Top 10 defensive rookies: Derwin James jumps off film

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When I watched Chargers rookie Derwin James crashing the backfield over and over against the Bills in Week 2, visions of former Pittsburgh All-Pro Troy Polamalu danced in my head. Combining natural instincts, rare athleticism and uncanny timing, James is already one of the most disruptive blitzers in the league.

It didn't take long, however, for my thoughts to veer from the Steelers toward their AFC North rivals in Baltimore. James was the best player on the Ravens' board when the draft's No. 16 spot came around in the middle of the first round.

Would Ozzie Newsome and assistant general manager Eric DeCosta pull the trigger on a playmaker with the potential to transform their secondary for the next decade? Or would they try to squeeze one more Pro Bowl-caliber season out of veteran Eric Weddle, allowing them to trade down for much-needed offensive help?

"I thought Derwin James was one of the best players in the draft," DeCosta acknowledged to BaltimoreRavens.com's "The Lounge" podcast in early May, "but ... the value of this draft was really the third, fourth, fifth round. So for us to go back and get additional picks made a lot of sense. As hard as it was moving away from Derwin James, we felt like it was the right thing to do for this club."

Starting with the trade down for tight end Hayden Hurst and a trade up for dual-threat sensation Lamar Jackson, Newsome and DeCosta earned praise from coach John Harbaugh for a loaded draft class expected to breathe life into a moribund offense.

If this is truly Newsome's last year at the helm of Baltimore's war room, though, he might just lament the one that got away.

James isn't the only newcomer making his presence felt early in the season. Here's our list of the top defensive rookies through two weeks:

1) Derwin James, safety, Los Angeles Chargers

Bolts coordinator Gus Bradley unleashed James as a blitzer in Buffalo, leading to a sack as well as another takedown of Josh Allen on an aborted handoff. Bringing heat up the middle on Allen's first dropback, James' presence also forced Buffalo's neophyte quarterback into the waiting arms of fellow rookie Uchenna Nwosu for a loss of three yards. How has James fared away from the line of scrimmage? He batted away a would-be TD toss to De'Anthony Thomas in Week 1 and deflected a pass down the seam to Charles Clay in Week 2.

James has sacked young quarterbacks in each of the season's first two weeks. It will be interesting to see if that success carries over against more experienced signal-callers going forward.

2) Bradley Chubb, edge rusher, Denver Broncos

Chubb has to work on getting off blocks, but he made an instant impact in the season opener with half a sack and a handful of hurries opposite an unstoppable Von Miller. More than just a pass rusher, he was a force against Marshawn Lynch and Oakland's ground attack in Week 2.

3) Denzel Ward, cornerback, Cleveland Browns

Eyebrows were raised around the league when the Browns bypassed Chubb to draft Ward at No. 4 overall, but the former Ohio State star immediately erased doubts with a pair of interceptions in his NFL debut. The turnovers overshadowed sticky coverage on Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown, the best in the business at wide receiver.

4) Roquan Smith, linebacker, Chicago Bears

After missing training camp in a contract squabble, the 2017 Butkus Award winner came off the bench in the season opener, announcing his presence with a sack of DeShone Kizer on his first NFL play. Smith ascended to the starting lineup in Week 2, showing impressive closing speed and a knack for knocking ball carriers backward in the open field. He's a complete linebacker for the modern era, capable of hanging with scatbacks and tight ends in coverage while also teaming with all-word edge rusher Khalil Mack to spearhead Chicago's swarming run defense.

5) Darius Leonard, linebacker, Indianapolis Colts

Colts GM Chris Ballard was derided by hometown fans for "reaching" early in the second round, pulling the trigger on an off-ball linebacker from tiny South Carolina State with the draft's No. 36 overall pick. That skepticism vanished after Leonard and behemoth defensive end Margus Hunt dominated a Redskins offensive line that had bullied the Cardinals' defense in the opener. Leonard was all over the field last week, tallying a whopping 18 tackles (15 solo!) to go with a sack and a well-timed strip of star tight end Jordan Reed that thwarted Washington's fourth-quarter comeback hopes.

6) Harold Landry, edge rusher, Tennessee Titans

The former Boston College star was worth the wait after missing the Titans' opener with an ankle injury sustained in the third preseason tilt. Landry may not have stuffed the box score last week, but he was a terror coming off the edge against Houston's overmatched offensive line, hitting Deshaun Watson twice and forcing him to flee the pocket on two other occasions.

How did this guy fall to the second round of the draft? If his impressive debut is any indication, Landry's combination of speed, power, effort and an especially effective dip move is going to be nightmare fuel for opposing tackles.

7) Fred Warner, linebacker, San Francisco 49ers

Leonard isn't the only off-ball linebacker making an instant impact. Warner was perhaps the most impressive rookie in the league in Week 1, rendering middle linebacker Reuben Foster's suspension a non-issue versus the Vikings. The No. 70 overall pick in the draft racked up 12 tackles (11 solo) to go with a forced fumble and a pass deflection in his first NFL start, excelling versus the run as well as the pass. Now that Foster is returning for this week's showdown with the high-flying Chiefs, the 49ers will boast a promising young linebacker duo to pair with disruptive tackle DeForest Buckner as the heart of Robert Saleh's defense.

8) Jaire Alexander, cornerback, Green Bay Packers

Second-round pick Josh Jackson made the Week 2 highlight reels with a touchdown on a blocked punt, but it was Alexander's handiwork that forced the punt in the first place. After stonewalling Stefon Diggs for no gain on first-and-20, Alexander came through with a leaping sack of Kirk Cousins on third down. After watching homegrown defensive backs such as Casey Hayward and Micah Hyde finally reach their potential outside of Green Bay, the Packers might have finally fixed their beleaguered secondary with the last two draft classes.

9) Ja'Whaun Bentley, linebacker, New England Patriots

Calling the Texans-Patriots opener, CBS analyst Tony Romo noted the habitually taciturn Bill Belichick's excitement level over a new-and-improved front seven. It's been plainly evident since the start of preseason action that Bentley is a fifth-round steal. Teamed up with veteran Dont'a Hightower, Bentley has helped transform the linebacker corps in New England. Ideally suited for today's pass-heavy NFL, the four-year Purdue starter is not just a thumper but also a jacked-up safety wearing a linebacker's number.

10) Jessie Bates, safety, Cincinnati Bengals

Speaking of safety numbers, Bates is already stacking them in the Queen City. After recording eight solo tackles in the season-opening victory over the Colts, Bates teamed with fellow rookie Sam Hubbard to make life miserable for Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco last Thursday night. By the end of training camp, the Bengals were confident enough in the former Wake Forest star to send veteran George Iloka packing after five years as the unquestioned starter.

ON THE VERGE: Minkah Fitzpatrick, safety, Miami Dolphins; Marcus Davenport, edge rusher, New Orleans Saints; Mike Hughes, cornerback, Minnesota Vikings; Kenny Young, linebacker, Baltimore Ravens; Genard Avery, linebacker, Cleveland Browns; Kyzir White, linebacker, Los Angeles Chargers; Da'Shawn Hand, defensive lineman, Detroit Lions; Nathan Shepherd, defensive end, New York Jets.

Follow Chris Wesseling on Twitter @ChrisWesseling.

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