Defensive linemen breakouts is unique as it can be done in various ways. While rushing the passer is the main skill we’re accustomed to, some players can become premier run stoppers as well. This group ended up being an interesting bunch as there some clear hits, a big miss and some players that showed steady improvement but didn’t fully breakout. What I wrote about these players heading into 2017 can be found here.
Noah Spence, Buccaneers: As a rookie, Spence was one of the top rookies in terms of quarterback pressures generated. In 2017, Spence played in just six games after being put on injured reserve with a shoulder injury that plagued him since late in 2016. That could be part of the dip in production, as Spence generated just 12 total pressures in the snaps he played.
Per Pro Football Focus, his “Pass rushing productivity” which measures pressures on a per play basis had him in the bottom five of qualifying 4-3 ends. Spence’s talent level is still intriguing, so hopefully he’s healthy enough in 2018 to show what he’s capable of.
Hit or miss: Miss
Dante Fowler, Jaguars: While Fowler benefitted from Calais Campbell’s arrival, Yannick Ngakoue was the Jaguars breakout pass rusher in 2017. Despite that, Fowler was still productive as a situational pass rusher racking up 37 total pressures. Considering Pro Football Focus had Fowler recording a sack on just less than a quarter of his pressures, his sack total could decrease this upcoming year.
Even with his draft pedigree, this could be the last season for Fowler in Jacksonville as he enters his fourth year. The team declined his fifth year option, and with Ngakoue, Jalen Ramsey and Myles Jack up for new deals soon, it will be impossible to keep everyone. The raw pass rushing talent is there, so Fowler’s play and potential market this offseason is worth following.
Hit or miss: Push
A’Shawn Robinson, Lions: I mentioned that Robinson showed improvement as a pass rusher this past preseason, and it carried over. After just seven total pressures as a rookie, Robinson recorded 27 in his first full year as a starter. He improved defending the run as well, with his “run stop percentage” that’s calculated by PFF was above average among qualifying defensive tackles.
It wasn’t a full breakout, but the steps Robinson made were encouraging steps from his rookie year. The Lions defense could change schematically from last year, so Robinson’s role during training camp is something to monitor.
Hit or miss: Push
Chris Jones, Chiefs: The flashes that Jones showed as a rookie proved not to be a fluke in 2017. While his run stop percentage dropped, he was one of the better 3-4 ends in terms of rushing the passer. More of those pressures turned into sacks as well with Jones recording 6.5 and forcing four fumbles in the process. 2018 looks to be a year of transition for the Chiefs defense, but Jones figures to be a core part for the foreseeable future on that side of the ball.
Hit or miss: Hit
DeForest Buckner, 49ers: While a traditional stat like sacks would say Buckner regressed in 2017, that simply wasn’t the case. Buckner played around 140 less snaps than he did as a rookie, but his 52 total quarterback pressures ranked second among defensive tackles. Despite the snaps lost, that was four more hurries than Buckner recorded in his rookie year.
With Jimmy Garoppolo now at quarterback, the biggest questions for the 49ers now surround the defense. The team has plenty of young defensive talent, but Buckner’s ability to stop the run and get to quarterbacks might make him the most valuable. As the 49ers start winning, the accolades will start pouring in for Buckner if he sustains this level of play.
Hit or miss: Hit