The 2020 NFL draft might only have featured 13 of the 32 first-round selections on the defensive side of the ball. But that doesn’t mean this collection was bereft of talent.
In fact, we believe there will be some game-changing defenders right away on defense, including a few future Pro Bowl and All-Pro talents. It actually speaks to the depth and talent on that side of the ball that for our list of 10 potential instant-impact rookies, we left off three defenders who were drafted in the top 20 picks — Jeff Okudah, Javon Kinlaw and K’Lavon Chaisson.
Not to worry, though: We had strong grades on all three, and believe they’ll be productive in time. It’s just that for myriad reasons, we felt others could be spotlighted for their ability to be quick studies and early producers.
On Wednesday, we highlighted the 10 offensive rookies we think will shine early on. Now, it’s time for the defense:
Washington EDGE Chase Young (Round 1, 2nd overall)
The clear-cut favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year, Young enters an interesting situation this season. The team has been very cautious with him so far, keeping him out of multiple camp practices with a hip injury. It sounds like the team is erring on the side of caution, more than anything.
“We want to make sure before we throw him back out there, so we may be a little bit more cautious than we need to be,” Washington head coach Ron Rivera said.
Assuming Young can stay healthy and get more work, he’s got the QB-hunting knack to be a 10-sack rookie if things go right. The division is loaded with talented young passers, and Washington needs to be a more competitive team to give Young more pass-rush opportunities.
But he’s surrounded by a lot of talent on that defensive front and should flash as a rookie. After all, we’re talking about one of the more skilled pass rushers to enter the league in years — and Urban Meyer has said that Young is more naturally gifted than even Nick Bosa, last year’s Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Panthers DT Derrick Brown (Round 1, 7th overall)
Brown already has said he wants to win Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, even though it’s honestly tough for an interior lineman — one who isn’t known as a pass rusher, per se — to take home this hardware. Of course, if there’s a player with the physical gifts and insane motor to upset the apple cart, it’s Brown.
He’s expected to fill a vital role for Matt Rhule’s defense (as is second-round safety Jeremy Chinn) in Year 1 and should benefit from lining up next to Kawann Short, even if Short is coming off an injury-plagued season.
So even if Brown won’t put up Aaron Donald-type production, he still can be a force in the middle who makes enough eye-opening plays to get noticed. And from what we saw from the Panthers’ run defense a year ago, Brown will fill a huge void.
Ravens LB Patrick Queen (Round 1, 28th overall)
We loved the pick at the time, feeling that Queen was the perfect Ravens linebacker and that he could step right in despite not turning 21 years old until a few weeks ago. Queen’s strong camp has only reinforced that notion.
“I think he’s right on schedule,” Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said a few days ago. “He wants to be right, he really studies, he’s very conscientious, and he’s a rookie at the same time — without reps in the offseason.
“So, I would say he’s doing really well — better than anticipated, but he’s not there yet. He has a lot to learn, and that’s going to be the case all year. Throughout the course of the season, for rookies, every day is a new day.”
But with the Ravens, Queen can be put in a position to succeed. This is a veteran defense that kept most of its key pieces — outside the recent Earl Thomas situation — and added reinforcements up front in Calais Campbell, Derek Wolfe, third-rounder Justin Madubuike and fifth-rounder Broderick Washington Jr.
Cardinals LB Isaiah Simmons (Round 1, 9th overall)
It will be interesting to see where Simmons ultimately lines up, as the Cardinals seem to be taking advantage of revised media rules, which prohibit reporters from, well, reporting on what they see schematically from the team. That means we technically don’t know what role (or roles) Simmons will play as a rookie.
But the feeling is that he’ll be a hybrid linebacker who becomes a weapon in passing situations with his ability to blitz, cover backs and tight ends (and the slot) and even drop into deep coverage. Simmons handled a ton at Clemson the last few years, but the Cardinals might be spoon-feeding him just a bit more because of this bizarre offseason.
Still, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Simmons fill up box scores. Back in 2018, Derwin James became only the 10th rookie since 1982 (when sacks became an official stat) to record three or more picks and sacks in his first season.
Simmons feels like a strong candidate to become No. 11.
Chiefs LB Willie Gay Jr. (Round 2, 64th overall)
There was another, higher-drafted rookie in the division who could make a big impact in Chargers linebacker Kenneth Murray. But Gay is someone we really were impressed with in limited duty last season, limited to five games after an eight-game suspension for being involved in academic fraud.
Watching Gay’s high-speed, high-intensity approach in college made us think before the draft that he might be a perfect fit for a team such as the Chiefs — so much so, in fact, that we mocked Gay to Kansas City in Round 1 the day before the draft.
Gay slipped to Day 2, but I think had Clyde Edwards-Helaire not been on the board, Gay would have been in play at No. 32 overall. His teammates already have nicknamed him “Turbo,” which is high praise for a player who has yet to take the field for a real game, even if Gay could stand to tone down his all-gas, no-brakes approach just a notch at times.
I think he’s going to be a big-play machine in time on this defense, even if he suffers a few lumps along the way. He’s in a great spot on this unit, where his speed and playmaking knack will be served well.
Jaguars CB CJ Henderson (Round 1, 9th overall)
Henderson could be the best rookie cover corner in the league this year, with Detroit’s Jeff Okudah — the No. 3 overall pick — perhaps taking a bit longer to develop.
The Jaguars might not be too good this season, so Henderson could suffer from a lack of media attention. But those who key in closely on DB play, I suspect, will be very impressed with his rare man-coverage feel for such a young player.
There are questions about Henderson’s lean frame and his tackling. But if he can help slow down receivers such as T.Y. Hilton, A.J. Brown and Brandin Cooks multiple times this season, the Jaguars are going to be happy they filled such a big need this year instead of next.
Henderson looks like a future Pro Bowl corner to me, and I think he’ll hold up very well as a rookie.
Falcons CB A.J. Terrell (Round 1, 16th overall)
I’ll admit to being bullish on Terrell. I liked a good amount of what I saw coming out, but his occasional issues in the playmaking department and his undressing in this year’s national title game gave me pause. I gave Terrell a second-round grade and felt the Falcons reached for him a bit at 16.
It might not take long for me to eat my words.
Terrell has earned high praise in camp, and his daily practice battles with Julio Jones — perhaps the best receiver in football — have drawn some big buzz. They can only serve to sharpen the rookie as Terrell readies for the terrific receivers who populate the Falcons’ schedule this season.
Vikings CB Cameron Dantzler (Round 3, 89th overall)
To this point, Dantzler has been ahead of first-round CB Jeff Gladney for nickel duties and has been one of the biggest bright spots of camp. Kirk Cousins and Adam Thielen have made it clear they both have been impressed with what they’ve seen from the rookie corner so far.
Dantzler was dinged in the pre-draft process for his glacial 40-yard dash (4.64 seconds), but he reportedly ran a 4.39 after that at his pro day. In talking to evaluators, we found that the first 40 was sure to drop Dantzler’s stock — but we didn’t at all expect him to nearly tumble into Day 3.
The Vikings are going to need everything from their depleted and young CB room this season if the team wants to be a contender. The early returns on Dantzler have to put Mike Zimmer’s mind a little more at ease on that front.
Texans CB John Reid (Round 4, 141st overall)
Reid flew a bit below the draft radar this spring, but he was one of our winners from the NFL combine. Scouts told us that they appreciated Reid’s intelligence, which isn’t stunning when you find out that he was an engineering major and that he builds computers for fun.
But from a football standpoint, Reid earned some solid respect for his slot-coverage ability and his sound tackling. He was a really solid player in college.
And his NFL head coach, Bill O’Brien, appears very impressed with his Day 3 selection.
“He’s had a really good camp,” O’Brien said, via a recent pool report. “He might’ve had the best camp of any rookie. Some of these guys come in here as rookies and they just know how to work.”
What that means for Reid’s role isn’t clear, with Houston in pretty decent shape at corner. But we expect him to be a factor in the nickel packages and on special teams in some form.
Buccaneers S Antoine Winfield Jr. (Round 2, 45th overall)
It shouldn’t be surprising that the son of a 14-year pro and three-time Pro Bowler is standing out in camp. Winfield has caught the eye of Bruce Arians, who handed down some serious praise on the rookie.
“Antoine is making plays every single day,” Arians said on Monday. “Both [Winfield and first-round OT Tristan Wirfs] are mature players coming from good programs. I don’t think the lights will be too big for them. They’re progressing nicely.”
To this point, Winfield mostly has worked with the second-team defense. But getting a chance to fill in with the first unit with Mike Edwards out, Winfield continued what reportedly has been an impressive camp.
Last year as a fourth-year sophomore at Minnesota, Winfield collected three sacks, seven interceptions (including two game-clinching INTs and one more run back for a score) and two forced fumbles. He operated as a deep safety, nickel corner, box defender and occasional blitzer.
It wouldn’t be stunning to see Winfield carve out a similar role over his rookie season in the NFL. He’s too good a playmaker not to crack the regular rotation.
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