One year after 13 defensive linemen were selected in the NFL draft’s opening round, only four were picked in the first round in 2020.
While the classes were extremely different when it comes to the quality of defensive line prospects, pass rush is still at a premium and important to winning football games.
Before I offer my predictions, here’s a look at the rookie sack leaders by season since 2014:
- 2019: Josh Allen, 10.5
- 2018: Bradley Chubb, 12
- 2017: Carl Lawson, 8.5
- 2016: Joey Bosa, 10.5
- 2015: Preston Smith, 8
- 2014: Aaron Donald, 9
Let’s examine how many sacks I expect to come from first-round rookies in 2020.
No. 2: Chase Young, Washington Redskins
It doesn’t take long to study Chase Young’s film at Ohio State and understand he’s a special pass rusher that is going to be a prolific sack artist in the NFL. Young racked up 27 sacks over his final two seasons as a Buckeye and enters the league with literally every needed trait to dominate.
Where I get most excited about Young’s NFL forecast is thinking about how much he grew from 2018 to 2019. The statistical increases reveal notable gains in tackles for loss, sacks and forced fumbles, but he was far more refined with his vision and pass-rushing plan, which was the reason for the jump in production.
Young enters a situation in Washington where the pass-rushing options already include Ryan Kerrigan, Montez Sweat, Jonathan Allen, Da’Ron Payne and Matt Ioannidis; Young is primed to immediately find favorable opportunities to attack the pocket. He’s going to be a problem for blockers from Day 1.
Rookie sack prediction: 10-12
No. 7: Derrick Brown, Carolina Panthers
Derrick Brown recorded 13 sacks in 53 games played in college and was never the most productive pass rusher, at least in terms of finishing at the quarterback. His modest totals combined with disappointing athletic testing at the NFL Scouting Combine has led many to believe Brown’s ability to make an impact on passing downs is underwhelming.
But watch the tape.
Brown wrecks the line of scrimmage. He has dynamic power and attacks with unrelenting energy. His ability to challenge the depth of the pocket with power puts considerable stress on blockers to anchor and maintain their ground. Brown’s ability to make an impact in passing situations is more about how the rush lanes and opportunities he can create for teammates. He routinely commanded multiple blockers in college and he is capable of compressing the pocket around the quarterback.
Brown is far from the second coming of Aaron Donald, but he’s more than capable of making an impact on every down. I’m excited to see how his secondary pass rush moves develop to complement his ability to bull rush.
Brown joins a defensive line that includes Kawann Short, Brian Burns, Stephen Weatherly, Ege Obada and fellow rookie Yetur Gross-Matos; that’s a potent group that will be more productive because Brown is on the field.
Rookie sack prediction: 3-5
No. 14: Javon Kinlaw, San Francisco 49ers
The high points of Javon Kinlaw’s tape at South Carolina reveal an exceptionally fluid, powerful and explosive pass rusher that has dynamic gap-penetration skills. His frame looks like it was constructed in a lab, and Kinlaw simply has every physical gift needed to be a game-wrecker in the NFL.
Consistency and injuries are reasons for concern when it comes to Kinlaw’s projection at the next level. He played through a torn labrum in 2018 which required surgery and then dealt with knee tendonitis throughout the draft scouting process. On the field, Kinlaw has to develop his secondary pass rush moves, refine his plan if his initial rush stalls, play with better leverage and attack the pocket with better vision.
Kinlaw has big shoes to fill replacing DeForest Buckner, but it will likely take some development for him to make that type of impact.
Rookie sack prediction: 4-6
No. 20: K’Lavon Chaisson, Jacksonville Jaguars
Length, flexibility, burst, twitch and versatility: K’Lavon Chaisson checks the boxes.
LSU used Chaisson in a variety of ways, including coverage drops and playing in space in addition to rushing the passer, which explains his modest 6 1/2 sacks in 2019 relative to his skill set.
While the future of Yannick Ngakoue is very much in jeopardy, the trio of Ngakoue, Chaisson and Josh Allen provides the Jaguars with one of the most potent groups of edge rushers in the NFL. All three are explosive and bendy rushers that are capable of running circles around offensive tackles. Defensive coordinator Todd Walsh would have endless rush packages to put together that includes all three on the field and creating favorable matchups for them to get home.
With only 17 starts in college, Chaisson likely needs some time to develop and acclimate to the pro game so his production early will probably be on the modest side of things but his ceiling is incredibly high.
Rookie sack prediction: 5-7