NFL Preseason Predictions: Nick Fairley and 10 Breakout Defensive Players
All superstars have that one season that makes everyone go "wow, he's a superstar." People can usually guess what players these are, but when they break out, everyone knows about it. Breakout players not only help their team but also help themselves by gaining more notoriety.
Defensive breakouts bring optimism with them because they give the offense room for errors. Ndamukong Suh broke-out last year and is now leading a revival in Detroit. The team benefits greatly from the player, and Suh is benefiting by becoming a star on and off the field.
So here are 10 players who are ready to break out and help their teams.
Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants
Jason Pierre-Paul was drafted by the Giants out of the University of South Florida in the first round of the 2010 draft. The Giants knew that Pierre-Paul was going to be a project, but his athleticism gave him promise.
Last year Pierre-Paul had 4.5 sacks, 30 tackles and two forced fumbles on the stacked defensive line of the Giants. He had a surprisingly good year, but this could be the year he has a big year.
With the ongoing Osi Umenyiora debacle still happening, he will be hurt and may make it back in time for the first game of the season. If not, Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck will be relied upon to pressure the quarterback. Pierre-Paul may be the key for the Giants in the first few weeks.
If Pierre-Paul can break out, the Giants may be a much better team than expected.
Terence Cody, DT, Baltimore Ravens
The Alabama standout should play a bigger role on the Ravens this season. The 365 pound monster should cause havoc for offensive lines as the nose tackle in a 3-4 defense. He takes up space on the defensive line and is a gifted run-stopper.
Along with Haloti Ngata, Cody should provide the Ravens a good defensive line to allow a free blitzer. Cody will be starting on the defensive line and could make the Ravens' defense even scarier.
Eric Berry, S, Kansas City Chiefs
Eric Berry was a star last year for the Chiefs. This year he will be even better.
Last year Berry had four interceptions, 92 tackles and one forced fumble. The Chiefs improved from the 29th best defense in terms of points allowed in 2009 to 11th in 2010. He also led the young Chiefs to the playoffs where they lost to the Ravens.
The Chiefs are not going to surprise anyone this year. Teams will be aware of Berry's skills if they weren't aware last year. If you call yourself a football fan and don't know about Eric Berry, learn about him because you may be hearing his name a lot this year.
Devin McCourty, CB, New England Patriots
Devin McCourty was one of the reasons the Patriots surprised everybody and went 14-2 last season. We knew the Pats were going to be good, just not that good.
McCourty had seven interceptions last season, along with 82 tackles and one forced fumble. He was the bright spot in an otherwise bad secondary. Going into his sophomore season, he may turn into a shut-down corner. His interceptions might go down, but that won't be because he is getting burned; teams will be scared to throw at him.
McCourty could make the Pats an even better team this year. That's not a good sign for the AFC.
David Harris, LB, New York Jets
David Harris is one of the most under-rated defensive players in all of football. The quiet, second-round pick out of Michigan has been a staple for the Jets since the Eric Mangini days. He gets overshadowed by Bart Scott and Darrelle Revis, but without Harris, the Jets would be significantly worse on defense.
Harris really had his breakout year in his rookie campaign on a bad Jets team in 2007 when he had 127 tackles. He missed five games in 2008 before putting up 127 tackles again in 2009. He had a "bad" year last season with only 99 tackles.
Harris' quiet leadership allows for fans to overlook his importance to the Jets defense. He is a run-stopper, who can also cover in pass defense. The Jets finally paid him after the lock-out ended.
Harris has already broken out, but I feel that he is still under-appreciated even by Jets fans who watch him every week. Therefore, he earned a spot on this list.
Joe Haden, CB, Cleveland Browns
Joe Haden was selected with the seventh overall pick of the 2010 draft to help the Browns with their secondary. He did just that by having six interceptions and 65 tackles.
The Browns play in a division where the running game takes precedence over the passing game. The Steelers and Ravens are both run-first teams, so shutting down the passing game allows for the Browns to focus on stopping the run.
Haden's coverage is beneficial to the Browns because their defense has to start to stack up against the Steelers and Ravens if they have any chance at competing in the AFC North. The Browns' defense still has a lot of work to do, but having a shut-down corner like Haden is a good start.
Expect Haden to get respect from fans and teams alike this season.
JJ Watt, DE, Houston Texans
The Texans picked JJ Watt 11th overall in this year's draft to shore up the defensive line. With Mario Williams moving to outside linebacker, Watt will be responsible for pressure from the line.
In the first preseason game, Watt provided pressure against the Jets consistently when he played against the first team. I know it's a preseason game so take it for what it's worth.
Now that the Texans have signed Jonathan Joseph to help the worst secondary in the NFL last season, Watt's breakout could come at a time when the Texans could realistically win the AFC South. With Peyton Manning likely out for the first week against the Texans, this could finally be the year the Texans make the playoffs (because we've never heard that before).
Sean Witherspoon, LB, Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons took Witherspoon with the 19th overall pick in the 2010 draft. Witherspoon relies on speed, which he uses in pass coverage. Although he struggled at points last season, this could be a big year for him.
Witherspoon can make a difference on the Falcons against the passing games of New Orleans and Tampa Bay. Both teams use their running backs out of the backfield on passing plays. If Atlanta can counter with a healthy and capable Witherspoon, he could help to neutralize that attack.
If Witherspoon can break out this season, the Falcons may go as far as expected. The Falcons have a win-now attitude, and Witherspoon could make that a little easier if he plays to his potential.
NOTE: That picture is of John Abraham, NOT Sean Witherspoon.
Vontae Davis, CB, Miami Dolphins
In the AFC East, the passing attack of Tom Brady and Mark Sanchez (he plays well against the Dolphins in Miami) have to be stopped. The Dolphins had a great overall defense last season, particularly on the defensive line; however, at least in the Jets game at Miami, the Jets passed all over the Dolphins.
Davis should help the bleeding, and if he can be a breakout player, the Dolphins may have a chance in the AFC East.
Nick Fairley, DT, Detroit Lions
After winning the BCS National Championship at Auburn, Nick Fairley has a new job. That job is to produce the most feared defensive line in a long time. Along with Ndamukong Suh, Fairley will be a force to deal with in the NFC North.
The NFC North has two quarterbacks who can take over a game in Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler. Disrupting their rhythm will be a key to the teams who face these quarterbacks. For the Vikings, stopping Adrian Peterson and making their passing game beat you is a great strategy to have. If the Lions can stop this, they could be a contender in the NFC North.
Fairley should be left with one-on-one matchups because of Suh's dominance on the inside of the defensive line. Fairley could have a breakout season in only his first NFL season. If he can live up to expectations, the Lions could have a chance at the playoffs this year.
These players all have the skills to change the course of a game on defense. If they play up to potential, they can all improve their teams vastly.
These breakout stars may not have the type of season that fans are hoping for, but then others should step up. A Super Bowl champion needs players to exceed expectations and perform beyond what is needed from them. These players could make their respective teams closer to the Super Bowl than anybody would think.
Did I miss anybody?
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