Evaluating defensive linemen who could breakout each season is an interesting task. With more passing, it creates opportunities for sacks. However, that doesn’t work for every player as roles differ within various schemes. Despite that, I would say as a cumulative group, the predictions fared pretty well. What was written about the players entering the 2014 season can be found here.
Datone Jones, Packers: On a defense that was looking to become more athletic, I figured Jones would establish a firm role as an end in the Packers 3-4 scheme. Instead, he was used more as a situational pass rusher who was on the field for around 30 percent of the Packers defensive snaps in the 13 games he played. In that time, Jones recorded 23 total tackles, 1.5 sacks and an interception.
The Packers would have liked more than five sacks through the first two seasons of their 2013 first round picks career. However Jones can turn that around as the ability to be an above average pass rusher is there. His 2015 season is already off to an interesting start as he’s suspended for week one due to a marijuana related offense.
Hit or miss: Miss
Everson Griffen, Vikings: Griffen’s skills have always been intriguing, but it wasn’t until 2014 he got his first shot as a full time starter. Due to his success as a situational pass rusher, I figured Griffen would eventually become a double digit sack guy and he proved me to be right immediately. Starting all 16 games, Griffen recorded 12 sacks to go along with 56 total tackles and a fumble recovery. Not bad for a guy who many felt the Vikings overpaid for leading into the year.
If there is one thing to notice about Griffen’s season is he gets sacks in bunches. After recording two sacks in the season opener, he went three weeks without getting another one. In the following five weeks he had seven sacks which included a game where he recorded three against the Bills. This continued the rest of the way as he went the final three weeks of the year without recording a sack. Despite being 27, Griffen experience wise is still a younger player as this type of playing time at the NFL level is still new. The Vikings defense has accumulated an impressive collection of young talent in recent years and Griffen’s emergence as a starter gives them one less thing to worry about.
Hit or miss: Hit
Ziggy Ansah, Lions: My last line in my Ansah write-up entering last year when discussing the Lions was “a strong pass rush could make up for the shortcomings in the secondary as the team has pieces to contend for a playoff spot now”. If I do say so myself, I nailed that one and Ansah was a big reason why. Ansah’s sack total actually dropped half a sack from his rookie year going from 8 to 7.5, but he was consistently forcing pressure. His 26 quarterback hits for the season ranked him among the top five in the league for the category. Granted, playing with Ndamukong Suh and a strong pass rush could have helped but it needs to be remembered Ansah is a late bloomer when it comes to playing football.
While Suh is obviously gone, you could do much worse than having Haloti Ngata as his replacement. With ascending defensive coordinator Teryl Austin and a good chunk of last year’s defense returning, Ansah could be in for bigger things. There is a chance 2014 season could be Ansah’s “breakout” season, but 2015 is the one in which people start to notice.
Hit or miss: Hit
Kawann Short, Panthers: Selected in the 2013 draft, Short was the Panthers second round pick and they took fellow defensive linemen Star Lotuleilei in the first. Loutuleilei had a very strong rookie year, but Short was the one who took his game to another level in 2014. Despite starting in only nine games, Short recorded 46 total tackles and gave a boost as an interior pass rusher recording 3.5 sacks. The advanced metrics also viewed him very favorably as Short rated the highest among projected Panthers starting defensive linemen for 2015 according to Pro Football Focus.
Like Ansah above, 2014 may not be the year where Short gets notice from fans and analysts, but it is indeed one where he made a significant leap.
Hit or miss: Hit