My Top Defensive Breakout Candidates
1. CB Jamel Dean
Jamel Dean had an incredible rookie season starting 5 out of 13 games. Dean was targeted 52 times, allowing a 50% completion percentage and 72.4 quarterback rating whilst picking off two passes. Dean didn’t play much early on in the year but as the season progressed so did he. At 6ft 1, Dean plays aggressive with great physicality, hence him leading all rookies in pass breakups with 10. Like most young corners I expect Dean to make a leap in his second year along with his counterparts in the Buccaneers cornerback unit.
2. CB Charvarius Ward
Despite becoming a Super Bowl champion Charvarius Ward flew under the radar in 2019. Ward started all 16 games as the Chiefs number one corner, he has the speed, length and size to cover receivers of all sizes and ability. Although some of his tape may not have been great, Ward was targeted 89 times and only allowed a 47.2% completion percentage for a grand total of 1 touchdown and a 65.2 quarterback rating. The Chiefs secondary may not be the best, but Ward had a great season which he will look to build on in 2020 as he heads into a big contract year.
3. EDGE Marcus Davenport
The Saints gave up a lot of compensation to move up from 27th overall to select Marcus Davenport with the 14th overall pick in 2018, and he started to show why in 2019. Davenport may have only totalled 6 sacks, 5 tackles for loss and 3 forced fumbles but a lot of his great play didn’t show up on the stat sheet.
Davenport performed great against the run in 2019 using his athletic 6ft 6 frame to cause havoc off the edge. Further, playing opposite of Cameron Jordan relieves not only some of the pressure on Davenport but also leaves him facing one on one match up against tackles all game long. If Davenport can evolve his pass rushing game this offseason, we could see a huge year out of him in 2020.
4. EDGE Montez Sweat
Montez Sweat has supremely rare athletic ability for a guy of his size. At 6ft 6 and 260 pounds, Sweat broke the 40-yard dash record for defensive lineman at his combine where he ran it in 4.41 seconds, the same time as Giants running back Saquon Barkley. Montez finished his rookie season with 7 sacks and 8 tackles for loss across 16 games, and while he will not only get better going into his second year his situation will also get better. Washington drafted Chase Young 2nd overall this offseason who will command double teams allowing Sweat to face consistent one on one matchups.
The tutelage of 10-year veteran and 4-time Pro Bowler Ryan Kerrigan cannot go unmentioned either, Kerrigan’s knowledge and advice will work wonders for both Sweat and Youngs games. Therefore, I believe fair expectations for Sweat in his second year are double figures in both sacks and tackles for loss.
5. DI Christian Wilkins
The Dolphins were viewed at one-point last season as arguably the worst team in NFL history. However, head coach Brian Flores instilled resilience and motivation into Miami’s young team which led to a good end to the season for the Dolphins and Christian Wilkins both.
Wilkins was drafted 13th overall last year and while his freaky athleticism at 315 pounds was projected to make him an instant impact player, he struggled a little as a rookie, finishing with on 2 sacks and 3 tackles for loss, as well as 29 total pressures which led all rookies. However, the two-time college champion knows how to and what winning feels like, plus the additions on the defensive side of the ball will relieve a lot of pressure on Wilkins shoulders which should allow him to thrive in his second season as a pro.
6. DI Ed Oliver
Out of college Ed Oliver drew comparison to Rams future hall of famer Aaron Donald due to his size and weight. Oliver was drafted 9th overall by the Bills last season and while Buffalo’s defense was elite in 2019, Oliver fell slightly short of expectations. As a rookie he only started 7 of 16 games amassing 5 sacks and 5 tackles for loss as well flashing the superstar potential he came out of the draft with.
Heading into 2020 it’s safe to say Buffalo’s defense only got better. The Bills defensive line has a plethora of depth which should allow Oliver to remain fresh all season long, which partnered with his natural development could see him have a big breakout season and a potential Pro Bowl nod.
7. S Juan Thornhill
Juan Thornhill like Charvarius Ward somehow flew under the radar in 2019 on course to becoming a super bowl champion. Thornhill had an incredible 2019 combine, flashing incredible athletic ability. He ran a 4.42 40-yard dash, recorded a 44-inch vertical jump, which was one inch short of the all-time combine record as well as an 11ft 9 broad jump which tied for second best in combine history.
Thornhill started all 16 games and partnered his athleticism with great coverage skills in his rookie campaign. On 28 targets, Thornhill allowed a 46.4% completion percentage and a 43.0 quarterback rating, as well as snagging 3 interceptions. Missing the Chiefs Super Bowl run to injury lighted a fire under Thornhill which will fuel him to develop into a great safety in 2020. Together with Tyrann Mathieu I believe Thornhill could become a close to elite safety in 2020 and form a great safety duo.
8. S Jonathan Abram
The Raiders 2019 1st round pick missed his entire rookie season to a torn rotator cuff, but he flashed his athletic ability and elite mindset during HBO’s Hard Knocks last year during his rookie training camp.
Abram’s energy and attitude will invigorate the Raiders defense in 2020, and while he is a natural leader and a vocal player, he had all the ability and athleticism to back it up in college. In 2018 at Mississippi State, Abram recorded 99 total tackles, two interceptions, five passes broken up, three sacks and nine tackles for a loss. Abram is primarily known for being a big hitter who is a violent force all over the field, but he uses his speed to fly side to side wrapping up the opposition in the open field as well as covering when he needs to. Expect a big year out of the 2019 27th overall pick.
9. LB Devin Bush
Although I believe Devin Bush was slightly overrated in his rookie year his talent is undeniable. Bush hit the ground running right away in the NFL starting 15 of 16 games and flashing his elite potential, Bush finished the season with 2 interceptions, 9 tackles for loss, 4 fumble recoveries and 1 forced fumble.
However, in coverage Bush showed signs of weakness allowing a 67.6% completion rate and 97.4 quarterback rating on his 68 targets. Bush also allowed 5 touchdowns in coverage and penalised twice as much as any other rookie linebacker. It should be noted though that the Steelers defensive scheme puts a lot of responsibility on their linebackers which can at times expose them.
A lot of rookie linebackers make a big jump in their second season and I expect the same with Bush. Assuming the Steelers defensive line and secondary remain, elite there is no reason Bush could not be looking at a Pro Bowl campaign in 2020.
10. LB Shaun Dion Hamilton
Hamilton might not have played much as a rookie totalling only 387 snaps, but he showed signs of becoming an elite cover linebacker. Hamilton was targeted 24 times in coverage and only allowed a 50% completion percentage. He also got his feet wet in the run game with 5 tackles for loss.
The primary reason I believe Hamilton will have a breakout year us that with guys like Holcomb, Bostic and Davis having poor seasons in 2019 its paves the path for Hamilton to become the starter. Additionally, the ability he showed in coverage isn’t something which just evaporates, however, there is the possibility that on a bigger scale his stats could regress a little.
11. LB Bobby Okereke
The Indianapolis Colts know what they are doing when it comes to linebackers, first they drafted Darius Leonard and now Bobby Okereke. In 2019, Okereke started 8 of 16 games alongside All-Pro Darius Leonard and showed some great coverage skills. Despite allowing a 74.3% completion percentage and 98.3 quarterback rating on his 34 targets he only allowed 12 first downs and managed 10 stops.
After proving himself to be a very capable starter in 2019 he will now look to get a bigger workload in 2020 and cement himself as a starter in the Colts defense. Like Bush I expect Okereke to make a big jump in his 2nd year in the NFL and while I’m not sure he will make the jump to become a Pro Bowler in 2020 I believe there is potential for that in the future.
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