Linebacker breakouts are ones that can vary drastically depending on the scheme. The breakouts of Telvin Smith and Deion Jones in recent years were more of the “traditional” variety being outside linebackers in a 4-3 defense. Meanwhile in a 3-4 defense, edge rushers such as Von Miller or Justin Houston can be labeled as linebackers, but are most known for their ability to get to opposing quarterbacks. For this crop of breakout linebackers, I tried having a little of both. These players are all worth watching throughout the season as them making a leap would have big implications for their respective defenses.
T.J. Watt, Steelers: Watt didn’t play a snap this preseason as a hamstring injury sidelined him. Despite that, the Steelers are in desperate need of pass rushing off the edge and Watt is the most likely player to give it to them. As a rookie, he had a solid season rushing the passer as Pro Football Focus credited him with 40 total quarterback hurries. Now more acclimated to the league, Watt has the chance to increase that figure in 2018. The Steelers will surely be hoping that he does.
Za’Darius Smith, Ravens: A fifth rounder in 2015, the number of snaps Smith has played has increased every year since entering the league. While Smith recorded 40 total quarterback pressures last year, this preseason he appeared to be playing at a whole new level. In 50 pass rushing snaps throughout the preseason, Smith generated 11 total pressures and was able to do so from both side of the field. To start the year at least, Smith will likely be used as a situational pass rusher. On a Ravens defense that could be one of the league’s best in 2018, he’s a player worth monitoring.
De’Vondre Campbell, Falcons: The past few years, we’ve seen breakouts of extremely athletic linebackers who can do a little bit of everything. The Jaguars have two of them in Telvin Smith and Myles Jack. Bobby Wagner is an All-Pro in Seattle, and Deion Jones is a focal point of the Falcons defense. Campbell taking his game to the next level would help Jones, and make a very talented Falcon defense even more dangerous. Campbell has the size and speed to perform well in coverage, but also make an impact defending the run. Entering his third season, this is crucial for Campbell as it could dictate potential contract talks next offseason.
Marquel Lee, Raiders: Coaching changes can make a world of difference. Lee had ups and downs as a rookie last season, but early signs have been very promising since Paul Guenther came on as defensive coordinator. Even though the Raiders added linebacker depth this offseason, Lee’s play indicates he’ll see plenty of snaps playing middle linebacker. His improvement would be a huge boost for a defense that was one of the league’s more disappointing in 2017.
Samson Ebukam, Rams: While the Rams have plenty of stars on defense, last year’s 4th round pick out of Eastern Washington could be a determining factor in how the unit performs. While Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh will bring pressure from the inside, the Rams don’t have any proven edge rushers after trading Robert Quinn. Ebukam is going to be called on to help fill the void. The presence of Donald and Suh will help, but Ebukam is a player worth monitoring throughout the season.