In a league that is continually pass happy, finding players who can disrupt the pass and the quarterback are at a premium. It takes a group effort and teams have worked to improve their pass rush in ancillary ways like bulking up the secondary and blitzing more. While both of those things are great strategies (see the Baltimore Ravens), having one player who can wreck a passing game on his own is a great luxury to have for a defense.
Our mission today isn’t exactly to identify those who can already do that, but to find those who might work themselves into that role in 2020. Instead of looking to those who had a big role in 2020 or devoting any time to saying “Chase Young,” we’re looking more for breakout potential. For this exercise, we looked at only players with fewer than 300 pass snaps last season with fewer than 10 career sacks. We’re not just looking for small sample size superstars, either. We want upside that can continue and grow in 2020. With those parameters in mind, we found five candidates for the next breakout pass rusher.
Chase Winovich, New England Patriots
We’ve previously talked about how the Patriots use a three-man rush more than most teams in the league and complement that by blitzing a ton with versatile linebackers. But even with that strategy, the Patriots do need a traditional edge rusher and Winovich will be in that role for the 2020 season.
As a third-round pick in 2019, Chase Winovich only saw 211 pass snaps. But he made the most of the time he was on the field. Winovich had a 12.81% pressure rate, which ranked a respectable 28th among 109 defensive ends or linebackers with at least 200 pass rushes on the season, per SIS. Winovich also got to the quarterback at a high rate of his pass rushes. 3.45% of Winovich’s pass rushes resulted in a sack (solo or combined), which ranked seventh among that same group of 109 players.
That sack play rate is likely due for some regression in 2020, especially since his QB hit rate was not among the top pass rushers in that group. However, Winovich could make up for a rate decline with an increase in volume. As a rookie, Winovich only topped 50% of the team’s defensive snaps once (Week 1) and 40% in two other games. In those three games, he had four quarterback hits and 1.5 sacks.
Samson Ebukam, Los Angeles Rams
Samson Ebukam is entering his fourth year in the NFL but is in line to see his biggest role as a pass rusher. In 2018, Ebukam started 14 games for the Rams, but that came as a hybrid linebacker with mixed responsibilities off the ball and as a pass rusher. In that season, Ebukam rushed the passer on 67.8% of his pass snaps. Last year, Ebukam rushed the passer far more often (80.7% of pass snaps) but he was on the field significantly less with just 254 pass snaps as Clay Matthews and Dante Fowler took over as the primary pass rushers.
With so much turnover on the Rams’ roster — Matthews and Fowler are both gone — Ebukam will again be penciled in as a starter with an on-field role closer to 2019 than 2018. The good news for the Rams is that when Ebukam has been allowed to rush the passer, he’s been quite good at it. In each of the past three seasons, he’s put up a pressure rate of at least 10%.
Samson Ebukam Pass Rush, 2017-19
|Year||Pass Snaps||Rush%||Pressures||Pressure %|
Last season, Ebukam’s 13.33% pressure rate ranked 22nd among the group of 109 players listed above. He also hit the quarterback 10 times after he totaled just 11 quarterbacks hits over his first two seasons in the league.
One other positive for Ebukam is his age. Even though 2020 will be his fourth NFL season, Ebukam just turned 25 years old in May. Chase Winovich turned 25 in April. Age certainly isn’t everything, but it does help that with three years of NFL experience, Ebukam still hasn’t hit his physical prime and the potential for more promise is there more than it would be for someone in his situation who has already hit his late 20’s.
Ben Banogu, Indianapolis Colts
Chris Ballard was blown away by the athleticism and upside of Ben Banogu during the scouting process, as documented by the Colts’ inside look at the pre-draft process last season:
The Colts took Banogu in the second round of last year’s draft but he spent most of his time behind Justin Houston and Jabaal Sheard in the rotation. Sheard is gone but Kemoko Turay will return from an injury that limited him to just four games last season. Still, even with another edge rotation set for 2020, Banogu is likely to play more than the 168 pass snaps he got in 2019.
Per SIS, Banogu was sixth in pressures and tied for third in quarterback hits during the 2018 college football season. He kept that pressure rate up with an impressive 11.59% rate last season. In the limited snaps, Banogu’s athleticism was clear. He tested with a 99th percentile broad jump, 97th percentile vertical, and 90th percentile 40-yard dash. He was able to turn the edge quickly, like this sack (nullified for a holding penalty in the secondary) against the Broncos in Week 8.
The next step is a refinement in pass rush technique and he, along with Turay, has worked with Robert Mathis this offseason. Any improvement in the finer details to pair with that natural athleticism could make a dangerous pass rusher as early as 2020.
Ifeadi Odenigbo, Minnesota Vikings
Odenigbo was a Vikings seventh-round pick out of Northwestern, but it was not a straight line to be in the position he’s in for 2020. He spent the 2017 season on the Minnesota practice squad and signed to a futures contract for 2018 but was cut before the regular season. He spent time with the Cleveland Browns and Arizona Cardinals during 2018 but only got on the field for seven snaps in Arizona. After he was released by the Cardinals, he ended up back on the Vikings’ practice squad to end the 2018 season with another futures deal for 2019.
In 2019, Odenigbo saw playing time in all 16 games and put up seven sacks on just 32% of the Vikings’ defensive snaps. He played at least 40% of the snaps in each of Minnesota’s final four regular season games which featured three sacks and five quarterback hits.
A hot end of the season by no means automatically transfers to production for the full following season, but while the Vikings spent significant resources to fill the holes left by veteran departures all over the roster, Minnesota did little to replace Everson Griffen. Odenhigbo is slated to start opposite Danielle Hunter and could be in line to develop as Minnesota’s next late-round pass rusher gem.
Brian Burns, Carolina Panthers
There are no other first-round picks on this list because most teams treat their first-round picks as such but the Panthers did not with Brian Burns. Last year with Carolina, Burns wasn’t often given the chance to break through the Bruce Irvin–Mario Addison duo on the edge, even when he flashed whenever he was on the field. Burns actually started the first four games of the season and put up seven quarterback hits with 1.5 sacks. Then he only played over 50% of the defensive snaps once for the rest of the season.
Despite playing just 271 pass snaps and 37% of the overall defensive snaps, Burns still totaled 7.5 sacks with a 12.65% pressure rate that ranked 30th in the league.
When Burns got his opportunity, he won on the outside as one of the most explosive players off the line of scrimmage. NFL Next Gen Stats measured Pass Rush Get Off last season and while its lone update was in mid-November, Burns topped the list.
🚨 New Metric: Pass Rush Get Off 🚨
“Pass Rush Get Off” is the average time for a pass rusher to cross the LOS—an effective way to measure burst.
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) November 15, 2019
Even if Burns did not stay at the top of the list for the entire season, it’s no fluke that he was up there to begin with in November. He was one of the most explosive pass rushers in that draft class with a 97th percentile broad jump and 97th percentile 40-yard dash.
Both Irvin and Addison are now gone — as is the coaching staff, which might be as big of an impact — and Burns should be the full-time No. 1 edge rusher for the defense.