In the offensively dominated NFL of today, it is becoming increasingly difficult for defensive players to make a name for themselves. Passing offenses have developed to the point where it is a given that even average QBs will be throwing for three or four thousand yards per season. Despite these difficulties, there are still a crop of young players who are bound for breakout seasons in the upcoming campaign, hoping to buck the trend of inflated scores and yards per game.
Most of these defensive hope-to-be juggernauts have already played a season or two in the league. While they have shown flashes of their predicted dominance, there is still noticeable room for statistical improvement, which they will be hoping to fulfill in the 2016 season. They are now solidified in their starting roles and the time is now to make a significant impact. A lot is riding on their performance this year, for each of their respective teams. No longer can they rely on being carried by veteran players who have consistently produced; now, these young defensive aces must elevate their game to an elite level. Can they make the step from “good” to “great”?
Ranked below are the top 15 defensive players who will breakout in the 2016 NFL season.
15. Bud Dupree, Pittsburgh Steelers
Coming off of a solid rookie campaign in 2015, Dupree is looking to establish himself as one of the faces of the Pittsburgh defense. The first round pick showed flashes of pass rushing ability, registering four sacks, appearing in 16 games last year. As an OLB in the Steelers 3-4 defense, Dupree isn’t going to rack up many open field tackles, as was shown last season, tallying just 26. However, if he can consistently put pressure on the QB, he could breakout as one of the marquee OLBs in the league this season, and give the Steelers a defensive identity in the process. Look for him to hover around the 10-sack mark this season, increasing his total tackles as well.
14. Landon Collins, New York Giants
Collins showed a nose for physical play, racking up 112 tackles in his rookie season, and is looking to build off of it for this year. The Giants have a pair of solid CBs in Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and newly acquired Janoris Jenkins, which will allow Collins as a S to be moved around the field, highlighting his versatility. With just one INT to his name last season, it would be nice to see him improve a bit in coverage, but his knack for hard hits, and proficiency against the run should garner him plenty of attention. He has a good chance to move into the upper echelon of the league at his position, and with quality CB play in front of him, there is some margin for error. Collins will have a name-making sophmore season, and continue to grow as a leader on New York’s defense.
13. Telvin Smith, Jacksonville Jaguars
With the juggernaut of an offseason that Jacksonville just had, it’s easy to forget that Smith is probably the best incumbent player on their defense. In his two seasons thus far, the Florida State product has notched at least 100 tackles each year, and that only figures to continue with a massively upgraded supporting cast. In his two years, he also has a combined 4.5 sacks and two INTs, and three FF, showing production in those areas as well. Overall, he’s been one of the more consistent LBs in the league since he entered it, and figures to have his best season yet in 2016, on a Jaguars team that is now actually getting some recognition. All signs point to Smith being a name-renowned LB by the end of the 2016 season.
12. Kyle Fuller, Chicago Bears
Another player looking to give his team an identity on defense, Fuller hasn’t missed a game in his first two seasons, and has been a rock solid CB in Chicago. In those two campaigns he’s racked up six INTs, and 19 passes defended. He’s been one of the only reliable options on the Bears’ defense, but that could be changing this year, with the additions of LB Danny Trevathan, and first-round pick Leonard Floyd. These upgrades in the middle of the field will assist the secondary. Fuller’s also shown a knack for being able to tackle, which is relatively rare for a young CB. He’s totaled 119 tackles in two seasons, and his physicality will lend itself to rounding out the entirety of his game. A key piece in the Bears defense, and one of the best young CBs in the game, who will get his due this season.
11. Jadeveon Clowney, Houston Texans
Obviously, this comes with an injury disclaimer, but if Clowney can stay on the field for any extended amount of time, he will prove why the Texans selected him as the first overall pick in 2014. After missing nearly all of his rookie season, he notched 4.5 sacks last season, in 13 games played. He’ll look to take the next step this year, and around a quality defense that is anchored by J.J. Watt. At only 23 years old, Clowney still has an opportunity to prove himself, and likely will if he’s able to stay on the field. The talent is clearly present, and there’s room to make a name for himself as the heir apparent and compliment to Watt, he’ll just need to find a way to remain healthy. Whether that will happen is anyone’s guess, but if he’s on the field, he will prove himself as a top edge rusher in the league.
10. Jordan Hicks, Phildelphia Eagles
Hicks was on pace to be a candidate for Defensive Rookie Of The Year in 2015, but an injury derailed his season halfway through. The Texas product flashed brilliance at LB for Philadelphia in the time that he did play, racking up 50 tackles, a sack, and two INTs in eight games played. A smart, physical player, Hicks has a chance to be a top LB in the league, provided he can stay on the field. With the Eagles switching to a 4-3 front this season, Hicks will be slotted at the MIKE LB position, and be the signal caller on the defense. If all goes according to plan, he’ll gain the recognition that his talent predicts, and be renowned as one of the top young defenders in the league. For now, there’s a ton of upside, and heavy expectations.
9. Preston Smith, Washington Redskins
With established pass rusher Junior Gallette out for the season with an injury for the second straight season, Smith figures to be the go-to pass rushing LB on Washington’s roster. In his rookie season last year, he had eight sacks, while playing limited time in every game. While questions remain if he can fill as a reliable full-time starter, the potential is definitely there. There’s room for him to make plays on the Redskins defense, and he’ll be joining a corps that already has Ryan Kerrigan, who Smith can immediately provide compliment to. Factor in four FF and four passes defended last season, and Smith is a well-rounded player, that will be sure to make an impact this coming season. Look for him to approach double digit sack totals this year.
8. Vic Beasley, Atlanta Falcons
While he was somewhat of an enigma during his rookie season in Atlanta, Beasley showed enough upside to him in considerations for some of the best young players in the league. The Clemson product didn’t miss a game in 2015, and registered four sacks, two FF and an INT. This is another case where the player has clear room to grow, on a defense looking for an identity under second-year head coach Dan Quinn. Beasley figures to be the Falcon’s best pass rusher in the coming years, and should establish himself with a quality sack total in 2016 as well. It’s clear that he can be a consistent playmaker in Atlanta, but right it’s a matter of putting it all together. A candidate for the biggest jump in quality play for this season.
7. Noah Spence, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
He’s only a rookie, but Spence has done nothing but impress so far in the 2016 preseason in Tampa Bay. Drafted in the second round out of Ohio State in the draft, there’s every reason to assume that he will come out swinging from week one, and immediately be a productive member of the Bucs defense. They already have an elite defensive lineman in Gerald McCoy, who will help Spence acclimate quickly. With Spence rushing off the edge, Tampa’s defense figures to be massively improved from a year ago, with a clear, aggressive identity in store. Spence is a candidate for Defensive Rookie Of The Year, and as a part of a perfect-fit system containing established leaders, there is every reason to believe that he’ll achieve it. Look for him to be an immediate factor on the Bucs defense this year, racking up heavy sack totals.
6. Ronald Darby, Buffalo Bills
Darby was thrown right into the fire on Rex Ryan’s defense in Buffalo as a rookie, and did plenty to stand out. The Florida State alumnus notched a pair of INTs, and defended 21 passes, establishing himself as a worthwhile starting CB in the NFL. He’s likely to take the next step this year, and at age 22, still has plenty of time to reach his ceiling, while already having established himself as reliable. Because of his inexperience, he’s still likely to get the ball thrown his way, leaving plenty of opportunity for big INT totals for the 2016 season. Darby will prove that he is a premier young CB in the league, as the expense of many a deep throw from opposing QBs. He predicts to have around six INTs, with upwards of 25 passes defended for the upcoming campaign.
5. Byron Jones, Dallas Cowboys
The first round selection of the Cowboys in 2015, Jones looks to be a versatile secondary piece, that has a physical presence on the back end of the Dallas defense. He didn’t finish his 2015 rookie season with any INTs, but he did rack up 66 tackles, while in a transitional role, with Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli trying to figure out the best way to utilize his skills. The good news for Jones is that the Cowboys’ secondary is lacking, with only Orlando Scandrick likely to be a surefire starter. Given that Jones has the ability to play both S and CB, there will be options aplenty about where to put him. He predicts to be a force in stopping the running and short-passing game, and should notch his first career INTs this season, on his way to an extremely productive career.
4. Anthony Barr, Minnesota Vikings
With the Vikings defense rising to prominence under Mike Zimmer last season, Barr established himself as one of the marquee players on the entire unit. He hasn’t hit the 100 tackle mark in a single season yet, but he’s missed a combined six games in the past two years. With a full season in 2016, he should get the 100 tackles, around five sacks and a couple INTs. That would put him in the upper echelon of the league’s LBs, and give the Vikings an additional elite player on their hands, on a defense full of playmakers already. Barr is already a quality young player with a great work ethic, he just needs another season to start producing the elite numbers. The 2016 season should be the ticket for that.
3. Leonard Williams, New York Jets
The sixth overall pick in the 2015 draft, Williams had to compete for playing time alongside an immensely talented defensive line. However, with certified run stuffer Damon Harrison leaving in free agency to the Giants, it gives Williams a real chance to get a sizeable amount of playing time. Still, the second-year DT didn’t have a bad rookie campaign, with 63 tackles to his name, and three sacks. He’ll transition into a full-time starting role this year, and show exactly why he was one of the most highly touted prospects in last season’s draft. He’ll be playing with a quality supporting cast, so he’ll have the all the help necessary to allow him one-on-one match-ups against opposing offensive lines. Overall, Williams will be regarded as one of the best DTs in the league after the 2016 season is over.
2. C.J. Mosley, Baltimore Ravens
Posting a stellar 250 tackles in his first two seasons, Mosley has all the tools necessary to be a perennial Pro Bowl LB for the Ravens, a la Ray Lewis. He can defend against both the run and the pass, is a quality open-field tackler, and can contribute in blitzing packages, with seven total career sacks up to this point. This upcoming season should be his best yet, and a now-healthy Baltimore team around him should elevate his game to elite levels. With the Ravens recent struggles, he hasn’t quite garnered the attention that he deserves, but that should all change in 2016. Mosley predicts to be one of the best LBs in the game, and the Alabama product has all the tools to succeed on elite ground for many years in the NFL.
1. Marcus Peters, Kansas City Chiefs
Peters had one of the best rookie campaigns for a CB in recent memory in 2015. The first round pick out of Washington nabbed eight INTs, defended 26 passes, and registered 60 tackles. All things considered, if that wasn’t already his breakout season, he figures to establish himself among the best in the league in 2016. A highly productive, pure cover corner, Peters fits well alongside quality pieces on the Chiefs’ defense such as Tamba Hali, Eric Berry, and when healthy, Justin Houston. There’s no reason to assume he’ll take a step back, and by every indication from 2015, we’ll be looking at one of the next perennially great CBs in the NFL. Considering the company on that list, fans would be wise to pay Peters plenty of attention as the season progresses. He has the tools to be an elite player for many years.
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