Stat Predictions for the NFL's Top 10 Defensive Rookies
For as great as this crop of NFL rookies is on offense, the defensive class might be even better. In the previous installment, we made some predictions about how the 10 best rookies will fare in their first year.
Narrowing this list down to 10 has proven to be much more problematic. No one should be shocked if 15-20 rookies are starting and playing very prominent roles on defense. This group is marked with speed, athleticism and an aggressive nature.
When it comes to stats, a lot will depend on how much rope defensive coordinators give these young men. Some are going to be the focus on their particular units, while others will play off more talented veterans. For some, the stats are going to come because NFL veterans will try and test the youngsters just to see what they are made of.
Did your favorite team’s star rookie make the list? Any sleeper picks make the top 10? Read on and find out.
Khalil Mack, LB, Oakland Raiders
The Oakland Raiders are banking on linebacker Khalil Mack being a real game-changing defender. As of now it seems that Mack is going to be holding down the strong-side linebacker spot opposite second-year star Sio Moore.
In 2013, Kevin Burnett racked up 105 total tackles, 2.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and one interception at this spot. Those numbers seem quite reasonable for a player such as Mack who had 100 total tackles, 10.5 sacks, five forced fumbles and three interceptions his senior year at Buffalo.
With LaMarr Woodley as the starting defensive end on Mack’s side, look for Mack to get plenty of opportunities to rush the quarterback. If he does, his potential for a big season will go up exponentially. Either way, look for big tackle numbers and a sprinkling of other stats while Mack gets up to full speed in the league.
2014 Projections: 118 total tackles, 5.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and two interceptions
Jadeveon Clowney, LB, Houston Texans
Can Houston Texans rookie linebacker Jadeveon Clowney be the transcendent player he’s been hyped as since his freshman year at South Carolina? Perhaps, but it won’t likely be this season. Even with all his physical gifts, Clowney is learning a new position and like it or not, there will be some growing pains.
Looking at the current makeup of the roster, Clowney is likely to start at right outside linebacker opposite former first-round pick Whitney Mercilus. Mercilus is a strong pass-rushing outside linebacker in his own right, plus he gets to line up on the same side as J.J. Watt.
This means Clowney will be doing most of his damage coming off the edge, having to beat the left tackle. The strategy is sound because Watt and Clowney on opposite sides will be a nightmare for offensive coordinators. And Clowney is going to get some sacks. Teams will have to roll protection to the right, and he should have opportunities.
However, is Clowney going to be just focus on getting sacks? Maybe. Even at South Carolina, Clowney didn’t put up great tackle numbers. The hope is that playing more in space will afford him more opportunities, but looking for huge tackle numbers might be getting greedy.
2014 Projections: 70 total tackles, 10.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and two interceptions
C.J. Mosley, LB, Baltimore Ravens
It will be very interesting to see if linebacker C.J. Mosley ends up in the starting lineup for the Baltimore Ravens this year. If he does, will it be at the expense of second-year linebacker Arthur Brown, or will he bump veteran Daryl Smith? I am counting on the later, and Mosley and Brown can co-exist on the field at the same time.
If this happens, look for Mosley to be a strong, steady performer all season long. Mosley’s game at Alabama was to flow and tackle. He was never terribly effective in blitzing situations or in forcing turnovers, but as a sure tackler and smart player, seemed to always be around the play.
In 2013 a combination of Josh Bynes and Jameel McClain put together 96 total tackles on the inside. Depending on what happens with Brown, Mosley should hit that figure fairly easily.
2014 Projections: 113 total tackles, three forced fumbles and three passes defended
Ryan Shazier, LB, Pittsburgh Steelers
The Pittsburgh Steelers recognized that they had to get faster on defense to compete with all the passing offenses in the NFL. So, they spent a first-round pick on linebacker Ryan Shazier to add some horsepower to the defense.
The plan for Shazier is to move him from his outside spot in a 4-3 to the inside in the Steelers’ 3-4 defense. There he’ll pair up with Lawrence Timmons to form a very fast, athletic tandem.
From a stats point of view, it’ll be how much the Steelers utilize Shazier as an outside pass-rushing linebacker that’ll make the difference. With questions at outside linebacker, look for sub-packages that use Shazier in coverage as well as an edge-rusher. Those numbers will put him among the top rookies and constitute better production than the Steelers have gotten from that spot in a long time.
2014 Projections: 82 total tackles, 5.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and four interceptions
Anthony Barr, LB, Minnesota Vikings
The trend of defensive rookies switching positions continues with Minnesota Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr. At UCLA, Barr was a raw, disruptive force that practically lived in opposing backfields. Minnesota is going to put him at strong-side linebacker and really asking him to play a much more controlled style of football.
This strategy is sound in the long run, because Barr has a ton to learn about the subtleties of playing the position. As for this year, assuming he starts, it is going to be a series of ups and downs for the young player. Don’t be shocked to see him give up as many plays as he makes, in particular when he’s adrift in space working laterally and in his drops.
The good news is that Barr will make plays. Minnesota got very little production out of that outside linebacker position in 2013, and because of that, most of the top tacklers on the team were in the defensive secondary. Barr’s closing speed and explosion should lighten the load on those guys
2014 Projections: 73 total tackles, 6.5 sacks and two forced fumbles
Deone Bucannon, S, Arizona Cardinals
There is a delicate balance between the secondary and the front seven. Some teams have defensive lines and linebackers that are so good; few plays get funneled back to the secondary. Other teams are so porous up front, everything ends up in the defensive backfield, and every good and bad play is magnified.
The Arizona Cardinals have a nice mix of talent that is conducive to rookie safety Deone Bucannon having a very big year. Bucannon is set to start at strong safety next to Tyrann Mathieu once he’s back to full strength. That is a very interesting duo, and it's one that should put up some serious numbers.
In 2013, the safety spots got a little mucked up with roster moves, so getting a good feel for how well the position yields stats is tricky. However, looking at the things Bucannon did well in college, you get a feeling that big tackle numbers and some interceptions are realistic.
2014 Projections: 76 total tackles, one sack and three interceptions
Ha Ha Clinton-DIx, S, Green Bay Packers
It is assumed that former Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is going to come in and start at free safety opposite Morgan Burnett. Clinton-Dix slid a little in the draft, and the Green Bay Packers were overjoyed to get him. The Packers safeties were pretty awful in 2013. In fact, no safety registered a single interception last season.
If this is the area that the Packers are hoping to improve by the addition of Clinton-Dix, then they might be disappointed. He was only able to muster two picks in 2013, after getting five in 2012. Perhaps he will find that 2012 mojo again. Regardless, enthusiasm should be tempered for him early on.
2014 Projections: 68 total tackles and one interception
Brock Vereen, S, Chicago Bears
If you are looking for a sleeper among the top defensive rookies, Chicago Bears safety Brock Vereen might be it. After being drafted in the fourth round, all Vereen has done is work his way straight to first-team reps. Now, the reality is, this could be as much about the existing talent at safety as his particular bundle of skills.
Nevertheless, Should Vereen start, the potential is there for some nice numbers. Last season, safety Major Wright racked up 100 tackles and two interceptions in this role. Now, it might be a stretch to think Vereen is going to get to triple digits in tackles his rookie season, but looking over the rest of the defense, there will be plenty of opportunities funneled his way.
2014 Projections: 88 total tackles and two interceptions
Demarcus Lawrence, DE, Dallas Cowboys
Unfortunately, for all the talent in this rookie class, the true 4-3 defensive end isn’t very well-represented. There are some nice players who show promise down the road. However, in terms of rookie contributors, it is a little harder to pick out any potential stars—except for Dallas Cowboys defensive end Demarcus Lawrence.
The Cowboys spent a second-round pick on Lawrence as a replacement player for Demarcus Ware and to be a running mate for George Selvie. Initially, Lawrence will be splitting reps with Jeremy Mincey, but it won’t take long for him to ease into more plays.
Selvie was the top defensive end for the Cowboys last season, notching 45 tackles and seven sacks. If we assume that Selvie and newcomer Henry Melton take the lead roles, those sorts of numbers should be available for Lawrence.
2014 Projection: 37 total tackles and 6.5 sacks
Aaron Donald, DT, St. Louis Rams
The only interior defensive lineman to make this list is St. Louis Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald. The former Pittsburgh star fell into a great situation by going to the Rams. This group is one of the five best defensive fronts in the league, even before adding Donald to the mix.
Donald is a player who demands a double-team on nearly every play. However, when you have Chris Long, Michael Brockers and Robert Quinn with you, that just won’t happen very often. And when it doesn’t, Donald will find a way to beat that single blocker.
Look for Donald to put up nice tackle and sack figures as an interior player. He will most likely be lined up next to Long and should have plenty of plays funneled his way. Donald’s game is all about quickness and closing speed, so there are going to be weeks where he is completely unblockable.
2014 Projection: 46 total tackles and 6.5 sacks