Darkhorse Breakouts: LB
Updated: Sep 8, 2019
Looking for linebackers with a shot to break into the top 24... maybe even the top 12? Here are the Big 3's picks.
This article is adapted from this episode of The Big 3 IDP Podcast.
Oren Burks, Green Bay Packers (Bobby)
This analysis came prior to Burks' pectoral injury, but since he avoided injury and the IR, I'm still excited about his potential. That said, the breakout may come in 2020.
Oren Burks, a 3rd round pick by Green Bay in 2018, is primed for a bigger role moving forward. Big part of the reason why is the departure of Clay Matthews, who's with the Rams now. Green Bay needs Burks to step into that role after a forgettable 2018 season that was marred by a shoulder injury. He only played sparingly, logging 122 snaps on the season, and when he did play, the other team targeted him frequently. He often looked lost on plays, which helps explain why he didn't play much, along with his injury.
But Burks has the size and athleticism to succeed in the NFL. He's 6'3" and 209 pounds. He ran a 4.62 in the 40-yard dash and a 24 on the Wonderlic coming out of Vanderbilt. In my mind, the injury came at a pivotal time last year and derailed Burks' progress. What you're hearing from Packers coaches now is that Burks is grinding tape, learning how to read pre-snap offenses, and getting better about where to put his eyes. It's clear that Burks wants to improve and be a contributor after a lackluster rookie season in 2018.
Given his talent, draft pedigree, and the departure of Clay Matthews, I'm penciling Burks in for 75 solos, 10 tackles for loss, 5 passes defensed, 2 sacks, and 2 interceptions. This assumes he gets back on the field soon. If he misses significant time due to this injury, just copy and paste these stats to his 2020 season if he gets the same opportunity.
Jayon Brown, Tennessee Titans (Josh)
In our league, Jayon Brown finished 18th among linebackers in 2018 and wracked up some nice stats: played 16 games, 97 total tackles, 64 solos, 33 assists, 8 tackles for loss, 6 sacks, 10 QB hits, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovered, 1 interception, and 1 touchdown. In 2019, I believe Brown makes the leap and finishes the season as a top 12 LB. Here's why.
First, the Titans were 29th in offensive plays per game last year at 58.8. I don't see that changing in 2019 as I think the Titans will be in the running for the 1st overall pick in 2020, mainly because Marcus Mariota is trash. They've tread water for a long time, and in 2019, it's time to sink. Now, fewer offensive plays doesn't always correlate to more defensive plays, but it doesn't hurt. That defense should get plenty of snaps.
Speaking of snaps, Brown was 4th on the Titans last year in total defensive snaps. He played 81.36% of snaps, which was tops amongst linebackers. The next closest was Wesley Woodyard, who played about 68% of the snaps. So he was a full 13% ahead of Woodyard, who is 32 years old and in the last year of his contract. So there is a chance he could be totally phased out this season depending on how he plays.
Then you have the huge leaps in Brown's PFF grades from his first season to his second. Brown’s overall grade of 81.6 in 2018 was a 27.5 point increase from his rookie year, and it ranked ninth at the position. He earned an 84.5 coverage grade, a 28.9 point increase from his rookie season, which ranked fourth among LBs. Best of all, Brown led the league at his position with an 86.6 pass-rushing grade on the year, a 34.3 point increase from 2017!
Bottom line: Brown made a huge leap in all facets of the game from year one to year two. With Woodyard likely on the way out, this is Brown's team now. They didn't draft any direct competition for him. I'm all in on a top 12 finish for Jayon Brown in 2019.
Quincy Williams, Jacksonville Jaguars (Adam)
I'm contractually obligated to mention that Quincy Williams is the brother of Quinnen Williams, first round pick of the Jets. Quincy, meanwhile, went 98th overall in the 3rd round out of Murray State. (Shout out Kentucky boys!) Playing in the OVC is a bit of a red flag. Did he dominate because he was playing subpar competition? Was he a late breakout in high school who just didn't get recruited by big schools, and Murray State scooped in to find a diamond in the rough? I'm choosing to believe that's what happened here.
Williams started for Murray State in his junior season and wasn't super impressive, with only 57 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss. But then he exploded his senior season, racking up 111 total tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 2 interceptions, and 6 passes defensed. Keep in mind that's not a 16 game pace. Murray State didn't have a pro day, so Williams had to come down to Western Kentucky University (shout out the alma mater) for his pro day. At 5'11" and 225 pounds, he ran a 4.59 in the 40-yard dash, had a 39.5" vertical, and ran 6.78 in the three-cone drill. For a guy his size, those are good numbers.
With Telvin Smith and his 1,020 snaps gone (99.61% of total snaps), Williams has a chance to play right away. Myles Jack can't soak up any of those snaps since he played 100% of the team's snaps last season. (Side note: no wonder Jack got paid!) Williams' teammates already know he's a baller. Look at this quote from Calais Campbell:
He’s a playmaker. He finds the ball. To me, instincts are where you can find the ball. When it’s not your play to make, you still know how to get over the top of it and still know how to get to where the ball is. Marcell Dareus’s best (attribute) is that he has incredible instincts. He just has a nose for the ball. It finds him, it seems like. Quincy has some of those same characteristics. He’s not on Marcell’s level. Marcell is at a different level. But he might be one day. He’s a rookie. He’s just scratching the surface.
Campbell plays with elite defensive talent in Jacksonville. He knows a playmaker when he sees one, and that's what Williams is. Give me a top 24 finish for him in 2019!