Heading into last season, Nate Orchard had to be feeling good about his situation. The Browns selected him in the second round in 2015 after he had 18.5(!) sacks his senior season at Utah, and all he did to reward them was go out and start 11 of his first 15 regular season games while notching three sacks and an interception. If he could’ve built on that with a strong sophomore campaign, Orchard could've set himself to cash in early from his rookie contract and put himself closer to being in the elite pass rusher category.
Unfortunately it wasn't to be, after Orchard sustained a high ankle sprain that ultimately led to him missing most of 2016.
If that wasn't bad enough, then imagine watching the Browns take Emmanuel Ogbah with the first pick in the second round last year, then turn around this year and take Myles Garrett number one overall. AND they switched from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3 defense where suddenly Orchard, Ogbah, and Garrett are all playing the same position. I would bet the last year has had his head spinning.
To his credit, however, Orchard looked like a f'n beast in the first preseason game this year against the Saints.
Of course it goes without saying that you have to take most performances, good and bad, with a grain of salt because of how teams rotate during the preseason. Still, there is no denying that Orchard looked even better in his movements than he had his first two seasons.
It stands to reason that this may be the best Orchard has ever been physically. He could lift and build up his upper body strength for almost a full year without going through the wear and tear of an NFL season. Having had several high ankle sprains in my career I wouldn't imagine it took that long for his ankle to get back to 100 percent. He could have been doing leg day in the weight room and running well before last season ended.
Orchard is technically kind of a tweener because while he is 6'4, he only weighs 255 pounds. That worked out just fine when he was an outside linebacker his first two seasons because it allowed him to play in space more and not have to worry about getting double teamed by an offensive tackle and tight end, one of the hardest things for most tweeners to do. But Orchard always played the run pretty stoutly, so I don't worry about the change to defensive end being hard for him, especially since that's what he played in college.
The one thing that is going to be hard to predict is how much playing time Orchard will get. One would assume Garrett is starting at defensive end on one side and Ogbah on the other.
Orchard is a natural pass rusher. He has some good technique with his hands too, but where he really wins is with how he turns his hips toward the quarterback throughout his rush and his bend around the corner. A guy with that kind of ability, if he can stay healthy, is going to get playing time even if it’s mostly on passing downs.
But, I mean, ain't many defensive linemen complaining about getting to pass rush. Whether Nate Orchard eventually starts this season, or if he is just a nickel rusher, I am expecting him to be very productive as a pass rusher, easily besting his rookie numbers. That's why I chose him to be the Browns' breakout player of 2017.