As the off-season continues on and we’re getting closer to training camp, it’s that point where we’re all trying to find the next big thing: an under-the-radar IDP just sitting on waivers. There’s been a lot of movement so far: a handful of new faces in new places and players returning from injuries. But I’m going to let you know who is primed for a breakout this season.
Some of these linebackers are getting buzz already but not to a point where you’ll have to overpay or reach in your drafts. Once this goes live, it’s out of my hands. A couple of these linebackers will wear a new uniform this season and have a bigger opportunity, others are part of the ‘next man up’ crew, and the rest are ready to make that jump after some uncertainty early on.
Let’s get this party started! Here is the guest list to this season’s breakout campaign.
[am4show have=’g1;’ guest_error=’sub_message’ user_error=’sub_message’ ]
SAMSON EBUKAM, LAR
With the departures of Robert Quinn and Connor Barwin, the Rams have two open spots on the edge. Ebukam will have every opportunity to earn one. He’s entering his second season after being taken in the fourth round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Ebukam will look to bring the energy in training camp to lock down a starting job with his athletic profile.
Ebukam has some speed to his game (4.5-second 40-yard dash) and shows explosiveness off the edge. He’s athletic enough to drop back in coverage where he’s also effective but the Rams don’t want to make it a habit. They should use him where he’ll exceed and that’s rushing the quarterback. In college, he graded out as the sixth-best OLB behind the likes of Carl Lawson and Takkarist McKinley.
He played 351 snaps last season, started two games and put together 31 total tackles and 2 sacks. Ebukam is primed for a breakout with a bigger workload coming his way. With the loss of Quinn and Barwin, there are 1,286 vacated snaps and Ebukam’s could increase from 31% to roughly 65% this coming season. With the focus being on the Rams defensive line, Ebukam figures to not garner much attention which should make life a little easier getting to the QB. He would be one of my targets in big-play leagues as my LB4 and could very well end up flirting with double-digit sacks at season’s end.
JAYON BROWN, TEN
Brown had a quiet, unspectacular rookie season with the Titans in 2018 but we shouldn’t be surprised considering he was a fifth-round pick and needed to develop. Instead, he was somewhat thrown into the fire. With Sean Spence no longer on the team, Brown took over the nickel LB role where he spent 399 of his 525 snaps in pass coverage.
The Titans have added competition this off-season with the departure of Avery Williamson, selecting Alabama’s Rashaan Evans with the 22nd pick in the draft and signing Will Compton in free agency. This will be a camp battle to keep an eye on as Brown may not have a regular role but starting off with an impressive summer will only help.
With Wesley Woodyard already holding down one of the starting spots, Brown has the opportunity to lock down the “Patrick Onwausor” role in Baltimore, where he saw nearly 60% of the snaps. So it’s not really a full-time gig but it’ll be an increase in snaps for Brown to give him an opportunity to make a splash in IDP.
If you’re a Brown owner, your only worry is Evans but I believe he’s better suited for Woodyard’s role in the near future. So, the buy-low on Brown will still be around. If Brown’s snaps can jump from 43% to around 55%, I believe he can creep into the LB3 territory (top 40), or for perspective, Onwuasor finished LB37 in most leagues last season. Brown will definitely improve on his 52 total tackles and 1.5 sacks last season.
I’ve been targeting Brown as my LB4 or LB5 in my leagues. Take the shot on an increased role and some upside.
AVERY WILLIAMSON, NYJ
After spending his first four seasons with the Titans, Williamson signed on with the New York Jets this off-season and is heading for a breakout. He’ll be taking over for Demario Davis who departed for the Saints.
He was drafted in the fifth round of the 2014 NFL Draft and immediately saw playing time (81% of snaps his rookie season) and it looked like the arrow was pointing up from that point.
Many may say Williamson has had his breakout already back in 2015 when he saw a career-best 93% of the snaps and totalled 102 tackles and 3.5 sacks. Don’t buy into that. After playing a career-low 61% of the snaps in 2017 (rotated with Jayon Brown), there’s one positive to take from that: he posted the fourth best run stoppage grade via PFF (17.1).
Williamson should see close to – if not 100% of – the snaps with the Jets this season. Davis played all 1,115 snaps in 2017 and if Williamson gets close to that number, don’t be surprised when you see his name near the top at season’s end. Davis finished last year around LB5 overall and that should be Williamson’s ceiling. He can bring what Davis brought to the Jets, and it doesn’t hurt that he’s hitting his prime right now.
Williamson is a great value. He’s floating around being the 30th LB taken in drafts, so there’s even more reason to wait on LBs in your drafts. He’s solid against the run but at the moment his career best is 72 solo tackles. He should be a lock for at least 90 solos this season – the breakout is coming.
MARQUIS FLOWERS, NE
I’m digging a little deeper here and I might catch a few double takes for this pick but after the Bengals shipped Flowers to the Patriots a week before the regular season kicked off last year, he impressed. He was drafted by the Bengals in the 2014 NFL Draft, but didn’t earn his way into the LB rotation there and was pretty much a mainstay on special teams.
With a late arrival to the Patriots, he spent the season playing catch up and adapting to the system. That didn’t stop him from seeing the field and although they used him on special teams, he earned his way into the starting rotation this time. He has the athletic profile and also 4.5 speed which helped him see the field as a dime package linebacker with the defense.
Flowers played a career-high 361 snaps on defense, played all 16 games and found himself starting two. The Patriots dealt with a bunch of injuries at LB last year so folks will say, how will Flowers break out? Well, for starters, he’s a chess piece and can be moved anywhere. He won’t be a full-time player but re-signing a one year deal to come back and having a full off-season with the Patriots will help him at the very least keep the dime package role.
He posted a career-best 32 tackles and 3.5 sacks last season, and I have no doubt he can build on that and earn him a bunch more snaps. Now, as he’ll be a part-time player, he won’t win you leagues or be reliable in shallow leagues (12 teams or less). But for those who play in 16-20 team leagues and start up to four linebackers, Flowers is well worth a look as one of your depth pieces. It wouldn’t surprise me if he’s one of the better Patriots LBs this season because of his versatility.
LEONARD FLOYD, CHI
Floyd is about to enter his third year in the league and will be relied on heavily this season. Although he suffered a knee injury in week 11 last season, he should be ready for training camp. The Bears look like they’re counting on him to be their star contributor off the edge because they didn’t really address their depth this off-season. They re-signed Sam Acho and brought in Aaron Lynch in free agency then drafted Kylie Fitts in the 2018 draft. They’ll be looking to Floyd for that leadership and guidance.
Floyd has to take the next step this season. This is his time and hopefully the injuries are behind him. He has produced 11.5 sacks in both seasons so far. He provided 35 QB pressures in 11 games last season and PFF graded him with a 10.7 Pass Rush Productivity, good for tenth among 3-4 OLBs who are eligible. He played a career-best 89% of the snaps last season and that trend will continue. There’s no reason to see his snaps drop – at all.
The talent is there for him to be a Pro Bowler – he just has to put it all together and there’s no better time than now as the Bears defense is on the verge of becoming a dominant force again. I’ve been targeting Floyd in big-play leagues as my LB4 or LB5 for that weekly x-factor upside, the type of upside where he can win you a week with a big game. I believe Floyd is on the brink of becoming one of the better edge rushers in the game, kind of how the Packers’ Nick Perry took that leap after a few years. If Floyd can stay healthy and play at least 15 games this season, I’m a firm believer he’ll hit 12 sacks this season which would be more than his first two seasons combined.