Every year before training camp, I like to look at each team’s roster and look for players under the age of 25 who are on the cusp of becoming solid NFL players. More important vital pieces to the puzzle, for teams looking to get out of the doghouse or a club trying to get to the playoffs, in which a steady growth and influx of young talent is essential.
There are some clichés thrown around with young players that I find amusing such as, produce as a rookie and there will be a “sophomore slump,” as well as, do little as a rookie and a second year jump is expected. I most likely left one of your favorite young burgeoning defenders off here, and yes, it was on purpose. So without further ado here it goes…
Lardarius Webb, DB, Baltimore Ravens
Webb tore his ACL in his knee on Dec. 20 against Chicago, and was placed on injured reserve but is currently ahead of schedule on his recovery. Webb cracked the starting lineup half way through the season, prior to which he saw the majority of his time in the nickel.
When given the chance he flourished, compiling 35 tackles, six passes defended, and one sack. Webb showcased his playmaking skills on special teams as well, by returning a kickoff to house against Denver in week five. Lardarius was clearly becoming the teams best corner before injury, showcasing his ability to succeed in man coverage on an island without safety help. Webb also showed that he can recognize the run, shed blocks, and make open field tackles. Webb should be the starter in the regular season opener, and continue to benefit from the talented front seven that the Ravens play.
Louis Delmas, FS, Detroit Lions
Delmas was and quite possibly still could be the lone bright spot in the Lions secondary. With a drastically improved front seven, Delmas will be able to operate in space, and take more chances in 2010. As a rookie in a much maligned defense last year, Louis recorded 94 tackles, two interceptions (one of which was returned 101 yards for a score), 12 pass deflections, one sack, and a safety.
The talented safety became the first rookie in NFL history to have an interception, and fumble return for a touchdown as well as a safety in the same season. He only had one game in which he posted less than five tackles, in addition to having an 11 tackle game against Cincinnati. His tackles might drop with the additions added to the line, but I suspect his impact on the defense will elevate tremendously.
Cameron Wake, OLB, Miami Dolphins
Wake saw the field for an average of 10-15 times a game in the 2009 season, yet he still amassed 5 ½ sacks, 23 tackles, and a forced fumble. With Joey Porter and Jason Taylor’s departure, the Dolphins have openings at both strong, and weak side linebacker spots. Second round pick, Koa Misi should fill one of the spots most likely the weak side, so the other is up for grabs.
Cameron Wake went undrafted out of college, and joined the CFL in which he shined. Wake amassed 39 sacks in two seasons and was named the Defensive Player of the Year in just his second season. His struggles with finding the field in 2009 came from his inability to defend the pass effectively, which is not totally uncommon for a former defensive end. 2010 will be a make or break year for this pass rushing specialist, who has the gritty determination, and work ethic to thrive in the Dolphins defense.
Antoine Cason, DB, San Diego Chargers
With the perennial father-of-the-year candidate Antonio Cromartie being traded to the New York Jets, Cason is slated to fill that position on the Chargers depth chart. The club’s top pick in 2008 registered 41 tackles and two interceptions in the 09 season, playing primarily at the nickel. Cason will not be a downgrade from Cromartie in the defense, as he is a technician style corner who plays with the trust of his teammates, and should rally around in ways Cromartie could not. Cason is a better tackler, who should not be a liability in the run game because he is never one to shy away from contact. Antoine is a ball hawk who is growing into his own; his best football is definitely ahead of him.
Stewart Bradley, ILB, Philadelphia Eagles
Yeah, I know, he’s 26. Bradley also has only had one productive year in his four year career. Last season an ACL injury in training camp abruptly ended his season, one in which he has supposed to blossom, and build off an impressive 2008. He is ready for the teams 2010 training camp, and should be the leader of the Eagles young defense. Bradley has no weaknesses to his game and shows that he can quickly analyze the offense after the snap, has the speed to cover tight ends and tail backs in space, and can find the ball in garbage without getting washed by offensive lineman. Philadelphia sorely missed his presence last season, as Stewart make players around him better; he exudes confidence in his game. The kids nowadays might say he plays with a whole lot of swagger.
Terrance Knighton, DT, Jacksonville Jaguars
Knighton is a massive run stuffing tackle, at 6’4”, and 330 pounds, he should be. In 2009 he was arguably the most dominant rookie lineman drafted with 45 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 1 ½ sacks, and a forced fumble. He played through a high ankle sprain for most the season, which showed a lot of toughness for a man of his size. Terrance was the lone bright spot of the Jaguar’s much maligned defensive front last year, drawing double teams often, though his teammates did little to make plays with the opportunities given. The additions of rookie Tyson Alualu, and veteran end Aaron Kampman should take some of the pressure of Knighton, although he ought to be the focal point of the defense’s success this year.
Derek Cox, DB, Jacksonville Jaguars
Surprise! Another Jaguar! How would you like to end your first professional series with an end zone interception of Peyton Manning? I wouldn’t mind that, not one bit. Anyhow this third round pick from William & Mary drew some criticism from being selected too early in the draft, but has proven most his critics wrong. With stellar play that resembled a savvy veteran, he put up impressive numbers in his rookie campaign. He finished the season playing in every game, showing out for 72 tackles, four picks, and 11 passes defended. Jacksonville was inept at pressuring the opposition’s quarterback, so Cox was usually stuck in coverage longer than even the most experienced corner would prefer. Furthermore there wasn’t much quality safety help for Derek to rely on. With a revamped defensive line, the sky is the limit.
Chris Long, DE, St. Louis Rams
The second overall pick in the 2008 draft, has underperformed and many think not living up to the selection. In the 09 season, Long recorded 43 tackles, five sacks, and one forced fumble. His play was elevated midway through the season to the end and Long posted all his sacks from week eight and on. Long played both the left and right end positions on the line for the Rams, generally the team played from behind, therefore prime pass rush opportunities were few, and far between.
Long has immense talent and a great work ethic that has not transferred into field success yet. The Rams pass rush never materialized as a consistent threat. Long needs some players to take the heat off him. The line will benefit from the addition of Fred Robbins, and a developing Darrell Scott. Chris Long was most effective when second year tackle Scott, played next to him late in the season.
Calais Campbell, DE, Arizona Cardinals
Calais Campbell plays D-end in Arizona’s 3-4 scheme yet most ends in a 3-4 style defense don’t put up big numbers. Moreover they are put aside in the shade by the outside linebackers, who generally record the lion’s share of sacks. Campbell must not have gotten that memo. In 2009 the 6’8”, 290 lb. mammoth posted 48 tackles, seven sacks, two blocked kicks, and a forced fumble. Calais fully utilizes his enormous wingspan to keep the opposition from getting to his body in addition to batting down passes. The drafting of nose tackle, Dan Williams in the first round should make the team as a whole better and should directly affect the play of the defensive line.
I have stared at my computer, okay that’s a lie, I have stared at my work computer for an hour trying to decide who the last candidate to select is. There are just too many to choose from so here is the short list I had.
Jason McCourtey-TEN, William Moore-ATL, Chris Owens-ATL, Larry English-SD, Jerraud Powers-IND, DeAndre Levy-DET, B.J. Raji-GB, Glover Quin-HOU, Aaron Curry-SEA, Connor Barwin-HOU, Cody Brown-ARI, Brad Jones-GB, Al Alfalva-CHI, Micheal Johnson-CIN and Rey Maualuga.