HOUSTON (AP) — The Houston Texans agreed to a deal with first-round pick Brian Cushing on Saturday, and immediately pegged the linebacker out of Southern California as a key to improving their defense.

“For what we want to do defensively and what we’re trying to do with our front, he’s a big part of the puzzle,” coach Gary Kubiak said on Saturday. “He can play on the line of scrimmage very effectively. He can also play off. That’s one of the reasons we drafted him.”

Cushing was flying to Houston as the Texans wrapped up the first of two practices Saturday. Kubiak expected the 15th overall draft pick to be with the team for the afternoon practice.

The Texans were happy to get Cushing’s contract done so he wouldn’t miss more practice time. He’d already been named a starter at outside linebacker during the offseason.

“I think he’s a real talented guy and I think he adds a lot of speed to our defense,” Texans owner Bob McNair said. “I think that’s the key for us this year, so I’m excited about having him here.”

Cushing joins a group of linebackers that includes 2006 Defensive Rookie of the Year DeMeco Ryans, who has started every game since joining the team. Ryans figured Cushing wouldn’t miss too much time dealing with his contract, but was glad to know it was done.

“It’s a good thing that he’s getting in and getting here quick enough where he can get a lot of (repetitions) in so he can understand the system,” Ryans said. “I think he can help us out a lot coming off the end and being a playmaker for us.”

Cushing was a four-year starter at USC, where he had 74 tackles and three sacks as a senior.

The Texans believe he fits in perfectly with their plan to be more aggressive and attack in the first season under defensive coordinator Frank Bush, who took over after Richard Smith was fired in the offseason.

The team is hoping Cushing will help turn around a defense filled with high draft choices – including 2006 top overall pick Mario Williams – but that ranked among the league’s worst in 2008.

“He’s a very physical young man, can go get the passer if he needs to,” Kubiak said. “We expect him to bring a physical presence to our defense. We’re counting on him big time.”

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