More so then in previous eras, there are more ways for linebackers to breakout than ever before. We’ve seen traditional linebackers breakout along the lines of Kwon Alexander last year, but others like Vic Beasley and Jadeveon Clowney showed it can be done as edge rushers too. Another trend is linebackers getting noticed for their coverage abilities. Now more than ever with all the data available, we’re able to see what linebackers can really make a difference in this regard. A recent example of this would be Jordan Hicks of the Eagles. The linebackers I picked this year are a mix of all those skills and it should be fun monitoring their progress through 2017.
Leonard Floyd, Bears: Every year it seems there is a young outside linebacker that takes the step as a pass rusher, and this year Floyd could be that guy. While Floyd had some scary concussion issues as a rookie, he flashed as a passer recording seven sacks with 36 total quarterback hurries. Reports all through Bears training camp were gushing about how Floyd has looked and he’s also added 15 pounds of muscle to his frame. With Pernell McPhee once again dealing with knee trouble, the Bears could be counting on Floyd in a big way throughout 2017. The talent is certainly there for him to take advantage.
Myles Jack, Jaguars: After a rookie season where he was unable to see extensive playing time, Jack entered training camp having prepared to be the Jaguars’ middle linebacker. That plan was brought to a halt early this preseason as he was moved to the strong-side so Paul Posluszny who is coming off a career year can go back to the middle. While Jack won’t have the same opportunities to rack up tackles, the ability is there to give the Jaguars a versatile defensive weapon. Paired With Telvin Smith, Jack gives the Jaguars two of the faster linebackers in the league and both could be pluses in coverage. The potential is there for the Jaguars defense to really emerge in 2017, and if Jack can play the run well and be a positive in coverage, that only strengthens the case.
Nick Vigil, Bengals: Like Jack, Vigil is a player who only saw limited snaps as a rookie. The Bengals are playing on changing that as he’s currently projected to be their starting strong-side linebacker. With Vontaze Burfict suspended to start the year, this could also open some extra opportunities for Vigil early on as the linebacker corps will need to step up in his absence. The Bengals have appeared to emphasize getting younger, and the emergence of Vigil on the defense would give them one less area to worry about.
Jordan Jenkins, Jets: We all know 2017 could be a long year for the Jets, but one thing that will come of it is the opportunity to develop young players. While Jenkins entered the NFL known more for his ability to stop the run, he showed some ability to get to quarterbacks later in the year. Of his 20 total quarterback hurries in 2016, nine came in the final three weeks of the season. Jenkins also spent a few months this offseason with Chuck Smith who was a former All-Pro defensive end with the Falcons to pick up some tips about rushing the passer. With players such as Leonard Williams already established on the defensive line, the emergence of Jenkins would give the Jets another young pass rusher in which they could build around.
Jatavis Brown, Chargers: A linebacker with 4.4 speed, Brown as a rookie showed he could end up being a player that gives the Chargers a unique defensive chess piece. While Brown had some struggles against the run, he fared well given the circumstances in coverage, and on 45 pass rushing snaps was able to generate nine total quarterback pressures. While Gus Bradley’s head coaching tenure was historic for all the wrong reasons, he should be able to utilize a versatile player such as Brown depending on the matchup. The Chargers have been a trendy playoff pick entering 2017, and the emergence of young players such as Brown will only help their cause.