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2021 NFL season: 10 breakout Year-2 players on defense

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Last week, we profiled 10 second-year players on the offensive side of the ball who could be poised for big improvements in Year 2. Now it's time for the defensive side of the ball.

For all the pre-2020 NFL draft buzz over quarterbacks Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert, this was a defense-heavy draft in a lot of ways, too. Chase Young was a star rusher as a rookie. Five of the first nine overall picks were on defense. The cornerback and linebacker spots were deeper than in typical years.

But there also were some disappointing first-year performances on that side of the ball, especially considering how the COVID-19 pandemic affected the offseason schedule and hindered some young players' growth in 2020.

The virus didn't strip these players of their talent, however. We believe there are a few dozen potential breakout players on that side of the ball, but for the purposes of this story, we narrowed our list down to an even 10 whom we think could make more noise as sophomores than they did as rookies:

EDGE K’Lavon Chaisson

Jacksonville Jaguars

As a rookie, Chaisson was somewhat underwater early on. He didn’t do much in two early-season starts and finished the year with but a single sack. But there were signs that Chaisson was starting to develop down the stretch.

In December, he played his best ball — while the team was in full tank mode (and thus few noticed). Chaisson started receiving more steady snaps and he appeared more comfortable with the speed and power of NFL blockers.

Although he didn’t register a sack in his final 14 games, Chaisson had seven QB hits in his final five games. He also cranked up more consistent pressure and looked more the part of a first-round selection.

A regime change could stall Chaisson’s late-season growth a tad, but he’s still incredibly young, not turning 22 until month’s end, and can be part of a healthier, more disruptive edge group with Josh Allen coming back from injury.

EDGE Alex Highsmith

Pittsburgh Steelers

It’s at the point now where Steelers fans are counting on Highsmith taking a major jump in Year 2 — and he already raised the bar fairly high as a rookie. The Steelers led the NFL in sacks a year ago but face some questions surrounding the pass rush with Bud Dupree leaving town.

In the first 11 games, Highsmith contributed only one of those sacks and was averaging 10-15 snaps per game as he adjusted to more of an edge role (after playing out of position in college as predominantly a 4i interior rusher).

Down the stretch, he stepped up in a big way. After Dupree suffered a torn ACL, Highsmith became the starter outside and got progressively better with each outing, turning in a great performance in the late-season win over the Colts.

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Alex Highsmith might be on the verge of a big 2021 season.  (Photo by Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Alex Highsmith might be on the verge of a big 2021 season. (Photo by Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

In the eyes of T.J. Watt, Highsmith has the goods to be a big-impact player this season.

“I think the big thing is pass rush,” Watt said of Highsmith last month. “He has a great repertoire of moves already coming off his rookie year. He can spin, he can do his ghost move [and] he is developing more power in his game. I think that is a real high positive.”

If Highsmith can start turning more of those rookie pressures he generated into sophomore sacks and hits, he could be one of the better young rushers in the AFC in time.

LB Isaiah Simmons

Arizona Cardinals

Simmons unwittingly became a name a few scouts would bring up last season as an example of the proverbial “jack of all trades, master of none” prospect. There was some concern of how Simmons’ rookie season might play out — especially amid a pandemic-shortened year — given how versatile a role he played in college and how little time rookies got to assimilate to the league last year.

The fears were semi-warranted. Simmons struggled to find a role early in the season, playing 18 or fewer defensive snaps in each of the first seven games. The Cardinals struggled to teach him one spot, and Simmons was relegated to watching more than he played what was essentially a new position at inside linebacker.

Eventually, he caught on. Things started turning a bit following the overtime interception of Russell Wilson, and the Cardinals’ coaches started trusting Simmons more. When Arizona faced Seattle a second time, Simmons turned in his most complete game of the season with 10 tackles (one for loss), a sack and some quality coverage.

Although there could be some more stumbling blocks as the Cards break in another rookie LB starter (Zaven Collins), Simmons figures to be much more comfortable in Year 2. Before long, we believe his size will make him a valuable defender, especially in coverage and as a quality blitzer.

LB Patrick Queen

Baltimore Ravens

Queen racked up some beefy stats in Year 1: 106 tackles (nine for losses), three sacks, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries (one run back for a TD) and several QB hits. But there most certainly is room for improvement.

In coverage, Queen really struggled at times. His reaction time on passes felt slow when we rewatched some of his tape — was he overthinking? That can happen to any rookie linebacker asked to handle some taxing coverage assignments.

Ravens linebacker Patrick Queen had some ups and downs as a 16-game rookie starter, but his arrow appears pointed upward. (Photo by Nicole Fridling/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Ravens linebacker Patrick Queen had some ups and downs as a 16-game rookie starter, but his arrow appears pointed upward. (Photo by Nicole Fridling/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The early word is that Queen appears to have taken some strides this offseason. His blitzing and run-stopping ability both appear to be ahead of the curve, and once he takes the next step in coverage, we could be talking about one of the bright young stars in the league.

Don’t forget we’re talking about a soon-to-be 22-year old who nearly played as many snaps as an NFL rookie (948) as he did in three years of college (1,035). His arrow is pointed up. 

And for what it's worth, Queen has switched uniform numbers — from the unsightly No. 48 to the shockingly clean No. 6. Every little bit helps, we assume.

LB Willie Gay Jr.

Kansas City Chiefs

This is a player we think the Chiefs have some big plans for. Last year, they had to dial back some of his responsibilities and kept him mostly in a part-time, early-down role as a rookie. This season, Gay is expected to expand his duties.

The 2020 second-rounder has the speed and closing ability to be a big factor on third downs, where the Chiefs were decent but not great last season. Gay should step in for the departed Damien Wilson and emerge as a playmaker.

Despite missing extensive time his final year at Mississippi State, Gay’s coverage and blitzing ability stood out. We believe the Chiefs might have considered him in Round 1 (or tried to trade down a few spots to grab him) had Clyde Edwards-Helaire not been on the board at No 32 overall.

He’s a perfect fit for this fast-flow defense. Gay missed out on a truncated 2020 offseason and a late-season injury that knocked him out of the playoffs. But he’s someone who could be in a position to be around the ball a lot in 2021.

LB Josh Uche

New England Patriots

It’s easy to forget about Uche, especially after the Patriots added a slew of defensive players this offseason in a rare spending spree. But in spite of the new waves of reinforcements, he still stands out as a player who could make a notable jump in his second season.

Uche barely saw the field until the second half of the season, spending several weeks on the injury list, prior to earning 15-30 snaps a game down the stretch on defense. He was playing well in Week 16 against the Bills before suffering a foot injury that ended his rookie season prematurely.

Bill Belichick said last month he believes Uche has “a good future” but admitted that the Patriots were trying to figure out early on what he did best.

Josh Uche, right, had some flashes down the stretch as a rookie for the New England Patriots, but could be on the verge for much more in 2021. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
Josh Uche, right, had some flashes down the stretch as a rookie for the New England Patriots, but could be on the verge for much more in 2021. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

"We were kind of trying to figure out early what his best spot would be, and it took a little while for all that to materialize," Belichick said. "He's a good football player and we'll be able to define his role and his situation much better next year.”

Even with the addition of Matt Judon, the return of Dont’a Hightower and the presence of a lot of shape-shifting defenders, Uche has a shot to emerge as a playmaking, multi-tool threat in, let’s say, a 500-to-600-snap role. His early returns in coverage and blitzing were pretty promising, and Uche could develop into a poor man’s Tedy Bruschi in time.

LB Logan Wilson

Cincinnati Bengals

All the talk around the Bengals this offseason has been on offense — Joe Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase and all the rest. But if they are to climb out of the AFC North basement, they’ll have to change a three-year trend of finishing largely near the bottom of the league’s rankings on defense.

The team has added several parts on this side of the ball the past few seasons, which suggests that improvement is possible. One player who could emerge as a centerpiece of this unit is Wilson, who has received a lot of praise this offseason.

Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo sure made it sound like Wilson is coming out of his shell a bit in Year 2.

"He missed the games he missed last year, didn’t have an offseason, didn’t have a spring, and so, in a lot of ways, this is just a continuation of his rookie year,” Anarumo said recently. “And he has really, to this point, done very well, and we continue to see him that way.”

Wilson has great instincts and — as a former high-school DB — excellent feel in the passing game. That’s where we think he can develop into a higher-tier linebacker at this level, perhaps as a Nick Kwiatkoski-type of clone.

What the Bengals really need from Wilson and the rest of the defense, though, is also effective run-stopping ability. With Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, JK Dobbins, Najee Harris and others, the AFC North is as talented a running back division as there is in the NFL.

DB Jaylon Johnson

Chicago Bears

The talk of Bears minicamps centered around the early development of their first-round QB savior, Justin Fields. But beneath the big headlines was a lot of talk about what the Bears’ defense could be — specifically against the pass.

The offseason loss of CB Kyle Fuller is a big one, but the Bears drafted Johnson in Round 2 last year, and he started out pretty strong last season as a Week 1 starter opposite Fuller. A late-season shoulder injury cut Johnson’s season short, and his play leading up to that could have been a little more consistent.

The Chicago Bears are counting on cornerback Jaylon Johnson stepping up even more this season. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
The Chicago Bears are counting on cornerback Jaylon Johnson stepping up even more this season. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

But there’s excitement for his potential in Year 2, and Johnson’s confidence in replacing Fuller is sky-high.

“It’s something I’ve been working for my whole life,” Johnson said at minicamp.

Johnson and another second-year corner, Kindle Vildor, could end up playing a lot for the Bears. They’ll be tested against the talented WR groups of the first three teams on the Bears’ schedule: at the Rams, vs. the Bengals and at the Browns.

CB C.J. Henderson

Jaguars

Henderson had a strong Week 1 effort, coming up with a late pass defended to lead the Jags to a win over the Colts. It was the last game Jacksonville won all season.

It wasn’t Henderson’s last good effort of the season, mind you, but he did allow four touchdown passes in only eight rookie-season games (after allowing five in his entire college career) before being shut down with a labrum injury in his shoulder.

But we ranked Henderson as our No. 7 overall prospect in the 2020 NFL draft for a reason and believe he has shutdown corner potential. It doesn’t hurt that the Jaguars improved their secondary in a big way (on paper, at least) with the additions of Shaquill Griffin, Tyson Campbell and Rayshawn Jenkins.

Henderson was picked on early but should benefit from better safety play and a pass rush that should be stronger up front.

S Xavier McKinney

New York Giants

We were surprised when McKinney slipped out of Round 1 in 2020, but he quickly earned a starting role. Lined up primarily in the slot and as a middle-field safety, McKinney also saw some time up in the box and on special teams.

It appeared he was headed for a very strong rookie season on an emerging defense. He played a whale of a ballgame in the narrow win over the Washington Football Team in Week 6, intercepting a pass late to seal the game and racking up eight tackles.

Then McKinney suffered a major foot injury; his season was over after only six games. But despite both Logan Ryan and Jabrill Peppers returning as de facto starters at safety, we believe the Giants will operate with a lot of three-safety looks and use McKinney as their do-it-all piece capable of filling multiple roles.

McKinney was the captain of Alabama’s defense in college, and he soon could earn a leadership role on the Giants. He’s a perfect fit for Joe Judge and defensive coordinator Patrick Graham and will be a critical tool in helping slow the mix-and-match offenses in the NFC East.

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