Pro Football Weekly’s 2018 AFC breakout players on defense
Often overlooked in the offseason NFL discussion is the difference young players can make improving from one season to the next. Jared Goff and Carson Wentz are two great examples of big-name breakout players who helped their teams to success last season, but you can’t forget about the lesser-named standouts such as Kevin Byard, Yannick Ngakoue and Deion Jones who also elevated their games by leaps and bounds.
With those types of players in mind, here’s a look at the 2018 NFC breakout players on defense as chosen by the contributors for the Pro Football Weekly Preview Magazine, which is available now on newsstands.
New England Patriots DE Deatrich Wise Jr.
A rare bright spot in their front seven a year ago, Wise secured five sacks (plus two more in the playoffs) as a rookie to rank third on ‘D’ in 51.8 percent of defensive snaps, per Football Outsiders. Like New England’s top rusher and his former Arkansas teammate Trey Flowers, Wise was unearthed in Round 4. The competition intensifies in Year 2 with fellow sophomore Derek Rivers returning from a rookie redshirt and 2011 first-rounder Adrian Clayborn joining the fray, but Wise is off and running toward a bigger role.
Buffalo Bills LB Tremaine Edmunds
Buffalo’s “other” rookie first-round quarterback, Edmunds became one of the league’s most physically gifted players the moment he arrived in the NFL. That he’s joining a Sean McDermott ‘D’ in which Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis previously starred and Preston Brown led the NFL in tackles, bodes well for the rangy and imposing Edmunds. He’ll be a key to remedying the NFL’s 25th-ranked run ‘D,’ and having big-ticket signee Star Lotulelei, stalwart Kyle Williams and rookie Harrison Phillips occupying blockers in front of him should help Edmunds’ speed shine.
Miami Dolphins CB Xavien Howard
In a shaky unit, Howard’s numbers stood out: four interceptions, 13 passes defensed and 48 tackles in more than 97 percent of the defensive snaps. Now in his third season, with Minkah Fitzpatrick aboard and Cordrea Tankersley looking to lock up the opposite boundary, the soon-to-be 25-year-old Howard could fully realize his potential. It starts with playing more disciplined — Howard was flagged 10 times last season and must tame his aggressiveness without tamping down his playmaking upside.
New York Jets S Marcus Maye
One half of Gang Green’s 16-game-starting rookie safety tandem along with Jamal Adams last season, Maye notched a forced fumble and two interceptions to go along with 79 tackles. Increasing his ball production is the key, and adding Trumaine Johnson to a strong secondary, not to mention another year of experience for Maye and Adams, could help unlock it.
Pittsburgh Steelers S Sean Davis
In his second season, Davis increased his production across the board, leading Pittsburgh with 90 tackles and tying Ryan Shazier for the team lead with three picks. But that didn’t prevent the Steelers from signing veteran SS Morgan Burnett and spending their first-round selection on Terrell Edmunds, another in-the-box defender. That will likely thrust Davis into more of a deep safety role, one in which he’s played inconsistently but might be more comfortable now with a traffic cop like Burnett alongside him.
Baltimore Ravens CB Marlon Humphrey
Baltimore’s first-rounder a year ago answered the bell repeatedly when pressed into the lineup late in the season following Jimmy Smith’s Achilles injury. Humphrey racked up impressive ball production — two interceptions and 11 passes defensed — despite starting only five games, and fared well in his first matchup vs. All Pro Antonio Brown (two catches for five yards allowed), among other big-dog wideouts Humphrey covered. Straight from central casting, he not only should move into a full-time starting post in Year 2 but possibly make an impact similar to what we saw from fellow 2017 first-rounders, Marshon Lattimore and Tre’Davious White, last season.
Cleveland Browns S Jabrill Peppers
Like with pretty much all of his Browns teammates, last year was a struggle for Peppers, the second of Cleveland’s trio of 2017 first-rounders. But the offseason was good to Peppers, who survived John Dorsey’s Sashi Brown player bloodletting and saw the kind of secondary reinforcements that could ideally position Peppers for a big jump. Lest we forget, Gregg Williams curiously thrust Peppers into a centerfield role as a rookie, despite his skill set suggesting he’s best suited playing in more confined spaces, where his physicality and coverage skills can shine. Enter FS Damarious Randall, CB1 Denzel Ward and CB2 EJ Gaines, the kind of man-coverage weapons Williams lamented not having last year. Peppers moves to strong safety, a more natural spot where he can play freely in Cleveland’s increasingly talented defense, and on special teams, where Peppers’ dynamic returning skills were rarely on display as a rookie.
Cincinnati Bengals OLB Carl Lawson
Make no mistake: Lawson’s 8.5 sacks (No. 2 on Cincinnati ‘D’) and 21 QB hits (3rd) as a fourth-round rookie marked a terrific NFL debut. But the belief here is that he’s just getting started, after playing less than 500 snaps as a rookie and registering nearly half of his sacks in two games. Lawson earned more chances rushing off the edge, where Michael Johnson continues to fade opposite Carlos Dunlap. And with rising star William Jackson III leading a CB unit full of former first-rounders, the arrow could be pointing up for the Bengals pass ‘D,’ with Lawson one of its bigger catalysts.
Jacksonville Jaguars DE Dante Fowler Jr.
The third overall pick in 2015 had his fifth-year option declined this spring, setting the stage for him to strike it rich as a rare commodity next offseason: a dangerous pass rusher in the prime of his career hitting the open market. First, Fowler must build on his career-high eight sacks in 2017, and it’s hard not to like his chances in a defense with Yannick Ngakoue and Calais Campbell capable of sliding up and down the formation and creating favorable matchups for Fowler. Our Jaguars correspondent, Ryan O’Halloran, selected D.J. Hayden in this spot, but it seems to us that there’s a lot more untapped upside in Fowler, who won’t be attacked relentlessly by offenses looking to avoid Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye.
Houston Texans LB Zach Cunningham
Houston’s second-leading tackler as a second-round rookie, Cunningham returns to a three-down role alongside newly extended Benardrick McKinney, where his coverage ability (six PBUs) is a huge asset, particularly because of McKinney’s limitations in space. Sure, the Texans gave up the most points in the NFL in 2017, but with a healthy J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus joining Jadeveon Clowney and an immensely talented defensive front, Houston is primed for a serious defensive surge. And Cunningham almost assuredly will benefit from the added stability.
Tennessee Titans DT DaQuan Jones
Tennessee rewarded Jones, the previous regime’s fourth-round pick in 2014, for a career year in 2017 with a three-year, $21-million extension ($14 million GTD). His season was cut short after 12 games because of a torn biceps, but not before Jones logged a career-high 3.5 sacks and 4 tackles for loss. And that doesn’t reflect Jones’ best skill — stuffing the run — unlike the drop-off the Titans endured following Jones’ injury, which preceded Tennessee surrendering its two worst run ‘D’ performances of the season. At 6-foot-4 and 322 pounds, Jones is country strong and capable of continuing to improve as a disruptor.
Indianapolis Colts S Malik Hooker
His rare playmaking was on display almost immediately in the NFL, as the 15th overall pick a year ago tallied an interception in his second, third and fourth games, returning them for a combined 73 yards. His rookie campaign was halted abruptly by a torn ACL, which is disappointing because he entered the league with only durability concerns obscuring his path to stardom. But there have been encouraging reports regarding his progress, and Hooker absolutely has the talent — range, instincts, ball skills — to pick up where he left off in a new scheme, one that received a nice speed and talent influx this offseason.
Los Angeles Chargers DB Desmond King
King’s rise is well underway: The Swiss Army Knife from Iowa stuffed the stat sheet as a fourth-round rookie, with 71 tackles, one pick (a 90-yard house call), five passes defended and four sacks, tops among all NFL defensive backs. King brought special blitzing ability and ruggedness to the Chargers’ electrifying ‘D’ from Jump Street as the starting nickel. There’s little reason, health willing, to think the 23-year-old won’t continue to shine in a defense with a limitless ceiling and serious reinforcements on board in Jason Verrett and top pick Derwin James.
Kansas City Chiefs LB Tanoh Kpassagnon
In his first full offseason working exclusively at outside linebacker, Kpassagnon, whom Kansas City traded up to secure in Round 2 last year, has earned rave reviews. He’ll get a chance to contribute readily opposite Justin Houston, too, after spending his rookie season mostly learning the ropes before registering two sacks and three tackles for loss in Week 17, his first-ever start. With vines for arms (35 3/8 inches) and unusual speed and twitch for a 6-foot-7, 280-pounder, the Villanova product could be a defensive coordinator’s dream. And with former first-rounder Dee Ford failing to catch on and Tamba Hali moving on this offseason, it could set the stage for Kpassagnon to shine, especially if he can stay a step ahead of fellow DL convert and second-rounder, rookie Breeland Speaks, for reps.
Oakland Raiders CB Gareon Conley
When Jon Gruden arrived to begin his second Raiders stint, he quickly declared that his secondary rebuild revolved around Conley, the 24th overall pick last year. Remember, some thought Conley could be drafted before reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year and ex-Buckeye teammate Marshon Lattimore — he has that kind of unique star CB ability. But Conley was limited to two games as a rookie after, he said, returning too soon from an offseason shin injury. He recently declared himself all the way back, and Gruden can’t hide his excitement. “He’s been excellent so far. ... He’s a shutdown corner,” said Gruden earlier this month. In a division with Tyreek Hill, Keenan Allen and Demaryius Thomas, he’s charged with matching that potential right away for a ‘D’ that finished last in the NFL with five interceptions, one more than Conley plucked two years ago at Ohio State.
Denver Broncos CB Bradley Roby
Former NFL defensive back-turned-Broncos coach Vance Joseph won’t simply hand Roby, the former first-rounder, a full-time gig following Aqib Talib’s departure. But the belief is that the incumbent Roby will beat out newcomer Tramaine Brock for the boundary vacancy opposite Chris Harris. A ball magnet, Roby has 35 passes defensed and four picks over three NFL seasons as Denver’s No. 3 corner. But it’s time to see what he can do on an every-down basis, and it says here that learning under Harris and Talib the past few seasons will help Roby emerge as a beast in a pivotal season for him in a contract year and Joseph’s Broncos.