Like some of the previous positions I’ve covered, a lot of defensive linemen breakouts in recent years have come due to the passing game. Sure there are your elite run stoppers, and those players such as Aaron Donald and Geno Atkins who can do both. But players that bring down the quarterback tend to get the most attention. The players I feel that can take their games to the next level are a mixture of that. Many of them are entering their second season and impressed in small sample sizes as rookies, while some are looking to build on 2015 to continue improving as players. Regardless, this is a talented crop of defensive linemen and we should be hearing these players’ names for years to come.
Leonard Williams, Jets: Despite many viewing him as arguably the top talent in the 2015 draft, Williams was available to the Jets who took him 6th overall. As a rookie, he impressed against the run and notched a combined 63 tackles and three sacks. However, what makes me very high on Williams this year was the amount of pressure he generated on opposing quarterbacks.
Despite a lower sack number, Williams was one of the top 3-4 defensive ends in terms of generating hits on the quarterback and pressure as a whole. That means that with time, sacks are going to come. On a line that already features Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson, Williams is going to see single coverage and the results could be a huge boost for the Jets.
Preston Smith, Redskins: In 2015, Smith started off his rookie year full of ups and downs like many first year players would. However, towards the end of the year a light seemed to go on for Smith. In the final three games of the season, he recorded five sacks. That doesn’t even include the safety he notched in the postseason against the Packers in the postseason.
With Junior Galette tearing his Achilles this offseason, the Redskins now more than ever need Smith to build off his strong finish to 2015. The potential for Smith to become a force as a pass rusher is certainly there. A 2016 season where he records double digit sacks would be a great start and is certainly within reach.
Danielle Hunter, Vikings: A third round selection in 2015, Hunter was viewed as a raw talent coming out of LSU. Naturally, many thought the Vikings picking him on day two was a bit high. If early returns are any indication, the Vikings will get the last laugh on this one.
As a situational pass rusher, Hunter was very effective recording six sacks, remained disruptive in terms of quarterback hurries and fared well against the run. While Hunter may start the year as a situational pass rusher to Brian Robison, the starting spot will be his for the taking sooner or later. Starting opposite Everson Griffen, there is double digit sack potential whenever Hunter earns the role.
Vic Beasley, Falcons: Like Williams, Beasley was another very highly touted player from the 2015 draft class. Many such as myself, thought he should of gone as high as third overall. Somehow, he fell to the 8th pick in the draft, and the Falcons are hoping he turns into the pass rushing force he was at Clemson.
Playing with a torn labrum, Beasley recorded four sacks and was one of the top 4-3 pass rushers in terms of quarterback hurries. As he gains experience, some of those should turn into sacks. Beasley will also be playing some outside linebacker in 2016 but one way or the other, there is too much potential for him not to make a leap of sorts as a pass rusher in his second year.
Frank Clark, Seahawks: Another member of the 2015 draft class, Clark is yet another example who flashed as a situational pass rusher in his rookie campaign. In the small sample size he played, his pass rushing prowess was on display and showed what could be double digit sack talent. With Bruce Irvin leaving in free agency for the Raiders, Clark now has a clear path to playing time.
Clark figures to now be a starter for a Seahawks defense that once again figures to be one of if not the league’s best. A large part of that will be due to their pass rush which will now be counting on Clark to fill a big void. A season with eight to ten sacks is a very realistic possibility.
Devin Taylor, Lions: At 6’7” 275 pounds, Taylor is an imposing presence, but due to his frame looks more like a small forward than a pass rushing force. The Lions certainly know what they have though as big things could be on the horizon for Taylor. Having started opposite Jadeveon Clowney at South Carolina, Taylor is used to not getting much of the attention and taking advantage of one-on-one matchups.
Fortunately for him, playing with Clowney prepared him for his time opposite Ziggy Ansah, who himself has become one of the NFL’s premier pass rushers. With Jason Jones out of the picture, Taylor now figures to start opposite Ansah and the payoff could be huge. As a situational pass rusher in 2015, Taylor recorded seven sacks. Now with favorable matchups lining up a Pro Bowl pass rusher? It is fair to say that 10 to 12 sacks is a possibility. Don’t be stunned at the end of the year if the Lions are in the discussion of the league’s best pass rushing tandems.