With defensive schemes always changing, linebacker is always an interesting position to project breakouts for. While there are traditional linebackers to account for, over the years we’ve seen the development of pass rush specialists. In most cases, that pertains to 3-4 defenses. Of the four linebackers I chose, two fit the mold of more the traditional roles, while two project more as pass rushers. These players all have the potential to make huge leaps in 2016 and are names that are worth paying plenty of attention to throughout the season.
Jadeveon Clowney, Texans: The first two years of Clowney’s NFL career have been an interesting journey. Coming in as the number one pick, there comes great expectations. Unfortunately, injuries and another pass rusher who was selected three spots after him (Khalil Mack) becoming an All-Pro don’t often lead to a positive general consensus on a player. However, when he did play last year Clowney showed a lot of flashes that he can build on.
He did well defending the run, and showed the ability to get to opposing quarterbacks while recording 4.5 sacks. What I really like about his situation is that while the expectations are there for him to be a dynamic player, Clowney will see favorable matchups due to the Texans pass rush as a whole. We all know how great J.J. Watt is, but Whitney Mercilus is a player who was able to record double digit sacks as well. Lining up opposite them and moving around in the defensive scheme when needed, the chance for Clowney to show the league what he’s capable of in 2016 is certainly there.
Denzel Perryman, Chargers: In recent years the Chargers have struggled on the defensive side of the ball. However, there are players such as Perryman in place that indicate they could be turning the corner. Down the stretch of his rookie season in 2015, Perryman was one of the most productive inside linebackers in the entire league.
He now enters 2016 in his first full year as a starter and things are in place for him to build off of that torrid finish. The main question surrounding Perryman will be how he develops in terms of pass defense. His developments there could impact his upside as the Chargers may view him as a two down player. I’m expecting him to improve there, so it’s likely the Chargers will have yet another impressive player to their young defensive core.
Markus Golden, Cardinals: Are you in search of the next big pass rushing linebacker? If so, there is a chance Golden is that guy. While he only played in limited snaps as a rookie, he put the pressure on quarterbacks at an incredible rate and also added four sacks. The Cardinals have also said they feel Golden will be a primary beneficiary of the trade for Chandler Jones.
With Jones getting the attention of opponents premier pass blockers, Golden will have more favorable matchups and the ability to move around the field to manufacture opportunities. The Cardinals already rank among the league’s top defenses. Golden emerging as a double digit sack guy would certainly be a fantastic boost to that claim.
Shaq Thompson, Panthers: While people are worried about the Panthers defense regressing in 2016, it’s worth noting that often times a strong front seven is what can really make a defense tick. Even for a recent example you can look at the Seahawks. While the “Legion of Boom” got the headlines, the defensive lineman and linebackers were doing a fantastic job in terms of limiting the run and getting to quarterbacks. What I’m trying to say is that the Panthers have a very strong front seven and it could be even better in 2016 depending on Thompson’s growth.
It’s known that Thompson is a fantastic athlete. He played some safety in college and many feel it is a position he could play in the pros. This showed as he was impressive in pass coverage, but struggled at times in other areas. Reading about him this offseason, many reports were discussing how he has grown as an all around player entering his second year and he figures to start next to Luke Keuchly and Thomas Davis. The versatility that Thompson can bring to Sean McDermott’s will be an interesting wrinkle to watch as he at the very least will be an x-factor for one of the league’s premier defenses.