After breaking down seven offensive breakout candidates for this upcoming NFL season, we’re switching over to the defensive side of the ball and identifying seven more names, who I believe are due for taking a big step forward heading into year two or three.
Once again, these guys must have at least played to some degree in the NFL and not made the list last year already. Players don’t qualify for a breakout, if they’ve once reached double-digit tackles for loss, sacks, at least five interceptions, received a Pro Bowl or All-Pro selection, as well as if they’re just considered one of the best players at their respective position already.
And for the purpose of this being original content, there won’t be any repeat candidates from my list last year, which included Alex Highsmith, who I named a day before the Steelers signed Melvin Ingram to push him back on the depth chart, and Javon Kinlaw, who needed season-ending knee surgery after struggling through it for a while. The rest of the list actually pretty much all hit in a major way.
So now let’s get to seven new names, that I’m excited about for 2022:
Edge defender – Terrell Lewis
A former five-star recruit, Lewis uncommonly earned serious playing time on Nick Saban’s loaded Alabama defense as a true freshman. The following two seasons, he was limited to just four total games by an upper arm injury and a torn ACL. He displayed his talent once again in 2019 and got himself drafted in the middle of third round the following year (84th), which could have been even higher without the medical concerns around him. So far during his pro career, injuries have once again kept him off the field, as he’s been ailed by knee, shoulder, ankle and back injuries/soreness. He has logged just below 500 career snaps across 19 games. However, his snap percentage did increase from 25 to 48 percent in the games he did play, going from eight appearances in 2020 to playing all but the final six weeks last year. Lewis was able to log two tackles for loss, sacks and QB knockdowns each as a rookie already on 124 snaps. On 367 snaps in his second season, he reached four TFLs, three sacks and seven total pressures, along with a forced fumble. I’m kicking off the list with probably the “riskiest” pick here, since this young man hasn’t been able to stay healthy for extended stretches of time, but I believe he certainly has the talent to become an impact player and the Rams need him to step up more than ever before.
First and foremost, while financial factors certainly were a factor in the decision to not bring back Von Miller or sign any veteran at the outside linebacker spot, with the other positions they’ve been confident in further investing into, it shows that they believe in that room. Between Von and Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, who are both now in the AFC, they’ve freed up 689 snaps, with the only addition on the edge being this year’s seventh-round pick Daniel Hardy from Montana State, who I think has tremendous potential, but still is a pretty raw prospect. The first challenge for Lewis will be beating out Justin Hollins for that second OLB job opposite of Leonard Floyd, who recorded two sacks in the season-opener and earned starts in each of the following two weeks, before missing nine straight games and then averaging just 21.8% of snaps over the final five as a backup. He only surpassed that mark in the first of their playoff games, when they were blowing out the Cardinals and put in largely their second-string D for more than just the final quarter. So clearly L.A. didn’t make it a priority to get him onto the field, which is understandable with Floyd and Von playing at a high level, but not recording a single sack or TFL after week one won’t convince them to change that a whole lot. One other challenger for snaps could be Chris Garrett – a seventh-rounder from a year, who only made the active roster in one regular contest last year, but did flash in preseason and was known as an athletic project. I’d at least expect him to be active more regularly. Still, this job is up for grabs and Lewis to me should snatch it up.
Lewis has the force in his hands to the set a physical edge in the run game against, just stone-walling tight-ends trying to drive him out wide. Even working from a lot of wide-nine alignments, he was able to reduce that space and sort of re-set the line of scrimmage in order to stop the flow of lateral schemes, and he’s never shied away from attacking pulling linemen, to create chaos in the backfield. Progressing to Lewis as a pass-rusher, he’s more much more power-based in that regard as well, operating with great forward lean and extension on bull-rushes. He still has the explosion off the ball however, to win around the edge, packing a sudden ghost move or chop and shoulder-dip to go underneath the reach of offensive tackles. To me he’s best when he can combine those two things, converting speed to power, where his long-arm in particular is pretty tough to deal with once he gets the guy across from him to stand up or shift his weight onto his heels too much. Looking back at my draft eval of his, Lewis really won me over with the way he could set up his rush moves and play a one-on-one game within the actual game, despite not having gained a ton of experience.
The Rams run a lot of tilted fronts with Lewis and other guys on the edges in those wide alignments, along with overloading one side and drawing up more exotic games up front on longer downs. Number 52 can change directions in a hurry on inside slants, with a strong rip-through to get up to the quarterback as he defeats the hands of the guard. He was used on some wide loops from the edge all the way to the opposite A-gap, where he really sells those first two steps and then cut make a hard cut to work across. However, he also doesn’t shy away from banging into guys as a set-up man, to allow his teammates to wrap around. So while it’ll still take time to perfect the timing on those games up front, his strengths fit in well with the ways defensive coordinator Raheem Morris wants to attack in obvious passing situations, along with the ability to win those matchups more regularly, as he’s isolated with tackles. Even though they were playing a lot of base downs with three down-linemen and those two outside backers in wider splits, they would regularly peel one of those edge guys off and drop the shallow zone defenders away from it. Lewis can bump tight-ends to funnel them towards his teammates, before dropping into the hook or flat areas. And while he only had one PBU last season, he shows a feel for putting himself into passing lanes as a delayed rusher ir just getting his hands up as he sees the quarterback load up. So while I think we’ll see him rush regularly, he can be an asset in that regard as well.
On the negative side, Lewis can be unreliable with holding his contain responsibilities, attacking blockers too straight on in the run game and not consistently keeping the outside arm free. After giving college tackles trouble with his speed at Alabama and me calling for him to work on converting that into power, now I want him to threaten the outside more actually, if he’s not coming from those wide alignments and is working a steeper arc. He’s still looking to improve the set-up of his spin moves, as he needs to start stepping into the space of blockers and using their outside pec to push off from, to incorporate a reliable counter. However, those are all more so teaching points, that he will have to get down. If his coaches continue to work on those areas, I believe they can let the natural talent flourish and this guy can be a fixture in the lineup. Staying healthy is obviously the key for Lewis, but if can play a full third season, without the presence of Von, looking to win the job in training camp against Justin Hollins, who funnily started his career in Denver as a fifth-rounder himself, he could be a productive player under one of the brightest defensive minds in football. Unlike the offensive minds, it’s tough to set a statistical bar for these guys to really measure their impact, but I think double-digit tackles for loss are certainly on the table for Lewis and what you really want to see him be able to do is creature pressures in key moments, when he’s afforded those one-on-one matchups, which I certainly believe he’s capable of.
Edge defender – Joe Tryon-Shoyinka
Coming off a Super Bowl victory to end the 2020/21 season and unprecedently bringing back all 22 starters on offense and defense combined, the Bucs didn’t have a pressing need to fill in the draft. So when the 32nd overall pick rolled around, they had the freedom to invest into an already existing strength at edge rusher, as they selected this highly talented Washington defender, who sat out the 2020 COVID-marked season. Going back to his tape the year prior, he displayed obvious potential as a pretty impressive all-around player, who could create negative plays against the run, win in multiple ways as a pass-rusher and execute some simple spot drops. However, with their defense just having terrorized Patrick Mahomes at the biggest stage, with Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul leading the charge, Tryon-Shoyinka wasn’t expected to be a fixture in the lineup for them necessarily. Still, Tampa Bay made it a priority for themselves to get the rookie onto the field every game (49% of defensive snaps overall) and he ended up starting six games in the absence of JPP. Joe recorded four sacks, 27 total pressures, five tackles for losses and three passes batted down. Now with Pierre-Paul still unsigned, the second-year man is not only slated to be a full-time starter, but he also seems bound for a breakout campaign.
Unlike a lot of designated pass-rushers, who get selected early in the draft for contending teams and see very simplified roles at the beginning of their careers, Tryon-Shoyinka actually wasn’t only pressed into action when one of the starters on the edge was missing time, but when he was more so a package player and the coaches looked for ways to get him onto the field, he was asked to take on several duties. Bucs veteran linebacker Lavonte David actually said in an interview last season that “there was a lot on Joe’s plate and that he was asked to fill a lot of different roles”. Whether he was asked to line up outside of tight-ends and control the point of attack in the run game, lined up as a wide-nine and come on tilted rushes, stand up as an off-ball rusher as part of their games up front or also as a chess piece against scrambling quarterbacks. Defensive coordinator and now-head coach Todd Bowles asked him to spy or control-rush the QB when lined up inside quite a bit as a rookie, where his speed to chase down guys towards either sideline was a major asset, even though it may not show up on the stat sheet. With that experience and a full offseason, he should be more comfortable doing all that kind of stuff on longer downs, while being a fixture in the starting lineup as a true outside linebacker.
Tryon-Shoyinka looked like he could become a truly disruptive run-defender. Even as offenses try to pin him inside on perimeter-oriented run schemes, he’s quick to jump outside of blocks and a least force the ball-carrier to bubble way out wide, where the secondary run support and those linebackers could join the party. And if guys overset him on laterally-oriented schemes, he can slip blocks and rack up a few TFLs. He showcases eye-popping pursuit when left unblocked on the backside and he has that easy gliding speed to chase after the ball in general. However, he was drafted to get to the quarterback and watching his rookie tape, he only confirmed to me that ability to win in a variety of ways in that regard. Tryon-Shoyinka features those long strides up the arc to force offensive tackles to flip their hips and chase after him. He’s SUPER bendy to dip underneath those guys and has the ankle mobility to circle back around if he does get pushed slightly off track, in order to jump onto the passer’s back. His suddenness give him the ability to beat guys inside and out, with the long arms to hit the high swim and torque himself around. Off that, he’s really good at giving a little wiggle and creating an angle for himself to work around blockers, plus the long arm to maintain it rather than getting pushed past the arc. The next for him will he about actually being able to reduce that path for himself with actively converting speed-to-power, which is something I thought he displayed at Washington, when guys were at his mercy rushing from wide alignments a lot of times, because they didn’t have the foot quickness to otherwise get in front of him, if they didn’t sell out for the speed, making them a target to get run through.
While the Bucs philosophically aren’t as much about rushing four or five guys with creepers and fire zones like the Rams, where they use those outside backers heavily as droppers, but rather Todd Bowles wants to bring the house and puts more pressure on his secondary, having a versatile front-seven defenders like Tryon-Shoyinka gives them some extra flexibility. The soon-to-be second-year man is very fluid with bailing out into the flats, peeling off with running backs and flipping his hips as somebody works underneath him. His length makes it a problem to throw over or around him, particularly as a spy, in the flats or as a middle dropper. Particularly with Kacy Rodgers and Larry Foote taking over co-defensive coordinators duties, as Bowles should be a little more hands-off due to more focus on general duties, I expect them to put their stamp onto the play-calling to some degree and wouldn’t be surprised at all to see them dip even more into that creative usage of Tryon-Shoyinka. Whether it’s opportunities to make plays on the football as a quasi-spy, let him walk around the line of scrimmage and longer downs and try to get him isolated with interior linemen with different looks up front, there should be plenty of opportunities to fill the stat sheet in year two.
Now, I do believe the young edge defender could use a more defined way of setting the edge with playing half the man, locking out and getting his butt turned towards the sideline at the point of attack. As a pass-rusher, too often doesn’t hit the elbow on the club and can’t win (cleanly) around the edge that way, and he has to get to his secondary move more quickly, where too often when the initial angle is cut off, he ends up in stalemates. As he continues to set up chess games with blockers, he shouldn’t as frequently have the inside arm extended and run that way into tackles, who are able to get the according depth. He’ll need to learn how to use that to bait their hands and then defeat them. However, for a player that took a year off and on just about half the defensive snaps of one season, where he was confronted with a lot of different assignments, those things are to be expected. With his suddenness and length to win both ways as a rusher, if he can learn to hit the follow-up rip off those arm-over maneuvers, Tryon-Shoyinka could become a devastating guy to square up against. And he can create issues without actually getting to the football, whether it’s flashing in the backfield to force ball-carriers to redirect or taking away lanes for quarterbacks to pass or run against. This is one of the few guys I believe has a chance to crack double-digit sacks in year two, create some negative plays in the run game and make a couple of big plays when he’s actually not going after the ball, as he’s roaming around the line of scrimmage ready to get his hands up or chase things down later on. For a loaded Bucs team that should be playing with the lead for the majority of games, he has a chance to really show out.
Interior D-line – Justin Madubuike
Going back from a first-round pick to another third-rounder from the 2020 NFL draft (71st overall), the Ravens’ prior two selections of linebacker Patrick Queen and running back J.K. Dobbins looked like they would quickly turn into standout performers for them but the two guys they picked up in the third actually have made the bigger impact so far – interior D-lineman Justin Madubuike and All-Pro return specialist Devin Duvernay. While leading the NFL in punt return average like Duvernay is more tangible than the impact Madubuike has had, you ask anybody in Baltimore and they will tell you this is an ascending young player for them – which the tape backs up! Looking at his usage between the first two years of his career, his snap total on defensive increased from 260 (in ten games) to 484 (in 15 games – 51% overall in those). Going away from the traditional way of look of saying he only doubled his sacks from one to two last season, you can see already that he’s become more of a disruptor, with his seven tackles for loss and five additional quarterback hits. Once again getting back to the film and analyzing how he’s been utilized so far, I believe Madubuike’s name will not be limited to All-22 geeks and coaches around the league.
Taking a broader look at the Ravens defense in 2021, that unit had a lot of issues against the pass and subsequently in general trying to stop teams. They surrendered the most completions of 20+ yards in the entire NFL (74) and were tied for the most yards per pass attempt (7.2) – despite the historically bad pace the Jets seemed to be on for a while. That vulnerability to the big play through the air was in part because of the injuries on that side of the ball, combined with the type of scheme they wanted to run under defensive coordinator Wink Martindale, where they would regularly get shredded for playing blitz-zero and one of the young DBs getting lost against switch-releases or blowing his assignment altogether. Baltimore had by far the highest adjusted games lost last season last season according to Football Outsiders (191.2 versus the Jets’ 158.5 for the second-highest). While they were able to be competitive in pretty much all their games, other than getting swept inside the division by the Bengals –even when starting QB Lamar Jackson wasn’t available – not being in positive game-script situations and teams finding solutions to deal with the pressure looks they presented, wasn’t really conducive to their defensive line attacking upfield a whole lot. Madubuike was lined in a lot of 3-, 4i- and even some 5-alignments on early downs, before they put him at the nose, when they were playing with one or two down-linemen on some longer downs, as they wanted to overload one side and bringing pressure to test the protection rules and communications for offensive lines.
Singling out Madubuike on tape, he brings very pro-active and relentless hands to fight off blocks in the run game. He displays the lateral agility to flow down the line and work over the top of blocks, to beat running backs headed towards the perimeter. Yet, he also brings the quickness to cross-face linemen on slants and allow the rest of the defense to squeeze down and converge on the ball-carrier. With a bunch of big bodies plugging up lanes and Calais Campbell playing the second-fewest snaps of his career, after the Ravens rotated guys through even more so the year prior, this was the guy they mostly used that way on early downs. Because they would play him as more of a traditional even-front end with just one outside linebacker on the field, we were able to see his excellent pursuit off the backside, as well as when chasing wide zone runs. And he displays plus awareness for screen passes, to flow that way. On rush downs, Madubuike showcases serious juice off the snap and can ride guards back into the quarterback’s lap. He effectively hits the wrists of pass-protectors and gets to the edges of their frame when he attacks half the man. You see him transition from the long-arm to working around blockers with rapid hand-maneuvers, as guys start leaning into him, and he features impressive lateral agility to side-step blockers after his rush stalls momentarily. I thought he also showed the smarts to ID protections and using slides against the offense on a few occasions, by quasi back-dooring blockers.
Now with Mike Macdonald coming back to Baltimore as their new defensive play-caller, after excelling in that role for in his one year at Michigan, having started as an intern with the organization back in 2014, along with the additions of two excellent safeties in free agent Marcus Williams from the Saints, as one of the most underrated guys at the position, and the consensus top guy in the draft with Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton, we should expect a lot more quarters principles to pair with the some of the pressure looks we’re accustomed to seeing from them, instead of true man-coverage, where there were too many busts or backups straight-up losing their matchups. To me that means opposing QBs will hold onto the ball longer, trying to decipher post-snap rotations, affording their D-line more time to actually get home. And I’m interested to seeing which spin Macdonald may put on those blitz-packages, where it may be more about using the down-lineman being schemed “open” rather than trying to create free runners from the back-seven. When Madubuike’s rush wasn’t made useless by the ball coming out quickly, he saw a large amount of doubles, as the only player lined up between the tackles. His explosiveness and flexibility make him somebody who can become a more involved player on twists, banging into the next-gap man as the set-up guy or turning a tight corner on the wrap-around.
In terms of the areas of improvement for Madubuike, I think his gap integrity in run defense should be a focus point, rather than just trying to defeat the blocker. There’s room to grow with countering the first step(s) of the O-line, too often being caught on the wrong side of wide zone combos, where he now HAS TO fight over the top. Overall, I’d say there’s still room for improvement in developing in a defined rush plan and when he slides straight onto guards and tries to work in his moves, too often he gets caught in the middle of it, allowing them to square him up and force a secondary action. I don’t look at Madubuike as a sack specialist necessarily, but I believe he has the ability to consistently provide pressure for a defense that is making somewhat of a shift philosophically, to follow the trends we saw around the league, while maintaining a lot of their basic principles. This third-year player could be a key piece in doing so, thanks to the way he can impact both facets of the game and the tremendous activity level he provides overall. After missing all of 2021, Derek Wolfe decided to retire, and while Calais Campbell was brought back on a two-year, 12.5-million dollar deal, they probably want to lower his snap share even more as he’s entering year 15. With all the guys Baltimore gets back around Madubuike and on offense, looking to position themselves near the top of the AFC once again, get really to become more familiar with this young man, who affects a lot more plays than the box score may indicate.
Interior D-line – Dayo Odeyingbo
It was definitely surprising for me to see the Colts, after drafting Michigan defensive end Kwity Paye 21st overall, who I could have easily listed here as well, used their only day two selection on another D-lineman coming off a torn Achilles in January of 2021. Vanderbilt’s Dayo Odeyingbo was one of my personal favorites to watch last year and I said that if he ends up falling to day three, he could potentially turn out to be a huge steal. General manager Chris Ballard and company recognized his talent and made him a priority target. And Dayo got onto the field a lot earlier than I – or probably anybody else who doesn’t start using Rams running back Cam Akers coming back from the injury half a year later – expected. He ended up appearing in the final ten games, but played at least a third of defensive snaps in just two of those and averaged 27% of snaps. Looking at the numbers, he was limited to just six total tackles, none of those for loss, half a sack, four pressures and one fumble forced. So why do I think he might explode onto the scene all of a sudden? Well, seeing him actually get onto the field and flash at all in a season, which I believed he would redshirt, and now having a full offseason to regain that explosiveness and ability to wreak havoc up front, is highly promising to me.
Dubbed the “Human Hurricane” by Indy’s scouting department, Odeyingbo was an intriguing prospect thanks to his freakishly long 35 ¼-inch arms, impressive combination of twitchiness and natural force. The nickname was given to him for playing with his hair on fire all day long. However, not only were his opportunities obviously pretty limited, but when he was on the field, he couldn’t access that side of him. Odeyingbo himself said during the season: “It’s a compilation of everything. The Achilles, there’s some tightness. Some inflexibility in the Achilles, the entire body. Weakness in that leg. Balance in your whole body.” Particularly with how much he was used as a even-front defensive end, his first step was clearly wasn’t up to par for him, which is why he rarely was able to actually force tackles to commit to the outside rush, while being lined up wide. Way too often would be squared up and needed to “re-gain” the edge of blockers, where he seemed frustrated with just hand-fighting guys It looked much more promising working against guards, where that space was condensed and he could get into his move right away, instead of having that run-way, which isn’t beneficiary if you lack that burst off the ball to build up momentum. As we got later into the season, I saw that explosion off the ball come back and when the coaches put him on the outside edge of guards, he showed the ability to win up the B-gap, particularly with the high swim and then being able to corner his rush. Once he gets blockers to shift their weight onto their heels as he gets upfield, he has the power and long arms to ride guys backwards into the quarterback’s lap. The same thing can be said about his run defense, where he can not only create penetration by shooting into the backfield, but if that first step lands quicker and he can be the one to establish contact with the chest of blockers, he’s create issues. Odeyingbo simply needs to get back into that attacking mindset and be the one setting the tone again.
With the Colts traded for Raiders edge defender Yannick Ngakoue in a direct swap for cornerback Rock Ya-Sin. Odeyingbo probably won’t crack the starting lineup week one, simply because they have those two more proven guys off the edge in Paye and Ngakoue, while DeForest Buckner is the straw that stirs the drink for them, and Grover Stewart has proven himself as a dirty-work type of guy as a shade nose for them. The change at defensive coordinator from Matt Eberflus to Gus Bradley will be interesting to watch, since they’ve been such a two-high safety-oriented defense and that’s where the league seems to be headed, while Bradley stuck to his base cover-three in Las Vegas last season, partly because of stubbornness probably, but also due to the fact he had two guys off the edge who would get to the passer quickly and didn’t demand them to create much disruption with their back-end. However, we do know that he’ll want to run those classic Over or Under fronts with a one- and three-technique on the interior, while putting his speed guy on the edge in wider alignments. For a unit that was top-ten against the run, but saw their linebackers step down against play-action at the lowest rate league-wide, their emphasis on defending the pass philosophically should lend itself to getting upfield players onto the field, as nickel personnel is a given for them, with Kenny Moore logging 97.4% of snaps as their slot corner in 2021. So with DeFo’s alignment versatility, we could see him and Odeyingbo spend a lot of snaps on the field together, as he also has experience moving all over the front at Vandy.
Looking at how Bradley deployed his personnel on the interior D-line, Quinton Jefferson and Solomon Thomas – both primarily three-techniques – logged 59 and 48% of snaps respectively, showing that he wants to get into those NASCAR packages, put everybody in wide alignments and just shoot up the field. Ngakoue played nearly the identical amount of snaps as Colts starting D-end Al-Quadin Muhammad last season (834), who is now in Chicago. Even if they don’t reduce Grover Stewart’s snap share of 59%, there are 589 voided snaps between their top-three interior D-linemen from last year available, which are now gone (counting Isaac Rochell, who split time inside and out). And with Odeyingbo officially being listed as “DE” and having spent a large amount of his snaps there, the 20.5% of snaps from Kemoko Turay are up for grabs as well. The Colts did draft IDL’s in the fifth round with Missouri State’s Eric Johnson and the sixth with Cincinnati’s Curtis Brooks, of which I liked the former quite a bit and think he could be a quality rotational piece, but largely beat up on guys in the FCS thanks to his combination of quicks and natural power, rather than any refinement in his IDing of run schemes or well-executed rush maneuvers. So while he may not officially start, I think we at least see Odeyingbo double his snap count per game to the 50-60 percent range.
Something that is rarely discussed and rather hard for general NFL fans to grasp is the idea of layering the pass-rush. Looking at what the Colts have put together on the D-line – Ngakoue is more of the speed-ball off the edge, while Paye across from him has that great lateral agility to take the inside and can work in stutter-bull rushes. Buckner is a guy who routinely draws double-teams and can consistently disrupt pocket integrity by testing the interior three. Odeyingbo is a chaos player, who gives them versatility in alignment and how they slant or blitz the rest of the pressure pieces. They can use him as the guy to just crash into bodies and set up one of those linebackers on wrap-around blitzes, but also has the flexibility to work over the top when they slant Paye inside and flush the QB with Ngakoue off the opposite end. They Already did some of that and used him as a wide looper off T-T twists, plus they also dipped their toes into some three-man fronts with wide DEs, DeFo at the nose (even in some two-point stances) and two LBs threating either B-gap, who would largely drop out. Odeyingbo’s biggest issue at this point – once we get saw the Achilles injury – is how much he plays out of control. We saw less of that last season, because he didn’t have that crazy explosion, that would run him out of plays or delay himself by ending up on the ground, but as the natural abilities return, he needs to continue doing everything with a purpose and process. Preparing for year two, Odeyingbo has been training with Colts legend Robert Mathis this offseason, who racked up 123 sacks and an NFL-record 54 forced fumbles throughout his 13-year career, in which he suffered a torn Achilles late as well. Dayo has been talking about how he’s finally starting to feel like himself again and even if he may not become a household name in 2022, when broadcast teams replay things in their big games, I think he’ll show up pretty regularly as the guy who blew stuff up.
Linebacker – Isaiah Simmons
Here’s a quick disclaimer right off the bat – I’m certainly going to talk about the linebacker Arizona drafted in the first round this past year – Zaven Collins, who could be in consideration here as well – after selecting Simmons eighth overall in 2020. In general, a discussion about Steve Keim’s weird obsession with drafting those “position-less” front-seven probably needs to be had, but this is one I was totally on board with. The terms unique and unicorn get thrown around too much these days, but this guy was truly that type of prospect coming out of Clemson. At 6’4”, 230 pounds, Simmons played this hybrid slot defender/dime linebacker/safety role for the Tigers, which they tagged as “STAR” and he often times looked like the fastest player on the field against the most talented competition in the country. He backed up that freakish athleticism at the combine with a 4.39 in the 40, an 11-foot broad jump and a 39-inch vert, yet was projected to play on the second level primarily as a pro. I personally thought Simmons was such a crazy talent that I only had now-Commanders defensive end Chase Young ahead of him on my big board, because I was so intrigued by the idea of him being a chess piece to counter a lot of the modern trends of power slot receivers and offenses creating advantages versus smaller coverage defenders closer to the point of attack. However, I acknowledged that it would be best for his development to stick with one spot on early downs, before you open up the playbook in obvious passing situations. Due to him needing time to get acclimated, he only played 34 percent of defensive snaps as a rookie, but that number shot all the way up 92% in encore season. Now in year three of defensive coordinator Vance Joseph’s system, I expect him to truly take off.
The fact that Jordan Hicks led the team at linebacker with 92 and 97 percent of the snaps respectively these last two years, but Arizona decided to cut him this offseason, because they need to justify the draft investments they’ve made at the position, is telling about the approach this front-office has taken. And while I believe has been a very good player for them, I understand the idea of wanting to replace a low-value positional player at a pretty high salary number, who they had to apprehension about playing in coverage on passing downs. While the veterans excelled as a between-the-tackle run-stopper, when they used Simmons to carry routes down the hashes/seams, that now put Hicks in one-on-one situations with the back, which resulted a completion percentage surrendered of nearly 74% during his time in Arizona. Still, last year’s first-rounder Zaven Collins played just 20 percent of defensive snaps his debut campaign. Looking at the total statistics for Simmons in his sophomore NFL campaign, you can say he already took a major step – 105 total tackles, with four for loss (same as in 2020), consecutive years with one interception and seven more PBUs last season. He also showed a knack for punching the ball out, racking up four forced fumbles. In terms of coverage numbers, so far Simmons has surrendered a completion percentage of 67.7 on 6.4 yards per target and five TDs. Those aren’t significantly better than his running mate on the second level last season, but his coverage duties have been manifold and coverage numbers can often lie, where a defender is charged with a completion solely for being the next-closest player, when it might have actually been a teammate’s fault. PFF captures his value in that regard more comprehensively, stating that he allowed than one yard per coverage snap last season.
The speed at which Simmons moves for a guy his size is just absurd and you constantly see him come into the screen away from the action even on the end-zone view, as you’re watching tape. He has the explosiveness to avoid pin-down blocks and force the ball back inside on perimeter-oriented run concepts and he’s a menace to block for any players outside the box when the Cardinals use him as a big nickel. I saw rather surprised to see how much they lined him up on the outside edge of tight-ends and if that guy blocked down away from him, the second-year player didn’t shy away from meeting pulling guards in the backfield to create issues in the backfield. Leaving him unblocked on the backside of bootlegs, he easily snuffs out and shuts down easy YAC threats in the flats, whether they slip the tight-end underneath the formation or get the back going that way. What makes this kid so unique is the value he adds as a coverage defender, whether it’s matching different body types in the slot or the range he presents in zone. Simmons can carry routes down the seams/hashes and then spot up in those hook areas, kind of like an overhang defender, but also take away lay-ups based on spacing underneath. He has the loose hips to mirror twitchy receivers at the break point even when he momentarily loses contact and you see him shut down tight-ends one-on-one routinely, even when they’re isolated on the backside with a lot of space to work. And going through his games, I thought you really started seeing an understanding for how to counter routes based on his leverage and offensive alignments, based on his film study throughout the week.
What takes him over the top is what he can bring going forward in passing situations. Coming out of Clemson, Simmons already said that he’d rather blitz than cover on third downs, where he can also follow somebody into the slot and then rush from there. So far for his career, he’s racked up 11 pressures on 103 blitzes. He can also stay in the middle of the field and use that incredible closing burst to hunt down scrambling quarterbacks as a spy. With Trey Lance now in that division, I’d expect the versatile linebacker to be deployed more in that capacity, which he already shut down of a few of his runs in their week five meeting, when Trey made his first career start. Arizona’s defensive coordinator Vance Joseph loves to run those double A-gap mugs on third downs, where Simmons can win straight up with his quickness, but also get home on delayed games, and most importantly, he has a crazy ability to cover ground when they drop him out, to carry guys down the seams and pick up crosser that he spies out of the corner of his eye. You see him start in the opposite A-gap and get back underneath speedy slot receiver pushing down the seams. His most memorable play like that came in their week seven matchup of 2020 in overtime against the Seahawks, when they had put Tyler Lockett at the #3 spot in trips and thought they had an easy third-down conversion, but Simmons raced underneath the speedy receiver and ended the game with an interception.
Of course, Simmons still isn’t a perfect player. He could still improve with playing half the man when he takes on blocks in space and in the box, being able to deconstruct blocks in a traditional sense. At this point he plays the run more like a safety when lined up between the tackles, as his eyes wander to the closest receiver for a possible play-action call, rather than shooting through the hole a lot of times, which may be in part due to coaching. Something he’s carried over from college is the fact that he tends to overrun plays as he’s chasing guys out to the sideline and they can cut underneath him. That’s something he should be able to easily fix theoretically, with vigorous coaching to use the white line as a 12th defender. And it’s been detrimental by any means, with an okay missed tackle rate of 9.1% so far in his career. We need to keep in mind that this was only just his second season playing a true linebacker role, and while his game-changing athleticism is a gift, with how demanding that position is in the NFL, it takes a while to mentally digest the game, so he can actually play as fast as he can run. We some similar issues from last year’s first-rounder Zaven Collins, who at Tulsa was reading plays in a very different fashion himself in what’s known as an “Okie front”, with a nose-tackle and two 4i D-ends, where he’s go from the A-gaps to chasing plays to the edges. I could see Vance Joseph pinch his defensive line a lot more to force the ball to go out wide, thanks to the speed they’ll have there at the second level, Byron Murphy in the slot and Budda Baker rotating down or just chasing up the alley. While the Cardinals may take a step backwards as a team, I could see Simmons once again hit triple-digit tackles, with a higher percentage of those for negative yardage, along with like three interceptions, five sacks and a few more fumbles forced.
Cornerback – Paulson Adebo
While we look back at this year’s third overall pick Derek Stingley’s 2019 freshman season as one of the greatest we’ve ever seen from a cornerback, one year earlier Paulson Adebo actually had one the most impressive debut campaigns I can remember at any position. He intercepted four passes and deflected another 17 as an absolute ball-magnet. He picked off another four balls and had double-digit PBUs the following season, being named a first-team All-Pac-12 selection in both of them. However, after deciding to sit out 2020, like several other big-name college players, he had to wait until the 76th overall selection in the third round to hear his name called. Despite having an accomplished part-time starter in P.J. Williams on the roster, this rookie started all 17 games for the Saints last season across from Marshon Lattimore as the second outside cornerback. He picked off three passes and broke up another eight individually. The Saints defense finished seventh in yards and fourth in points allowed, as well as eighth on third-down and number one in red-zone percentage. As we’ve seen for several years now, they were one of the most well-coached units in the league, when you look at the little wrinkles and the attention to detail you have seen under Dennis Allen, which is why the franchise decided to elevate in house and offered him the head coach title left by Sean Payton. Now with Adebo having a full year to get acclimated to the NFL and learn the principles of that defense, I expect him to be even better in his second season.
Looking at traditional coverage numbers, Adebo did allow 55 of the 89 targets his way to be completed for just over 700 yards and five touchdowns. However, the Saints defensive scheme under then-coordinator and now head coach Dennis Allen doesn’t give their corners a whole lot of help, with how much man-coverage and match-quarters they run. Even in the more classic ways of looking at it, his eight yards surrendered per target ranks 97th among all NFL defenders, right in the middle of Byron Jones and Marlon Humphrey, and he never gave up more than 93 yards in a game. Diving deeper into the metrics, his target separation of 1.3 yards was actually the fifth-best number in the entire league, according to PlayerProfiler. Marshon Lattimore didn’t travel as much with the opposing number one receiver, as we’re accustomed to seeing. Adebo also got matched up with some tight-ends as the single receiver and stuck onto guys like Rob Gronkowski. And you did see him move into the slot a few times, dependent on when the Saints put Malcolm Jenkins on a tight-end split out wide or also when Lattimore was off the field and the opposing team put their top option inside. So a lot was expected of the then-rookie and I’d say considering his job description, he actually had a very promising showing in year one.
Adebo presents a bit of a gangly frame at 6’1”, just over 190 pounds, with 31 ½-inch arms. However, that length is a major plus to stay engaged with receivers as he plays catch-technique in man-coverage, after being patient off the line with barely any unnecessary steps. He trusts his athleticism to shuffle along with vertical stems and stay attached to the target, carrying them down the sideline (and negating them) at a high rate. Rarely do you see him allow receivers to release against his leverage and often times he forces them to work through him with a hands-on approach. Particularly, he was very tough to beat on quick in-breakers. Even when he’s asked to play off, he has that explosiveness to not allow guys to separate, as they try to blow by him at full speed. Adebo is a smart zone defender, who doesn’t void his area, but also understands when to feather off based on the routes in front of him and spacing overall, while showing the peripheral vision to recognize targets working towards him. You see him fall off his deep assignments and drive on crossing routes away from his leverage a few times, where the receiver had the clear advantage, but Adebo managed to get back into the picture and rack up PBUs with those long arms.
The discrepancy between separation allowed and the actual outcome of targets his way is a bit head-scratching, since that was one of his biggest strong-suits at Stanford. This is one of the most gifted defenders I’ve ever seen in terms of attacking the football in the air, judging the flight of the pass, positioning himself and climbing the ladder to get a hand on it at its highest point. And what I’ve really appreciated about Adebo since I first laid my eyes on him, is his willingness to contribute in run support. He isn’t afraid of attacking downhill to force the ball back inside as a tight-end or tackle pulls out wide and frequently races downhill and chops down ball-carriers on toss plays. When there are no receivers to his side and he ends up being unblocked, he doesn’t show any hesitation to reduce the edge as he steps down. Away from the action, he’s patient in his pursuit, without committing his shoulders right away. And while he did miss ten tackling attempts last season, he also managed to make 55 solo stops, in some tough situations. Generally speaking, I believe despite being such a young player (only just turned 23 years old), he just shows an understanding of the game, with how he plays the first-down sticks and game situations, adjusting his technique based on pre-snap formations and just the feel for space he displays. That’s rare to see from a rookie, who took a year away from football.
Now, as I somewhat referenced already, he does have to do better job of playing back-shoulder passes down the sideline, where he wants to track the ball over his shoulder himself, but should spin around the inside shoulder earlier to disrupt the catch-point. A trend from college that unfortunately carried over to the pros was him getting burnt on a few double-moves. One of those against Stefon Diggs on curl-and-go comes to mind. He does still arrive too hot as a tackler and needs to come to better balance, as well as simply doing a better job of getting his head out of action and protecting himself against injury. Considering how incredible his ball-skills are, I’d expect better overall results in year two once the pass is in the air. And while his tackling is a work in progress, Marshon Lattimore has been able to reduce his miss rate in each season as a pro, while they have been one of the elite run-stopping units in the league for a while now, asking their corners to focus on the coverage-aspect mainly. What I thought made Adebo special at Stanford was for being a tall outside corner who can win in contested situations, he could really plant-and-drive in off-zone coverage. So even if we see them make a bit of a shift schematically, due to having a new safety duo in Marcus Maye and Tyrann Mathieu, along with two position coaches in Ryan Nielsen and Kris Richard being elevated to co-defensive coordinator, I like the second-year corner’s chances to make plays. I believe the overall coverage numbers will look a little better for him and if opposing quarterbacks try to continue going his way, he will punish them more regularly for it. Looking at the rest of that secondary, they basically swapped their safeties from Marcus Williams and Malcolm Jenkins to Tyrann Mathieu, which you can argue is about a wash, but having Honeybadger there as this hybrid player on passing downs, who can help bracket and just float around to crowd passing windows, may make the job of those corners easier.
Safety – Richie Grant
Finally, I want to discuss the 40th overall selection from last year’s draft in Richie Grant. Listening to the UCF coaches, they would accentuate that this guy’s work and athleticism are off the charts. Those things showed on the football field, as he went from just a two-star recruit to a three-time first-time All-AAC selection, racking up over 250 combined tackles, 10.5 of those for loss, five forced fumbles, ten interceptions and 16 more passes broken up over that stretch. He was constantly around the football and showed an advanced understanding of the game, which is why he was my top-ranked safety and 30th overall prospect. Despite that, he didn’t end up starting a single one of the 16 games he was available for in Atlanta and played exactly a quarter of the total defensive snaps as a rookie, only surpassing 50% at three occasions. In the limited action he did receive, he managed to collect 28 solo tackles, two of those for loss, two passes broken up, a fumbled forced and recovered each. The Falcons defense finished between 26th and 29th in yards, first downs and points allowed. They managed to surpass their expected win total they received from pro-football-reference.com (4.9) and finished the season with a 7-10 record, but rookie tight-end Kyle Pitts and second-year cornerback A.J. Terrell, there weren’t many bright spots. Grant unfortunately didn’t count in that category necessarily either, but as watch his style of play and project what he could be in year two, I think he may quickly establish himself as one of the core figures for this defensive unit.
To understand why Grant wasn’t a huge piece of the Atlanta defense or stood out to general viewers of their games and how that may change in his encore season, we first have to look at what he was asked to do as a rookie. The Falcons starting nickelback Isaiah Oliver was lost for the year with a torn ACL four games in. So while they didn’t just hand the first-year man the job, when he was on the field, it was arguably at the toughest position to play on defense. His defensive coordinator Dean Pees pointed out himself during the season what a tough spot the rookie was thrusted into. Now, it’s not like Grant was asked to just cover great slot receivers one-on-one constantly, with quite a few true spot drops it felt like, as an overhang defender almost, but that also worked against him in terms of being logged as responsible as the next-closest defender for statistical purposes. Grant had one really bad performance in coverage by the numbers, when they faced the Dolphins and he allowed all of the five targets his way to be completed for 54 yards and a touchdowns. If you take that out of the equation, going 13-of-21 for 138 yards and no TDs doesn’t look bad at all. And even going through the Miami tape, he was charged with all of those completions for being the closest zone-defender I guess, but not due to a missed assignment or anything like that, while 6’6” Mike Gesicki made an awesome high-point catch in the end-zone on a slot fade the one time those two were matched up against each other down there. Grant also played 320 special teams snaps as a rookie (75%) and really earned the trust of the coaching staff in that facet, flying down the field in kick coverage and giving punt returners room up the middle.
Looking at Grant’s play in coverage, he does a nice job of mid-pointing route combinations and reading the eyes of the quarterback to drive on either one, particularly as a flat defender, where he can quickly arrive there to disrupt the catch point. He makes sure to funnel vertically stemmed routes towards the deep safety, before spinning around and sitting back down in his zone or coming off to the shallow target. You see him showcase physicality to significantly disrupt pass-catchers off the line, before peeling off, as he wasn’t allowed to stay with guys in more match principles, which I’m interested to seeing how much more he might be asked to stick to tight-ends. The few times they did match him up against bigger bodies, I thought he was in really solid position and was able to physically match them. Squeezing down runs from the slot, he has those quick hands and ability to side-step blockers, while shuffling inside with square shoulder as the back navigates through traffic and maintaining his outside leverage. However, he can also bench-press and slide off blocks by receivers in reduced splits It’s when he initially moves the wrong way, having to respect a backside bubble fake/RPO element and then wants to still get to the ball, that he tends to get too aggressive and can lose his contain responsibility at times.
The two things I loved about Grant in his college evaluation were how clean and fearless his game was at the same time. On 2,658 defensive snaps at UCF, Grant had just two(!) penalties called against him, Once his rookie season against the Saints on punt coverage, which I thought was a bit harsh, since you actively saw him try to pull up on a tackle out of bounds. And about the fearless part – the first tape I put on (at Miami), he was blitzing through the A-gap at full speed and got sandwiched by the center and guard. I’d say in general, he is a ferocious blitzer, who attacks the line of scrimmage without hesitation and doesn’t shy away from banging into bigger bodies, particularly coming off the slot and create disruption in the backfield. I know that Grant’s missed tackle rate of 12.5 percent more so average, but to me he’s just an outstanding all-around tackler for the position, whether it’s shooting his hips and driving his legs through contact against bigger ball-carriers in the hole or twisting down guys in open space to create key stops, such as shooting upfield against check-downs after sinking with slot receivers initially. I’m sure his DC appreciates that, with how much pressure he typically puts on his secondary to cover with less numbers and tackle reliably, as they send extra bodies at the quarterback.
A lot of what Grant was asked to do was simply dropping to a zone and while it’s understandable that his head was spinning a little bit, there’s certainly room for improvement to attach to a target, when it’s the only threat in his area. Plus, it he ends spending extended time in the slot again, looking at him matching slot fade routes, he tends to flip his hips prematurely he could be vulnerable to clever route-runners, who know how to sell those outside take-offs. Looking at Atlanta’s splits for safeties, veteran Erik Harris and second-year player Jaylinn Hawkins combined for pretty much exactly 100 percent of the snaps, but Duron Harmon not being there anymore opens up 92% at that second safety spot. They did bring in Dean Marlowe this offseason, who accounted for 700 snaps in Detroit last season, but the fact the Lions decided to move on from him despite a safety group that was looking rather bleak heading into the player-acquiring period, should tell you that the NFL looks at him as more of a replacement-level starter at best – which his coverage numbers would imply as well. Harris brought back for another year at just under 1.3 million dollars, but I feel like he’s a designated third safety for them and they want to see Grant earn one of those jobs, rather than compete with Isaiah Oliver as their standard nickel. Harmon was the guy they would largely rotate into the deep middle or aligned him as a true single-high safety a lot more than I expected from a Pees-coordinated unit. Grant isn’t a crazy athlete, who you put in the high post and he’s going to erase everything between the numbers, but his IQ and awareness as a zone defender to me indicate they may run more two-high safety coverages and drop down the second-year safety to match tight-ends or act as a robber when they do run man. I certainly like the idea of him playing closer to the line of scrimmage to take advantage of his physicality in run defense and as a blitzer to some capacity, but I also want to see him be able to diagnose plays from depth and flow to the football. Pees said during an interview in April “I think we’ve got two good young safeties who are going to get their opportunity, now, this year”, referring to Grant and Hawkins. The former of the two has said this offseason that he just feels a little more calm and is trying to nail the communication aspect. So being able to see the game from a bird’s eye view in the film room and being able to see all 11 offensive players by alignment, I expect his awareness to take over and for him to be an impact starter in year two.
Other names I considered:
EDGE Kwity Paye
EDGE Jaelan Phillips
IDL Ross Blacklock
IDL Khyiris Tonga
LB Baron Browning
LB Pete Werner
CB Asante Samuel Jr.
CB Caleb Farley
SAF Grant Delpit
SAF Andre Cisco
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