In this four-part series, NFL Network analysts Willie McGinest, Terrell Davis, Reggie Wayne and Gil Brandt examine youngsters who are poised for a breakout campaign. Today, Willie McGinest identifies pass rushers.
With the 2019 NFL season on the horizon, a number of talented players are still playing under rookie contracts. As a former NFL player myself — 15 seasons as an outside linebacker with New England and Cleveland — I know the pressure guys face when contract talks arise, but now is the time to make some waves and earn that well-deserved second deal.
In this same exercise last summer, I had Cleveland’s Myles Garrett breaking out with at least 12 sacks. He finished the season with 13.5. After being right or close on others, including Denver’s Bradley Chubb, in that piece, I thought I’d try my hand at it again this season.
I’m still sticking with players who are playing under their rookie contracts in 2019, so guys like Dante Fowler — who signed another contract with the Rams this offseason — don’t qualify. I also didn’t consider players such as Garrett, Joey Bosa and DeForest Buckner, who already had big seasons.
Taking all of this into consideration, here are four young pass rushers who are poised for a breakout campaign:
Josh Allen, Edge, Jacksonville Jaguars
2019 projection: 10 sacks.
He was my top pass rusher in this year’s draft class, so the Jaguars got a major steal when he dropped to seventh overall. Allen (6-foot-5, 260 pounds) compares to players like Houston’s Whitney Mercilus, who also entered the league as a big, versatile prospect, as a disruptive force coming off the edge. The rookie has tremendous speed off the ball and found success with several pass rush moves at Kentucky. The rip — one of the most commonly used pass rushing techniques — is his go-to move, but he’ll need to further develop his repertoire by learning other ways to use his hands and length if he wants to get to the quarterback on a regular basis at this level.
Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue manned the edges for Jacksonville’s defense last season. Ngakoue skipped mandatory minicamp earlier this month in hopes of getting a new contract, so Allen could find himself being a Day 1 starter if Ngakoue and the Jags can’t agree on a deal soon. I expect Allen to be in the Defensive Rookie of the Year conversation, whether he is a starter or part of the rotation. One thing that could inhibit the rookie, who worked through a minor knee injury this offseason, from having double-digit sacks in Year 1 — and I can speak about this firsthand — is that he could be asked to drop into coverage against tight ends or running backs, because of his athletic ability. Still, whether he’s getting to the quarterback or plastering pass catchers, Allen is set up for success.
Marcus Davenport, DE, New Orleans Saints
2019 projection: Nine-plus sacks.
The Saints had to be pleased with Davenport’s production early last season after they traded up 13 spots to draft him. He logged four sacks in the first six games in a rotational role. Unfortunately, a toe injury caused Davenport to miss three games (from Week 9 to Week 11), and with less explosiveness than normal, the defensive end struggled the rest of the way, finishing the season with 4.5 sacks. With Davenport undergoing surgery this offseason to get right physically, Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said in April that he foresees “big things” from his 2018 first-rounder. Davenport has always used his length well to create separation from offensive linemen, but it’s hard to get into a groove when injured. He should be able to find consistency and success getting to the quarterback in Year 2 if he can stay healthy as part of New Orleans’ pick-your-poison defensive line, alongside Malcom Brown, Sheldon Rankins and Cameron Jordan.
Leonard Floyd, LB, Chicago Bears
2019 projection: 11 sacks.
Floyd has logged fewer than five sacks in each of the last two seasons. Playing through a hand injury last season, he generated just 35 quarterback pressures, per Pro Football Focus, ranking 47th among edge defenders. With a healthy offseason to work on technique and the addition of Chuck Pagano as defensive coordinator, Floyd is poised for a breakout campaign in his fourth pro season. New outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino recently told the Chicago Tribune that Floyd “can be special” as he works on better counter techniques to turn pressures into sacks. Pagano’s defense also features a number of blitz packages that allow linebackers and safeties to pressure the QB, and Floyd should face one-on-one opportunities due to the talent around him (Akiem Hicks and sack artist Khalil Mack).
Ed Oliver, DT, Buffalo Bills
2019 projection: Seven sacks.
Oliver is in prime position to become a feared pass rusher early in his NFL career. The defensive tackle has the shortest path to the quarterback, and his quickness and explosive get-off should allow him to frequently win against guards. The 6-2, 287-pounder has good hands, moves well in the phone booth and won’t be a sitting target in Sean McDermott’s defense. Like Allen, Oliver could be a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate.
Follow Willie McGinest on Twitter @WillieMcGinest.