With all the hoopla of the draft out of the way, it is time to freely associate how we think the players will translate to their new landing spot. Our own Parker Hurley already counted down the top-10 candidates for Offensive Rookie of the Year, so now we turn to the defense.
10. DT Maurice Hurst, Oakland Raiders
You always have to watch out for the first round talents who slip into day three. For Hurst, it was not so much a question of his play as it was his health. Reports are that the heart condition that surfaced at the combine knocked Hurst off of many team’s boards, despite being viewed as one of the premier defensive players in the draft. As a result, Hurst fell to the Raiders in round five.
That being said, if Hurst plays, he has what it takes to make an immediate impact. His quick, low burst off the line creates immediate penetration and causes offensive lines to scramble.
After making his blocker look foolish, Hurst possesses closing speed once he gets said penetration. Though he may be undersized, Hurst’s quickness and play-making abilities could allow him to put up some abnormal sack and tackle for loss numbers in his first season. That is, assuming he plays.
9. DB Minkah Fitzpatrick, Miami Dolphins
We have a fun game to play: It’s called “Find Minkah Fitzpatrick.”
Here he is playing the slot.
Here he is lined up in a mug technique.
And here he is coming the edge.
And now as an in the box safety.
The point is that Fitzpatrick has the versatility to be on the field all the time in a wide variety of packages. He has the length and aggressiveness to drop deep into center field, the size to play in the box often and the coverage skills to play the slot or outside. Now, some may view his lack of defined position as a negative to his Rookie of the Year case. But his movability and intelligence means he will see the ball early and often. That means lots of opportunities for tackles and play-making.
8. LB Tremaine Edmunds, Buffalo Bills
Linebackers do not come more physically imposing than Edmunds. His size alone would have made him a compelling candidate, but he also has incredible closing speed for a 6-foot-5, 250-plus pound man.
Watch here as he closes from the back side to save big yardage.
And again here as he flies in to disrupt a jet sweep.
The downside of Edmunds’ candidacy is he will be only 20 when he takes his first NFL snap and he has instincts to match. He will a little too often get caught up in the muck and swayed by misdirection. However, a solid Buffalo front, including the addition of Star Lotulelei, should help open things up for Edmunds and give him some more chances to show off his closing speed.
Plus, with his rangy coverage skills, he provides a top notch threat for game-changing plays both as a zone cover and in man-to-man. He should be able to immediately shadow most running backs in the league and match up well with tight ends. Think an Anthony Barr type; a big, strong athlete who can move inside and out, rush the passer between the tackles and fly all over the field.
6t. CB Josh Jackson, Green Bay Packers
This is cheating a bit, but both corners have an equal opportunity to plant their coverage flag in the NFL in their rookie season. Many expected the Packers to go secondary with their first round pick, and both Jackson and Jaire Alexander were atop the list of prospects to land there. As it turns out, they were able to get both, selecting Alexander in the first and taking advantage of Jackson dropping well into the second.
With Jackson, the Packers found a long, athletic corner who above all, makes plays on the ball. He is not the typical press corner, allowing too much space off the snap. That will be an interesting fit into Mike Pettine’s defense, as he typically prefers a more physical style out of his corners. Luckily for Jackson, he has shown he can play the slot fairly well, despite his lanky frame.
Here you can see why Jackson is special. Out of the slot, he keeps his eyes on the quarterback, but is still able to run with his man. As such, he easily jumps the route to secure the pick.
That is what is intriguing about Jackson’s case for Rookie of the Year. He is not the lock down corner Alexander is, but he will take advantage of the quarterback’s mistakes and likely score a handful of early interceptions.
6t. CB Jaire Alexander, Green Bay Packers
On the other hand, Alexander is the prototypical cover man. He stays glued to the receiver through the route, thanks to his other-worldly athletic ability. His ball skills are not quite as instinctive as Jackson’s but he still makes a ton of plays on the ball thanks to his quick twitch and closing speed.
He also wins battles straight off the snap by A) not biting on stems, head fakes or deceleration, and B) playing with strong hands on the jam. It eliminates the receiver’s advantage immediately and allows Alexander to get the edge with his speed and quickness.
Top of the screen. Watch his vision and his hand usage. His eyes are on the quarterback almost immediately. He uses his hands to keep track of the receiver. His vision and ball skills show up repeatedly. pic.twitter.com/eLC2xqfSgP
— Andy Herman (@AndyHermanNFL) April 27, 2018
Alexander’s slight frame, however, may point to a future as a nickel. He plays tougher than his size, as seen below, but bigger receivers could be able to over power him in the press.
Is he on the slighter side? Sure. But he will fight and battle every step of the way. Do not take Alexander lightly. pic.twitter.com/MOv1FL2AwM
— Andy Herman (@AndyHermanNFL) April 27, 2018
Regardless, what makes Alexander’s case all the more compelling is his return abilities. Sure, that does not technically count for being the top defensive rookie, but it is a boost to profile. And ultimately, awards are given out due to recognition at least as much as it is to on-field play. Alexander could end up having both.
5. DT Vita Vea, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Vea is a physical marvel inside. At 6-foot-4, about 350, one would assume he would be plodding and powerful rather than quick. But that is not at all the case. Despite figuring to be almost exclusively a nose, Vea has rare ability to pursue down the line and speed rush the quarterback. At Washington, he played a lot of nose but also bumped out to three-, four-, even five-technique on passing downs. This is because his frame does not disrupt his flexibility. Vea can sink his hips and turn corners effectively, which is a nightmare for blockers expecting him to simply overpower them.
Which, by the way, he can do as well.
Most of Vea’s success comes from his immense power, both in his upper and lower bodies. His get-off is just OK, but his momentum and strength make his bull rush virtually unstoppable. In run defense, he sets roots in the ground and refuses to move. From there, he can maintain separation to find the ball and discard with ease. He also makes more one-armed solo tackles than just about anyone.
The thing working against Vea’s candidacy is the fact that only two defensive tackles have earned defensive rookie of the year in the last 20 seasons: Aaron Donald and Ndamakong Suh. And both are more reputed speed-rushing tackles than Vea is. That being said, Vea is far and away the most compelling rookie tackle. Plus, he will be joining an exciting Buccaneer line that also features Gerald McCoy, one of the league’s best at the his position. That should leave Vea in more single teams, and thus, give him more opportunities to make plays in the backfield.
4. CB Denzel Ward, Cleveland Browns
Like Jaire Alexander, Ward is a plus-plus athlete with exceptional hips and sticky coverage style. The Rookie of the Year Award last year went to another Ohio State corner who was simply the best lockdown guy in the class. Marshon Lattimore stepped into New Orleans and immediately became the guy to guard the opponent’s best receiver. Ward, as the first defensive player off the board, figures to be the same for Cleveland.
— PFF College (@PFF_College) April 27, 2018
According to STATS, Ward had a burn percentage of 21.67, which was tops in the nation by a comfortable margin. He did that while also seeing targets on 15.7 percent of passes, which is about average among top corners. What this points to is that Ward typically locks down his man, but when the ball is thrown his way, he makes a play on it far more often than not.
He is not the most physical of corners, opting instead to allow his speed and instincts to do the work. Ward’s mirror is so good that he is able to read the receiver’s intent and run routes for him at times. He keeps his hips square until he has to flip, and his closing speed is tops among this class. In the clip below, he is able to avoid the mire in front of him, stay on top of the route and close in to make the play, despite allowing the short reception.
On deep balls, Ward’s speed does most of the work for him. Few receivers can get any level of separation. Once the ball is in the air, Ward’s ability to find it is OK. In the clip below, he gets his head around at the very last second to make it a little harder on the receiver, but still a hair late.
Ward’s biggest downside is his relative lack of size. It is clear here as he plays a perfect deep third, reads the quarterback’s eyes well. But then he lacks that extra inch to deflect the pass.
Folks will pick apart Ward’s insufficiencies in his rookie season because he was a top-five pick. Plus, he only had two interceptions in his college career. But Ward is pretty clearly the top corner in this class, and Lattimore only had four picks in college before exploding for five in his rookie season. Like his former teammate, the sky is the limit for Ward as a cover talent.
3. Derwin James
Many thought James would be a top-10 pick. His combination of rangy athleticism and aggressive play in the box would have fit well into any defense between the Colts at six to the Raiders at 10. But James ultimately fell into the latter half of the first round.
James’ fall to 17 could not have worked out better for him. He joins a stacked defensive backfield in Los Angeles, which could help cover up rookie mistakes. And he will make a few. James’ instincts in coverage are suspect at times. He can get locked in on receivers when in zone, causing him to miss things developing around him. But, like Fitzpatrick, he is a swiss army knife that can be moved all around the field. The Chargers could even slip him into the box as a linebacker for extended series, if need be.
And that is what makes James such a hot candidate for top rookie. His role and teammates will allow him to both shine in conventional stats while his weaknesses get covered up. On top of that, his vocal persona and strong leadership qualities should make him a face of the team. As the Chargers are expected to make a massive leap defensively this year, being a public figure will do quite a bit to boost recognition.
2.Edge Bradley Chubb, Denver Broncos
The reasons for Chubb to be high on this list are obvious. He is the top pass rush threat in this year’s class and sacks are the sexiest stat in determining top defensive players. The best pass rusher in the game will be playing on the opposite side. Teams will not be able to key in on Chubb because Von Miller is coming from the right. All roads point to Chubb as being in the best position to take home top rookie honors. There is only one thing getting in his way. One position has historically dominated Defensive Rookie of the Year voting. And it is not defensive end or edge rusher.
1. LB Roquan Smith, Chicago Bears
It is inside linebacker. Everyone labels the linebacker as the quarterback of the defense. Right or wrong, he is assumed to be the motor on which an effective defense moves. And no linebacker in this draft class is better suited to step in and immediately take that mantle than Roquan Smith.
Besides just being a tackling machine (137 in 2017), Smith has versatility. He recorded 6.5 sacks last year, more than Tremaine Edmunds, who some have labeled more likely to be a pass rush threat. Smith is also an exceptional cover guy whose 4.5 speed should allow him to hang with fleet-footed running backs and even some slot receivers.
But above all, Smith is joining a Chicago Bears defense that is not only young, not only bound by a rich linebacker history, but also underrated. With a stout defensive line in front and a solid secondary behind, Smith can step in and thrive right away. He will rack of the tackles, he will make plays in coverage. But above all, he will be the face of a Bears defense that takes a major step in 2018.
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