So who fills those big shoes in 2017? This week, we’ll be offering our best answers.
Today’s question: Who is the next DeMarcus Walker?
The ACC is chock full of strong pass-rushers, including Walker’s former teammates at Florida State. If last season was the year of the QB in the ACC, this year may belong to the edge rushers, who are likely to make the league’s quarterbacks quite uncomfortable.
The standard: Walker has been arguably the best pass-rusher in the ACC the past two seasons. In 2016, he racked up 21.5 tackles for loss, 16 sacks, four quarterback hurries, three forced fumbles and recorded 68 total tackles. He was everywhere -- strong in run support, aggressive in moving the pocket, excellent at chasing down mobile QBs and, perhaps as much as anything, a genuine veteran leader in the locker room. So when we talk about finding the next Walker, it’s not simply about finding a guy who will lead the ACC in sacks. It’s about identifying the defensive end who can make the biggest overall impact on and off the field.
The best bet: NC State’s Bradley Chubb
Perhaps the most underrated player in the ACC in 2016 was Chubb, a freak pass-rusher on a line filled with underappreciated talent. Chubb's numbers as a junior in 2016 (57 tackles, 10 sacks, 21.5 tackles for loss, seven QB hurries) are strikingly similar to what Walker produced during his junior campaign (58 tackles, 10.5 sacks, 15.5 tackles for loss and three QB hurries). They have similar builds, are both incredibly athletic for big men and veteran leaders on talented defenses. Their career arcs are strikingly similar, and Chubb has the same NFL potential for 2018's draft as Walker figures to enjoy this weekend.
Other options: How can we overlook Boston College senior Harold Landry? He’s the only ACC player who had more sacks -- by one-half -- than Walker last year, and he’s back to do more damage. The difference, of course, is that Landry is on a team that isn’t expected to contend, while Walker was the backbone of a New Years Six defense each of the last two seasons. Wake Forest’s Duke Ejiofor fits the same bill as Landry. He racked up 10.5 sacks last year and figures to be one of the most impactful edge rushers again in 2017. We saw flashes from Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell last year, and we’re expecting him to emerge as a monster this time around. The only knock against Ferrell is that he’s on a defensive line at Clemson that is more likely to have four, five or six big stars than one guy towering above the rest. Miami’s duo of Joe Jackson and Chad Thomas should be in the mix, too. And at Florida State, Walker’s former teammates Josh Sweat and Brian Burns will no doubt pick up some of the enormous slack left by Walker’s departure.
The dark horse: Virginia Tech’s Trevon Hill
How can we have a list of top edge rushers and not include someone from the Hokies’ defensive front? Sure, the big names have moved on, including Ken Ekanem, owner of 22.5 sacks in the last three seasons. The remaining group will include some fresh faces, but Bud Foster’s unit is always aggressive, always impactful and always talented. Hill and Vinny Mihota will get the bulk of the work off the edge this season, and while Mihota is the more experienced of the two, we love the upside Hill offers. At 6-foot-3, 240, Hill is a nice mix of athleticism and power, and his bowl performance against Arkansas -- a start and four tackles -- offers some reason for optimism going forward.