Fantasy football owners and stat geeks are probably debating as we speak about which defensive ends and outside linebackers will be battling it out to be the No. 1 quarterback sacker in the NFL in 2012.
We know the top contenders to lead the league in sacks. Minnesota’s Jared Allen bested all QB haters with 22 sacks in 2011. Dallas’ DeMarcus Ware has recorded 91.5 sacks over the last half-dozen years. And New York’s Jason Pierre-Paul, Denver’s Von Miller and San Francisco’s Aldon Smith are up-and-coming sack artists who have already had double-digit sack seasons early in their careers and have the potential to have 20-sack campaigns as soon as 2012.
But what about some of the dark horses? Which pass-rush specialists could come out of nowhere and steal the sacks crown like Darrell Revis steals receivers’ receptions?
Here are four dark horse candidates to lead the NFL in sacks in 2012. Note: Baltimore’s basketball-loving Terrell Suggs is not one of them.
Connor Barwin, Houston Texans (LB)
Mario Williams was not missed much when the talented linebacker/defensive end hybrid suffered a season-ending injury for Houston last season. Barwin stepped right in and stepped right up, harassing quarterbacks like paparazzi harass the Kardashians.
Barwin finished the season with 11.5 sacks, 9.5 of which came during the Texans’ final eight contests when Barwin was seeing more pass-rushing time with Williams sidelined. His speed around the end was too much for opposing offensive tackles and tight ends.
With Williams now in Buffalo after signing a multi-million dollar deal, Barwin will be Houston’s main source of sacks. Look for defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to find new and innovative ways to utilize Barwin’s abilities and make him one of the top sack men in the sport.
Cameron Wake, Miami Dolphins (LB/DE)
The former CFL standout had a down year in 2011 by only recording 8.5 sacks considering he dominated offensive linemen to the tune of 14 sacks in 2010. But all of the Dolphins seemed to struggle and suffer last season, especially on the defensive side of the ball, so it was no surprise that Wake’s numbers took a hit.
With Miami’s coaching staff totally overhauled for 2012, you have to think new defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle will do everything in his power to make a quarterback-mashing monster. And it sounds like that is indeed the case. The Dolphins are switching to a 4-3 defense where Wake would be an undersized speedster of a defensive end.
Because Wake was not among the top 20 in sacks last season and is 30 years old, many would consider him a long shot for the sack title. I consider him a dark horse.
Osi Umenyiora, New York Giants (DE)
Seems like every offseason there is more talk about Umenyiora’s contract, knees and Tweets than there is about his sack totals and his improved all-around play. At least this offseason, however, one less thing will be discussed as much.
All is finally well for Osi. The temperamental, outspoken pass rusher was given a restructured one-year contract for the upcoming season and knows he is in line for a monumental payday from either the Giants or another organization if he puts up huge numbers. So Umenyiora definitely has a reason to sack and strip as many quarterbacks as humanly possible in 2012.
Umenyiora’s career-high in sacks was 14.5 back in 2005, so he will need to have the greatest (and healthiest) year of his career if he wants to snag the sack crown. But with the motivation of millions of dollars stoking his flames, look for Umenyiora to have a Pro Bowl season.
Bruce Irvin, Seattle Seahawks (LB)
Draft experts and football fans scratched their heads like they were covered in dandruff when Seattle drafted Irvin 15th overall this past April. It not because Irvin isn’t talented. The kid had 22.5 sacks over his two-year college career at West Virginia and was one of the highest-rated pass rushers available in the draft.
But Irvin was thought by most to be a player drafted later in the first round and not in the middle of it. Head coach Pete Carroll and the Seahawks needed a premier pass rusher as badly as Justin Blackmon needs a designated driver, though. Irvin is fast yet raw. A defensive guru like Carroll could mold Irvin into something special.
Irvin could be an overrated semi-bust a la Aaron Maybin, or he could be the centerpiece of Seattle’s attack-the-quarterback defense. I choose the latter over the former and think Irvin will be a Defensive Rookie of the Year finalist and a dark horse in the sacks race.