In this series, NFL Network analysts will examine Year 2 players who are poised for a breakout campaign in 2020. Below, Gil Brandt ranks nine defensive linemen to keep an eye on.
Drafted: No. 19 overall (Round 1).
Simmons was a top-10 prospect before suffering a torn ACL in pre-draft training, and he showed why in his first rookie action, logging four tackles and a sack against the Chargers in a disruptive Week 7 debut. In eight more appearances, he tallied just one more sack and 14 additional tackles. But he's also dropped significant weight this offseason, saying he wasn't comfortable playing at 320 pounds last season, and he appears to be in outstanding shape. Simmons is poised to validate the Titans' faith that he can step up and anchor the defensive line in the wake of five-time Pro Bowler Jurrell Casey's trade to the Broncos.
Drafted: No. 77 overall (Round 3).
The Patriots haven't had a player record double-digit sacks since Chandler Jones in 2015, and it would be especially helpful to a defense hit hard by free-agent losses and COVID-19 opt-outs if Winovich were to end that drought in 2020. The only player from New England's 10-man 2019 draft class (outside of punter Jake Bailey) to play all 16 games of his rookie season, Winovich is expected to take on the strong-side rusher role opposite John Simon.
Drafted: No. 4 overall (Round 1).
Ferrell finished his rookie season with a paltry 4.5 sacks and 38 tackles in 15 games. But he's now determined to show the Raiders did not make a mistake by passing on Josh Allen -- who led all rookies with 10.5 sacks last season with the Jaguars -- to take him with the first of their three first-round picks. Ferrell, who actually lost 15 pounds at one point last season due to food poisoning, added heft to his frame this offseason, and he should be better prepared to provide inside pressure when called upon, something he was thrust into doing as a rookie despite not being used in that fashion at Clemson. The attention that opponents will give to 2019 breakout rookie Maxx Crosby should provide Ferrell with more one-on-one blocking opportunities to exploit. Ferrell should also benefit from the addition of Carl Nassib and Maliek Collins.
Drafted: No. 9 overall (Round 1).
A May arrest on DWI and gun charges threatened to derail Oliver's offseason, but fortunately for him, the charges were dismissed, which means we can focus on the difference-maker he can be for the Bills on the field. We saw proof of this last season, like when he recorded two sacks and a forced fumble against Dallas on Thanksgiving. The 6-foot-1, 287-pound Oliver possesses the quickness to give interior linemen fits when rushing as a 3-technique. He'll get an even bigger boost if Vernon Butler or Harrison Phillips is able to step up and help keep blockers off him, with Star Lotulelei having opted out of the season due to COVID-19 concerns.
Drafted: No. 26 overall (Round 1).
New head coach Ron Rivera has a long way to go to bring Washington back to NFL respectability, but establishing a fierce pass rush will help accelerate the process. Sweat, who posted seven sacks, including five in Washington's final eight games, would likely have been drafted far sooner if the pre-draft process hadn't revealed an apparent heart condition, which, we later learned, may have been misdiagnosed. Washington will be loaded with pass-rushing options this season, between Sweat, veteran Ryan Kerrigan, second overall pick Chase Young, 2017 first-rounder Jonathan Allen, 2018 first-rounder Daron Payne and 2019 franchise sack leader Matthew Ioannidis. Dak Prescott, Carson Wentz and Daniel Jones will have a lot to worry about in the NFC East.
Drafted: No. 13 overall (Round 1).
Don't put too much stock in Wilkins' low sack total (two) last season. He impressed as a rookie, playing multiple spots on the line and registering 56 tackles. He also earned respect as an occasional fullback on offense, demonstrating his work ethic and leadership skills. It's no coincidence Davon Godchaux took big strides in his third NFL season with Wilkins playing alongside him.
Drafted: No. 16 overall (Round 1).
Like the Panthers in general, Burns experienced a roller-coaster 2019. He started strong, was slowed by a wrist injury, then wrapped the season with two sacks in his final two games, pushing him to a respectable rookie sack total of 7.5. New Carolina coach Matt Rhule is switching back to a 4-3 base after ex-coach Ron Rivera fiddled with a 3-4 last season, which should help bolster Burns' development.
Drafted: No. 85 overall (Round 3).
Ferguson technically plays outside linebacker, but he spends enough time up front that we're going to make an exception for him here. Ferguson left Louisiana Tech as the all-time FBS sacks leader with 45, but he faced a steep learning curve in the NFL. Still, Ferguson showed promise in nine starts, logging 31 tackles, 2.5 sacks and nine QB hits after filling in for injured veteran Pernell McPhee. Ferguson will pose strong competition for first-team defensive snaps and will have a chance to learn from proven veteran acquisitions Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe.
Drafted: No. 17 overall (Round 1).
Just like Wilkins, Lawrence's former Clemson teammate, Lawrence wasn't necessarily spectacular -- but he was still underappreciated in 2019, logging 38 tackles and 2.5 sacks in 16 starts. I'm interested to see how new Giants defensive coordinator Patrick Graham deploys Lawrence in his system.
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