With increasing pass rush opportunities, defensive linemen are breaking out just as frequently as ever. Last year it was guys like Cameron Jordan, Chandler Jones and Jerry Hughes who took their pass rushing talents to the next level. However not just pass rushers are able to emerge as stars on the defensive line. In recent years, guys like Geno Atkins, Muhammad Wilkerson and Gerald McCoy have shown they can excel at stopping the run but also get to the passer. The players I mention here have a mix of those traits. Many of whom are on defenses looking to make great strides from 2013.
Datone Jones, Packers: Jones was bothered by an ankle injury for most of his rookie year, but showed flashes of why the Packers took him in the first round. He recorded 3.5 sacks on the year still was a bit underwhelming. This offseason, the Packers put on emphasis on making their defense more athletic and versatile. The thought makes sense, as everyone in the NFC North can move the ball both on the ground and through the air. Jones improving would play a big part in improving the front seven. He has the ability to be a very effective end in a 3-4 scheme. If the Packers want to make the next step towards a deep playoff run, he and the other young players on the defense will need to step up.
Everson Griffen, Vikings: Griffen is a player who has been pegged by many (myself included) to breakout in recent years. However, this year is his best chance to really establish himself. With Jared Allen leaving, Griffen will be a full time starter for the first time in his career. Strictly as a reserve, he has totaled 13.5 sacks in the past two seasons. Griffen has the ability to eventually become a double digit sack guy. The Vikings are going to need it as their division consists of high octane offenses, and they just rewarded Griffen this offseason with a large contract.
Ziggy Ansah, Lions: After his rookie year came to a close, Ansah had now played in 31 organized football games. The fact that he recorded eight sacks last year just goes to show how much ridiculous raw talent Ansah really has. In a new defensive scheme under Teryl Austin, Ansah figures to move around more whether it is rushing the passer or dropping into coverage. The Lions defensive front has been heralded as a strength for what seems like years now. With the possibility of Ndamukong Suh leaving in a year or so, the Lions could have a limited window in terms of front seven depth. A big year from Ansah would give the Lions a huge boost. A strong pass rush could make up for the shortcomings in the secondary and the team has pieces to contend for a playoff spot now.
Kawann Short, Panthers: On a stacked Panthers defensive line, Short appeared played 16 games in 2013, but didn’t receive much playing time. He was also overshadowed by another defensive tackle the Panthers selected in Star Lotuleilei who made immediate contributions in terms of stopping the run. As of now, the Panthers depth chart doesn’t have Short as a starter but he will have a much bigger role than he did last season. Short can give the Panthers an interior pass rusher to go along with two double digit sack guys on the ends in Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy. In a division with quarterbacks such as Drew Brees and Matt Ryan, a team can never have enough pass rushers. Short was effective at getting to the quarterback when he did play, so the Panthers front seven could be even more dangerous if he is given the chance at a starting role.