Rookie Watch At The Quarter Mark: Defense
By Simon Carroll
With a quarter of the regular season already in the books, Simon Carroll takes a look at the standout rookie at each position so far and how they compare to their pre-draft scouting report. The first article focused on the offense – now it’s time to look at the defensive side of the ball:
Edge: Chase Young, Washington Football Team
As with the offense, there really was nowhere else to start. The second overall pick in April’s draft, Chase Young has been everything Washington fans hoped and more despite missing most of week three and the whole of week four with a groin strain. 2.5 sacks and 8 combined tackles in his first two outings hasn’t been bettered by any other rookie who has played all four games. Young was a man amongst boys at Ohio State and the jump to the NFL has not phased him one bit, adding even more playmaking ability to a stacked front seven.
Not much to say about this one really – anyone with a set of eyes knew Young was a monster, and with the recent success of former Buckeyes Joey and Nick Bosa the likelihood of him flopping were slim to none. Two games is a small sample size, but when you make this kind of impact on your NFL debut then you’ll forgive me for the optimism:
Interior Defensive Line: Derrick Brown, Carolina Panthers
It’s not just coincidence that an upturn in the Panthers’ fortune runs parallel with Derrick Brown taking over as the leader of this defensive line. At Auburn, Brown was often unplayable – the ultimate disruptor against the run and a remarkable nose for the backfield. Just three tackles in his first two games on a young Carolina defensive unit came with two losses. But Brown absolutely exploded in week three as The Panthers tore apart the Chargers. To date, Brown has ten tackles on the season, five for a loss.
Those tackles in the backfield complement the pre-draft report nicely. But it’s the role of a leader, just four games into his professional career, that should impress Carolina fans the most. At Auburn Brown was the king of The Tigers, often putting the team on his back. And it seems set to continue at his new home. Every draft pick was spent on the defensive side of the ball, and with Luke Kuechly retiring someone needed to pick up the mantle. Derrick Brown has not been found wanting.
Linebacker: Kenneth Murray, Los Angeles Chargers
Talk about taking over a team. Through four games, Kenneth Murray has played more than 90% of the defensive snaps for The Chargers, more than any other player on that side of the ball save the two starting cornerbacks. After trading back into the first round to draft him it’s no surprise The Chargers inserted him straight into the starting lineup, and Murray has justified that position on the depth chart. 33 combined tackles is more than healthy, with the former Sooner notching up double figures in two of the four games including a dominating performance against the Superbowl champions Kansas City.
From the outset defensive co-ordinator Gus Bradley had big plans for Murray, giving him the responsibility to communicate the play in the huddle and organise the defense pre-snap. Much like Derrick Brown, Murray is already a key piece on his defense. Minor concerns regarding his injury history have proved unfounded through the first four contests, but labelling him a ‘tackling machine’ has predictably come to fruition. The Chargers will be delighted with the early outlook for both their first round selections.
Cornerback: L'Jarius Sneed, Kansas City Chiefs
A fourth-round pick, L’Jarius Sneed is probably the wildcard on this list. The cornerback class of 2020 was stacked, and guys like CJ Henderson and Jaylon Johnson have made significant impacts on their respective teams. But it’s the versatile playmaker from Louisiana Tech who gets the nod. Predominantly used as a corner in college, Sneed’s aggression and downhill speed had many wondering if he would move to box safety. The Chiefs kept him on the outside, and it has paid dividends.
Disclaimer – Sneed never got a scouting report, although I was able to watch him a little on tape (mostly whilst I was grinding the film on fellow DB Amik Robertson). Take a look at Joe Marino’s breakdown of the corner over at The Draft Network here. Serviceable if not spectacular, Sneed surprised almost everyone by being named the starter whilst Bashaud Breeland served his four game suspension. The rookie repaid the faith shown in him by Steve Spagnuolo with a pick in each of his first two games, including a phenomenal snag that changed the fortunes for The Chiefs against The Chargers:
Sadly, Sneed broke his clavicle in week 3 and is predicted to miss at least 6 weeks of game time. That’s a bitter blow for KC, who have unearthed a potential star. Sneed settled in quickly, working well with Tyrann Mathieu in the secondary. The quicker he’s back on the field, the better.
Safety: Antoine Winfield Jr, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No unit seems more transformed so far this season than the Buccaneers’ secondary. A youthful group that has shown more aggression and playnmaking ability in four games than Tampa achieved the last two years seems to have been invigorated by the addition of Antoine Winfield. The son of the former Viking and all-pro Antoine Winfield Sr. has far from disgraced his bloodlines, thriving as a versatile safety in Todd Bowles’ defense.
Winfield operated as a kind of ‘three-quarter’ safety as a Golden Gopher, coming down into the box to showcase his physicality whilst also more than comfortable in coverage. Those attributes have not been lost in his relocation from Minnesota to Florida; Winfield has thrived as a strong safety, recording 25 total tackles and adding two sacks on blitz plays. He’s played on all but one snap this year, and has provided special teams value too.
The concerns were size and durability, and neither so far have been a factor. They say the best players have a positive effect on their teammates. Winfield’s confidence, aggression and winning mentality have spread through this secondary. At 3-1 and with plenty more to come from this defense, The Buccaneers can be very happy with their second round pick.
previously the founder of nfl draft uk, simon has been covering college football and the nfl draft since 2009. based in manchester, simon is also co-creator & weekly guest of the collapsing pocket podcast.