Every season, there are players just waiting to bust out and be contributors on an elite level. Based on an unusual amount of lockout-related time to watch tape and crunch stats, here are eight defensive players we believe will be marquee standouts in the not-too-distant future.
Geno Atkins, DT, Cincinnati Bengals
One way to project future sack leaders is to look at their "almost" stats — the hits and hurries that almost became quarterback sacks and still affect the passing game. In Atkins' case, the arrow is definitely trending up — in 2010, he had just three quarterback takedowns, but nine quarterback hits and 17.5 quarterback hurries, and each of those stats led the Bengals last year. The Georgia rookie is projected to take over at starting tackle opposite the always-dominant Domata Peko, and the preseason performance I saw from him in 2010 has just blossomed into a skill set that could have Atkins as one of the league's most disruptive defensive tackles in a big hurry.
Cliff Avril, DE, Detroit Lions
Speaking of quarterback disruptions, how about the 33.5 hurries Avril put up last season in Detroit's ridiculous front four? That ties him for eighth-best in the NFL, right up there with Dwight Freeney. Avril is certainly a known name in NFL circles, but you'll generally see Ndamukong Suh and Kyle Vanden Bosch getting most of the name checks when people are talking about the Lions' resurgent defense. The 8.5 sacks he had in 2010 could shoot up into double digits pretty quickly if that line looks as unblockable as it did through the preseason.
Morgan Burnett, S, Green Bay Packers
Just as Atkins did, Burnett impressed this observer last season. He sadly lost most of his 2010 season to a torn ACL in October, but when he was on the field, the coaches loved him. The Packers used different safeties as a fix in the multiple defensive backfield looks that confused opponents all season and helped the Packers win the Super Bowl. Now, with Burnett projected to play in 2011, that secondary could look even better. A scary thought for Green Bay's opponents.
Brandon Carr, CB, Kansas City Chiefs
When discussing the Chiefs' secondary, most of the attention goes to safety Eric Berry and cornerback Brandon Flowers, which is understandable — both are standout players. But it's unwise to sleep on Carr, who ranked third-best among qualifying cornerbacks in our recent "Burn Rate" series, and who finished higher than Flowers in Football Outsiders' Success Rate totals last season. He's a quick defender who complements the efforts of Flowers, Berry, and the up-and-coming safety Kendrick Lewis. At this rate, the Chiefs could have the best pass defense in the NFL sooner than later — and Carr's a huge part of that.
Wallace Gilberry, DE, Kansas City Chiefs
Of course, Kansas City's biggest defensive star over the last few seasons has been edge rusher Tamba Hali. Unfortunately for Hali, he's also been in the minority when it comes to Chiefs players able to rush the pass consistently — before the 2010 season, he often led in the "hurries without help" category for sack leaders with little help from the other side. But Gilberry's ascent in 2010 allowed Hali to have his best season to date, and if he can continue what he did last season (seven sacks, seven quarterback hits, 10 hurries), the Chiefs are in good shape up front, as well.
Lamarr Houston, DL, Oakland Raiders
Oakland's front seven was an underrated power in 2010, and as much as everyone talked about Richard Seymour, it was the rookie Houston who subbed in for Seymour at 3-tech when the big man couldn't go. He also led the team in hits and hurries, showing unusual power and versatility for a rookie. With Houston and Matt Shaughnessy guarding the defensive edges for the Raiders, that's one group which should exhibit consistency among all the turmoil.
Jerraud Powers, CB, Indianapolis Colts
The Colts finished 26th in Football Outsiders' pass defense metrics last season, but don't blame Powers. He was among the NFL's best in yards per pass allowed and pretty decent in Success Rate despite the fact that he was targeted over 20 percent of the time on opposing passes — only four qualifying cornerbacks had a higher percentage. Powers went on injured reserve with a fractured right forearm in December, but the Colts are looking for a lot from him in the future.