Before the start of the 2014 season, Rick Spielman rewarded defensive end Everson Griffen with a five-year, $42.5 million contract. Looking back at the deal, “rewarded” may be the wrong word; Griffen had started just one game in his four years with the team, recording just 17.5 sacks in spot duty behind Jared Allen.
But, Griffen showed flashes of a potentially bright future — an interception return for a touchdown against the Rams in 2012, 5.5 sacks in just 699 snaps throughout 2013. Spielman gambled on that future, letting Jared Allen walk in free agency and trusting his roster talent. His commitment to Griffen was more than trust; it was a ringing, $20 million guaranteed endorsement.
Simply put, Griffen delivered in 2014, recording 12 sacks through 16 starts (993 snaps). To the media outside of Winter Park, Griffen’s meteoric rise was unexpected. He earned national recognition, most recently from Pro Football Focus, who listed Griffen as the 98th-best player in all of football. According to the website, Griffen’s 59 quarterback disruptions while lined up on the right side of the line were second most of all 4-3 defensive ends.
That statistic is the perfect opportunity to move down the defensive line and focus on Griffen’s counterpart; Brian Robison. Griffen is a lock to man the right edge for years to come, but Robison’s days may soon be numbered. He’s 32-years-old and played in 932 of the defense’s snaps last year, but saw his production dwindle.
Robison recorded nine sacks in 2013, but struggled to match that number the following year. He finished the season with 4.5 sacks and hardly stood out on film. Unlike Griffen, Robison struggled in run support and appeared to tire as games wore on. We’ve addressed the need for a rotation behind Robison, but the nine-year veteran won’t listen to that “chatter”:
Spielman, however, appears ready to develop Robison’s successor. He drafted LSU defensive end Danielle Hunter with the No. 88 pick (third-round) in last week’s draft, and the freakish athlete is the type of player Mike Zimmer can mold in the next few years.
While Hunter won’t take Robison’s spot at left defensive end immediately, he will challenge for playing time in an almost-guaranteed rotation. Currently, Scott Crichton sits behind Robison, but the Oregon State product hasn’t lived up to the hype as a high-motor, high-production pass rusher.
Training camp will prove to be a turning point for Hunter. The 6’5″, 252 pound end will need the time to hone his skills as a pass rusher and add moves to his limited repertoire of options off the edge. He recorded just 1.5 sacks in 80 percent of LSU’s snaps last season, but the lack of production is more a result of scheme fit than lack of skill.
If Hunter can combine his length, explosion, and fluidity into a terrifying package during training camp, he can challenge Robison for playing time in 2015. Until then, we’ll need to wait and see. But for now, we can try to answer a simple question:
Which defensive end (not named Everson Griffen) will finish 2015 with the most sacks?