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Why the Texans are moving on from Brian Cushing after 9 seasons

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Cushing served two PED suspensions in his career. Now Houston turns inside linebacking duties over to Zach Cunningham.

Brian Cushing was a staple of the Texans’ emergence from expansion also-ran to NFL playoff regular, but his veteran presence wasn’t enough to justify his $8.8 million salary cap hit. Houston is expected to cut him, just months after missing the bulk of 2017 due to a violation of the NFL’s performance enhancing drugs policy, according to the Houston Chronicle’s John McClain.

“It’s all good,” Cushing said Sunday night in a text message to McClain. “It’s part of the business.”

Cushing suffered his second PED suspension last fall, paving the way for his replacement and showcasing how the Texans’ defense can perform without him. 2017 second-round pick Zach Cunningham performed well in his stead, making 82 tackles and helping tie together a defense ravaged by injuries and absences last fall.

Now Cunningham will be called down to hold down the middle of the field in Houston as Cushing prepares for the next phase of his career. The veteran linebacker will have to prove he can still operate at a high level despite his history of PED violations and significant injuries.

What’s next for the Texans?

Cushing has been a useful part of the Texans’ dominant defense, though hardly its most important piece. Houston struggled in 2017 thanks to the absence of several players, but losing the veteran middle linebacker was one area where the team didn’t lose much value. Cunningham, a former All-American at Vanderbilt, is a growing presence in the middle. In 2018, he’ll be bolstered by the returns of stars like J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus.

Saving $7.6 million in cap space will also help the team surround second-year quarterback Deshaun Watson with weapons on the other side of the ball. Watson looked like a shoo-in for offensive rookie of the year honors before tearing his ACL early in the season, and a successful comeback will be much easier if he’s got more than just DeAndre Hopkins to take the pressure from his shoulders. Cushing’s vacated contract will give the team some extra flexibility in its pending rebuild.

What’s next for Cushing?

Cushing will turn 31 this summer and has plenty to prove when it comes to his next contract. While he’s avoided the injuries that derailed the middle portion of his career, his most recent PED suspension raises questions about his viability. A third positive test will all but end his career — it would include a mandated suspension of at least two years.

He hadn’t been especially impressive in 2017 even before suffering the league’s wrath. Cushing made five starts but only recorded 16 tackles. While he may be valuable for his leadership as a savvy veteran, his days as a high-level starter may be finished.

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