Rookie Pass-Rushers Who Could Be This NFL Season's Aldon Smith

James DudkoFeatured ColumnistSeptember 4, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - DECEMBER 19:  Aldon Smith #99 of the San Francisco 49ers in action against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Candlestick Park on December 19, 2011 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

In 2011, Aldon Smith propelled an already solid San Francisco 49ers defense to elite status. His pressure off the edge led to a 49ers' franchise record 14 sacks from a rookie.

That was half a sack shy of the rookie mark set by ex-Tennessee Titans star Jevon Kearse back in 1999 and has increased expectations for first-year pass-rushers.

There are three players from the 2012 NFL draft class who have the chance to make a similar impact during their debut seasons. The group includes a Houston Texans rookie who led collegiate football in sacks last season and a hybrid rush end who should thrive for the New England Patriots.

Here are the three rookie pass-rushers who have the potential to be this NFL season's Aldon Smith.


Chandler Jones is the "Elephant" Rusher Bill Belichick Loves to Utilize

One of the main problems with the New England Patriots defense in recent seasons has been the absence of an elite edge-rusher. It's what prompted the switch to a 4-3 in 2011 and has reduced the variety of Bill Belichick's schemes.

By drafting former Syracuse ace Chandler Jones in the first round, Belichick hopes he has finally solved this problem. Belichick's multiple front schemes rely on a hybrid rush end who can play equal parts linebacker and defensive end, allowing the Patriots to morph seamlessly between three- and four-man lines.

Belichick has utilized this weapon since his days as defensive coordinator of the New York Giants,working with Lawrence Taylor. Jones has the athleticism and versatility to thrive in this role.

With last season's sack leaders Mark Anderson and Andre Carter now gone, Jones will be relied upon as the chief pass-rush weapon on the Patriots defense. With Belichick devising ways to set him free, Jones should deliver big numbers as a rookie.


Whitney Mercilus is the Right Player for the Right Scheme in Houston

Pairing Whitney Mercilus with defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is a dream match for the Houston Texans. Phillips runs a scheme that perfectly suits what Mercilus does best, and that's collapse the edge and pressure the quarterback.

He was the nation's leading sack-master at Illinois in 2011, registering 16 QB takedowns. He is a long-armed, quick-footed rusher, tailor-made for Phillips' ultra-aggressive and blitz-happy 1-gap 3-4.

With Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed already in the rotation at outside linebacker, Mercilus may only see the field in obvious passing situations as a rookie. That's the ideal scenario for the youngster, allowing him to keep his game simple and play to his strengths.

It's the same role that let Smith flourish for the 49ers, and could lead to similar first-season production for Mercilus.


Natural Versatility Could Make Melvin Ingram Difficult to Stop

It's easy to be skeptical about Melvin Ingram. He has less-than-ideal measurables for an elite, pro-level pass-rusher. However, what the 6'2", 265-pounder does have is the kind of versatility that can be deadly if applied right.

Ingram is capable of providing pressure with a speed rush off the edge, either from a standing position or a three-point stance. He can also slide inside and threaten the interior.

Like Mercilus, Ingram joins a team already strong at outside linebacker and rush end, with Jarret Johnson, Shaun Phillips and Antwan Barnes. However, as in Mercilus' case, that might be good news for Ingram.

Nickel pass-rushers have become vital to modern defenses, due to the pass-first schemes favored by many offensive coordinators. Defenses now spend more snaps in nickel and dime fronts than ever before.

The San Diego Chargers were clearly mindful of this when they selected Ingram with the No. 18 overall pick. reported that Ingram has been added to increase the Chargers' pass rush from nickel fronts. If new defensive coordinator John Pagano schemes things right, Ingram should post high sack figures as a rookie.



Nickel pass-rushers are now key to NFL defenses. Their ability to supplement fronts and create additional matchup problems in pass protection offer an excellent counter to pass-happy offenses.

The players on this list are entering teams who will utilize them in this very role and are counting on them to do what they do best.