With the various defensive schemes across football, linebackers can breakout in different ways. Some can do it as a classic inside linebacker that racks up tackles. Others can do it as an edge rusher who terrorizes opposing quarterbacks. This group was a mix of the two, and in terms of breaking out in 2016 they had mixed results. What I wrote about these linebackers entering 2016 can be found here.
Jadeveon Clowney, Texans: As I mentioned last season, Clowney hadn’t yet lived up to the billing as a number one overall pick, but he showed flashes that showed it could be only a matter of time. Things came together for him in 2016 and it was worth the wait. Playing in 14 games, Clowney continued to excel against the run and managed to this point a career high with six sacks.
He was also named to his first Pro Bowl, and named as a second team All-Pro. The scary thing with Clowney is what could happen once those quarterback pressures turn into sacks. It could only be a matter of time, and if J.J. Watt is healthy in 2017, that only makes things easier. 2016 will go down as Clowney’s breakout campaign, but in all likelihood, this should only be the beginning.
Hit or miss: Hit
Denzel Perryman, Chargers: When I selected Perryman to breakout in 2016, I noted that he finished his rookie year on a very high note. While still productive, Perryman was unable to build on that momentum. Limited to 12 games most notably due to a hamstring injury, he recorded 71 total tackles along with his first career interception.
How Perryman will fair in coverage is still a question mark we’ll have to wait until 2017 to answer. According to Pro Football Focus, he had a grade of 61.0 in coverage which ranked 53rd out of 75 eligible linebackers. The Chargers defense is an up and coming unit with plenty of young talent, so it will be interesting to see how Perryman performs in the new defensive scheme that Gus Bradley is bringing in.
Hit or miss: Push
Markus Golden, Cardinals: What drew me to Golden as a breakout candidate in 2016 was his ability to rush the passer in the limited snaps he received as a rookie. He saw an expanded role on defense, and didn’t disappoint racking up 12.5 sacks on the season. Against the run, Golden faired pretty well also so he is no one trick pony.
The main thing to watch with Golden in 2016 is similar to what I mentioned with other edge rushers such as Vic Beasley. He converted sacks at a very high rate given his 53 total quarterback pressures, so we’ll have to see if Golden finishing the job at that clip is sustainable. Regardless, through two seasons Golden has surely shown that he can rush the passer and he should be fun to watch off the edge for the foreseeable future.
Hit or miss: Hit
Shaq Thompson, Panthers: After the Panthers defense excelled in 2015, I expected Thompson to become an X-factor of sorts in his second NFL season. This did occur, as the former college safety once again showed he’s more than capable in terms of coverage ability. Despite starting 12 games, Thompson didn’t rack up a ton of counting stats.
Part of this is due to the Panthers defense, as even when starting he played less than 60% of the defensive snaps. For the year he had 54 total tackles, an interception, and two fumble recoveries one of which was a touchdown. Reports earlier this month said Thompson figures to stay on the field more in 2017, so even though some outlets (Pro Football Focus’ grade of 85.0 had Thompson as their 12th best linebacker in 2016) were high on his performance there is still room for growth.
Hit or miss: Push