In this four-part series, NFL Network analysts Willie McGinest, Terrell Davis, Reggie Wayne and Gil Brandt examine youngsters who are poised for a breakout campaign. Today, Gil Brandt identifies defensive backs.
Kazee's rookie contract is set to run through 2020, and his breakout season should help set him up nicely when it comes time to negotiate a second NFL deal. Which NFL defensive backs could follow in Kazee's footsteps this season, putting their stamp on the league and boosting their future financial prospects? Below, I've ranked nine defensive backs primed to break out in 2019.
Note: Like the other writers in this series, I've limited my pool of prospective breakout candidates to players still on their rookie contracts.
1) Jaire Alexander, CB, Green Bay Packers
Drafted: Round 1, No. 18 overall, in 2018.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick was among those singing Alexander's praises last season -- and the Alexander bandwagon will only get more crowded if the second-year pro makes good on his June vow to earn Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors. Alexander's confidence in himself is justified, coming off a rookie season in which he had 66 tackles, 11 passes defensed and a pick. The Packers' No. 1 cornerback should get a boost if Kyler Fackrell and free-agent signees Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith provide the kind of pass-rush complement the Packers are expecting them to. Alexander is competitive and has ball skills, and I think we'll see him follow up his strong debut by graduating to shutdown corner status.
2) John Johnson, S, Los Angeles Rams
Drafted: Round 3, No. 91 overall, in 2017.
Johnson's name came to mind right away when I first started working on this piece. He really blossomed in 2018, logging 119 tackles and four interceptions -- and that total doesn't include the pick he recorded against Drew Brees in overtime of the NFC title game to set up the winning kick. I'm expecting Johnson to advance again in 2019 and join the ranks of elite NFL safeties. One of the reasons to feel good about him is the Rams' addition of veteran safety Eric Weddle, who can serve as an important mentor. Johnson also appears to have an exceptional ability to find the ball -- he's one of those guys who seems to know where the ball is going before it's thrown. This is an exceptional player who will get even better.
3) Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Miami Dolphins
Drafted: Round 1, No. 11 overall, in 2018.
The Dolphins wasted no time throwing Fitzpatrick into the fire during his rookie year, giving him defensive responsibilities normally associated with more seasoned players. He started five games at safety, three at outside corner and three at nickel, which led to some bumps in the road; Fitzpatrick committed 10 penalties for an NFL-high 152 yards, according to NFLPenalites.com. Still, getting experience in that jack-of-all-trades role should benefit him in the multiple-look defense being installed by new head coach Brian Flores, who plans to highlight the Alabama product in a similar way. Fitzpatrick doesn't have one single trait that sets him apart from others, and he needs to work with a coach who knows how to use him, but I think we could see him take a major step forward under Flores.
4) Sidney Jones, CB, Philadelphia Eagles
Drafted: Round 2, No. 43 overall, in 2017.
Jones was ticketed for a first-round draft slot until he suffered an Achilles injury at his pro day, knocking him into the second round, where the Eagles -- who are always so good at ferreting out opportunities like this -- scooped him up for his potential. He sat out most of 2017, then battled a hamstring injury in 2018 that limited him to nine games and four starts. If he can stay healthy in 2019, he has a chance to seize the No. 1 cornerback job. Jones looked the part at times in OTAs and minicamp, taking reps at left corner. He has two traits that lead to success at the cornerback position: size (he checks in at 6 feet tall and 181 pounds) and exceptional quickness. You have to give the Eagles credit for making a pick two years ago with the future in mind -- especially if they wind up reaping the rewards for their foresight in 2019.
5) Jessie Bates, S, Cincinnati Bengals
Drafted: Round 2, No. 54 overall, in 2018.
There were few positives for a Bengals defense that surrendered a league-high 413.6 yards per game in 2018 -- but Bates' emergence was one of them. The Bengals were so impressed by the Wake Forest product last preseason that they released George Iloka to clear a path for Bates to start. He proceeded to play 98.7% of Cincinnati's defensive snaps, becoming the first Bengals rookie to start 16 games on defense since Takeo Spikes and Artrell Hawkins both did it in 1998. Bates is something of an overachiever. Despite growing up in the heart of Big Ten country -- in Fort Wayne, Indiana -- no one from the conference offered him a scholarship, and he ended up at Wake Forest, where he began a growth process that continued through his first NFL season. He just got better every game. The offseason hiring of new Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, whose specialty coming up has been coaching defensive backs, should only help Bates take his game to an even higher level.
6) Shaquill Griffin, CB, Seattle Seahawks
Drafted: Round 3, No. 90 overall, in 2017.
The Seahawks felt so confident in Griffin heading into last season that he was shifted from right to left cornerback following Richard Sherman's release last offseason. Griffin started all 16 games and finished with 62 tackles, eight passes defensed and two picks. It's tough to directly follow in the footsteps of a future Hall of Famer like Sherman. That said, Griffin himself recently labeled his efforts last season as "average," adding that as the No. 1 corner, he "can't have average years." In the interest of improving, Griffin dropped 12 pounds and hired a personal chef to help him with his dietary goals. He also focused on improving his mental approach, admitting that the pressure of replacing Sherman affected him last season. The fact that Seattle did not draft a cornerback this year shows Pete Carroll and Co. have confidence that Griffin will resume his upward career trajectory in 2019.
7) Terrell Edmunds, S, Pittsburgh Steelers
Drafted: Round 1, No. 28 overall, in 2018.
Edmunds was projected by most people to be a second-round pick, but the Steelers jumped up and snagged the safety -- and he proceeded to play 1,189 snaps (including special teams), which was more than any other rookie in 2018, while proving he warranted the use of that first-round choice. The brother of fellow first-round pick Tremaine Edmunds, Terrell stepped in for injured safety Morgan Burnett early in the year and never looked back, collecting the second-most tackles on the team (78). That said, Edmunds finished the year with just one interception and zero forced fumbles. The hope is that both Edmunds and defensive back Sean Davis can generate more impact plays under the tutelage of new staffer Teryl Austin, the former Lions and Bengals defensive coordinator.
8) Xavier Woods, S, Dallas Cowboys
Drafted: Round 6, No. 191 overall, in 2017.
Though safety was considered the biggest weakness on the Cowboys' roster entering this offseason, Dallas did not go all out to land a big-money player like Earl Thomas. I expect Woods to justify that strategy by taking a big step forward in 2019. Secondary coach Kris Richard expects him to generate more turnovers (he had two picks last season) while remaining physical in coverage with receivers and tight ends, and it's safe to say Richard knows what he's talking about, given the success he had grooming Thomas and Kam Chancellor in Seattle. Woods will be a key contributor this season to a defense that ranked seventh overall and sixth in scoring in 2018.
9) Adoree' Jackson, CB, Tennessee Titans
Drafted: Round 1, No. 18 overall, in 2017.
Physical skills aren't an issue with Jackson, an Olympic-level athlete. Rather, the key for him is getting more consistent. Jackson has to put up more performances like his stellar outing against Patriots receiver Josh Gordon in Tennessee's Week 10 win over New England -- and eliminate duds like his effort against the Colts' T.Y. Hilton in Week 11. If he can become more consistent, Jackson can become one of the NFL's top cornerbacks. Jackson reportedly spent more time at the Titans' headquarters this offseason in an effort to become a better student of the game, and his hard work should pay dividends as he returns from a foot injury that sidelined him from doing on-field work during OTAs and minicamp. Jackson has a chance to be an All-Pro if he can put it all together.