With the evolution of the position and league trends, defensive linemen breakouts seem to occur more frequently. The most typical breakouts these days are pass rushers which Yannick Ngakoue and Demarcus Lawrence showed in 2017. Others like Michael Pierce and Kenny Clark do their damage on the interior primarily defending the run. I tried to pick a little of both, but many of the players listed should be able to help their teams in both facets.
Myles Garrett, Browns: It’s not a matter of if but a matter of when for Garrett. The tools are all there for him to become one of the premier edge rushers in the league and he showed them off as a rookie. Between his ability to get to quarterbacks and play a role in run defense, last year’s number one overall pick is a fantastic defensive building block. This year the Browns will likely hold more leads, giving Garrett more pass rushing opportunities. On top of the that, he missed five games last year so he’ll get to make up for those lost snaps. A season of 12 plus sacks is certainly within reach.
Carl Lawson, Bengals: Despite impressive college production, Lawson fell to the fourth round in the 2017 draft. Even though we’re just a year removed, that’s a move plenty of teams would like back. Despite playing less than 400 pass rushing snaps, Lawson per Pro Football Focus generated 59 total quarterback pressures in his rookie season. This year, Lawson is moving to defensive end in a new defensive scheme, but should see more playing time. The Bengals defensive line could be one of the more underrated position groups in the league at this time. If Lawson plays the way he’s capable of, that won’t be the case for long.
Sheldon Rankins, Saints: While limited in his rookie season by injury, Rankins showed his versatility in 2017. Depending on the situation, Rankins has the versatility to play outside or inside in the Saints 4-3 and he showed potential as a pass rusher. Despite just two sacks, Rankins had over 40 total quarterback pressures. If he can continue getting to the quarterback at that clip, Rankins should see positive regression regarding his sack total. An already important piece of the Saints young defensive corps, improvement in that regard would help the defense and raise Rankins’ profile among fans/talking heads alike.
Larry Ogunjobi, Browns: Obviously there isn’t a ton of positive that can come from an 0-16 season, but the Browns have the development of Garrett and Ogunjobi to look back on. While used as more of a rotational interior lineman, Ogunjobi showed potential in run defense and should play more with Danny Shelton out of the picture. What really intrigues me is the potential to improve as a pass rusher where he demonstrated some ability while playing at Charlotte. If he can do that, it adds even more resources for a Browns defense that on the surface has plenty of talent.
Charles Harris, Dolphins: After the addition of Robert Quinn this offseason to go with Cameron Wake, Harris will likely begin the year as a rotational pass rusher for the Dolphins. All offseason there have been rave reviews about Harris and he showed flashes the final few weeks of the year. Per Pro Football Focus, Harris had 12 of his 34 total quarterback pressures in weeks 15 and 16. That’s an encouraging sign for a Dolphin defense that could be better than expected in 2018.