Each year, a handful of young players inevitably step up and surprise with breakout seasons. Last year, very few people expected players like Richard Marshall to become a household name, but every season, fans get to enjoy tremendous seasons from often the least likely situations.
While the surprise is often the most enjoyable part of these breakout years, and the “unlikeliness” of the breakout is part of the deal, it’s fun to try and speculate anyway which players stand the best chance of breaking out for the coming season. Today, I got looking at some of the exciting playmaking pass rushers in the league and thought I’d take a stab at the breakout candidates for that skill set in 2013.
Below I’ve highlighted five under-the-radar pass rushers that could very well take a big jump in productivity and thus, notoriety by the end of the season. As a note, I didn’t include rookies, as I feel the rookies are obvious choices.
1. Andre Branch, DE, Jacksonville
Branch was a second round pick last year out of Clemson, but was expected to go as high as the middle of the first round. However, he struggled to adjust to the NFL level early on, and finished the season with only one sack on a team that has been in massive need of a pass rushing threat for what seems like forever. Branch is a big and athletic player, with a strong first punch that should make him a dominant force on the Jaguars line. Despite the unproductive rookie year, Branch will benefit this season from playing a full year opposite Jason Babin and next to DT Tyson Alualu. On a team in desperate need of a guy that can hit the quarterback, Branch will have every opportunity to take a big step forward in his second year.
2. Greg Hardy, DE, Carolina
Technically, Hardy broke out last season with 11 sacks opposite Charles Johnson. Hardy, now entering his fourth year out of Ole Miss, was highly touted before struggling in his final college season. Prior to the 2009 season, Hardy was viewed as a potential top pick in the 2010 draft, but after a tough season, he plummeted in the draft and Carolina grabbed him in the sixth round. Hardy had seven sacks total in his first two seasons but had 11 last year. This season, he’ll continue to benefit from the double teams Charles Johnson gets, but the reason he could take a leap from very good to pass rushing star, is the drafting of Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, two players who should tremendously solidify the interior of the Panther defense. Hardy is a freak athlete with the speed and power to be a dominant pass rushing force for the next decade. I expect this year to be the season people outside of Carolina learn his name.
3. Olivier Vernon, DE, Miami
Vernon was drafted in the third round last year out of Miami, and the Dolphins saw glimpses of what this raw athlete can do as he made some big plays in a limited role last season. He finished the year with 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles, and proved that he is deserving of additional playing time. Vernon will share his role with rookie Dion Jordan and Jared Odrick, but the Dolphins will give him every opportunity to shine opposite Pro Bowler Cameron Wake. Vernon has the talent, the opportunity, and is gaining the experience necessary to be a tremendous breakout player for the Dolphins in 2013
4. Whitney Mercilus, OLB, Houston
Mercilus was drafted in the first round last year to replace the departed Mario Williams, and he had a promising rookie season, registering six sacks and two forced fumbles opposite Brooks Reed. However, in his second year, Mercilus should take a big step forward with likely more playing time, and benefiting from a full year in Wade Philips’ defensive system. Philips knows how to make the most of his pass rushers, and Mercilus should be able to take a big step forward in 2013 for the Houston defense.
5. Sam Acho, OLB, Arizona
The Cardinals have been searching for a pass rushing threat at the OLB spot for the past several years, and Acho might just fit the bill.
With 11 sacks in his first two seasons, after being drafted in the fourth round out of Texas in 2010, Acho looks primed for a breakout campaign.
Paired with a LB corps that includes Daryl Washington, Karlos Dansby, and rookie Kevin Minter; and benefitting from one of the more talented defensive lines in football, Acho should be able to take a big step forward in 2013, and double-digit sacks are absolutely within