HOUSTON (AP) — The Houston Texans are trying not to put too much pressure on first-round pick Whitney Mercilus as the rookie adjusts to the NFL.
But the outside linebacker may have made things harder on himself: He is wearing the jersey number of Houston's former star middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans, who was traded to Philadelphia this offseason.
He is aware of what Ryans did in that jersey and likes the high expectations that come with wearing it.
"The challenge is stepping up to expectations, especially fans throwing it out there," he said. (They say) 'You know, you've got big shoes to fill.' I don't mind it at all. I'm just out here just trying to get better and make a name for myself."
Ryans was a second-round draft pick who was named the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2006 before making two Pro Bowls and leaving Houston as the franchise leader in career tackles with 636 in his six-year career.
Unlike Ryans, who was thrown into a starting role almost immediately, Mercilus should have some time to learn and develop before he's expected to play a major role for the Texans.
"We look to continue to grow, and I think he just needs to contribute," fellow linebacker Brian Cushing said. "He doesn't need any added pressure of thinking he needs to be a certain player or have 10 sacks or anything like that. He just needs to play football like he can."
For now Mercilus is trying to make the transition from playing defensive end in a 4-3 scheme at Illinois to outside linebacker in the 3-4 alignment the Texans use. He started just one season in college, but was the nation's leader in sacks with 16 and forced fumbles with eight.
Houston was looking for an aggressive pass rusher to ease the loss of Mario Williams, who left as the team's career leader in sacks, when they chose him with the 26th pick in the draft.