In their second seasons in the NFL, some players become stars. Yardbarker's Michael Nania and Sam Robinson offer candidates on defense who could make The Leap in Year 2.
Steelers LB Devin Bush
NANIA: The first off-ball linebacker selected in 2019 (10th overall) got off to a rough start as a rookie. Through three games, the Michigan product allowed 156 yards and eight first downs (two of them touchdowns) in coverage. He was Pro Football Focus' sixth-worst graded linebacker (39.9 overall grade) through Week 3.
But Bush progressed quickly after the rough start. He improved from allowing 52 yards per game in coverage over his first three appearances to just 27.5 over his final 13. Bush also cleaned up some tackling issues, missing only three over his final nine games (0.3 per game) after whiffing on seven over his first seven.
From Weeks 4-17, Bush was PFF's 13th-ranked linebacker out of 58 qualifiers (71 overall grade), ranking eighth at the position in run stops over that span (28) and allowing the 15th-lowest passer rating into his coverage (91.8).
Just 21 years and 52 days old when he made his NFL debut, Bush was the second-youngest linebacker to appear in a regular-season game in 2019. That he rapidly patched up his weaknesses and played at a well above average level are reasons to believe he could be one of the league's most active play-making linebackers in 2020.
Raiders DE Clelin Ferrell
Ferrell struggled mightily as a pass-rusher in his first season. He finished with a pressure rate of 8.1% (26 pressures on 321 rushes), which ranked 56th out of 58 qualifying edge rushers. Las Vegas needs much more in this phase from the player who was selected with the No. 4 overall pick in 2019.
The good news is that Ferrell was excellent against the run. From Weeks 12-17, he earned PFF's sixth-best run defense grade among qualifying edge defenders (82.9). If he can maintain that dominance, it should buy him patience from the coaching staff in the pass-rushing phase.
Ferrell showed flashes as a pass-rusher toward the end of 2019. In the final eight games, he had a PFF grade of 66.3, which ranked 29th out of 65 qualifying edge defenders.
In Maurice Hurst, Johnathan Hankins and the newly signed Maliek Collins, Las Vegas has a bevy of interior pass-rushing talent. As that group creates space for Ferrell outside, look for him to take a big step in Year 2.
Colts CB Rock Ya-Sin
After a brutal start, Ya-Sin was one of the league's most improved cornerbacks in the second half of the season. From Weeks 1-8 (seven games), he allowed the 10th-highest passer rating among cornerbacks (125.2) and was tied for the second-most penalties among CBs (seven). His 29 targets without a pass breakup or interception ranked as the third worst at the position.
In Week 8 against Denver, Ya-Sin had a nightmare outing, allowing four catches for 75 yards and committing five penalties. But after that debacle, things began to click for him.
From Weeks 9-17 (eight games), Ya-Sin allowed the 14th-fewest yards per cover snap (0.81) and 19th-lowest passer rating (75.8) among 91 qualified cornerbacks. His average of 17.2 cover snaps per allowed reception ranked 10th best.
In addition to his improved coverage, Ya-Sin was one of the best downhill cornerbacks in the game. He missed only three tackles in 2019 and made 61, registering the sixth-lowest missed tackle rate (4.7%) among qualified cornerbacks. Ya-Sin also tied for eighth at the position with eight run stops --- from Weeks 9-17, he recorded the fourth-best run defense grade at PFF among qualified cornerbacks (79.5).
Indianapolis' secondary was a mess last season, as numerous young and unproven players were shuffled in and out of the lineup. With newly signed veterans Xavier Rhodes and T.J. Carrie added to the secondary, Ya-Sin could thrive.
Bills DT Ed Oliver
ROBINSON: Clear cornerstones reside on the second and third levels of Buffalo’s top-tier defense, with linebacker Tremaine Edmunds and cornerback Tre’Davious White representing key reasons for the team’s high defensive ceiling. The Bills could be on the verge of forming a burgeoning star defensive troika. Following the 2017 and ’18 first-round picks of White and Edmunds, the Bills took Oliver ninth overall. He is primed to justify the investment.
The Bills let defensive tackle Jordan Phillips defect to the Cardinals in free agency, and although the team was active on the market and in the draft -– forming a deep D-line rotation -– Oliver’s growth remains essential. He is the top talent in said rotation. Phillips outproduced Oliver in a surprising contract year, but the latter was transitioning to a three-technique role after being miscast as a nose tackle in college. Assimilation was always going to take time. Oliver still registered 31 pressures and five sacks in a part-time role.
Despite playing a less stat-friendly position in college, the University of Houston product amassed 53 tackles for loss in three seasons en route to “Aaron Donald Lite” labels entering the draft. The 6-foot-1, 287-pound rusher’s athleticism will become a major problem for guards as he develops. An Oliver leap this season -– which could begin with a suspension because of a May DWI arrest -– will give the Bills one of the NFL’s premier defensive foundations, cementing what looks like the franchise’s best rebuild effort since the late 1980s.
Titans DL Jeffery Simmons
Had Simmons not suffered a torn ACL two months before the draft, the Titans would never have enjoyed the opportunity to select him 19th overall. The Titans traded longtime defensive line anchor Jurrell Casey to the Broncos to help accommodate pay raises for Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry, leaving Simmons as the unit’s centerpiece. For the Titans’ pass rush to succeed, Simmons must thrive in his second season.
The Mississippi State-developed dynamo beat projections by returning from a February ACL surgery in October. By Week 1 of this season, Simmons will be 18 months removed from his surgery. The Titans should see the player viewed as a lock top-10 talent in a 2019 draft full of high-caliber D-line prospects.
Simmons only registered two sacks and two QB hits as a rookie, but the 6-4, 301-pound defensive end/inside pass rusher logged 14 pressures in nine games -– fourth on the team -– and helped Tennessee rank ninth in run-defense DVOA. Anything Simmons did as a rookie should have been considered a bonus. This season should illuminate how big a steal the Titans landed.
Patriots DE Chase Winovich
Despite playing just 293 snaps as a rookie, Winovich registered 5.5 sacks and 10 QB knockdowns. The Patriots then let their top 2019 sackers -– hybrid linebacker-rushers Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy –- walk in free agency. It is not hard to decrypt how the Patriots view Winovich, who is on the verge of becoming a third-round heist.
Posting a sack or QB knockdown on 7.6% of his snaps, the Michigan alum was the most efficient Patriot rusher last season. Winovich, last year’s No. 77 pick, displayed his pressure credentials in the Big Ten. His 34.5 tackles for loss from 2017-18 ranked ninth in Division I-FBS; four players above him on that list compiled their stats in Group of 5 conferences.
The Patriots have bothered little with edge rusher retention in recent years. They won two Super Bowls after trading future All-Pro Chandler Jones to the Cardinals and ranked first in defensive DVOA last season following Trey Flowers’ Detroit departure. The March exits of Collins and Van Noy vacated more than 1,600 snaps, opening the door for Winovich to make his first NFL start and more than double his rookie-year snap count.
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