Arizona Cardinals—Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie
Last season, the Cards slowly worked DRC into the starting lineup and he ended the season as their top corner. His monstrous speed allows him to seemingly always be around the ball and he's shown the strength and willingness to jump up and fight for the ball.
Atlanta Falcons—Curtis Lofton
Lofton was awesome in run support but has below average coverage skills, something he is working on. If he can continue to drop his weight and improve his understanding of what the offense is trying to do to exploit him, Lofton has what it takes to become a leader of this young defense.
Baltimore Ravens—Haloti Ngata
Ngata took a step forward last year, becoming nearly impossible to single-block on running plays and showing an improved ability to penetrate the line and pressure the quarterback. The big man stepped up and kept the Baltimore defensive line in contention for best in the league even after a few starters went down. In 2009, he should get the recognition he deserves as one of the top defensive tackles in the league.
Buffalo Bills—Paul Posluszny
Posluszny has quietly been a consistent producer for a young Buffalo defense that hasn't been getting the star treatment because of their location. Now that TO is in Buffalo, there will be high expectations for the Bills and therefore, their players will get more recognition. If Paul can take another step forward in his progression he will become great, instead of just consistent.
Carolina Panthers—Everette Brown
The Panthers used their first pick in the draft, 43rd overall, on a defensive end that some considered a first round talent. It remains unclear whether or not they brought him in to replace Julius Peppers or just to compliment him, but for now it seems more likely he will be complimenting the stud pass rusher.
If Brown can win the starting job opposite of Peppers and use his speed and aggressiveness to rack up at least eight sacks in his rookie season, he will help improve the Panther "D" greatly. We all know a disruptive defensive line means the secondary has to do less work, which is always good when you're facing Drew Brees and Matt Ryan twice a year.
Chicago Bears—Danieal Manning
Last year, we saw Manning emerge on special teams after Devin Hester's play declined from being overworked. We also saw Manning rack up 33 tackles, a sack, four passes defended, and an interception in only 14 games, one of which he was named the starter in. If Manning can continue his special teams play and take another step forward to help the Bears' struggling secondary, he could become a household name for Bears fans.
Cincinatti Bengals—Rey Maualuga
I went to high school with Rey, so I know first hand how destructive of a force he is on the field. He plays with a nasty streak that is unrivaled. If he can keep his off-the-field issues to a minimum, he could become the next great linebacker in the AFC North. The Bengals defense could use a face, and Rey has the potential to be that.
Cleveland Browns—D'Qwell Jackson
Other than Shaun Rogers, this was about the only man on the field that showed up on a week to week basis for the Browns. 154 tackles, two sacks, and three interceptions later, Jackson seems poised to have a breakout year in 2009. He might even earn a trip to the Pro Bowl.
Dallas Cowboys—Anthony Spencer
Spencer has flashed potential a couple of different times now. Injuries and depth at his position have held him down thus far, but I think it's finally Spencer's time to shine. If he can finally get on the field and get healthy, he could form a vicious 1-2 punch with DeMarcus Ware.
Denver Broncos—The Entire "D"
The presence of Brian Dawkins, along with new coordinator Mike Nolan, could take 1-2 years before they have any sort of a profound effect. Or, the entire defense could respond immediately and have a breakout year. They have talent all over the field, especially in the secondary. It's all in whether or not they gel quickly.
Detroit Lions—Cliff Avril
In limited play last season, Avril still managed to rack up five sacks and four forced fumbles. If he is named the week one starter, I think he could become a premier edge rusher in only his second season. If he can consistently make plays from the line, that secondary will improve as well. Suddenly that Detroit defense seems pretty well rounded.
Green Bay Packers—B.J. Raji
Raji has the size and versatility to play either nose tackle or defensive end in Green Bay's new 3-4 defense. He has a motor and can be disruptive after breaking through his blocks. He reminds me a lot of Shaun Rogers when I watch him play. Those are some big shoes to fill, literally.
Houston Texans—Amobi Okoye
The Texans are tweaking their approach to take more advantage of Okoye's skill set. With Mario Williams to help draw blocks, Okoye has the potential to beat single blocks and become much more disruptive in the backfield. Maybe this next Pro Bowl he won't have to watch Williams just from the stands.
Indianapolis Colts—Melvin Bullitt
Bullitt started nine games last season because of injuries at his position and racked up 72 tackles, one forced fumble, and four interceptions. If he could win the starting job, Bullitt could team up with Bob Sanders to form a fearsome secondary.
Jacksonville Jaguars—Quentin Groves
With the departure of Paul Spicer, Groves will be forced into the starting line up. He showed the potential for greatness last season by getting 2.5 sacks and one forced fumble without starting a single game. With a depleted secondary that needs help, the Jags will be looking for their D-line to once again dominate.
Kansas City Chiefs—Glenn Dorsey
The big guy was average in his first year and will change positions now in his second. But he wasn't a first-round talent for nothing. Dorsey has the size and athleticism to overpower blockers and get into the backfield. If he can improve his footwork and overall speed, he could become a devastating DE in that 3-4 defense.
Miami Dolphins—Vontae Davis
This ultra-talented cover corner seems to have all the tools to make an impact in his rookie year. If he can win the starting job opposite Will Allen, Miami might have the most talented secondary in the league next year. The presence of Joey Porter and Jason Taylor will mean Davis should have more opportunities to make plays.
Minnesota Vikings—Chad Greenway
Greenway will be starting for the Vikes for the third consecutive season now and he has done nothing but improve since he stepped on the field. 115 tackles and 5.5 sacks last season were impressive, but he'll need to force a few fumbles or rack up an interception before anyone will see him as more than a consistent tackler.
New England Patriots—Brandon Meriweather
A speedster with big hit ability, Meriweather has all the tools to become the next great safety for New England. He has served his time as Rodney Harrison's apprentice, now he needs to take the reigns and lead a suddenly stacked New England secondary.
New Orleans Saints—Tracy Porter
Injuries limited him to only five games last season, but Porter looked pretty solid when he was playing. Lined up opposite of Jabari Greer with Darren Sharper at safety, Porter will certainly have the talent around to help him succeed. He has shown great instincts and speed, so if he can stay healthy I think this is his year to shine.
New York Giants—Chase Blackburn
A special team standout, Blackburn is fast for his size and plays with great vision and anticipation. As a Giants fan, this is a guy I think is really underrated. When he's on the field, he's making plays as evident by his forced fumble and the interception last year to go along with 61 tackles. With Michael Boley being out the first few games, I think Blackburn will have a great opportunity to step up and show us what he's really made out of. The talent is there.
New York Jets—David Harris
In his second year, Harris was plagued by injuries. He goes into the 2009 season completely healthy and his versatility will be maximized by new head coach Rex Ryan's complex defensive schemes. Harris has shown ability to stop the run, cover in space, and is a sure tackler. I think he'll surprise a few people next year.
Oakland Raiders—Chris Johnson
Johnson flashed some real talent last year, even when he had to start opposite the best corner in the league. With 35 tackles, three interceptions, a forced fumble, and 12 passes defended, Johnson sure looks like a play maker. Pretty soon no one is going to dare throw down the field against Oakland. Hopefully that doesn't expose the rest of the defense too much.
Philadelphia Eagles—Quintin Demps
The departure of Brian Dawkins means the Eagles will need one of their younger safeties to step up. Demps looked solid in very limited play last season and has a year of experience in the complicated scheme that is the Eagle "D". He won't replace Brian's leadership, but he has the potential to replace his production.
Pittsburgh Steelers—Lawrence Timmons
Letting Larry Foote slip away and sign with Detroit shows how much faith this team has in the play of Timmons. Timmons has the speed, coverage skills, and explosiveness to become the next great Steeler linebacker. As much as I would love to see any Steeler crash and burn, it's hard to bet against him.
San Diego Chargers—Eric Weddle
Weddle has shown a knack for always being around the football and has great speed and coverage skills. In the aggressive 3-4 defense Ron Rivera runs, Weddle will be placed more in the center of the field then down in the box, which will give him the freedom to make more plays in the secondary, which was SD's weakness last year.
San Francisco 49ers—Parys Haralson
It's hard to look good when you're lined up next to Patrick Willis all day, but Haralson managed to rack up a career high eight sacks last season in only 10 games. That made him the best sack artist on the team in 2008. If he can improve on his tackle numbers, he might become more then just an edge rushing specialist.
Seattle Seahawks—Aaron Curry
Big surprise here, I am aware. I have to throw a curve ball at you somewhere, don't I? Curry looked like the most polished defender in this year's draft and has done nothing but impress on the practice field so far. Teammates think his ability to rush the passer is very underrated and he has already shown immaculate coverage skills.
St. Louis Rams—James Butler
Butler played well for the Giants last season and followed his old defensive coordinator to the Rams, where I think he will excel. Being opposite a player like Oshiomogho Atogwe means he will ample opportunites to prove he belongs. Butler is entering his fifth season and will have an opportunity to become a leader on a struggling Rams defense as he is already familiar with Spags' aggressive defensive schemes.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers—Aqib Talib
Yes he has off the field issues, but that doesn't downplay his talent. As a backup cornerback last season, Talib still managed to snag four picks. Now he will enter his second season entrenched as the starter and as long as he can avoid hitting his teammates while on the field, he should improve on his 2008 numbers.
Tennessee Titans—Jason Jones
Jones will have the opportunity to fill the massive shoes left behind by past starter Albert Haynesworth. Starting only three games last season, Jones notched five sacks and three forced fumbles. He's got playmaker written all over him. Tennessee looks to be fine without the departure of their "most talented" lineman.
Washington Redskins—Chris Horton
Last year's Mr. Irrelevant came out of the gates swinging last season. Horton got three picks, a sack and 76 tackles in his rookie season. If he can play well in practice and win the starting job, I think he can become a dominating force in the Washington secondary for years to come.