to offer them a not-so-subtle reminder of that — perhaps by burying his face mask in the chest of Jay Cutler with a hit that will force the wind to rush from his lungs.

Mercilus has had some similar hits lately with three sacks and two forced fumbles in his last two games.

"Of course, I want to show Bears I would have been a great choice," said Mercilus, who worked out for coach Lovie Smith and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli in Champaign before the draft. "It's nothing personal. It was their decision in the draft. It's not a revenge thing. I just want to show them I would have been a good pick."

The Bears were not the only team that passed on Mercilus. Before the Texans chose him, 25 players went off the board, including five pass rushers — Bruce Irvin to the Seahawks (five sacks), Quinton Coples to the Jets (two sacks), Melvin Ingram to the Chargers (1/2 sack), McClellin (21/2 sacks) and Chandler Jones to the Patriots (six sacks).

Mercilus had only one year of elite production at Illinois. But it was quite a season. He had 16 sacks, nine forced fumbles and 221/2 tackles for a loss. None of the pass rushers who were chosen before him had that kind of production in 2011.

Some teams wondered if Mercilus could produce consistently, which is a reason he might have ranked lower on the pass rusher totem pole.

"I want to prove I wasn't a one-year wonder, that I'm one of the best out there," he said. "I want to show them I'm great."

No one was talking about Mercilus being potentially great until recently.

When he arrived in Houston, Mercilus, a Haitian-American via Akron and Champaign, was in a different world. He was playing a new position as a 3-4 outside linebacker rather than his familiar 4-3 defensive end.

He said his assignments are not radically different from what they had been at Illinois, though he does have to drop in coverage a handful of times in games.

In exhibitions, Mercilus had 31/2 sacks and appeared well on his way to a strong start. But then he went through a stretch in which sacks, playing time and self assurance all were hard to attain.

He was made a starter on most of the Texans' special teams, which was foreign duty for him.

"When I started out I was horrendous," Mercilus said. "There were high expectations, but I never had done it. Now I'm a lot smoother, a lot better. Hopefully I'll continue and become great at it."

But he had to figure some things out before he got more than a sniff on defense.

"In the preseason, those were mostly rookies I was going against so it wasn't as difficult," he said. "This is a lot better talent playing against the starters. I had to basically find myself. I finally found myself."

Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said Mercilus' playing time has increased over the last couple of games because he has become more confident.

Mercilus believes he was thinking too much.

"As rookies we don't really trust ourselves," he said. "There is a mental barrier to get over. We have to just play and react naturally on the field and not think a whole lot. We should know what we have to do, which is just ball out."

But on the other hand, he knows he has to have a plan to attack blockers because everyone is so talented at the NFL level.

"This whole thing is basically a mental game," he said. "You have to be able to trick your opponent somehow, some way. You are usually against guys who have been in the league for some time, and they have seen basically everything. You have to come up with ways to outsmart them."

It often is easier to outsmart blockers when J.J. Watt is on your side. Mercilus calls his former Wisconsin adversary "one of a kind."

Watt, a leading candidate for defensive player of the year, can free up Mercilus and the other Texans pass rushers by attracting extra attention from offenses.

"If you are coming off on J.J.'s side, it can help," Mercilus said. "Some teams do take notice of who is the top pressure guy and they scheme against him."

Perhaps one day soon, they will be scheming against Mercilus, too.

dpompei@tribune.com

Twitter @danpompei