By Brandon Niles EBS Sports Columnist
With the NFL preseason underway, it’s time to schedule your fantasy drafts, make your predictions and don your favorite team apparel as we look toward another great season of football!
With all of the focus on quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers, remember that the old adage “defense wins championships” is still relevant today. Last year, the Super Bowl winning Denver Broncos finished fourth in the league in points allowed, and a mere 19th in points scored. Defense still wins championships.
With that in mind, I look at some of the best defensive players in football. Last season, we saw players like Detroit Lions defensive end Ezekiel Ansah, Oakland Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack, and Houston Texans outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus all deliver double-digit sacks for the first time in their young careers.
While these young pass rushers are likely to dominate for years to come, I’ve identified players that might break out in similar fashion this year. Here are four young pass rushers to keep an eye on during the 2016 season.
Danielle Hunter, Minnesota Vikings defensive end
Playing only on passing downs behind starter Brian Robison last year, third-round pick Hunter flashed elite athleticism and pass-rushing skills on his way to six sacks as a rookie. Hunter looks to be in line for more snaps and production during his second season, and he’s still only 21 years old.
The future is bright for this talented pass rusher out of LSU, and with an emerging defensive squad growing around him he’s a prime candidate for a breakout season.
Kony Ealy, Carolina Panthers defensive end
Ealy has slowly been given more snaps and more opportunities in each of his first two seasons in the league. As strictly a pass rush specialist in select packages in 2014 he had four sacks. He followed that up with more time in the rotation and five sacks with three forced fumbles in 2015.
Then Ealy gained notoriety with three sacks, a forced fumble and an interception in the Super Bowl. Ealy is a playmaker with unique finesse considering the amount of power he puts behind his bull rush. He won’t be contending with the recently retired Jared Allen for playing time this year, which should make this former third-round pick out of Missouri a star in 2016.
Preston Smith, Washington Redskins outside linebacker
Smith quietly had a very productive rookie season last year. A second-round pick in 2015 out of Mississippi State, he predominantly played on passing downs and racked up eight sacks and four forced fumbles for the Washington defense.
This year, Washington should have a little more fanfare following an NFC East championship season, which should allow Smith a little more limelight. With added help in the secondary, and the emergence of fellow linebacker Perry Riley, the powerful Smith could be in for a double-digit sack year.
Aaron Lynch, San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker
There wasn’t much to like in San Francisco in 2015, but in his second season out of South Florida, Lynch managed 6.5 sacks in 14 games. Playing in the outside rush spot, he should have ample opportunity to get after the quarterback this year, and if the offense improves under new head coach Chip Kelly, opposing teams won’t be able to abandon the pass early in games.
Lynch uses a relentless motor to get pressure, and the 49ers added a stout defender up front in rookie first-round pick DeForest Buckner, which should help Lynch find enough room to increase his production.
While these aren’t the only players poised for breakout seasons, they’re definitely the young pass rushers that I’ll be watching every Sunday for the next 20-plus weeks. Look for more football content as the season inches closer, and for analysis throughout the year.
Brandon Niles is a longtime fan of football and scotch, and has been writing about sports for the past decade. He is a fantasy football scout for 4for4 Fantasy Football and is co-host of the 2 Guys Podcast.