Due to various reasons, it is possible we might pay more attention to defensive linemen now than ever before. One reason could be advanced statistics that rate each individual player and their respective performances. The other could be that so many teams are emphasizing linemen during the draft. Whether it is getting to the quarterback or a run stopper, these players will always be at a premium. With that said, here are some linemen who I feel will take their games to another level in 2015.
Khalil Mack, Raiders: While it got lost in the national media shuffle due to the accolades of Aaron Donald, C.J. Mosley and offensive skill position players in his draft class, Mack had a fantastic rookie season. Playing outside linebacker, Mack was viewed by some publications as the best at his position against the run. He also chipped in four sacks, but I’m figuring that number should at least triple in 2015.
Having been credited for over 40 quarterback hurries, Mack was in position for sacks quite frequently in 2014. Now as he figures to play more on the defensive line this season, there will be more opportunities for him to come off of the edge. Not many pass rushers have the ability to beat linemen with finesse and power but Mack is one of them. The Raiders have a history of striking out on first round picks in the last decade, but it looks like they hit it big on this one. 2015 should be the year Mack establishes himself as a pass rushing force for years to come.
Timmy Jernigan, Ravens: Despite missing five games due to injury, Jernigan showed enough promise in his rookie season that the Ravens were comfortable in trading Haloti Ngata. He flashed in defending the run and also showed off impressive agility when it came to rushing the passer. The biggest question mark will be how Jernigan fares in a full time role. Going from 26 snaps or so a game to a full time starter could result in a hit in efficiency, but Jernigan appears to be up to the task.
The Ravens enter 2015 as a favorite in the AFC North and a team that could go on a nice playoff run. Jernigan playing to the level which the organization thinks he’s capable of will go a long way in determining that.
Tyrone Crawford, Cowboys: Compared to preseason projections, the Cowboys defense was surprisingly decent in 2014. The play of Crawford in the first year at a new position is a big reason why. After tearing his Achilles tendon in 2013, Crawford moved from defensive end to defensive tackle where as a three technique he lined up on the outside of guards. Despite recording three sacks, Crawford showed the potential for more this coming year. His 29 quarterback hurries and 12 quarterback hits is a very impressive figure for any interior lineman, let alone one in his first year at the position.
Along with surprising speed, Crawford also can win with brute strength which he flashed in defending both the passing and running games. While it may seem Crawford broke out last year with those numbers, this is only going to be his second year at the position. Based off what he showed, we’re talking about a potential perennial pro bowler here if everything goes right. Oh, and this is also his contract year. Jerry Jones would be best off preparing to back the Brinks truck into Crawford’s driveway this offseason.
Demarcus Lawrence, Cowboys: Expected to play a big role as a rookie last year, Lawrence was limited by a broken foot playing in only seven games. Despite that, he ended the year on a very positive note recording sacks in each of the Cowboys playoff games. Now, Lawrence heads into the year as a starter and figures to make an immediate impact rushing the passer. It will also help Lawrence that he’ll be starting opposite Greg Hardy when he is back from his suspension.
Despite not having played in a regular season game in what would be over a calendar year, Hardy has proven that he commands the offenses attention. With the physical ability and an excellent opportunity in front of him, it wouldn’t be surprising if Lawrence is able to rack up double digit sacks in 2015.
Tyrunn Walker, Lions: When you lose a player of Ndamukong Suh’s caliber, it’s going to take more than just one player to replace him. The Lions got off to a good start trading for Haloti Ngata, but who will start beside him is a big question. While the team figures to use a rotation at first, I’m betting on Walker to take a firm grasp of the role. It’s telling that the Lions brought in Walker very early on in the free agency process and why they did is understandable.
Despite being a rotational player for the Saints, Walker graded very favorably with sources such as Pro Football Focus against both the run and pass. While the Lions defensive line may not be a top 3 unit like it was with Suh, this is still arguably a top ten line in the league. Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin showed last year he can create schemes that play to the team’s strengths, and obviously the team believes Walker can be used in a higher capacity. With that said, there is a very good chance that Walker’s one year contract could just be the start of his tenure in the Motor City.
Kony Ealy, Panthers: Since Greg Hardy’s legal troubles kept him out all but one game in 2014, the Panthers have been looking for end to start opposite Charles Johnson. Frank Alexander was expected to start opposite Johnson this season, but after he tore his Achilles this preseason, the door is suddenly open for Ealy. A second round pick in 2014, Ealy played in a situational role and flashed pass rushing ability recording four sacks.
While he isn’t an explosive pass rusher off the edge, Ealy has shown that the tools are there to become a very effective interior pass rusher. In his first year in a real expanded role, consistency could be an issue. Despite that, it wouldn’t be surprising if Ealy was able to rack up around eight sacks or so in his first full year as a starter.