Vernon Hargreaves, T.J. Watt among rising defensive players

Now that the NFL is more than a week into the preseason, certain players are beginning to separate themselves from the pack. In keeping a watchful eye on all 32 teams, NFL Network analyst Ike Taylor has noticed a number of defenders who have boosted their stock heading into the 2017 regular season. Here are his top five:

In Year 1, the game moved too fast for Hargreaves mentally -- and that forced him to slow up physically. He didn't have a poor season by any means, but he took some growing pains. A year later, it's evident that the game has slowed down, judging by what I've seen him do throughout training camp and preseason. The 5-foot-10, 204-pound cornerback recorded an interception in the red zone against Andy Dalton and the Bengals last week -- he had one INT total in his rookie campaign. This is promising.

Hargreaves is playing with a lot of confidence entering Year 2. I would be too if I consistently challenged one of the league's top receiving tandems (Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson) in every practice. Jackson is a burner, while Evans can out-jump anybody with great body control. It doesn't hurt that Hargreaves also gets reps (in some packages) against rookie tight end O.J. Howard, a player who has all of these attributes. This is helluva group to compete against on a daily basis.

I spent two weeks in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, for the Steelers training camp, and let me tell you, it felt good to be back! The youngest Watt brother, T.J., is a rookie -- but he certainly doesn't play like one. He's spent a ton of time in the playbook and you can tell. In his first preseason game, the pass rusher had two sacks, a quarterback hit and a pass deflection. Watt is playing fast and working on his craft with coach Joey Porter, who seemed impressed after Watt's debut.

"That sack was just a good, instinctive, open-field play," Porter said, via Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "A lot of people can miss that. His change of direction is better than what people think. They don't know he's a great athlete in space."

This is the kind of play the Steelers need on defense. Don't be surprised if Watt is in the Defensive Rookie of the Year conversation throughout this season -- I know I won't be.

I've been raving about this guy the entireoffseason. The fifth-round pick has been underestimated because of his 5-foot-10, 184-pound frame, but to hell with all that "small stature" talk. Kazee has balled out in training camp and preseason as a free safety for the Falcons. He's earned first-team reps and has made severalimpressive plays. Kazee has outstanding awareness and ball skills, which will make it hard for Dan Quinn to keep him off the field, even with a deep secondary. Expect big things from a guy who reminds me a lot of Earl Thomas and Tyrann Mathieu -- both small, dominant free safeties. Does Kazee have what it takes to be a Pro Bowl-caliber safety? He's certainly trending that way, but I'm not ready to make that prediction. However, it's realistic to say he could spend a January weekend in Orlando after Year 2.

I can't think of anyone who has suffered more major injuries -- three ACL tears on the same knee, as well as a broken arm during Carolina's 2015 Super Bowl run -- and returned without skipping a beat the following season more than Davis has. It seems like every year people count this guy out because of the adversity he's faced physically, and he keeps kicking the door down and bouncing back. In 2016, Davis notched his fifth straight season with 100 tackles, proving his value even at 33 years old. Davis' consistent play and leadership, which has earned him a recent contract extension, is sure to get the defensive unit closer to its 2015 form.

"Thomas is still playing fast and at a high level, and the intensity and passion that he brings to the game is unmatched," linebackers coach Al Holcomb said."

Looking forward to seeing what the 34-year-old has in store for us this season. I guess it's kind of weird to call him a riser, but man -- he just keeps rising!

How on earth can Thomas' stock rise, you ask? It's simple. After he suffered a season-ending leg injury in December, we could certainly tell the Seahawks missed the five-time Pro Bowler just as much as he missed being out there. Now, Thomas, who seriously considered retirement after the injury, is back with the Legion of Boom and hasn't missed a step. It's common for players to tiptoe back onto the field after a major injury, but Thomas has shown no such deficiency. His confidence is higher than ever -- get ready for Seattle's traffic-control guy to make some splash plays right out of the gate. It looks to me like he's going to fly around to another first-team All-Pro nod, something he hasn't had since 2014.

Follow Ike Taylor on Twitter @Ike_SwagginU.

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