While some may feel defensive linemen breaking out is tied to more chances for sacks, that isn’t solely the case. In recent years thanks to all of the sources of information, we now have guys like Damon Harrison who are elite run stoppers getting their due. Pass rushers are the most likely candidates as we saw with players like Danielle Hunter last year, but I wanted to have a wider variety of players than just those coming off the edge. While these players could primarily gain notoriety as pass rushers, the ability is there for some to contribute in multiple ways.
Noah Spence, Buccaneers: Talent has never been an issue for Spence, but due to some off the field issues he ended up finishing his college career at Eastern Kentucky rather than Ohio State. Despite the risk, the Buccaneers felt highly enough to take Spence 39th overall in the 2016 draft. He already has shown glimpses of why the team felt comfortable with the selection. His 40 total quarterback hurries ranked near the top of rookie edge rushers last season. One thing to watch Spence do this year is convert some of those pressures into sacks. He had 5.5 in a season where he played just a little over half of the Buccaneers defensive snaps, so a double digit sack season is certainly a possibility.
Dante Fowler, Jaguars: After tearing his ACL in rookie camp after being the third overall pick in 2015, this past season was basically a rookie campaign with Fowler. While he struggled as a whole, he showed glimpses of his pass rushing potential towards the end of the year. Per Pro Football Focus, Fowler had 10 of 39 total quarterbacks pressures in the last two weeks of the season. Considering he has been disruptive in the preseason as well, there’s a chance the light has gone on. With Calais Campbell and Malik Jackson to take pressure away from him on the defensive line, the Jaguars would certainly hope Fowler takes the next step in 2017.
A’Shawn Robinson, Lions: Despite solid points per game figures, the Lions defense struggled in 2016. Some of that could be contributed to the pass rush, or lack thereof. One thing that could help in that regard is Robinson taking his game to the next level. Robinson played less than 500 snaps as a rookie, but has shown improvements as a pass rusher through preseason action. Another thing he does well is rack up batted passes against opposing quarterbacks, so even that could limit opportunities against the defense. With Kerry Hyder out for the year with a torn Achilles, Ziggy Ansah returning back to form and someone like Robinson emerging would be a huge boost for the Lions defensive front.
Chris Jones, Chiefs: As a rookie in 2016, Jones showed he has the makings of a player the Chiefs can build their defense around. Not only did he show some ability in stopping the run, but he could get to the passer as well. The odd things with pass rushers is the casual fan only really recognizes sacks with defensive linemen or pass rushers. Jones may of recorded just two sacks, but he had 43 total quarterback pressures as a rookie. That indicates he can get to the passer, so the sacks should starting piling up in 2017 to help give him some national recognition.
DeForest Buckner, 49ers: Due to Chip Kelly’s up-tempo attack, Buckner was on the field for over 1,000 snaps in his rookie season. The good news is, he made his presence known in that time, and should have more time to rest on the sideline in 2017. Lining up all over the defensive line, Buckner defended the run and got to opposing passers with 48 total hurries. In 2016, Buckner converted 6 of those hurries into sacks. That number figures to go up this year and he’ll have fresher legs due to an offense not going at a frantic pace. While it could be sometime until they’re a serious NFC threat, the 49ers are quietly gathering some impressive defensive talent with Buckner at the forefront.