Breakout Player Recap: Linebacker

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

With defenses around the league having more moveable parts than ever, the linebacker position is undergoing constant changes. This includes how players can make their presence known on the field. Now having players who were drafted as safeties and turning them into linebackers is becoming a popular trend. While none of the safety/linebacker hybrids were my picks to breakout in this article, this group as a whole had a solid return on my expectations providing a solid balance of pass rush specialists and your traditional three down linebackers. What I wrote about these players entering the 2015 season can be found here.

Melvin Ingram, Chargers: Entering the year, I noted that while Ingram had dealt with numerous injuries the first three years of his career, he was really emerging as a pass rushing force when he got the chance in 2014. Starting all 16 games for the first time of his career in 2015, Ingram built off that small sample size. He recorded 10.5 sacks while also racking up 65 total tackles and forcing three fumbles.

Considering that they’re on the West Coast and struggled this past year, not many casual fans may have noticed that the Chargers have some pieces in place to be a well above average defense in the near future. Now at 27 years old in what’s typically considered a players prime, Ingram should be a big component of that.

Hit or miss: Hit

Aaron Lynch, 49ers: With Aldon Smith’s ever ongoing legal drama, I figured Lynch would build off his nice rookie year campaign and become a solid starter. As a pass rusher, he certainly flashed. While 6.5 sacks don’t jump off the page, his 62 quarterback pressures hint that more could be on the horizon. Unfortunately for Lynch, he not only helped replace Smith as a pass rusher but also in the 49ers suspension department.

Due to violating the substance abuse policy, Lynch will miss the first four games of 2016. Despite that, he remains a very intriguing player to monitor throughout this upcoming season. Big things are on the horizon for Lynch if he’s able to keep everything in order.

Hit or miss: Push

Anthony Barr, Vikings: Entering the season, I wrote that Barr’s development would be a crucial to helping a young Vikings defense reach their potential. He certainly lived up to his end of the bargain. Barr continued to flash his physical gifts and also clinched his first Pro Bowl appearance in 2015. With 68 total tackles, 3.5 sacks, an interception and seven pass deflections Barr can do it all. The scary thing is that Barr is still relatively raw as a linebacker having started his time at UCLA on the offensive side of the ball. He’s going to be a lot of fun to watch for a long time.

Hit or miss: Hit

Ryan Shazier, Steelers: With physical gifts for days and impressing in the games he did play his rookie year, I felt Shazier would start his path to become the next great Steelers linebacker in 2015. That didn’t necessarily happen, but he was still very productive in the 12 games he did play. Shazier recorded 87 total tackles, 3.5 sacks and an interception while continuing to show that the potential to truly be a special linebacker in coverage is there.

At this point, the main concern is durability. Through two seasons Shazier has played in 21 of 32 possible games as he missed four in 2015 with a shoulder injury. Entering the season at 23, Shazier still has plenty of time to emerge into the player I feel he is capable of. Now we just have to hope that his body doesn’t betray him.

Hit or miss: Push

Telvin Smith, Jaguars: I noted that Smith ended his rookie season on a high note and his fantastic athleticism/range was once again on display throughout 2015. Smith was all over the field for the Jaguars recording 128 total tackles, 2.5 sacks and an interception despite missing two games. While I had seen a good amount of Smith on TV, arguably his best performance of the season was one I saw in person.

Between your traditional linebacker duties and chasing down running back from 20 yards behind, Smith was doing it all in the game I saw him against the Buccaneers. The Jaguars finally have the guys in place to fully start building their defensive identity. Smith figures to be one of their foundational pieces for the foreseeable future.

Hit or miss: Hit

Jonathan Newsome, Colts: After flashing as a situational pass rusher in 2014, I expected Newsome to have an expanded role in his second season. However, he continued to receive limited playing time and recorded only one sack in 2015. The Colts waived Newsome in February as he was charged (those were later dropped) with possession of marijuana. Newsome is playing this year in the CFL, but considering his age and the skills he flashed as a rookie; it wouldn’t be surprising to see him playing stateside again.

Hit or miss: Miss

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