Pro Football Weekly’s 2018 NFC 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.
Philadelphia Eagles DE Derek Barnett
The loss of Vinny Curry stung a bit for the champs, but not that much considering the succession plans for Barnett. Although the 14th pick in the 2017 draft finished fourth among Eagles defensive ends with 424 regular-season snaps logged on defense, Barnett made the most of them with 21 tackles, five sacks, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. He also recovered the crucial fourth-quarter fumble of Tom Brady in the Super Bowl to help seal the game. Barnett is coming off surgery to repair a sports hernia this offseason, but he’s already fully recovered and is expected to be one of the Eagles’ primary rushers. Of course, with a loaded D-line — Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, Michael Bennett, Chris Long, Tim Jernigan, Haloti Ngata and others — the Eagles don’t have to press Barnett into taxing duty, even with stardom looming. The best part? He turns 22 years old this weekend.
Dallas Cowboys CB Chidobe Awuzie
The Cowboys drafted four defensive backs in 2017, and Awuzie actually ended up playing the third-most snaps on defense of the quartet despite playing in 10 games (six starts). But Awuzie’s versatility and athleticism give him an excellent chance to play a big role in Year 2. He can play safety, corner and nickel and displayed an underrated knack in college to blitz from the secondary. Awuzie could be in line for something of a hybrid role under new passing-game coordinator Kris Richard, depending on the final destination for Byron Jones and whether the Cowboys opt to pursue Seahawks safety Earl Thomas via trade. But Awuzie did finish last season as the starting outsider corner and started to assert himself as a promising performer out there.
Washington CB Quinton Dunbar
An under-the-radar performer in his three seasons, Dunbar did enough to earn a three-year extension as a restricted free agent this offseason. He previously struggled as a slot corner, and that position remains in question following the trade of Kendall Fuller in the Alex Smith deal. But Dunbar has been working with the first team this offseason opposite Josh Norman and could be in line for significant work if he can hold off 2017 third-rounder Fabian Moreau. Four late-season starts showed what Dunbar can do, and the former undrafted free agent appears to be in line to contribute heavily in one spot (outside if he fends off Moreau) or the other (inside if Dunbar proves better than Orlando Scandrick).
New York Giants LB Olivier Vernon
Vernon’s breakout season really happened a few years ago in Miami when he became a good pass rusher and an iron man as a defensive end. But with the Giants switching fronts, new coordinator James Bettcher is having Vernon stand up as a rusher really for the first time entering his seventh NFL season. That move has a chance to free him up for bigger pass-rush production, along with better health following an ankle injury that derailed Vernon’s 2017 season. Bettcher earned a reputation for being a skilled blitz designer in Arizona and oversaw a similar transition for Chandler Jones, who has become a star out there with 28 sacks over the past two seasons. The same potential for Vernon exists, even though he’s a bit further into his career at this point.
Minnesota Vikings CB Trae Waynes
The Vikings’ defense might have the best starting 11 in the game, or darned close to it, and the emergence of Waynes really could make this a special group. Following a shoulder injury last August and some inconsistencies prior to that, Waynes actually played very respectably last season — plenty so to where the Vikings felt comfortable picking up his fifth-year option for more than $9 million in 2019. The next step for him after becoming a 16-game starter last season is for Waynes to become a bit more of a playmaker as he was his final two years in college. He has picked off only five passes in 46 games (25 starts) but has gotten his hands on a number of passes the past two seasons. Perhaps Year 4 is where Waynes converts a few more of those into turnovers and turns that into a long-term extension down the line.
Green Bay Packers DL Montravius Adams
A stress fracture in his foot caused Adams to miss all of the preseason and most of the first two months of the season, putting a major damper on the third-rounder’s rookie year. He played a mere 65 snaps on defense in seven games, recording only one solo tackle in that limited run. But Adams still has a chance to be an impact player in new coordinator Mike Pettine’s system, which he hails as an aggressive, upfield, gap-splitting scheme. Turning 23 years old on the eve of camp, Adams will have time to adjust with several more established players ahead of him on the depth chart, including Mike Daniels, Muhammad Wilkerson, Kenny Clark and Dean Lowry. But if Adams can provide some inside penetration ability, the Packers might have a real team strength in this group.
Detroit Lions LB Devon Kennard
Hardly a household name, Kennard was somewhat overlooked in four years with the Giants as a part-time defender. But after signing him to a three-year, $18.75 million contract in March, the Lions clearly are counting on him to be a key piece in Matt Patricia’s rebuilt defensive unit. Kennard has spoken about the eye-opening nature of learning Patricia’s complex system, so there might be an adjustment period that comes with his arrival. But this hybrid player’s well-rounded skill set, including some sneaky pass-rush potential, should allow Kennard to be a fixture next to former first-rounder Jarrad Davis on this new Lions LB unit. Interestingly, Kennard had one of his better games last season in the Giants’ loss to the Lions in Week 2 with two tackles on the first three plays of the game, a tackle for loss and a fumble recovery.
Chicago Bears LB Leonard Floyd
Floyd has been a tantalizing tease in his first two seasons, as the former No. 9 overall pick has registered 11.5 sacks, two fumble recoveries, two safeties and a touchdown in a mere 22 games. But injuries have been a bugaboo, and Floyd is coming off late-season knee surgery that has forced the Bears to ease him back onto the field a bit this offseason. Assuming he’s good to go in training camp, the soon-to-be 26-year-old pass rusher could be in line to star in what might be the Bears’ best defense since the Lovie Smith era. They need Floyd’s outside-rush prowess consistently to realize their full potential on that side of the ball.
New Orleans Saints DT Sheldon Rankins
The Saints flirted with free agents Ndamukong Suh and Muhammad Wilkerson this offseason, and the depth remains a bit thin inside in New Orleans without any major additions there. But if Rankins can put together the kind of complete season his talent suggests he can, the Saints’ defense should remain a viable unit. Finding a consistent pass rush is a crucial concern, though, and Rankins has the makeup to be a poor man’s Suh or Aaron Donald — an inside penetrator who can change the complexity of Dennis Allen’s defense. Rankins just needs to find a bit more traction, and moving back inside (after filling in Alex Okafor’s DE role after he went down last season) might allow that to happen in 2018.
Atlanta Falcons DE Takk McKinley
By the end of last season, it was McKinley — and not Vic Beasley — who appeared to be the Falcons’ best pass rusher. Some of that had to do with the role Beasley was being asked to play, but it also was a credit to the work McKinley put in as a rookie following shoulder surgery prior to the 2017 NFL draft. He stepped up with six regular-season sacks, plus two more in the playoffs, and will be expected to take on an even bigger role this season. The Falcons expect Beasley and McKinley to be bookend rushers this year, and they could emerge as one of the best duos in the NFL if McKinley can stay healthy (he had his other shoulder operated on this offseason) and Beasley can return to pass-rushing form.
Carolina Panthers LB Shaq Thompson
We’ve seen Thompson’s role and effectiveness increase with each passing season, but he really has yet to fully break out and justify his first-round selection. But this could be the year, and the Panthers are counting on it after picking up his fifth-year option this offseason. It’s easy to forget that Thompson just turned 24 years old and that he’s still learning the intricacies of linebacker after being a jack of all trades on both sides of the ball in college. The Panthers will need Thompson to elevate his play right away this season with Thomas Davis suspended the first four games and with Luke Kuechly a chronic concussion concern. The Panthers will have a new defensive coordinator for the third straight season, but the terminology will not change much if at all, making Thompson’s path to more success smoother.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers S Justin Evans
The Bucs’ “other” Evans shouldn’t be overlooked after a nice debut season as a second-round pick in 2017. He earned a starting role at free safety and intercepted three passes — including one of Tom Brady in Evans’ first NFL start — before suffering a season-ending ankle injury. Tampa’s veteran defenders might not have had much to write home about last season, but don’t blame Evans for his early work. If the pass rush and secondary make improvements around him, Evans has a chance to flirt with Pro Bowl mention. The biggest question comes at who starts next to him at safety.
Los Angeles Rams S John Johnson III
One of the pleasant surprises for the Rams’ defense last season, Johnson helped improve the unit the minute he got his first real chance. After opening the season as a core special teamer, the 2017 third-rounder continued with those duties while also playing a key role as a safety. He stepped in for Maurice Alexander and picked off Russell Wilson in his first start (running it back 69 yards) and provided excellent stability in the secondary, even when Lamarcus Joyner was injured. Johnson and Joyner could provide an excellent pair behind the new CB duo of Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips appears to be a fan of Johnson, praising his savvy and flexibility as a rookie. Even bigger things might be in store for Year 2.
San Francisco 49ers DE Arik Armstead
It’s been a bit of a slow burn for Armstead, who has been hampered by injuries his first three seasons, missing 18 games and being shuttled between different spots on defense as the 49ers have switched schemes. Last year, Armstead appeared to be a bit too light and out of place as a “Leo” pass rusher, so the plan this season appears to have him back on the interior more as a run stopper and passing-lane disruptor. His statistics might not match what fellow young defensive linemen DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas put up, but if Armstead can play a full season and help clog up run lanes this 49ers defense can take a needed step forward. Don’t overlook the fact that the 49ers picked up Armstead’s fifth-year option — they still believe he has a chance to be an impact defender.
Seattle Seahawks CB Shaquill Griffin
Everything lines up for Griffin to have a breakout season — the opportunity and the need certainly are there. With the Seahawks moving on from Richard Sherman and perhaps seeing the sun set on most of the original “Legion of Boom” secondary, Griffin not only has a starting spot virtually guaranteed, but the team certainly is counting on him building on a strong, poised rookie campaign. He actually led all Seahawks DBs in snaps last year and currently has been manning Sherman’s old left corner spot in OTAs. With twin brother Shaquem joining the Seahawks, Griffin appears ready to become a playmaker this defense needs.
Arizona Cardinals LB Haason Reddick
This defense has elite playmakers on the front (Chandler Jones) and back ends (Patrick Peterson), but don’t forget what’s in between. Reddick was a moving part as a rookie, sliding outside following Markus Golden’s torn ACL, and did a respectable job as a part-time player. But this season we expect Reddick to play a bit more between the tackles, and the speedy playmaker might be able to stand out more if he can settle in at one spot after arriving from Temple as primarily a defensive end.