3-4 OLB

  1. Von Miller
  2. Khalil Mack
  3. Ryan Kerrigan
  4. Elvis Dumervil
  5. Melvin Ingram
  6. Pernell McPhee
  7. Whitney Mercilus
  8. DeMarcus Ware
  9. Jadeveon Clowney
  10. Preston Smith

Breakout: Aaron Lynch

The 49ers found two promising linebackers in the 2014 NFL season: Chris Borland and Aaron Lynch. Chris Borland was the more talented of the two, but after he retired after just one season, the 49ers looked to Lynch, who produced six sacks in his rookie year, to contribute. In his second season, Lynch produced similar numbers, tallying 6.5 sacks. As Lynch starts his third NFL season, this is the time where we find out if he is really going to be a great linebacker or if he is just a mid-level starter. I fully expect Lynch to tally anywhere between eight to twelve sacks next season. 

Analysis: 

Von Miller comes in at No. 1 and there shouldn’t be any surprise there. Posting fifteen sacks, Khalil Mack comes in second. Mack was named an All-Pro at both OLB and DE, something that’s never been done before. Elvis Dumervil comes in at No. 4, even after a season where he only produced six sacks. Dumervil, two years ago, had 17.5 sacks, so even at 32 years old, don’t discount him having another great season. At No. 9, I predict Jadeveon Clowney to finally start showing some promise. After two down seasons and a couple of injuries, people are already starting to write off Clowney as a potential bust. This is definitely a make-or-break season for him, and I see him starting to trend upward this season. 

4-3 OLB:

  1. Lavonte David
  2. Telvin Smith
  3. Thomas Davis
  4. Jamie Collins
  5. Anthony Barr
  6. Dont’a Hightower
  7. K.J. Wright
  8. DeAndre Levy
  9. Sean Lee
  10. Alec Ogletree

Breakout: Shaq Thompson

Even as a rookie, Shaq Thompson found a way to contribute to an extremely talented Carolina Panthers defense. Racking up 50 tackles and a sack showed that Thompson has the tools to be a presence at the outside linebacker position. Thompson is slated as the starter right now and playing on a loaded defense should allow him the opportunity to have a breakout season. 

Analysis:

The 4-3 OLB might be one of my favorite positions in football.  The position allows for the player to produce tackles, sacks, interceptions, in addition to forcing fumbles. Stat sheets for some of the best at the position are always loaded in every category. Take Lavonte David for example. He has produced over 139 tackles every year and has 13 sacks and nine interceptions in only four seasons. David usually only gets the top spot on a list when you talk about Pro Bowl snubs, but he gets the top spot on my list.

One of my favorite players in the entire league is Telvin Smith. One of the most athletic linebackers in the NFL, Smith has the ability to take on some of the NFL’s toughest running backs as well as keep up with receivers in coverage. Smith is extremely underrated, but he will put his name on everyone’s radar in 2016. Another 4-3 OLB that I like a lot is DeAndre Levy. He comes in at No. 8 as he is coming off of a season-ending injury. Even with questions of his health, Levy is one of the NFL’s best coverage linebackers and should keep his reputation next season as he partners with new star Ezekiel Ansah (more on him later) to form a formidable Lions defense. 

ILB: 

  1. Luke Kuechly 
  2. NaVorro Bowman 
  3. Bobby Wagner
  4. C.J. Mosley 
  5. Brandon Marshall
  6. David Harris
  7. Jerrell Freeman
  8. Deone Bucannon
  9. Derrick Johnson
  10. Kwon Alexander

Breakout: Nigel Bradham

    As we know, Florida State produces some great linebackers, and Nigel Bradham is one of them. A lot of people just don’t know yet. In 2014, he racked up over 100 tackles, but still doesn’t get the recognition that he deserves as one of the top players on Buffalo’s defense after the fall of Kiko Alonso. The Eagles took their second shot at a former Bills linebacker, and I feel like this time it’s going to pay off. Pairing him with Jordan Hicks should make up one of the best young linebacker duos in the NFL and should allow for Bradham to shine as one of the bright spots on an otherwise lackluster defense. 

Analysis: 

Kuechly at the No. 1 spot is obvious. Bowman at No. 2 shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone either. The real surprise comes at No. 4. After somewhat of a down season by his standards, C.J. Mosley should return to form next season to fuel a Ravens' defense that returns Terrell Suggs from injury.

\At No. 6, I have David Harris. Some of you may be extremely confused by this, but I’ll let you know why I have him ranked so high. Harris is one of the most consistent linebackers in the league, and since he started his career in 2007, he has only two seasons in which he didn't produced at least 100 tackles. Harris isn’t defined by his 993 career tackles, as he also offers pass-rushing abilities at the inside linebacker spot, posting 34.5 sacks in his career. At No. 8, Deone Bucannon makes an appearance. He represents the new trend of safety/linebacker hybrids that is taking place in the NFC West. He doesn’t shy away from contact and is certainly adept in coverage.

3-4 DE:

  1. JJ Watt
  2. Calais Campbell
  3. Muhammad Wilkerson
  4. Fletcher Cox
  5. Chandler Jones
  6. Cameron Heyward
  7. Sheldon Richardson
  8. Jurrell Casey
  9. Mike Daniels
  10. Leonard Williams

Breakout: Derek Wolfe

    Much like how Malik Jackson broke out last season, Derek Wolfe should be the new anchor of the Broncos defensive line. The Broncos always seem to be producing breakout stars on their defensive line year after year. Terrence Knighton started it, then Malik Jackson followed, and it’s pretty safe to assume that there will be another breakout player on their defensive line next year. 

Analysis: 

Chandler Jones was difficult to put here. At 260 pounds, he is too big to player outside linebacker in the Cardinals 3-4 system, but he is too small to be a defensive end. The Cardinals have him listed as a defensive end, so I put him under the 3-4 defensive end rankings. At No. 6, Cam Heyward is a player that should really receive more recognition than he gets. He has been one of the anchors of the Steelers defense for a few years now and is starting to get his name known, as he finished as one of the top 100 players last season according to the NFL Top 100 rankings. Speaking of players who deserve more credit, when will Jurrell Casey’s name ever be known outside of Tennessee? Playing for a small market team that is far away from being successful, he hasn’t gotten any recognition for his pass-rushing abilities. 

4-3 DE:

  1. Ezekiel Ansah
  2. Khalil Mack
  3. Michael Bennett
  4. Robert Quinn
  5. Malik Jackson
  6. Everson Griffin
  7. Olivier Vernon
  8. Cameron Jordan
  9. Carlos Dunlap
  10. Robert Ayers

Breakout: Kony Ealy

He pretty much already had his breakout, but it people swept it under the rug after the Panthers lost the Super Bowl. Posting 3 sacks, one forced fumble, and one interception in the Super Bowl should not be something that people should forget, even if the Panthers didn’t win the game. Playing in rotation with Mario Addison and Charles Johnson, Ealy didn’t have much of a chance to prove just how good during the season, posting just five sacks. As Charles Johnson declines with age, expect Ealy to take his starting spot and flourish. 

 

Analysis: 

The biggest question last offseason was who will fill in for Suh along the Lion’s defensive line. Ansah answered that question fourteen and a half times, leading the Lions in sacks. Ansah proved to be one of the only good picks within the top 10 of the 2013 NFL Draft. Khalil Mack was an All-Pro at both defensive end and at outside linebacker, so I included him in this section as well. Michael Bennett has become the poster boy for underrated defensive players. He is so talked about as being underrated that he is actually starting to become a little bit, dare I say it, overrated. Nevertheless, he is still one of the best defensive ends the game has to offer. Cameron Jordan is another player who doesn’t get a whole lot of recognition. Playing on a terrible Saints defense doesn’t allow him to be noticed as much as he should, but he still produces great sack numbers year after year.

DT:

  1. Aaron Donald
  2. Kawaan Short
  3. Geno Atkins
  4. Gerald McCoy
  5. Marcell Dareus
  6. Nkamukong Suh
  7. Dontari Poe
  8. Sen’Derrick Marks
  9. Damon Harrison
  10. Brandon Williams

Breakout: Eddie Goldman

Eddie Goldman became the Bear’s anchor along their defensive line late last season, but he didn’t receive the credit that he deserved. Anyone who has read any of my other articles where I mention Goldman knows that I love him and the way that he fits in the Bears system. With a whole new group of linebackers coming in next year, Goldman’s pressure up the middle should help lead to more and more sacks. Even though he will still not get a whole lot of attention next year, due to the fact that he is a 3-4 defensive tackle, his improvement will be clear to those who watch him. 

Analysis:

Aaron Donald and Kawaan Short going one and two shouldn’t be any surprise. Geno Atkins is my No. 3 defensive tackle, and it is justified by his contributions to that defense last season. In 2014, when he was injured, the Bengals only managed 20 sacks. When Atkins returned last season, and as playing like the Atkins that we all knew, the Bengals more than doubled their sack total, registering 42.

I have Marcell Dareus at No. 5. In 2014, he posted double digit sacks, but in 2015, Dareus only got to the quarterback twice. This has to do with the fact that once Rex Ryan came in, he employed his classic 3-4 defense, where the defensive tackle isn’t as much of a pass-rusher. It took Dareus a little while to adjust to his role change, but come next season, he should feel comfortable and return to his previous form.

I have Sen’Derrick Marks at No. 8, which will probably cause controversy. Marks posted eight sacks in 2014 and was one of the league’s top defensive tackles, despite playing for a struggling Jaguars team. Come 2015, Marks faced an injury that sidelined him for pretty much the entire season. Marks will return to a Jaguars squad that boasts the best young defense in the league, and with Myles Jack, Dante Fowler, and Malik Jackson playing alongside him, I could easily see him breaking the double-digit sack mark. 

CB:

  1. Richard Sherman
  2. Darrelle Revis
  3. Josh Norman
  4. Tyrann Mathieu 
  5. Chris Harris Jr.
  6. Patrick Peterson
  7. Desmond Trufant
  8. Aqib Talib
  9. Vontae Davis
  10. Marcus Peters

Breakout: E.J. Gaines

Before he missed the entire 2015 season, E.J. Gaines actually proved to be pretty valuable in his rookie season opposite Janoris Jenkins. It’s hard to judge who will be a breakout cornerback as the position’s production is based off of whether or not the quarterback decides to throw their way. Of course, if you don’t get targeted a lot, that means that you are shutting down your opposition. My way of judging breakout cornerback is by how much playing time they will get and who is playing the opposite of them. Gaines will receive a starter role next season with Janoris Jenkins gone chasing the money. Opposite Gaines will be Trumaine Johnson, who despite not being very well-known, was actually one of the best corners last year. 

Analysis: 

 There are two main questions to ask when ranking corners: Sherman or Revis is one. The other is: Will that question ever be answered? I’m picking Sherman over Revis mainly due to age and the fact that Revis just lost Cromartie opposite him, so he should be seeing plenty more targets. Tyrann Mathieu comes in at No. 4 despite probably being the best corner last year. I put him outside the Top 3 mainly due to injury concerns, which should be a criticism that he will have for his entire career. After No. 4, you see the usual names: Chris Harris Jr., Patrick Peterson, Desmond Trufant, and so on. Marcus Peters comes in at No. 10, and even though he was probably a Top 5 corner last year, he lost Sean Smith opposite him and also lost Tyvon Branch in the secondary. Due to this, he should see plenty more targets next year, and giving up eight touchdowns in his rookie season isn’t a good reason to think that at least a handful won’t get by him. 

FS: 

  1. Harrison Smith
  2. Earl Thomas III
  3. Devin McCourty
  4. Eric Weddle
  5. Darian Stewart
  6. Malcolm Jenkins
  7. Ha-Ha Clinton Dix
  8. Kurt Coleman
  9. Antoine Bethea
  10. Glover Quin

Breakout: Adrian Amos

To be honest, there doesn’t really seem to be a big candidate for the breakout star at the free safety position. I ended up choosing Adrian Amos, even though he actually had a pretty good rookie season and should be on everyone’s radar by the end of the next season. Amos is versatile safety who can cover, but also provide run-support, as evinced by his 60+ tackles in his rookie year. Though not picking off any passes, Amos played well in coverage next to Antrel Rolle and should be the successor the aging veteran. 

Analysis: 

The Free Safety position is very top-heavy, with the usual names such as Earl Thomas, Devin McCourty, Harrison Smith, and Eric Weddle headlining most lists. Those four could be pretty much set in any order but I put Harrison Smith as the top free safety for next season due to his incredible versatility and the fact that as the Vikings will probably make it farther in the playoffs next year, Smith will be offered more opportunities to prove his worth. Kurt Coleman is an interesting player at No. 8. Coleman had a couple of memorable seasons with the Eagles, but didn’t have a great year with the Chiefs in 2014. Coleman picked off seven passes in 2015, but I doubt he will match that mark again. I see Coleman being a valuable contributor on the Panthers next season, but don’t expect him to be as impactful as he was in 2015.

SS: 

  1. Reshad Jones
  2. T.J. Ward
  3. Kam Chancellor
  4. Eric Berry
  5. George Iloka
  6. Kenny Vaccaro
  7. Corey Graham
  8. Morgan Burnett
  9. Patrick Chung
  10. Da’Norris Searcy

Breakout: Calvin Pryor

Calvin Pryor’s ability to contribute in the run-game as well as in coverage is something that should bolster the Jet’s secondary next season, as he enters his third year as a pro. I was about to pick another safety in New York (Landon Collins), but I expect Pryor to receive a decent amount of targets next year. I know that I may be contradicting myself by saying that, but in some cases, an increased amount of targets can be beneficial, as it provides more opportunity for you to succeed. Too many can be detrimental though. 

Analysis: 

Reshad Jones isn’t quite a household name yet, but after making his first Pro Bowl last season, he should be. If you like safeties that can fill up a stat sheet, you will fall in love with Reshad Jones. Posting 135 tackles and 5 interceptions granted him his first Pro Bowl birth last season. With his versatility, he can play in the box or be a single high safety. Imagine him as a little bit of Earl Thomas and a little bit of T.J. Ward. Kenny Vaccaro comes in at the No. 6 spot. Despite having a down year in 2014 and eventually being benched, Vaccaro came back in 2015 with his first 100+ tackle season. I could see him taking the next step next season to become a Top 3 or 4 strong safety, but his inconsistencies keep me from placing him there. 

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