With the various defensive concepts around the league, linebackers can now breakout in various ways. Some do it as pass rushers as recent years have indicated with players such as Justin Houston or in the tackling machine sense which can be applied to a Lavonte David or DeAndre Levy. The linebackers I have predicted to breakout in 2015 are a mix of the two styles. Some players I chose for their ability to bring down quarterbacks while others can be more of your traditional three down linebackers.
Melvin Ingram, Chargers: A first round pick in 2012, Ingram has racked up a disappointing six sacks through his first three seasons. However there is a reason to believe his arrow is pointing up entering 2015. Injuries have been a constant issue for Ingram as he tore his ACL in 2013 and had a hip injury for a good chunk of 2014. This offseason, in an effort to become more durable Ingram lost 20 pounds and will now figure to play somewhere around 250.
Despite playing in only nine games, Ingram was having his best year to date in 2014 as he recorded four sacks in that span. The Chargers were really lacking a pass rush this season so Ingram emerging into a feared pass rusher could really boost their playoff aspirations. With the durability issues, it was a bit of a surprise when the Chargers decided to pick up Ingram’s fifth year option. However, if the work he put in during the offseason pays off, that deal will look like a bargain this time next year.
Aaron Lynch, 49ers: At one point, Lynch looked like a first round pick during his collegiate career but ended up being selected in the fifth round last year. Due mostly to Aldon Smith’s suspension, Lynch was able to see a decent amount of playing time and made the most of it. He recorded six sacks on the year and five of them came after the 49ers bye in week eight.
With Smith continuing to find legal trouble, Lynch certainly will be placed in a starting role this season. If the pass rushing ability he flashed last season is any indication, a double digit sack year could be in store. Based off all the offseason events, 2015 could be a tough year to watch for 49ers fans. But the emergence of a young player like Lynch would certainly give them something to be optimistic about.
Anthony Barr, Vikings: Barr started off his collegiate career playing running back and receiver at UCLA. With fantastic closing speed and agility it certainly shows. If the young Vikings defense is to make the leap many think it’s capable of, Barr continuing to progress would be an excellent start. Due to his impressive athleticism, he can not only rush the passer but impressed when asked to drop back into coverage as well. As expected, there were some struggles in run defense. But on a lot of occasions, Barr could make up for it with his pursuit making plays few linebackers could make.
For these reasons, it isn’t surprising that there are a few things I’ve read in which he has been compared to Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins. Like Barr, Collins is very impressive in coverage and has rare closing speed. While a season like Collins’ second in the NFL might be a little too much to ask, it wouldn’t be surprising if Barr managed to earn himself a Pro Bowl berth in year two.
Ryan Shazier, Steelers: Shazier’s rookie season was filled with injuries, but on the surface there is still a ton to like about his skillset. When in doubt, I’m going to bet on a linebacker who ran a 4.36 forty and a 42” vertical at his pro day. There aren’t many players around the league at any position let alone linebacker who can pull that off. This offseason, Shazier put on ten pounds and figures to play at around 233.
Not surprisingly when he did play, Shazier impressed with his ability in coverage. And with the range he has all over the field, he’s almost a linebacker/safety hybrid. Dick LeBeau may be out of the picture, but new defensive coordinator Keith Butler paid his dues as the Steelers linebacker coach for quite some time. By now you probably know that the Steelers have been very successful in developing linebackers the past decade or so. The odds are in Shazier’s favor to be the next Steelers linebacker who starts receiving accolades.
Telvin Smith, Jaguars: At 218 pounds, Smith had to be one of if not the lightest linebacker in the league last season. But that didn’t stop him from making a big impact on the Jaguars defense. At 6’3”, Smith is built more like a safety and he plays like one too. He has impressive range and it showed as he recorded 31 tackles in just the last two weeks of 2014 alone. Playing on the weak-side, Smith doesn’t have to bulk up 240/250 pounds and after playing the run effectively, it probably doesn’t even matter.
The Jaguars defense is continuing to build hoping to one day be among the league’s elite. A full year of Smith starting is just a step in the right direction. There have been a lot of parallels due to Gus Bradley’s ties to the Seahawks with how the Jaguars are being built. Much of that can be credited for the success rate the Seahawks had in the later rounds of the draft within the past five or six years. While most of the Jaguars roster is too young to fully grade their draft classes, landing someone like Smith in the fifth round is the type of “hit” that good teams manage to have.
Jonathan Newsome, Colts: After being selected in the fifth round out of Ball State last year, chances are very few would have expected Newsome to be the Colts most effective pass rusher as a rookie. But with Robert Mathis missing the year due to a torn Achilles, that’s exactly what happened. Mainly used as a situational player, Newsome racked up 6.5 sacks and added one more while forcing a fumble in the playoffs. The Colts have said Newsome will see an expanded role this year, and it’s easy to see why.
Along with having produced when given a chance, Mathis will be out until late September. On top of that, with the Colts potent offense there is a chance opponents will be playing catch-up early and often. That just leaves more opportunities for Newsome to come in as a pass rusher. The Colts are still looking for a pass rusher opposite Mathis (when he does return) and there is a chance Newsome could very well be their guy.