With the emphasis on the passing game, more than ever it seems we see defensive linemen bursting onto the scene as premier pass rushers. However due to advanced statistics, the casual fan knows more about defensive line play than ever before. Very rarely in the past would defensive lineman who specialized in stopping the run get their due, but now if they’re having a dominant season in that regard fans will be made aware. The players I picked to breakout varied in their expertise, but only one clearly stood above the rest in terms of their 2015 performance. What I wrote about these defensive linemen entering the season can be found here.
Khalil Mack, Raiders: While Mack’s rookie season numbers didn’t reflect it, I mentioned how the copious amounts of quarterback hurries he was credited with in 2014 would show themselves in 2015. My prediction was he would at least triple his 2014 sack output of four and he did more than that totaling 15 in his second season. This includes a four week onslaught between weeks 12-15 where he recorded 10 sacks alone including a memorable performance in Denver where he notched five. Heck, Mack was so good in 2015 he was named as a first team All Pro as both a defensive end and as an outside linebacker. For those scoring at home, that has never happened before.
This offseason, the Raiders have received a lot of hype as an up and coming contender in the AFC. Their defense has improved as a point was made to address the secondary. That could only make things better for Mack as quarterbacks will spend more time in the pocket trying to find an open man. The NFL is always more fun when the Raiders are highly competitive and Mack is a big reason why this young core figures to take the next step.
Hit or miss: Hit
Timmy Jernigan, Ravens: Jernigan flashed the skills to defend the run and rush the passer which made me high on him in the first place. While I pegged him as the Ravens replacement to Haloti Ngata, Jernigan only started eight games in 2015. Part of that could be based on articles I’ve read saying he has been in and out of John Harbaugh’s doghouse and there were questions about Jernigan’s effort. Despite that, he still recorded four sacks and his run stopping ability was also apparent. If he fully commits himself, the potential is there for Jernigan to be a special interior defensive lineman.
Hit or miss: Push
Tyrone Crawford, Cowboys: Considering how well he performed in his first year as a defensive tackle in 2014, I expected big things from Crawford in 2015. He continued to improve in 2015 recording what’s now a career high five sacks. The Cowboys like what they have seen in Crawford as they gave him an extension for 5 years and $45 million this past September. They now have him locked up through his age 30 and if Crawford plays to what he could be capable of, that deal could look like a value.
Due to the numerous suspensions the Cowboys have with their defensive ends, there is a chance Crawford could start 2016 at his old position. Even if that is the case, his primary positon will be in the interior as he still has the ability to be a force against both the run and pass from there.
Hit or miss: Push
Demarcus Lawrence, Cowboys: With his first chance to start in 2015 and the talent he flashed in the 2014 playoffs, I figured big things were in store for Lawrence given the opportunity and natural ability. While I said double digit sacks wouldn’t be surprising, his total of eight wasn’t too off base. The potential is certainly there so reaching that plateau eventually wouldn’t be surprising. However, it looks unlikely to happen in 2016 as a violation of the substance abuse policy has Lawrence suspended for the first four games of the year. When he returns, the Cowboys will really be counting on Lawrence to elevate his game to the next level in year three.
Hit or miss: Push
Tyrunn Walker, Lions: With the advanced metrics high on his performance with the Saints, I liked Walker’s potential to come in and help make up for some of what Ndamukong Suh brought to the defense. While he started the first four games of 2015, a broken fibula cut his season short. The Lions brought him back on another one year deal this offseason. If everything goes according to plan, it could prove to be one of the savvier signings of free agency.
Hit or miss: Miss
Kony Ealy, Panthers: Due to an opportunity that opened in part to Greg Hardy’s departure and injuries, Ealy entered 2015 as a starter for the Panthers. While I expected there to be inconsistency, I figured he could emerge as an effective pass rusher for a stout defense. Ealy started nine games recording five sacks. The inconsistency was on display as he went five straight games with a sack, but failed to record another one.
However, when the Panthers needed him most, Ealy played like a man possessed. Having recorded three sacks and an interception in the Super Bowl, you could make the case Ealy would’ve been the deserving MVP if the Panthers won the game. If he can carry the flashes he showed on the biggest stage into 2016 and improve on consistency, the Panthers defensive front could somehow manage to be become even more imposing.
Hit or miss: Push