Defensive linemen typically take a couple of years to realize their full potential. You don’t often see a defensive end come in and record 10 sacks as a rookie, or a defensive tackle dominating like Aaron Donald in Year 1. Teams realize that when they draft players at those positions, which is why expectations always skyrocket in their second and third seasons.
That’s exactly the case for these 11 defensive linemen, who either had promising starts to their careers or slightly disappointing ones. Regardless, they’re poised to break out in 2017.
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Robert Nkemdiche, DE, Cardinals
The Cardinals clearly have a great deal of confidence and faith in Nkemdiche, who did next to nothing as a rookie in 2016. They let Calais Campbell leave for Jacksonville, which opens up the door for Nkemdiche to take over his role at defensive end. He has the build and talent to do exactly that, but his focus isn’t always there.
That should change this season now that he’s fully recovered from a lingering ankle injury and is more focused on football than he was last season when coaches were criticizing him for not being productive enough.
He’s not going to have 10 sacks, simply because that’s not the type of player he is. However, he will be a disruptor at defensive end for the Cardinals this season.
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A’Shawn Robinson, DT, Lions
Robinson was a great run-stopper last season, making 30 total tackles for the Lions. He only had two sacks, however, which is an area that the coaching staff is expecting a big improvement. If he can get better in that area, he’ll become a three-down player and be on the field more often.
That should happen this season after honing his craft in minicamp and eventually in training camp. Getting pressure from his defensive tackle spot will make the lives of everyone on Detroit’s defensive line much easier, especially Ziggy Ansah, who struggled mightily last season.
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Dante Fowler Jr., DE, Jaguars
Fowler unfortunately missed all of his rookie season in 2015 after being the third overall pick. He was back on the field for all 16 games last year, but he had just one start and four sacks – not exactly the numbers you expect to see from a second-year defensive end. Fowler should have his best season yet in 2017, and the Jaguars need him to do exactly that.
With Malik Jackson, Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue all playing big roles on defense, Fowler has the supporting cast to post a breakout season. Teams can’t double-team Fowler and leave other pass rushers in one-on-one situations, which should make it far easier for him to get after the quarterback.
He does still need to improve as a well-rounded pass rusher, though, rather than just being a freakish athlete.
Emmanuel Ogbah, DE, Browns
Ogbah played and started all 16 games at defensive end last season, but he only finished with 5.5 sacks. It was an encouraging year for a rookie, I suppose, but he’s going to really take off in 2017 in Gregg Williams’ 4-3 scheme. He’ll be moved back to defensive end, where he’s most comfortable playing, and should see his sack total potentially double.
Having Myles Garrett and Danny Shelton also on the defensive line will help Ogbah, too, taking pressure off of him the way it was on last season, being the team’s best pass rusher. He should break out with double-digit sacks and a handful of forced fumbles after working with Williams this offseason. His move back to defensive end can’t be overlooked.
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Jarran Reed, DT, Seahawks
The Seahawks were one of the best teams against the run last season, allowing just 3.4 yards per carry – tops in the NFL by a wide margin. Reed was a big reason for that, eating up blocks on the interior to free up his fellow defensive linemen. He started six games as a rookie last season, but that number should increase in 2017.
He’s going to consistently line up as the 1-technique over the center with Ahtyba Rubin and rookie Malik McDowell competing for time at 3-technique. Expect Reed to make a big jump this season in both playing time and production.
Trey Flowers, DE, Patriots
You could make the case that Flowers broke out in 2016 with seven sacks after recording as many as you and I did in 2015, but he’s going to make another huge jump this season. With Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard out of the picture, Flowers is going to be the Patriots’ primary pass rusher.
He started just eight games in 2016, a number that will double if he can stay healthy. His sack total could also double, which would be extremely impressive for the young pass rusher. It wouldn’t be out of the question for him to finish among the sack leaders in 2017 after having yet another offseason to work on his pass-rush skills – especially with the Patriots’ lack of elite talent at defensive end.
Javon Hargrave, NT, Steelers
Hargave got off to a bit of a slow start as a rookie despite starting 13 games, often coming off the field on nickel packages. Later in the year, he stayed on the field on sub-packages and performed extremely well. He’s going to be a huge factor on Pittsburgh’s defense next season with his ability to rush the passer as a nose tackle.
Look for his numbers to jump next season in both sacks and tackles for loss. The Steelers have built a formidable front with Hargrave, Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree, among others, which will make it difficult for offensive linemen to key on one player.
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Sheldon Rankins, DT, Saints
Rankins had some bad luck during his rookie season after suffering a broken leg in the preseason, which caused him to miss seven games. In the nine games he did play, he was really fun to watch. He recorded four sacks and 20 tackles with a forced fumble, which makes you wonder just how great his numbers are going to be in a full season this year.
He has the ability to rush the passer from his defensive tackle spot, which is always valuable in any defense. And with a full offseason of work without the draft process getting in the way, Rankins should improve even more. He’s one of the best young defensive tackles in the game.
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Maliek Collins, DT, Cowboys
Collins burst onto the scene in the second half of the season, recording five sacks in his final nine games, including two against the Browns. He’s exactly what the Cowboys are looking for in a 3-technique, showing the ability to get after the quarterback and stop the run up the middle.
With Dallas still shifting around its defensive line and trying to find the best combination, Collins will remain a cog on every down. He’s the type of player that Rod Marinelli will have a hard time taking off the field, especially on sub-packages when the Cowboys go smaller up front.
He could wind up leading the team in sacks, considering the overall lack of talent Dallas has at defensive end. That’s not necessarily a good sign for the rest of the team, but Marinelli would be thrilled if that were to happen.
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Noah Spence, DE, Buccaneers
Spence fell to the second round of last year’s draft because of character concerns, but he proved he has great potential as a player. He recorded 5.5 sacks and showed flashes of elite rushing ability off the edge for the Buccaneers. He did so while battling a shoulder injury – a partially torn labrum – for much of the season, too.
Now healthy again, Spence should put together a strong sophomore campaign in Tampa Bay’s defense. He’s a candidate to reach double-digit sacks, which would be a huge lift for the Buccaneers. And he’s doing everything he can to reach that mark, including eating healthier and cutting down on his body fat percentage, which is now below 10 percent. His focus seems to be completely on football, which is a good sign for a player with past character concerns.
Grady Jarrett, DT, Falcons
Jarrett saved his best game for last in 2016, absolutely wreaking havoc in the Super Bowl against the Patriots. He had three sacks (which tied a Super Bowl record) and five tackles, showing a great deal of potential going into 2017.
Now, it’s time for him to realize that potential and make the most of his opportunity. With Dontari Poe now playing next to him, his opportunities will increase as a pass rusher. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him have an Aaron Donald-type season with eight sacks and a whole bunch of tackles for loss.
Jarrett is an integral piece of a defense that’s certain to be one of the best in the NFL this season.