I started this exercise of choosing second- and third-year players in the NFL I expect to take the next step in their development, based on being in a better situation due schematic changes, the respective team not re-signing certain veterans and allowing their young guys to play a bigger role or just my evaluation of them coming out of college.
Once again, my criteria was – they were not allowed to have a Pro Bowl so far, reached a major statistical milestone (1000 yard season, double-digit sacks, etc.) or are just looked at generally as one of the better players at their position already. I didn’t include guys that made my list already last year (Kemoko Turay, Justin Reid, etc.) or haven’t seen the field at all yet (Jonah Williams, Hakeem Butler, etc.). Across my two articles on these breakout players, you will only find one top ten pick, since I believe those are obvious choices anyway, if those guys just haven’t been healthy or whatever it may be.
In this version, we are looking at eight more defensive players ready to break out in 2020 after talking about offense last week already:
When I did these write-ups, I actually realized later on that Odenigbo was originally drafted in 2017 in the seventh round by the Vikings, but he only made the practice squad that year and was later claimed and waived by the Cardinals and Browns respectively. So since he finally made an active roster in 2018 and that’s when he finally saw the field, I thought he still qualifies. With all those guys Minnesota has had on the D-line in recent years, it was a challenge for Odenigbo to get their coaches to believe in him, having only played in one game for Arizona before last season. However, he was on the field more and more towards the end of this past year and with little investment in the draft into the front, the Vikings are betting on him to continue to develop, similar to what happened with Pro Bowler Danielle Hunter. Odenigbo recorded seven sacks and tackles for loss respectively, while adding another 18 pressures to the mix. He also forced a fumble and returned another one for a long touchdown against the Chargers, while he was actually called down on another scoop-and-score, where he originally got the trifecta (strip sack, fumble recovery and return TD). That is much more impressive putting it into context, as he played just a third of the defensive snaps. Now with Everson Griffen off the roster (unless he somehow decides to re-sign with the Vikes, Odenigbo is almost a shoe-in for that second defensive end spot in the starting lineup.
Number 95 was mostly used in passing situations, especially early on, as three quarters of the snaps he played came on pass-rushing downs, and Mike Zimmer used his inside-out flexibility on different sub-packages. Odenigbo was asked to line up anywhere from pretty much 2i in sort of a track stance pointed inside to a wide nine alignment. His favorite (and best) move at this point is the dip and rip, but he also flashes a nice up-and-under combined with a high swim move. However, he also has a lot of power behind those pads, as he set up one of his teammates as the initial slanter versus Detroit and just flattened a guy I talked about in my offensive edition of this breakdown last week already in Frank Ragnow. In addition to that, I think the Vikings DE already shows good timing and execution on twists, freeing himself up by using teammates appropriately. As he seems to be transitioning to a starting role, the biggest question now is – How much improvement can he show as a run-defender? He displays very good pursuit coming unblocked from the backside, but at the point of attack he has some issues holding his ground at times, due to not always playing half the man and getting drawn in and allowing cutback lanes. In the pass game, Odenigbo needs to work on being more successful on secondary maneuvers and not give away opportunities if that initial rush stalls.
Leading up to the 2018 NFL draft, Bradley Chubb was considered the clear-cut number one edge rusher coming out of N.C. State and after him most people said there was a huge drop-off. The Saints however shocked everybody by trading up to the 14th overall pick – not for a quarterback, but rather an outside linebacker from UTSA. While there isn’t a lot of buzz around Davenport entering year three of his pro career, I can promise that New Orleans did not spend their 2018 and ’19 first-round picks on a player they didn’t believe in. I was very surprised at the time of selection, because I thought they were looking for a more immediate-impact type of player with Drew Brees arriving in his 40s and the team coming off a 13-3 record, but there was never any question about the talent this kid presented. Davenport has missed three games in each of his first two years in the league and “only” put up 10.5 sacks, but he went from 28 QB pressures as a rookie to 50 last season. He might have been even better against the run, helping the Saints finish as the fourth-best rush defense at 91.3 yards allowed per game. So this is kind of a case for the improvement he has already made and I think the coaches in New Orleans already looked at 2019 as his breakout season, but among more casual fans, I believe Davenport will move his name into more of the conversation as one of the better young edge rushers this year.
I personally had the young phenom as my 13th overall prospect coming out of San Antonio. When you put on his tape in college, that combination of explosiveness, power and closing burst really stood out. He already flashed the ability to string his hand together to dominate as a pass-rusher, but he needed to do it more consistently, and he showed the shock in his hands to own the point of attack, if he played with better extension. Those to me were certainly coachable areas and with the situation he was in, I thought he could produce in year two or three. Well, we have arrived at his third season and I believe he is ready to roll. I don’t think there’s much to critique as a run-defender about Davenport. He may still be a tick late recognizing some schemes, but when he extends those arms and drops the anchor, you won’t see much movement and he just owns tight-ends. In the pass game, I do believe he needs to broaden his repertoire a little and rush under a little more control, but he has clearly shown signs of becoming a difference-maker in that area as well. He has burst to win around the edge if he times his swipes up correctly, but also the immense power to bull-rush big offensive tackles back right into the quarterback’s lap. If he just learns to convert speed to power a little better and works on finishing that under-and-under he flashes with a follow-through chop, he could be scary. With third-round pick Zack Baun probably rushing outside on sub-packages, it will enable the Saints to move this guy and Cam Jordan more inside and create mismatches that way.
Simmons was the 19th overall pick for Tennessee last year. In his debut game he had three pressures on eleven pass-rushing snaps. The rest of the season wasn’t as promising, but considering I didn’t expect him to suit up at all in 2019 after tearing his ACL in pre-draft workouts, the fact he did collect valuable on-field experience, playing less than 40 percent of the defensive snaps just once from that point on, only helps him more. Purely based off his tape, I had Simmons as my IDL3, behind only Quinnen Williams and Ed Oliver (both top five prospects for me) and ahead of the two Clemson standouts (Christian Wilkins and Dexter Williams). I even said without the injury he would have been at least around the top ten when I put out my big board a few days ahead of last year’s draft. In limited playing time as a rookie, he recorded 32 tackles, four of them for loss and two sacks. Simmons was an immovable object at Mississippi State and looked to be the same among grown men. I went back and watched the Raiders game in week 14, who have some maulers in the run game and you saw guys almost bounce off the rookie as if he was a brick wall. More importantly, they doubled him on pretty much every single snap he was on the field, probably because of what they had already seen on tape.
This guy has some shock in his hands, the ability to look through the blocker on zone-runs and then get back to the gap behind him as the running back decides to cut up into it. He didn’t look as mobile working his way down the line laterally as I thought he did in college and he will have to do a better job working across the face of some blockers, rather than allowing them to wall him off at times. You see him just be a split-second late of actually stopping the ball-carrier rather than allowing him to stumble forward or barely miss altogether. If he gets back to his collegiate form, he can be an elite run-stopper. Having him out there will allow the Titans to run primarily sub-packages with Harold Landry and now Vic Beasley on the edges. The area he still needs to prove himself at is getting after the quarterback. Simmons is very straight-forward as a pass-rusher and didn’t show a lot of finesse to win in that area, getting stuck with stalemates for the most part if he couldn’t drive his guy backwards initially. He flashed a few quick wins on reps with the arm-over, but he has to get off the ball with more of a plan. I believe his ability to shoot upfield, the unbelievable power and just that disruptive style of play will show up big time in his first year at full strength.
This young man was my fourth overall prospect in last year’s draft behind only Quinnen Williams, Nick Bosa and Josh Allen (the edge rusher). Oliver was an uber-talented, explosive athlete coming out Houston, who I think is still learning the game to some degree. He came in as a freshman with the Cougars and immediately dominated, recording 22 tackles for loss and being named First Team All-American – an honor he would repeat his two other years there as well. While it was obviously a transition from the AAC, where he was just so superior to everybody else physically, compared to lining up against professionals every single week, I thought he started flashing more and more as his rookie season progressed. And while Jordan Phillips just put up double-digit sacks for Buffalo and got a big deal from the Cardinals in the process, I thought Oliver was already the Bills’ best interior pass rusher in December. Overall he recorded five sacks and TFLs each to go with 31 pressures on 374 pass-rushing snaps. That ratio may not be up there with some of the league’s best, but he definitely showed sparks on winning in that area and he finished up playing 53.7 percent of the snaps on defense overall, as part of a deep rotation.
Coming out of Houston a year ago, it was clear Oliver needed some time to adjust to the NFL, after he was playing at the nose mostly in college and not having to stay true to his run fits all the time. While there are still moments where his pad-level gets too high and I feel like he is a tick late recognizing the run scheme, at 287 pounds his anchor is excellent and he has the ability to chase down plays laterally. In the pass game his natural power and quickness present problems for the opposition. What really stands out as well is he flexibility he possesses, as can be knocked from the side and somehow regain his balance to keep going and even if he ends up outside his pass-rush lane, he just continues to work. Something Oliver does really well already, which will give him a couple of “easy” sacks in 2020 is set up his loops to the outside on a twist, staying tight and aiming at the outside shoulder of the guard before pivoting outside suddenly. As a rookie, he had his issues going up against the better-schooled guards in the league, especially trying to beat the Steelers’ Ramon Foster and David DeCastro, who landed their hands inside his chest early and Oliver couldn’t gain an advantage. If he can work on being a little more pro-active and rushes the passer with more of a plan overall, I think he could be a Pro Bowler in year two.
A four-year starter at Wisconsin, Edwards recorded 366 tackles over the course of his career and made several impact plays for the Badgers. Unfortunately he could not participate in any on-field drills at the 2019 NFL combine due to a banged up ankle and if you can trust his pro day results, his athleticism is still below-average. Labelled as a classic college linebacker with limitations to translate his game to the next level, Edwards ultimately went undrafted and signed with the Eagles. As a rookie, he mostly made an impact on special teams, with nine combined tackles on punt and kickoff coverage. He only played 11 percent of the defensive snaps, but when he was on the field, he earned close to an elite grade by Pro Football Focus and got involved on another 21 tackles. When you divide those 122 snaps by the amount of tackles he recorded, that actually gives him the highest tackle rate of any player at the position with at least 100 snaps played. In his first year under defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, he was mainly utilized on early downs to stop the run, as he was on the field for 89 run downs compared to only 33 pass plays.
That is somewhat understandable, since you just have to love his oldschool mind-set in the frame of a well-built, strong guy. Edwards aggressively shoots downhill on inside runs and drops the shoulder on lead-blockers trying to move him out of there, actually stonewalling some of those guys and creating traffic jams that way. At the same time, he shows enough patience with combo-blocks in front of him to not just give away free cutback lanes by overrunning plays, keeping bouncy feet as he deciphers what he sees in the backfield. He offers a sturdy base to absorb the contact by offensive linemen climbing up to him and keeps them at extension, while also showing the mobility to mirror pullers and beat them to the spot. Then he really brings some thump at initial contact on tackles to stop the forward momentum and missed only one attempt on the year (on special teams). It is kind of funny how Edwards was labelled a pure run-stopper because of some athletic limitations, when he actually intercepted ten passes and broke up another 15, while adding eight sacks throughout his career at Wisconsin. He may never be a candidate to shadow more dynamic backs or tight-ends one-on-one, but his feel in zone and ability to get involved as a blitzer should keep him on the field for third downs more. Edwards is also quick to recognize play-action and turn his head for potential crossers behind him before swiveling back towards the quarterback. I believe Edwards will be an excellent replacement for Zach Brown at MIKE, who left in free agency. There are some questions about linebacker trio with Duke Riley and Nathan Gerry, Jatavis Brown or Davion Taylor, but Edwards should be a fixture in the middle on first and second down at least.
Murphy was my number one corner heading into the 2019 draft ahead of guys like Greedy Williams and DeAndre Baker and he was the first pick in round two. While he started all 16 games for Arizona and missed less than 30 snaps the entire season, I think barely anybody really knows about or watched this guy play for the Cardinals as rookie. There were definitely some learning experiences early on and if you look at the total yards and touchdowns allowed, it’s not a beautiful sight and 78 total tackles for any corner aren’t a great sign either. However, a lot of that had to do with the 105 targets coming his way (fourth-most by any player in the league) due to lining up on the opposite side of Patrick Peterson and the fact he was part of the 31st-ranked pass defense. I thought he improved every single week and he actually put up better marks in coverage than his running mate Peterson, despite being targeted at a much higher rate – 7.7 compared to 9.3 yards allowed per target. Murphy also intercepted one pass and broke up another ten.
What I loved about Murphy coming out of Washington last year was his innate feel in zone coverage with an outstanding ability to click-and-close and be a play-maker. He can flip his hips with ease and has that gliding speed to stay on top of routes, rarely allowing opponents to detach from him late. In the run game, Murphy does not shy away from getting involved as a tackler, arriving low and up-ending bigger ball-carriers routinely. You see him fill the D-gap or squeeze plays from the outside on several occasions. He also won’t allow bigger receivers to bully him as blockers, keeping them away from his frame and leveraging the ball accordingly. The rookie mostly played in the slot versus 11 personnel once Patrick Peterson returned in week seven last season and he was utilized as a blitzer off the edge a few times, where he chased running backs down from behind or got into the face of the opposing quarterback. He was heavily exhausted when he was moved in the slot and had to follow receivers back-and-forth across the formation on motions at times. The one thing Murphy really struggled with as a rookie was playing with his back towards the quarterback on slot fades and such as, where receivers could use subtle push-offs and win with their frame, as he almost purely face-guarded them and didn’t even try to snap his head around. The Cardinals have added a super-rangy player is Isaiah Simmons and beef up front to stop the run on early downs, in order to set up third-and-long situations. Allowing the now second-year player to focus more on his coverage and now with veteran Robert Alford being brought in as another outside corner, I see Murphy taking the next step in his developing. By the way, re-watching those Cardinals tapes – Budda Baker is just a freaking baller.
At the start of last year’s draft process, Ya-Sin wasn’t a huge name since he had only played one year at the FBS level for Temple. However, after he and now-49ers receiver Deebo Samuel went back and forth at the Senior Bowl, I started falling love with this guy and so did the scouting community. As a rookie with the Colts, wearing number 34 as the spot he was selected at, he started 13 of 15 games and played at least 93 percent of the snaps in ten of them. Ya-Sin was targeted on 15.2 percent of pass plays and he had some struggles, but he also improved a lot from the first to the second half of his debut campaign. There was one really rough showing versus one of the NFL’s young star receivers in Courtland Sutton, when he was penalized five times and was responsible for 75 receiving yards. However, the rest of the season he was called for defensive holding three times and for pass interference just once (40 total yards). That’s not too bad for a rookie who likes to get into the face of receivers and whose play-style out of college could be described as “grabby”. Over the final eight weeks, Ya-Sin held opposing QBs to a passer rating of just 75.8 and didn’t allow any touchdowns (after being responsible for two up to that point), while coming up with his first career pick.
Ya-Sin can be described is a very sticky, quick-footed corner. As a rookie, he primarily played outside and faced some tough matchups, while even being asked to travel with some of the game’s elite, such as Michael Thomas. While I’m not saying that always went great, his competitiveness is off the charts and I think he has all the tools to develop into an excellent cover-corner. Ya-Sin was rarely just caught out of position. It was more about struggling to find the ball down the field and panicking a little when he did overcommit initially. The more experience he had, the more comfortable he felt turning his head and making a play on the ball. I still love his competitiveness, rapid feet at the line, ability to read the hips of the receiver and use his length to get his hands on the ball. He had a few textbook reps, staying in phase with the receiver from press alignmenz on hitch or curl routes and knocking the pass down coming out of the break. I thought playing in year one, he was also a pretty good edge-setter in the run game and he didn’t just wait for the ball-carrier to cut back inside to stay clean. You saw him fight off blocks and try to cut down the guy with the ball. Now with Pierre Desir gone in free agency, I expect Ya-Sin to step into the spotlight as Indy’s true CB1. The Colts also brought in veteran Xavier Rhoades, who I thought looked broken down last season, but will help this kid grow mentally as well.
My top-rated safety from a year ago, I thought Adderley was a perfect match with Derwin James on the Chargers, because he has that range for a true deep middle safety to allow Derwin to roam and play more around the line of scrimmage. Unfortunately he had hamstring issues before even being drafted, which forced him to miss mandatory minicamp and most of training camp. He only appeared in one preseason game and then played 10 defensive snaps across four regular season games, making two pretty meaningless tackles, before the Chargers placed him on injured reserve. So with that little experience, Adderley barely meets my criteria, but he was active for four games and I want to grab the opportunity to talk about one of my favorites in last year’s draft. Coming out of Delaware, he filled the alley in the run game with the mind-set of a linebacker, while also showing the ability to cover ground to bail out his team-mates on the back-end. When the ball is completed in front of him, he punishes receivers and when it gets into his hand, he shows off his background as a kick returner, where we had one of the sickest plays I have ever seen, running an opponent over, staring him down and proceeding to go the end-zone.
Outside of some questions about the level of competition in the FCS and how much different he moved different than anybody else, I loved everything about his game. The one time we did actually see him play with pros – week four of the preseason – Adderley made one interception and deflected another three passes, while one of them should have been another pick, with a receiver knocking the ball out of his hands late, and he got both hands on another ball down the seams to deny a touchdown. You could see him show up outside the numbers against go-routes and cut in front of deep in-breaking routes, which led to the one INT he actually made. In addition to that, you saw him try to go underneath offensive linemen and be willing to take on some contact on screen plays, instead of staying back and avoiding collisions, getting involved late on scrums or jumping on the back of a receiver trying to catch the ball at the sideline. Now with Chris Harris added to the mix, Casey Hayward on the opposite side and Desmond King in the slot, with the guys they have up front to get after the passer, plus Derwin possibly being sent as a blitzer with his stupid closing burst, Adderley has the ability to gamble and make plays. Plus he gives them somebody who plays with an attitude, which I really appreciated going back to my evaluations coming out of college. Before he can become an impact player, he first needs to beat out Rayshawn Jenkins, but I’d be shocked if he wasn’t on the field for the majority of snaps.
Notable other names:
Mack Wilson & Sione Takitaki