Second- and third-year NFL players ready to break out in 2021 – Defense edition:

Once again, we have reached a part of the offseason, where there’s not many transactions or otherwise important moves to analyze around the NFL. So I took the time to put on the tape of players from the 2019 and ’20 drafts and identify which of them are bound to break out this upcoming season.

To avoid subjective interpretation of which players are or are not eligible for making this list anymore, I already stated that they can’t have made a Pro Bowl / All-Pro team so far or are just generally considered one of the top players at their position already, like a Quinnen Williams or Darnell Savage for example. To go along with that, players that have reached double-digit sacks or tackles for loss, or led his team in another major category, are excluded. Oh, and the players that made my list already last year, won’t repeat doing so.

Defensive Rookie of the Year candidates like Antoine Winfield and Jeremy Chinn did not qualify, Derrick Brown may not be in position to rack up big numbers, but he was already dominant for stretches in the middle of that Panthers defense this past season and Cardinals linebacker Isaiah Simmons was too obvious for me, since he was my number two overall prospect a year ago and should be in much better position to make plays, in a more defined role.

Just like the offensive edition, two of the first three players mentioned here were selected in the middle of the first round, but the other six names all went on day two or later.


.

Gary

.

EDGE – Rashan Gary

Back in 2019, this was a somewhat controversial name, because Gary was labelled by many as an overrated prospect. I was totally fine with it back, if they just had a clear plan for him. I would have agreed that he wasn’t a really dominant college player, since defensive tackle Maurice Hurst was always the table-setter for that Michigan defense in my opinion, but I thought Gary offered a very intriguing skill-set projecting him forward, with elite athletic tools and the improvement we had already seen from him during his career with the Wolverines. However, when the Packers selected him with the 12th overall pick that year, I thought then-defensive coordinator Mike Pettine looked at Gary as a versatile piece up front, with the kind of moldable body to play anywhere from a five- to a three-technique on base downs and then move around in passing situations, since they had just signed Za’Darius and Preston Smith as their true edge rushers. Yet, they labelled Gary as an outside linebacker right away and he became a true backup, playing just 24 percent of defensive snaps as a rookie.

This past season, he doubled his workload and started making actual impact plays for this squad, while Preston Smith looked a little overweight and just didn’t produce until late in the season. That’s why expected the veteran to be a prime cut candidate, but instead they managed to restructure his contract, to massively reduce the cap hit and keep him around in Green Bay. Regardless, you saw the development of Gary, and Smith will have to re-establish himself still, to continue having a significant role for this group. Gary improved from two to five sacks, five to 19 pressures and three to five tackles for loss, while only missing on one attempt, on twice as high a percentage of snaps (48%). So I definitely expect the third-year man to come closer to splitting snaps at least with Smith, but he has all the tools to become a dominant player. And as you go through the tape, you see that he is already a much better player than the casual fan would think, while having the potential to continue growing.

.

Gary 1 GIF

.

This is a big ass dude, at 6’5”, 277 pounds. Gary is as physical a run defender as there is on the edge, re-setting the point of attack routinely. He lands those heavy hands, to where you actually see the heads of offensive tackles snap backwards. And he absolutely man-handles tight-ends, just like he did in this clip above to Jonnu Smith, being able to grab cloth and pull guys to the side, when the ball-carrier is in range. Coming from the backside, he may not that crazy burst to make it impossible to leave him unblocked, but he does chase with good effort and you see his force when he pushes guys into that direction and negate any cutback opportunities, as blockers show up in the offensive backside and running backs see those guys in their peripheral vision. I would still think you’d rather run away from him, because he has that sturdy frame, to not get out of position, even if he gets knocked around a little as somebody catches him from the side or there’s a pulling lineman trying to kick him out, but Gary is an all-around asset on run downs.

To go along with that, Gary offers a complete skill-set as a pass-rusher – he has incredible burst for a guy his size and is devastating on speed to power, where he can take offensive tackles for a ride with that nasty long-arm move. He is also tough to slow down on inside moves, like up-and-unders, because of his impressive short-area agility and the way he can power through the blocker’s reach. I believe he has definitely improved with his ability to rush with a plan, understand angles and the depth of the pocket, as well as coordinating his strides. His sack production might still be limited, but he directly forced an interception in the week 16 Titans game and there’s a few drag-down tackles on the quarterback on his tape, that were a yard away from a sack. In terms of his versatility on passing downs, Za’Darius Smith has taken on most of the duties of rushing from different alignments and angles. The fact that Gary’s snap count doubled in year two was not only because they just rotated their guys more, and the “Smith Brothers” both played a full 16-game schedule, but because of Smith’s ability to move around and the Packers coaching staff wanting to get their second-year player more on the field – which he repaid them for already. Although they did put Gary over guards a few times, where his quicks seemed surprising to the opposition.

.

Gary 2 GIF

.

While I believe his development isn’t given the credit it deserves, Gary still has room to improve, with his ability to actually shed blockers and make plays in the run game, while his biggest area to work on in the pass game will be understanding his opponents and how to set them up throughout games, stressing them one way and then taking advantage of those guys overreacting to it. Like I mentioned, Preston Smith was brought back, on a much more team-friendly deal, but he has to really crank things up this offseason, because the Packers have a guy now coming into year three, who has shown all the signs of being ready to be a play-maker for this group. So while I don’t see the two just swap roles, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if both were in the 60-70 percent range. Gary is a supreme edge-setter in the run game, he can win in a lot of different ways as a pass-rusher and as time goes along, I expect his usage to diversify. He can set up his teammates by banging into offensive linemen on twists, but also has the burst to take advantage of when he is given a nice lane, and you can legitimately have all three so-called “outside linebackers” on the field for a full series, because Gary won’t be taken advantage of as a three-technique for example.

.

.

Highsmith

.

EDGE – Alex Highsmith

.

(This was written before the Steelers signed free agent outside linebacker Melvin Ingram.)

.

We move on from a high first-round edge rusher two years ago to a late third-round pick from 2020, when the Steelers grabbed this guy 102nd overall out of Charlotte. I had Highsmith as a fringe fourth-to-fifth rounder, in large part because it took him until his senior year to produce in the pass game in Conference-USA, but there were plenty of things that I liked about his game, in terms of the violence he played with and the fact he could go around, through or inside of offensive tackles as a pass-rusher. So when Pittsburgh used that late day-two selection on him, I thought he’d be an excellent fit, to add some depth to one of the premiere defenses in the NFL. However, he didn’t get to put up big numbers as a rookie, mostly because he didn’t get on the field a whole lot, outside of special teams – at least early on. Over the first 11 games, Highsmith logged just 128 defensive snaps, which made up 18.5 percent of the total amount over that period of time. He earned some of that trust by hustling on kick coverage units, but as he got out there more on defense, he started to make an impression on that coaching staff and his teammates.

It took until late in that weird Wednesday night against a decimated Ravens squad for Highsmith to get more playing time, when Bud Dupree unfortunately tore his ACL. Over those final five weeks, the rook showed a lot of positive signs, to the point where they felt comfortable with him stepping into a starting role and letting Dupree walk in free agency – although them being strapped for cap certainly played a factor in that as well. He recorded one of his two sacks for the year over that stretch, but added five more hits on the quarterback and stopped the run at a high level, to go with a somewhat game-changing pick-six at the start of the second half of that first Ravens game, when he was still a backup. It was interesting to see how the coaching staff started trusting the 23-year old more and more as the year went along, but now he will have to show that belief was justified, as he will be in the starting-11 and play a pretty significant role in year two.

.

Highsmith 1 GIF

.

Highsmith may be a tiny bit undersized at 6’3”, 248 pounds, to consistently just establish contact at the point of attack with big offensive tackles and hold his ground, but he has very quick hands to step around blockers and not allow flow to be created on those lateral run schemes. However, when lining up over tight-ends, he can bench-press those guys and take the inside path, to establish first contact with the ball-carrier. Neither does he shy away from taking on pulling guards or throwing his body around in that regard. To go along with that, he has the speed to chase guys down from the backside of wide zone runs and others on numerous occasions. And he displays an outstanding motor, chasing down screen passes from behind in impressive fashion. What surprised me however, for somebody who really was a true defensive end in college, was how quickly Highsmith started to be an asset dropping into coverage, quickly getting out to the flats or hook zones, as well as matching backs coming out and even taking tight-ends in man-coverage, either moving out to the slot with them or even trailing them stride-for-stride on deep crossing routes.

When going forward as a pass-rusher, Highsmith has the speed to really threaten around corner, plus he packs a nice dip-and-rip maneuver, where he can get pretty low. He has the quick burst to create an angle for himself, after looking like he’ll be caught in a stalemate, and he brings a sudden spin move to the table, to complement that. When he sees the tackle overset to the outside, to counter his speed off the edge, he can quickly take the inside path in general, which at that point the blocker will likely not get another hand on him, before he at least forces the QB off the spot. While he can’t really push guys all the way back into the quarterback’s lap, as those blockers usually find a way to re-anchor, he can create that initial movement or make up the rest of the way, if his blocker really retreats against him. I re-watched the Colts game among others, where he rushed against the backup left tackle primarily, and if he wasn’t a rookie, he would have probably gotten two or three holding calls. The Steelers also used Highsmith as a stand-up blitzer a few times as well, as he got more comfortable in that defense, and he’s already pretty good at freeing up teammates on D-line games.

.

Highsmith 2 GIF

.

With that being said, the second-year man still does at times lack discipline with his contain responsibilities from the backside, which was a concern of mine with him as a draft prospect. He doesn’t quite have the ankle strength or overall power to always bend around those tight corners and flatten to the quarterback, to where he needs to do a better of finishing, by continuing to work those hands and clear himself. Working with T.J. Watt on those things will accelerate his growth I believe and he should get plenty of opportunities to rush one-on-one against tackles, with Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt covering up those inside gaps and drawing a lot of attention. Highsmith will step right in for Bud Dupree and while he may not be as far along at this point, which it took the veteran a while to get to himself, I believe he can take advantage of playing in such a talented front, plus he offers more in terms of dropping into coverage than Dupree. That should only make that unit more versatile, as Watt took over a lot of those duties as well, as quarterbacks have to be alert for both potentially getting underneath what just looked like an automatic completion. This guy plays like a Steeler. So he will fit right in and make an impact for them.

.

.

KInlaw

.

Interior defensive line – Javon Kinlaw

The San Francisco fanbase and analysts seemed to be pretty split on what John Lynch and company did this past offseason, as they used the 14th overall selection on South Carolina’s Javon Kinlaw, as a direct replacement for DeForest Buckner, who the Colts acquired in exchange for that pick. Well, actually the Niners originally received the pick one prior, but swapped with the Buccaneers, who selected their Pro Bowl right tackle Tristan Wirfs in that spot. I personally had Kinlaw and Derrick Brown (Auburn) in the top-ten of my big board, although the two were very different prospects to me, as Brown was more of your typical shade-nose tackle, who can be a dominant space-eating run defender and really overpower guys, while Kinlaw certainly packs a punch as well, but offered a more impressive athletic profile, as someone who can shoot up a gap and create chaos. I’d certainly say Brown had a better rookie season and that whoever thought Kinlaw would be able to directly replace what DeFo did for them, didn’t have the right level of expectations going in, but their new number 99 certainly had his flashes.

I remember the first day of last year’s Senior Bowl, when Kinlaw’s official numbers came out and I almost couldn’t believe what I had heard. For somebody who I evaluated – and still look at primarily – as a three-technique, his weight is just crazy, measuring in at 6’5”, 320 pounds. There was definitely a certain rawness to his game, overwhelming opposing blockers with his physical supremacy on most occasions, but the athletic profile was second to none for any defensive tackle we had seen come out in several years. While Buckner-like numbers or impact were an absurd target for a first-year player, I would think most people weren’t very happy with what Kinlaw did ultimately put out, as he missed two games and played 53 percent of the defensive snaps overall. He combined for 33 total tackles, only 1.5 sacks and three tackles for loss, but he did bat down four passes and made that huge play in the second Rams game at L.A., where he pick-sixed what should have been a screen pass to the running back. And he did have ten additional ten pressures. Still, that is far from where the type of player he can become.

.

Kinlaw 1 GIF

.

Evaluating his tape at South Carolina and projecting him forward to the pros, Kinlaw has always been at his best as an upfield disruptor. When he comes off the ball with urgency and knives through one half of a blocker, there’s not much they can do. Because there was a little delay in his get-off, often times the rookie wasn’t able to attack the edges of offensive linemen and there is barely any deconstructing of blocks, but this guy has some of the most powerful hands you will ever see and a lot of times, he would just punch guys in the chest and wrap up the approaching ball-carrier anyway. To go along with that, he has some ridiculous lateral agility, to flow with zone run plays and even step around blockers, who try to cut his legs. From the backside, he has equally impressive change of direction and flexibility, to flatten down the line and chase down the running back, while doing so with the effort necessary. We saw Kinlaw work over the top of down-blocks at times, when following a puller, which he can create chaos with, if learns to be more consistent with it, and he if he can just get a little more effective with his hand-usage, he’ll get involved on a lot more plays. The Niners trusted him to line up in the A-gaps quite a bit as well, where we saw flashes of him getting around centers with the high swim to force the running back to re-direct almost instantly.

As a pass-rusher, Kinlaw may not offer the biggest array of moves at this point, but he is already not fun to face for anybody. He can really take offensive linemen for a ride with his bull-rush and you see him toss guys to the side a few times like rag-dolls, once he gets them trying to recover somehow. What I always thought was crazy about him in that regard was his ability to twist his upper body and corner to the quarterback, despite seemingly being completely off balance. He is still definitely reckless in his approach, but he can create push up the pocket and forces guys to really sit in that chair, to absorb his power. San Francisco put him in a lot of wide-three or almost four-alignments, where he comes in on an angle and can build up momentum, before crashing into the guard, but then he can also side-step that guy or slant into the A-gap in general, to draw the center with with him as well. And I’ve seen him shove the center back by a couple of yards with one punch and then loop all the way to the outside. The timing and coordination could still see some work, but he could become a problem when involved in different games up front. Plus, when his rush stalls or he sees the quarterback load up, Kinlaw is great at putting those 35-inch arms up and making it tough to throw over him.

.

Kinlaw 2 GIF

.

Like I already said, it starts with improving snap anticipation for Kinlaw. He needs to do a better job altogether of establishing that half-man relationship and playing with better extension in the run game. To go with that, it will be important for him to reduce that near shoulder, as he tries to cross the blocker’s face, and at this point he raises his pads too much versus double-teams. His pass-rush repertoire will have to diversify as he goes along, but having Nick Bosa come back and working with him on that hand-usage, as well as that just giving the second-year man more one-on-one opportunities will be huge. With the alignment versatility Arik Armstead presents, I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Kinlaw rushing off the edge more as well. Compared to some of the other guys on this list, who already put out some high-level NFL tape, this is much more of a projection, because the rookie did not play at a very high level I would say in year one – at least not in terms of what you would hope for from a mid-first-round pick. But this situation reminds me so much of DeForest Buckner as a young player, where he flashed all kinds of potential, but had room to grow technically. I’m not 100 percent sure Kinlaw will get there in year two already, but I’d rather be too early than late with such a talent.

.

.

Baun

.

Linebacker – Zack Baun

One of the surprising fallers in last year’s draft was this Wisconsin linebacker/edge rusher, who I personally had as my 30th overall prospect and I could have easily seen go at the end of the first round, but instead he stayed on the board all the way until pick 74 overall. While the right fit for him was a bit of a question mark, with sort of tweener measurements, there was a lot to like about his game – the ability to elude blockers in the run game, his speed as a pass-rusher and then also some of the plays he made in coverage when standing up. So he really offered a versatile skill-set coming out of Madison, which we really got familiar with during Senior Bowl week, when he was put in some tough situations for an outside linebacker, who primarily went forward in college, as he was asked to cover tight-ends in man, but more than held his own. Now the big discussion point was where he would fit best and which teams could take advantage of the things Baun brings to the table. As it would turn out, many teams didn’t feel great about how they could use them, until the Saints decided to stop the madness and bring in a really good football player in the third round.

At 6’2”, 238 pounds, I evaluated Baun as an off-ball linebacker on base downs and then come down to rush the passer in longer-yardage situations. Despite New Orleans not having the best options at MIKE, the rookie would not fit that spot, since he doesn’t have your prototypical measurements after all and his strengths lie in playing more in space, to go with being able to play on or off ball. Therefore he is the player on this whole list with by far the lowest amount of total snaps this past season. He recorded just 12 total tackles, no sacks, quarterback hits or passes defensed, playing only eight percent of the defensive snaps (82 total). However, he did a season-high 22 snaps on defense in week 17 and then 19 in their Divisional Round loss to the division-rival Buccaneers, which in that game you actually saw Tampa Bay make a bit of a run, when they didn’t put the rookie LB out there for most of the second half. I believe Baun has earned himself more playing time, thanks to some solid work he did on 54 percent of special teams snaps, and shown the coaching staff enough to carve out a role for himself. With them using another third-round pick this April on Ohio State’s Pete Warner, who will step in right in the middle, to keep Demario Davis at WILL and have Baun as their hybrid SAM backer, I’d expect more personnel diversity, especially with the Bucs and Falcons likely using heavy amounts of 12 personnel.

.

Baun 1 GIF

.

For NFL standards, Baun Certainly a little undersized for a full-time edge defender. The Saints primarily put him on the strong-side of their 4-3 Under fronts, where he was lined up outside the tight-end. As an on-ball defender, Baun is excellent at landing his hands and held his ground really well against those big traditional Y types, while being able to yank them to the side, once he feels them lean in too much. Then he is quick to disengage and wrap up the legs of ball-carriers trying to run through the C-gap and gets involved on a lot of tackles late (in comparison to the amount of time he is on the field for). Standing up, he displays good pursuit and has the speed to run down ball-carriers to the edges. It may look a little too aggressive from the backside, which could open up cutback lanes for running backs with the appropriate vision, but he’s a big plus in not letting ball-carriers get out to the sideline. I was so impressed with Baun going up against Rob Gronkowski in that Divisional Round game, setting the tone at contact in the run game and sticking with him whenever they were matched up one-on-one.

And that I think is the most impressive part about his game at this young age, considering the limited amount of man-coverage snaps in college. Sure, he has also always shown the speed to bail out quickly and he is rapid in identify guys releasing out to the flats, as well as chase them down, but having to actually turn his back to the quarterback and match up with guys is a different deal. Like I mentioned at the beginning, we did see glimpses of it down in Mobile, but it is still surprising how sound Baun is with landing the outside hand underneath the shoulder pad of the tight-end and feeling the route develop that way, to go with the athleticism to make stay in his hip-pocket. You saw him bang into those guys and stick with them across the field on multiple occasions, as you go through the tape. Of course, he is also still an asset in the pass-rush department, where he has good speed, to threaten offensive tackles in their sets, and then he has a devastating spin to counter off that. His get-off and ability to reduce their near shoulder can create problems for blockers, even if he doesn’t bring much of a power element in that regard.

.

Baun 2 GIF

.

I still believe there are some limitations to what exactly Baun can do in more of your typical edge defender and stand-up linebacker roles. He showed that he can absolutely hold his own against tight-ends in the run game, but big tackles gave him issues, because he simply doesn’t have the bulk to anchor down. And from an off-ball alignment, he doesn’t have a ton of experience actually reading plays between the tackles, in case they wanted to have him stacked up over the guard in nickel packages. However, if allowed to play the appropriate role of more like an overhang defender or matchup piece against backs or tight-ends, to go with letting him get after the ball on some third downs, I believe he can become a playmaker for this group. What I do believe we’ll see more of is Baun lining up in one of the interior gaps and either get involved on a stunt or bail out, which they already did quite a bit with Alex Anzalone in 2020. I don’t envision him playing more than two-thirds of the snaps in that type of hybrid position, but that doesn’t mean he can’t make a major impact when he is out there.

.

.

Diggs

.

Cornerback – Trevon Diggs

The Cowboys had an outstanding overall draft in 2020, with all but one of the selected players being higher in my personal rankings, in significant fashion for quite a few of those, with their seventh-round pick Ben DiNucci not being on my watch list, as he more so showed up when I watched a few FCS games and scouted defensive players. In the second round, with the 51st overall selection, they made Alabama’s Trevon Diggs the eighth corner taken in 2020. That was about the range I had him in too, as my CB6 and 47th overall prospect, but I thought this was one of the higher-upside players in that range and I could have easily seen him go late on night one. He might have had one of the worst tapes of any corner that year, when he got exposed by LSU superstar receiver Ja’Marr Chase and trucked by running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire on numerous occasions, but his athleticism, with the genetic base as brother Stefon Diggs, the length and impressive plays on the ball made him an intriguing name. And while you could argue he had a few of the worst reps for an outside corner his rookie campaign, you can’t deny some of the high-end plays he made.

Diggs was asked to fill big shoes, with Byron Jones leaving in free agency, and while the run defense was absolutely atrocious in 2020, with Chidobe Awuzie missing half the year as well, the Cowboys were vulnerable for big plays on the outside too. The former Alabama DB missed four games of his debut season, combining for three interceptions and 14 more passes broken up the rest of the way. Despite being heavily targeted and some technical issues leading to bad losses, like what should have been a 63-yard touchdown to D.K. Metcalf, he continued to fight, just like he did on that mentioned play, as he punched the ball out and through the end-zone for a touchback at the end of it. Looking at the overall stats, they were more than respectable for a rookie, allowing a completion percentage of 54.8% and a passer rating of 85.8, even though it included five touchdowns. So as expected to some degree, I think you can certainly call it an up-and-down showcase, when you look at the numbers, allowing a passer rating above 115 in four games, but below 80 in seven of the other eight contests he was out there for.

.

Diggs 1 GIF

.

As a press-corner, Diggs has the length to crowd receivers at the line of scrimmage. His jam technique could use some work still, but he can throw guys off with that physical nature. He ran 4.43 at the Alabama pro day (didn’t participate in the combine) at 6’2”, 200 pounds, and as you go through his rookie tape, there are several impressive snaps, where he is stride for stride with true burners on go routes down the sideline, plus then he can track the ball over the inside shoulder and make WR-like catches on it. He has that sort of innate ability to stay in phase with a receiver, but then turn his head and play the ball when it’s time. Adding to that, Diggs displays surprisingly loose hips, to get back into position after initially opening the wrong way. And he may not be the quickest to stop because of that lanky build, but his re-acceleration is excellent, which you see as well against pick and switch-releases, where he’s put in an unfavorable position of having to bubble or shoot through a lane, but he can still contest the catch ultimately, often times getting back on top of shallow crossers across from bunch sets or stacks.

Diggs routinely bump guys at the top of their route, but not to the point where he gets penalized for it, as he was flagged just four times as a rookie, including his one for illegal contact being declined. He is strong enough to re-route tight-ends to some degree, when they are put as the last eligible receiver to his side, and he has such long arms to still keep contact with the targets at the end of his reach. That also enables him to come over the back of receivers and knock the ball up for grabs, setting up his safeties and linebackers for easy picks on in-breaking routes. While his work in cover-two was limited, when Diggs was asked to control the flats, he showed the ability to toggle between the high-low stretch, to not let quarterbacks read it cleanly. And in three-deep coverages, he not only has the speed to not let the target get behind him straight up, but he finds post routes across the field, when he can fall off in cover-three, as the receiver to his side quickly works inside. My biggest issue with Diggs coming out of college was his tackling, leaving his feet too much and dipping his head, but as a rookie, he was really effective for a corner, missing just 7.9 percent of his attempts. He may not be a tone-setter in that regard, but he will wrap his body around bigger ball-carriers and drag them to the turf in the end. He also had a few key stops, where he had to come from depth and make sure the ball-carrier was stopped before crossing the first-down marker.

.

Diggs 2 GIF

.

Despite receiving some of the best DB coaching at Alabama, technical nuances are what Diggs has to really work on. He gets caught lunging way too aggressively and loses badly off the line against skilled receivers with their hands, when he’s in tight press-alignment. And he has a tendency of arriving at the target a little early, when he’s already there in good position. Because of his lanky build, he takes too long to stick his foot in the ground and work downhill when playing way off, where weight-transitioning plays a big factor. However, I don’t expect to see much of that in 2021 under new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. Like all Seattle-style defensive minds, he has adapted to the modern game to some degree, especially with being more aggressive with his blitz-packages, but I’d still expect a high amount of cover-three and then press-man, when he wants to bring pressure. We’ve seen him call a lot of single-high coverages, even when he didn’t have an adequate centerfielder necessarily. This year’s second-round pick Kelvin Joseph from Kentucky will likely start on the opposite side of Diggs, which will lead offense to attack the rookie more. This guy coming into year will therefore primarily play coverages that he’s comfortable with, opposing teams won’t try to attack him with certain matchups as much and when he does get thrown at, if he just works on timing his arrival a little better, he has the exceptional ball-skills to produce PBUs and INTs at a high rate.

.

.

Johnson

.

Cornerback – Jaylon Johnson

Since we’re looking at cornerbacks from last year’s draft, let’s talk about the guy who went one pick prior to Trevon Diggs, right with that 50th overall selection. The Bears became the seventh team to bring in a corner, with Jaylon Johnson. I personally had him as my CB5 and eight spots higher in my overall rankings. While I didn’t think he was a top-tier athlete, I really liked Johnson’s physicality, technique and competitive nature, which I saw at Utah. This is obviously a tough position to play as a rookie, especially when you’re thrown right into the fire like Chicago did to their then 21-year old, coming off consecutive first-team All-Pac-12 selections. Standing at six foot, 193 pounds, Johnson was a starter in every contest he was available for, but with mixed results, as the season progressed. Similar to the Bears defense as a whole, which went from one of the elite units league-wide to more above-average, as the offense picked things up a little bit, the play of their young corner started falling off.

Despite missing the final three games, Johnson led all rookies and was tied for sixth league-wide with 15 pass break-ups, but he didn’t have a single interception. As I just mentioned, he started the season off really strong, holding opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating below 80 over the first seven games, despite seeing a heavy target share of seven looks per contest. However, over the final six contests he appeared in, Johnson surrendered a rating in the 100’s all but once (when he was only targeted twice), with it twice being in the 150 range. And what really got out of hand was his yards surrendered per target of almost exactly 10.0 a pop. This was one of the players and situations I analyzed most closely, since I really liked the player coming out of college and was surprised to see his numbers regress, after that strong start in pros. Individual play obviously was the biggest factor, but I think there are some things he can quickly improve and he should benefit from adjustments in the Bears’ defensive scheme, which I’ll explain in more detail at the end.

.

Johnson 1 GIF

.

The first thing that really stands out about Johnson to me is how patient he is off the line, mirroring receivers and staying technically sound in soft-press alignment when put in man-coverage. You see him use a lot of catch-technique, where he does have pretty good speed to trail guys down the sideline or carry them up the post. You see his eyes really locked on the hips of the target and he feels comfortable reacting to what he sees with his back to the quarterback. He does not lack confidence, when trailing receivers down the field and his habit of falling for double-moves in college seems to not have carried over too much. In zone-coverage, he is very physical, with not allowing receivers to release against his leverage and is already pretty sound for a young player at funneling targets to the safety behind him. He tries to keep contact throughout routes and shows excellent anticipation for breaks, as soon as he feels the receiver cut down his stride length or lean either direction. He may not be super-springy, but he usually trusts his eyes and doesn’t shy away from jumping an out route, when he has to freedom to. Plus, he has those long arms to wrap around and swipe through the reach of receivers.

Johnson may be on the slimmer side, but he did match up against tight-ends a few times, when they were the single receiver to that right side he was almost exclusively lined up on. While his physicality doesn’t fully translate to the run game, which was one of my issues with his college tape, as he wasn’t overly interested in coming off his island, he does approach blockers with good extension and rarely loses contain. I would like to see him become more active with actually getting off blocks still, but I thought that actually improved as the season went along, and especially when he’s unaccounted for, you see him work his way down to set the edge with greater urgency now. Johnson’s biggest issues show up when he has to play six to eight yards off the receiver. There’s certainly a pause, when he tries to redirect against breaks back towards the quarterback, and he tends to lose balance at times, not looking super comfortable overall. He has a tough time coming forward against slants from when having to give that cushion, and he is not the type of guy you want pedaling backwards and driving on breaks. He has to stay lower and work on his fluidity this offseason, as Chicago was very vulnerable to quick-hitting routes, but also to avoid getting beat deep, as he can’t feel the receiver, because Johnson simply doesn’t have the make-up speed to get back into the picture when he is beat. One example was what should have been a touchdown by Calvin Ridley late in the fourth quarter of week three, to secure the victory, but Matt Ryan underthrew him pretty badly, and the Bears were able to pull off the comeback with Nick Foles.

.

Johnson 2 GIF

.

Under last year’s play-caller Chuck Pagano, you saw a lot more man-coverage principles, even if they actually were in three-deep, which ultimately leaves their corners one-on-one on the outside. With new defensive coordinator Sean Desai having worked under Vic Fangio for a few years already and then just being promoted when Pagano replaced the now-Broncos head coach. I would expect Desai to have taken on a lot of the basic principles from Fangio’s defenses. So I expect the Bears to run a lot more match-quarters and showing split-safety looks pre-snap, to not tip off the opposing quarterback. Moreover, because Pagano ran those rather simplistic coverages, where the corners where responsible for anything deep their direction, we didn’t see them switch sides pretty much at all. Even though Chicago surprisingly cut Pro Bowler Kyle Fuller in late March, who now is back with Fangio in Denver, to take on that field-side corner role, I would think Desai looks at Johnson as his boundary guy, while the aging Desmond Trufant should assume the spot on the opposite end of the field. Therefore I believe the second-year man could get tested even more, going up against opposing X receivers on the short side of the formation, but he will also not be asked to play as much off as we saw from him as a rookie, since the single receiver is accounted for in man, unless he immediately works across the field usually. So the schematic fit seems much more adequate for Johnson now and if he works on the few things I just described, I expect him to become one of the better corners in the NFL.

.

.

Thornhill

.

Safety – Juan Thornhill

I was a big fan of the 2019 safety class, which had eight guys inside my top 80 overall. Thornhill was the seventh-ranked player at his position for me that year and he went about in that range, when the Chiefs selected him with the 63rd overall pick. What I really liked about his tape at Virginia was that he had plenty of man-coverage experience as a converted corner, but also the explosiveness and range to play as a full-time free safety. The instincts were still a bit of a work in progress, since he was learning the position at that point, but he started making plays in the NFL as soon as he came to Kansas City. At the back-end of an All-Rookie Team level debut campaign, he unfortunately tore his ACL in the final game of the regular season and missed the Chiefs’ Super Bowl run. Then he came back last season and his game dropped off to some degree, especially in terms of the numbers he was (or wasn’t) able to produce.

Comparing Thornhill’s first two years in the league, he officially started only half of the Chiefs’ games this past season, after being in the lineup for all 16 as a rookie. He came just four snaps short off the 1000-mark his rookie year (89%), but his snap percentage went down to 71% in 2020, as he was banged up and/or simply didn’t play up to par, leading to much more playing time for Daniel Sorensen, despite how much Steve Spagnuolo likes those three-safety looks. Thornhill’s interceptions and PBUs also went down from eight total (three INTs) to just four (with one pick). While his touchdowns stayed at two, his completion percentage (+18.1%), yards per target (+5.0) and passer rating (+59.8) allowed all went up massively. Now, we’re not talking about a corner, who’s in man-coverage all game – so those numbers can certainly lie, because he may be charged for a completed pass, because he was the closest defender nearby, but there’s no denying that his level of play took a bump in his sophomore showing. He already admitted that his knee was on his mind during his encore season and he just didn’t click on stuff as quickly as we saw from him as a rookie, but I believe he will be at his best yet now in year three.

.

Thornhill 1 GIF

.

First and foremost, Steve Spagnuolo is a very creative play-caller, who will uses pieces like Tyrann Mathieu in a multitude of ways, to go with the “Honeybadger” himself being a bit of a freelancer, while Thornhill is more of your prototypical deep safety, who allows his teammate to roam around the field. Against the run, he works downhill with a nice bounce overall, showing pretty good conviction to run the alley from split-safety looks, while not hesitating to bang into tight-ends, but he makes sure to not overrun plays, when he’s in deep middle alignment. The one thing he actually improved on in year two was his efficiency at taking ball-carriers to the turf. He cut his missed tackles in half, down to seven a piece, which at 14.6 percent is still not a great rate, but in the Eddie Jackson-Justin Reid area in terms of other safeties. He does offer the versatility to match guys in the slot one-on-one, where he’s not afraid of squatting on routes and makes sure to close the distance when the ball goes inside and he’s leveraged to defend the edges.

With that being said, he is at his best in deep coverage, especially when in single-high duty. Thornhill presents excellent range and doesn’t float too deep, while keeping his head on a swivel, to where he can take advantage of slightly overthrown balls down the seams. You see him open up with a crossing route from number three in trips on one hash and then redirect to the post route on the opposite numbers at times. He has an impressive ability to move backwards on different angles, while keeping his shoulder square to the line of scrimmage, to where he can take away multiple routes on one play and force the quarterback to hold onto the ball. But then he also has tremendous hip mobility, when he does have to open up and get into trail position, being able to stay over the top of a scissors concept and then stay in phase going either direction, as he commits, depending on the quarterback’s body language. Plus, when it’s up in the air, the now third-year safety displays great ball-skills, which have always been a strength of his, as you go through any of his highlight reels or whatever it may be.

.

Thornhill 2 GIF

.

The two things that still give Thornhill trouble at his current position is the fact that his eyes can get lost in traffic at times, when it’s all between the tackles and he can’t see it develop clearly, and he gets too tall in his back-pedal on occasion, where he can’t explode through his lower body at all and loses time coming forward. The biggest difference between years one and two for him however was a mental issue. Some of the growth I thought I had seen from him, in terms of being more instinctually, had regressed, as he seemed a little hesitant to pull the trigger. That also reflected itself in his PFF grade of just 52.8, which falls into the “replacement” tier. However, that AFC Championship game against the Bills reminded us of what kind of player he can be, allowing just one catch for six yards and breaking up four passes, with a near-interception stopping the opening drive for Buffalo. I really think another year away from that ACL injury, just having that trust in it, the game slowing down for him even more, as his sees it from that center-fielding point of view, and wanting to become a playmaker for that defense will take his game to another level and we’ll see him put up the numbers to back up a Pro Bowl-worthy season potentially.

.

.

McKinney

.

Safety – Xavier McKinney

This was my top-ranked safety last year and 20th overall prospect, not because he was the most rangy guy on the back-end or the best slot defender singularly, but the most complete player at the position in my opinion, being a legitimate plus one in the box, having quality man-coverage reps against tight-ends, tackling in very effective fashion and just showing great football IQ all-around. And he was drafted as such, but not until the fourth pick of the second round in a safety class that lacked those true head-liners, if you don’t McKinney be such. Of my tier one, with McKinney, LSU’s Grant Delpit and Minnesota’s Antoine Winfield, funnily it was the latter, who everybody put on asterisk on with his evaluation, since he had an extension injury history in college, that actually played a full 16 games. Delpit missed all year with a torn Achilles and McKinney didn’t make his debut until week 12, having surgery on a broken foot before the season started too. Yet, even though he didn’t rack up any big statistical numbers from during that limited stretch, going back to the tape, I’m very encouraged by what I saw and stand by my college evaluations.

So, the former Crimson Tide standout was limited to just six games as a rookie, officially starting four of those (210 total snaps). The stats look rather underwhelming overall, recording 25 total tackles and one’s across the board for TFLs, interceptions and pass deflections. Looking at the advanced numbers, he was charged with 13 targets and allowed all but one of those to be completed, but for less than 100 yards and no touchdowns. And once again, like I just mentioned with Juan Thornhill, those can be somewhat deceiving, which I want to go into detail with one specific game in a minute. At six foot, right around 200 pounds, McKinney has the kind of body-type and mental capacity to fulfill a lot of different jobs, although his role in season one was fairly simplistic I would say. With a full year of getting familiar in the system of defensive coordinator Patrick Graham, I expect that to change.

.

McKinney 1 GIF

.

I thought McKinney looked a little smaller in that Giants jersey than what I saw at Alabama, but he also moved more easily. He basically played slot safety for Big Blue as a rook. I expected Logan Ryan to take on that role, but when they had McKinney, they actually played him closer to the line of scrimmage and covering in the nickel instead, with plenty of it spent in man-coverage. From that spot, he patiently reads the hips of receivers from trail position, while keeping the opponent at arm’s reach, and is light on his feet, to stop with him on the break. That really impressed me, when I saw him go from 60 to zero in the blink of an eye and not overshoot routes. He had a bunch of high-quality coverage snaps against fellow rookie receiver Ceedee Lamb of the Cowboys in the final game of the season. The stat sheet will ultimately say that he allowed all four targets his way to be completed, but a basically indefensible back-shoulder pass made up for 21 of the 40 yards, then he was capped over the top as a safety on another one and actually held a corner route to minimal yardage from his position, plus he was charged with a couple of bubble screens – one of he totally blew up. Oh, and then of course he came up with the game-sealing in the end-zone later.

He did see some usage as a deep safety as well however. McKinney does position himself well in-between routes, but shows a rapid trigger in two-high shells, with excellent short-area burst. That also shows up when covering the flats, which he was often to do a lot as a rookie, as he can take a couple of side-steps with a vertical route and then shoot down on somebody coming underneath. He was rolled into the deep middle a few times, where it just looks very fluid and clean how he starts in a parallel stance, opens to the post and then squares his shoulders again for a straight pedal backwards, to go along with just leveraging himself correctly and not overcommitting for the most part. As a rookie, he was already excellent at setting the edge in the run game, but then also nicely filled lanes opening up, for example when the offense had a sift block on the backside and he became responsible for the C-gap in theory. He has some slipperiness to work around offensive linemen and rips through the reach of receivers try to wall him off. Giants DC Patrick Graham likes to put dime personnel on the field, where McKinney ends up in the box quite a bit, like when the slot receiver to his side motions across the formation and he shifts in as the second stack-linebacker basically. I expected him to do quite a bit of that in sub-packages. He was also blitzed off the nickel quite a bit and displayed good pursuit. McKinney is also just a really strong wrap-up tackler, which already stood out to me at Alabama and it has translated to the pros, with just one missed tackle his rookie year. You saw a couple of times this past season, him being all by himself with a ton of grass to cover and he stays so calm, forcing the ball-carrier to step out of bounds, using the sideline as a 12th defender.

.

McKinney 2 GIF

.

This is one of those things, where I’m really high on a player, he gets injured, not a lot of people see him play at all and his name is kind of lost, especially with Antoine Winfield and Jeremy Chinn having strong rookie seasons. With the knowledge that we have now, if I get them in their specific roles, which for Chinn is still in the work I would say, I might take those two ahead of McKinney, but as an all-around player, McKinney is still my top choice. Once again, I really liked what I saw from him covering guys in the slot one-on-one, plus he can play bigger than his size indicates when rotating into the box, he shows an innate feel for playing in-between routes in zone and he has the smarts to fulfill several different roles for this versatile defense. I wouldn’t expect him to be up there with the league-leaders in interceptions, but I could see something like 80 tackles, three picks, six or seven PBUs, three sacks, a couple of forced fumbles and he’ll also pick up at least as many, by just being around the ball. He could become the Alabama safety Giants fans hoped they’d get with Landon Collins.

.

.

.

Others:

EDGE Marlon Davidson

EDGE K’Lavon Chaisson

IDL Neville Gallimore

IDL Shy Tuttle

LB Patrick Queen

CB Justin Layne

CB Bryce Hall

SAF Donovan Wilson

.

.


.

For all my draft breakdowns and much more around the NFL, head over to my page https://www.halilsrealfootballtalk.com and my Youtube channel

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/halilsrealfootballtalk/

Twitter: @halilsfbtalk

Instagram: @halilsrealfootballtalk

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s