While some defensive linemen can breakout for their presence against the run, it seems the most common occurrence is due to being able to get to opposing quarterbacks. Some of the names in the group that I mentioned certainly had no problem doing that, and more when called upon in 2016. A few of the players mentioned were named to the Pro Bowl or even All-Pro teams, so if this is the first step, they figure to be discussed among the premier talents at their position for years to come. What I wrote about these players entering 2016 can be found here.
Leonard Williams, Jets: What drew me to predicting Williams’ 2016 breakout was that even though three sacks as a rookie doesn’t jump off the page, he was really putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The pressure didn’t stop in 2016, and the sacks increased as he recorded seven on the year and was named to his first Pro Bowl.
Williams excelled against the run in his second season as well. Pro Football Focus gave Williams a grade of 89.0 against the run in 2016 which was fifth among all defensive linemen. Still only 23 entering this season, it’s scary to think that Williams still has room for growth. Jets fans might not have a ton to be excited about entering the 2017 season, but watching Williams wreck havoc should bring some hope.
Hit or miss: Hit
Preston Smith, Redskins: After Smith had a ridiculous stretch to end his rookie year and the Redskins needed pass rush help after Junior Galette tore his Achilles, I thought Smith had the potential to record double digit sacks in an expanded role. Instead, there are just more questions regarding Smith that could be answered in 2017.
In 2015, Smith turned his quarterback pressures into sacks at a very high clip. That wasn’t the case in 2016 as Smith for the year forced a similar amount of total quarterback pressure, but generated three less sacks. At this time, he’s expected to be more of a situational pass rusher looking ahead at the upcoming season. It will just be interesting to see if Smith either figures out a way to generate more pressure, or if he’ll just need to find ways to turn those pressures into sacks at a higher rate.
Hit or miss: Push
Danielle Hunter, Vikings: When I selected Hunter, I mentioned that double digit sack potential was there for whenever he earned the starting role on the Vikings defense. Apparently he didn’t need the role, as Hunter recorded 12.5 sacks playing on less than 60% of the Vikings defensive snaps. He recorded over 50 total quarterback pressures, and maintained a high level of play against the run.
The Vikings have already said Hunter will start in 2017, which should only mean increased playing time. Viewed as a raw prospect coming out of LSU, Hunter has already made drastic leaps in the last two seasons. Factor in that he doesn’t turn 23 until late October and Hunter should be fun to watch for a long time.
Hit or miss: Hit
Vic Beasley, Falcons: While I listed Beasley as a defensive lineman initially, he ended up playing as an outside linebacker for the Falcons in 2016. Regardless, he broke out in a big way leading the league with 15.5 sacks and being named to both his first Pro Bowl and All-Pro team. While Beasley figures to terrorize offensive lines for years with his freakish athleticism, there is a question regarding him that needs to be answered.
Like Preston Smith who was mentioned earlier, Beasley in 2016 turned his total quarterback pressures into sacks at a ridiculous rate which was nearly double the league average (a little over 15%). Essentially, guys like Von Miller or Khalil Mack got to the quarterback more than Beasley but he just made the most out of the opportunities. While his athleticism could be what allows him to maintain the incredible pace, being able to maintain a similar sack total would be a daunting task if he’s unable to increase his total quarterback pressures in 2017. Regardless, Beasley at 25 has time to figure this out and should be giving opposing coordinators fits for years to come.
Hit or miss: Hit
Frank Clark, Seahawks: When predicting Clark to breakout, I thought he would see an expanded role in the Seahawks defense and with the potential he displayed as a rookie, double digit sack potential was there. All of that ended being true, as Clark more than doubled the number of snaps he played as a rookie, and recorded 10 sacks in 15 games for the Seahawks.
While the amount of pressure Clark applied to opposing quarterbacks was impressive, he also faired extremely well against the run. Pro Football Focus gave Clark a grade of 85.0 against the run which was good for 11th among edge rusher in 2016. The Seahawks defense once again should be among the league’s best in 2017, and another big year from Clark certainly wouldn’t hurt the cause.
Hit or miss: Hit
Devin Taylor, Lions: Coming off an impressive 2015 showing, I thought that Taylor could be in for a big 2016 as he would be in a more prominent role. It didn’t help that Ziggy Ansah was injured for much of the year which would’ve made things easier, but Taylor didn’t manage to record more quarterback pressures than he did in the previous season.
For 2016, Taylor recorded 4.5 sacks, but struggled against the run. Pro Football Focus gave Taylor a grade of 41.1 against the run, which ranked 95th out of 104 eligible edge rushers. This offseason, Taylor went on to sign a one year deal with the Giants where should go back to being used in a situational role.
Hit or miss: Miss