In Around The NFL's "Making the Leap" series, we spotlight emerging players to keep an eye on in 2016. Whether rising from no-namer to quality starter or vaulting from standout to superstar, each of these individuals is poised to break through in the coming campaign.
There are plenty of reasons why you don't know Denzel Perryman. He wasn't a permanent starter last year until Week 11 and played on a forgettable edition of one of football's most forgotten franchises, the San Diego Chargers. He lines up as a thumping 3-4 inside linebacker, a position almost as out of step with modern NFL trends as a wingback.
If Perryman proved anything last year, it's that he's going to make you pay attention anyway.
Why Perryman is on the list
That was the collective reaction of 63,000 Chargers fans to Denzel Perryman's highlight-reel tackle, an MMA-style lift-and-destroy that planted Browns running back Isaiah Crowell into the turf. This play from Week 4, which announced Perryman's arrival, was instructive for so many that followed.
His heat-seeking hits can take your breath away, just like the runners he smothers. Perryman explodes through his opponents, often removing the earth before sending their cleats airborne.
The quality of the hits make him popular with fans, but the quantity of Perryman's run stops forced him into "Making the Leap." Perryman had a team-high 51 tackles with two sacks in his final seven games, ranking second in run defense among inside linebackers during that span, according to Pro Football Focus. Only Jets nose tackle Damon Harrison ranked higher in "stop percentage," proof that Perryman forced negative plays.
The key to Perriman's game: A unique combination of patience, smarts and suddenness. The 23-year-old linebacker rarely takes a wrong step, processing the information in front of him until he decodes the right gap to shoot. The speed in which Perryman converts a decision into action makes him special. He's like a quarterback with a quick release, gaining an extra half-second on his opponents.
NFL prominence wasn't supposed to happen so quickly for Perryman. Drafted No. 48 overall out of Miami, Perryman began last season behind Manti Te'o and Donald Butler, who hada seven-year, $51.8 million contract. After an early tear as a special teamer, Perryman was too good to be denied. Big-money Butler was benched, then released in the offseason.
Now Perryman and Te'o form a promising duo on the field, and are "nearly inseparable" off it. Perryman is the muscle to back up Te'o's heady finesse game. Perryman doesn't have the notoriety of Te'o or Butler's old, big contract, but he's the one most likely to be leading this defense for years to come.
Obstacles he'll face
"Run-down specialist" is either a back-handed compliment or a flat-out insult in today's NFL. When teams are throwing on third-and-1, what is a run down anyhow?
Perryman needs to improve as a pass defender, where he was average as a rookie. He played more passing-down snaps as the season wore on. In the team's final two weeks, Perryman acquitted himself well in pass coverage, while playing 87 percent of the team's snaps. He's never going to be Luke Kuechly in coverage, but he didn't give up many big plays. To take the next step into the upper echelon of linebackers, Perryman will need to limit the passes completed his way. Elite run defenders earn respect. Linebackers who make an impact in the passing game earn money.
It also won't help Perryman's profile that he plays in San Diego. The Chargers are no longer prime-time game favorites and they haven't ranked as a top-10 scoring defense since 2010. There is an outside chance that changes this year. While the Bolts don't have more talent than the Seahawks, Perryman leads an intriguing blend of young defenders including Joey Bosa, Jason Verrett, Melvin Ingram, Corey Liuget and Casey Hayward. If this group comes together, Perryman's star should only rise with it.
Perryman is a throwback, a player we can imagine fitting in as a 1980s Giants linebacker or with the early-2000s Patriots group. In a league where versatility is prized, there is still room for someone who does one thing exceptionally well. By the end of Perryman's second season, more folks should recognize him as one of the best run-stopping linebackers in football.
A Pro Bowl berth might have to wait another year, but Perryman could rank among the league's leading tacklers starting now. There are many more running backs to de-cleat, and many more gasps to inspire.