As we head toward the 2018 season, former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks examines what could be in store for 11 notable rookies on the defensive side of the ball.
Denzel Ward, CB, Cleveland Browns
No. 4 overall pick, Round 1, Ohio State
Best-case scenario: The Browns are counting on Ward to fill the CB1 role on a defense that could sneak into the top 10 by the end of the season. The ex-Ohio State standout has all of the physical tools (speed, quickness, and athleticism) to blanket top pass catchers in a system that leaves cornerbacks on an island in coverage. If Ward can quickly master the playbook and nuances of the scheme, he could give old-school Dawg Pound attendees flashbacks of Hanford Dixon and Frank Minnifield.
Worst-case scenario: Despite being an A-level athlete with natural skills as a cover corner, Ward could have a tough time matching up with the big-bodied pass catchers that dominate the league due to his slender frame. The 5-foot-11, 183-pound defender could get worked over by big receivers due to his size deficiencies. With NFL offensive coordinators prone to targeting tall receivers in the red zone, Ward's ability to hold up in jump-ball situations could determine whether the Browns lean on their young cover corner as a No. 1.
Projected stats: 50 tackles, 14 passes defensed and three interceptions.
Bradley Chubb, OLB, Denver Broncos
No. 5 overall pick, Round 1, N.C. State
Best-case scenario: The Broncos' defense could vault back into the "best in the business" conversation if Chubb plays like a Pro Bowl-caliber pass rusher opposite Von Miller. The 6-4, 269-pound sack master flashes a combination of skills that makes him a hybrid of Khalil Mack and Miller off the edge. As one of the few pass rushers capable of winning with physicality and finesse, Chubb could be an immediate shop-wrecker on a front line that features three legitimate pass rushers (Miller, Chubb and Derek Wolfe) at the point of attack.
Worst-case scenario: It takes time for some edge defenders to master the art of the pass rush, and Chubb could be a slow starter when it comes to generating sack production off the edge. If he fails to develop an effective fastball as a rookie, the Broncos' pass rush won't be good enough to help the team reclaim the top spot in the AFC West.
Projected stats: 40 tackles, eight sacks and three forced fumbles.
Roquan Smith, LB, Chicago Bears
No. 8 overall pick, Round 1, Georgia
Best-case scenario: Smith is the most disruptive sideline-to-sideline defender on the Bears' defense since Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher patrolled the middle of the field. The rookie is an explosive athlete. He's a quick read-and-react defender with outstanding instincts and diagnostic skills. Chicago's defense has made significant strides over the last two seasons, and Smith's arrival could help the unit go from good to great in 2018.
Worst-case scenario: Despite showing exceptional promise as a hit, run and cover defender at Georgia, Smith could still struggle to transition to the pro game. From relaying the signals to his teammates to making proper formation checks on "AFC" calls (automatic front and coverage), the fast pace of the pro game could overwhelm the young defensive signal-caller and force the Bears to simplify their approach to keep him on the field.
Projected stats: 100 tackles, two sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception.
Minkah Fitzpatrick, CB, Miami Dolphins
No. 11 overall pick, Round 1, Alabama
Best-case scenario: Fitzpatrick might be the Dolphins' best defender from Day 1, based on his unique combination of size, speed, athleticism and IQ as a versatile playmaker in the backend. The rookie standout could thrive in his role as "the eraser," which puts him on a slot receiver, tight end or running back based on the matchup for the week. If Fitzpatrick quickly settles in as a Swiss Army knife-like defender, he could emerge as the leading Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate by the middle of the season.
Worst-case scenario: The Dolphins' desire to move Fitzpatrick around in the secondary could prevent the rookie from mastering skills at one position. Although he is likely to be effective as a nickel corner/safety, the constant shuttling between positions might keep him from making an immediate impact as a first-year starter.
Projected stats: 30 tackles, eight passes defensed, two interceptions and two sacks.
Marcus Davenport, DE, New Orleans Saints
No. 14 overall pick, Round 1, UTSA
Best-case scenario: The Saints' defense needs a complementary rusher to emerge opposite Cam Jordan. Davenport certainly possesses the size, quickness and explosiveness to wreak havoc off the edges as a QB hunter. If the rookie pass rusher can develop a signature move that overwhelms blockers, he could become a disruptive force as an A-level athlete.
Worst-case scenario: Despite displaying explosive traits as a pass rusher, Davenport is a work in progress as a playmaker. He needs to refine his game a bit after dominating Conference USA with his sheer athletic ability instead of an assortment of technical maneuvers that will keep elite blockers on their heels. If Davenport relies strictly on his athleticism as a first-year player, he could have a tough time making a consistent impact as a rusher for a team that needs a strong No. 2 off the edges.
Projected stats: 55 tackles, seven sacks and two forced fumbles.
Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Buffalo Bills
No. 16 overall pick, Round 1, Virginia Tech
Best-case scenario: Edmunds gives the Bills' defense an all-star-caliber defender in the front seven. The 6-5, 253-pound hybrid playmaker could wreck shop between the tackles or off the edges as a versatile attacker. If Edmunds can quickly get comfortable with his responsibilities as the defensive quarterback, the rookie could give Sean McDermott a Luke Kuechly-like impact player on his defense.
Worst-case scenario: As the youngest player in the league, Edmunds might need some time to grow into his role as the defensive alpha dog. Despite his immense talent and advanced maturity, the responsibility of running the defense and making plays could slow him down on the field and limit his disruptive potential. If McDermott isn't able to eliminate some of the mental clutter for his young star by simplifying calls and checks, he might keep Edmunds from fulfilling his first-year potential as a disruptive force on the second level.
Projected stats: 95 tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception.
Derwin James, SS, Los Angeles Chargers
No. 17 overall pick, Round 1, Florida State
Best-case scenario: James gives the Chargers a punishing hitter between the hashes and is the alpha-dog leader the unit needed to go to the next level. No. 33 adds some thump to the defense as a big hitter while also flashing outstanding blitz skills and playmaking ability in coverage. If James owns his role as the Chargers' designated playmaker, he should make an immediate impact on a team that's expected to compete for the AFC title.
Worst-case scenario: Despite his reputation as a big-time playmaker, the excitement for James as a collegian was more about potential than production. Thus, it could take him a season or so to find his way as a productive player in the league. Whether it's understanding the scheme or adjusting to the pace of play, James' inexperience could limit his immediate impact as an enforcer for the Chargers.
Projected stats: 50 tackles, three sacks, eight passes defensed and two interceptions.
Jaire Alexander, CB, Green Bay Packers
No. 18 overall pick, Round 1, Louisville
Best-case scenario: Alexander's swagger and confidence complement a polished game built on rock-solid fundamentals and a high football IQ. The rookie cover corner gives DC Mike Pettine a lockdown corner to blanket the WR1s in the NFC North (see Golden Tate, Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs and Allen Robinson) in a scheme that routinely asks cornerbacks to hold their own on the island. If Alexander quickly settles into the Packers' ultra-aggressive system as the team's No. 1 corner, he could make his mark as a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate.
Worst-case scenario: The Packers traditionally haven't opted for smaller corners. Alexander is the exception to the rule as a 5-10, 196-pounder with exceptional speed and quickness. Despite No. 23's feistiness and energy, he could struggle against the bigger receivers in the NFC and become target practice for the elite quarterbacks in the conference. If Alexander wilts under the pressure of playing on an island without assistance, the Packers' defense will have a tough time keeping the score down when it's on the field.
Projected stats: 35 tackles, 14 passes defensed, three interceptions and a forced fumble.
Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Dallas Cowboys
No. 19 overall pick, Round 1, Boise State
Best-case scenario: LVE joins Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith on the second level to give the 'Boys an explosive trio at linebacker. The 6-4, 256-pounder has the size, length and athleticism to thrive as the "deep-middle runner" in their Tampa-2 scheme. In addition, he displays the sideline-to-sideline quickness to create problems for opponents attempting to run the ball to the edges.
Worst-case scenario: The NFL's trend toward passing out of "10" (1 RB and 4 WRs) and "11" (1 RB, 1 TE and 3 WRs) personnel groupings could force the Cowboys to keep No. 55 on the sideline in obvious passing situations, unless he wins a job in the team's nickel package. While it's very likely LVE lands on one of the Cowboys' sub-packages, the NFL's pass-happy nature might prevent the team from putting its "best 11" on the field in key moments.
Projected stats: 55 tackles, two interceptions, six passes defensed, two sacks and a forced fumble.
Rashaan Evans, LB, Tennessee Titans
No. 22 overall pick, Round 1, Alabama
Best-case scenario: Evans immediately steps into the Titans' starting lineup and gives the unit some juice with his energy and playmaking skills. The 6-3, 232-pound defender quickly grasps the scheme and makes his mark as a designated playmaker between the tackles. Although head coach Mike Vrabel makes Evans earn his starting spot in training camp, the rookie standout exceeds expectations as the Titans' defensive quarterback on a unit that bullies opponents with its physicality and toughness.
Worst-case scenario: It is possible Evans doesn't make his way into the starting lineup by the season opener due to the complexity of the Titans' defensive scheme. He could fail to grasp the nuances of the check-heavy scheme, and his hesitation barking out calls could prompt the team to lean on a veteran early in the season.
Projected stats: 75 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble and an interception.
Terrell Edmunds, S, Pittsburgh Steelers
No. 28 overall pick, Round 1, Virginia Tech
Best-case scenario: The Steelers' desire to put more speed, quickness and thump on the field could prompt Mike Tomlin to insert Edmunds into the lineup as a mobile playmaker capable of creating splash plays from the box or deep middle. The rookie's versatility could make him a star on a defense that needs a playmaker to step up in Ryan Shazier's absence.
Worst-case scenario: Despite coming off the board as a first-round pick, Edmunds will have to earn his way onto the field as a first-year player. The Steelers' system isn't complicated, but young players have to adjust to the speed of the pro game. If Edmunds is slow to acclimate to the system or the pace of play, he could be forced to serve as a role player in the team's sub packages.
Projected stats: 66 tackles, six passes defensed, three interceptions and one sack.