Jabaal Sheard (left) could be poised for a huge year under new defensive coordinator Ray Horton. (Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)
Even in the NFL, there are players who don’t get the name-checks and face-time their talents deserve. At every position, even the most glamorous ones, there are guys who have earned recognition, but they simply don’t get it. Maybe they’re laboring away on bad teams, or the light is just coming on after a few years in the league, or circumstances are changing for the better around them. Yesterday, we put together an estimable offense of players under the radar. Today, based on Football Outsiders’ advanced metrics, conversations with people around the league and a lot of tape study, we'll look at a team of players on defense you should be watching more than you may have been.
Defensive Ends: Derrick Morgan, Tennessee Titans/Jabaal Sheard, Cleveland Browns
The Titans selected Morgan with the 16th overall pick in the 2010 draft, and he responded by racking up a grand total of four sacks in his first two seasons. It was not enough, and he fell quickly off the radar just in time for his breakout season. In 2012, Morgan racked up 6.5 sacks -- a below-average total for a first-round pick -- but his sub-stats were extremely impressive, and point to greater things. He ranked sixth overall in quarterback hurries with 28.5, ahead of guys like Ndamukong Suh, Jared Allen and Aldon Smith. He ranked seventh in quarterback hits with 25, ahead of guys like DeMarcus Ware, Chris Clemons and Elvis Dumervil. There’s a fairly decent correlation between a low sack total with high hits and hurries one season and a bust-out sack number the next season (call it the “Chris Long Rule,”), so Morgan bears watching in 2013.
Sheard will play outside linebacker on a high number of snaps in Ray Horton’s defense, but it’s his 2011-12 work as an end with which we’re concerned. He’s put up 15.5 sacks in that time in a front seven that gets too little recognition as it is, and we believe that he’s about to become one of the pre-eminent pass rushers in the game. He has the speed off the edge to affect quarterbacks in space, and he’s also an outstanding run defender. Horton is one of the league’s most creative defensive coordinators, and we can’t wait to see what he does with Sheard.
Defensive Tackles: Barry Cofield, Washington Redskins/Jason Hatcher, Dallas Cowboys
Robert Griffin received the lion’s share of recognition when people were talking about the Redskins last year, and justifiably so. But Cofield was one in a handful of players who put up surprising performances on defense. In 2013, Cofield had his best NFL season to date, racking up outstanding pressure numbers at the nose in Washington’s 5-2 fronts. The Northwestern product has developed the ability to take on double teams with strength and power, but it’s his knack for sifting through blocks that has allowed him to make more plays than the average bowling ball up the middle. He amassed 2.5 sacks, 13 quarterback hits, 19 quarterback hurries and two deflected passes at a position where most players get swallowed up providing rush lanes for others.
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Similarly, Hatcher was an unrecognized force for Rob Ryan’s Cowboys defense, putting up as many quarterback hits (11) as DeMarcus Ware had, and almost as many hurries (20.5 to Ware’s 22). As Ware pointed out to me recently, Hatcher ranked second behind J.J. Watt in quarterback pressures among interior linemen, and if new Cowboys defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin uses Hatcher as a three-technique in a 4-3 front, Hatcher could repeat those numbers.
Defensive Linemen: Michael Bennett, Seattle Seahawks/LaMarr Houston, Oakland Raiders
For our purposes, we will define “defensive linemen” as players who spend serious time at end and tackle in multiple fronts, tie up various gaps and excel pretty much everywhere. As defenses become more versatile out of necessity, players with these skills are more important than ever. Bennett did so with authority for a Bucs defense that was castigated for terrible pass coverage, but he added nine sacks and 33.5 pressures at end and tackle in specific situations. He’ll do the same for Pete Carroll’s Seattle defense in 2013, and watch out, because few coaches better understand how to move linemen around in multiple fronts than Carroll.
Houston’s relative anonymity has been a mystery to me since he was taken by the Raiders in the second round of the 2010 draft. He put up five sacks in his rookie season, when the coaches were moving him all over the place, and kept his QB pressures at 21 in his second season despite moving down to one sack (an indication that sacks don’t tell the whole story when it comes to pass-rushers). In 2012, he moved back up in the sack department, upped his hit total to 10, from six, and maintained his status as one of the best young undersold multi-gap defenders in the league.[si_cvp_video id="video_C653248D-B607-25F4-B980-2856C806F3DE"]Inside Linebackers: Sean Lee, Dallas Cowboys/D’Qwell Jackson, Cleveland Browns
Lee played in just six games last year before a severe case of turf toe ended his season, but he was unquestionably the NFL’s best range linebacker before that happened. Lee can fly to the ball in running plays, which is what you’d expect of an inside linebacker, but his X-Factor is his ability to cover in the passing game. Lee will move from ILB to the MIKE (middle linebacker) position in Kiffin’s Tampa-2 concepts, and he has everything it takes to be great in that role -- if he can just stay healthy.
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As for Jackson, he’s another reason you shouldn’t sleep on Cleveland’s defense this season. He’ll be blitzing more in Horton’s defense, and he’s very excited about the possibilies. "It's going to be good to finally get after the Baltimores and the Pittsburghs and actually give them a little dose of their own medicine,'' he said in April. "They play aggressive. I watch all the top defenses and Baltimore and Pittsburgh, they get after people, and that's what Ray brings here.''
Outside Linebackers: Ryan Kerrigan, Washington Redskins/Wesley Woodyard, Denver Broncos
Kerrigan’s 2012 stats (8.5 sacks, seven hits, 27 hurries and six tipped passes) would be impressive for any pass-rushing “endbacker,” but he really stands out when you consider that Brian Orakpo, his ostensible bookend, was out for most of last season, allowing offensive lines to cheat over to Kerrigan’s side. Orakpo and Kerrigan on the field at the same time is very bad news for quarterbacks around the league.
Woodyard is an interesting wild card. Long a team captain and special-teams contributor, he developed into a starting force last season in Jack Del Rio’s defense. Blitzing from inside and outside, he totaled 117 tackles, three interceptions and 5.5 sacks, becoming the first player since Brian Urlacher in 2007 to amass at least 100 tackles, three picks and five sacks. He’s in a contract year in 2013 (set to make $3 million in base salary), and the Broncos would do well to change that status.
Cornerbacks: Casey Hayward, Green Bay Packers/Kareem Jackson, Houston Texans
As the Packers’ primary slot cornerback in 2012, Heyward led the team in picks with six in his rookie season. Per Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Success Rate metric, he was the most efficient pass defender in the league last year. And it wasn’t just out of the slot -- per Pro Football Focus, he played 338 of his 769 snaps in the slot, and grabbed just two of his picks there. He allowed a ridiculous 47.0 quarterback rating when in the slot, the best in the NFL among qualifying players, and a 31.1 rating overall, also the best in the league. Hayward is fighting for more starting time outside, and the only thing stopping him is how great he is as a slot corner -- a position increasing in importance as offenses go with more three- and four-receiver sets in hurry-up offenses.
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Jackson was a relatively unheralded cog in Houston’s defense last season, and it’s worth mentioning that J.J. Watt wasn’t the only Texan playing out of his mind in 2012. Only Washington’s Josh Wilson had more snaps in pass coverage than Jackson’s 635, and though he did allow five touchdowns, he also picked off four passes and allowed just 44 receptions on 94 targets.
Safeties: Jairus Byrd, Buffalo Bills/Reshad Jones, Miami Dolphins
Byrd frequently gets bashed by people looking at stats without understanding their schematic context -- yes, he is usually among the league leaders in yards per pass allowed (14.3 in 2012), but that’s because he’s playing center field so often, and he’s usually (and literally) Buffalo’s last line of defense. In 2012, he allowed just 16 receptions as the primary target on 561 coverage snaps, picked off five passes and allowed no touchdowns. That last stat is especially impressive for a deep safety. Oh, yeah -- he was one of PFF’s highest-rated safeties as a run defender. Byrd is now a great all-around player and should be recognized as such.
The Dolphins just re-signed Jones to a new four-year, $30 million contract, so it’s safe to say that they don’t think he’s underrated, but it’s surprising that he isn’t mentioned more as one of the league’s up-and-coming safeties. He ranked seventh in FO’s coverage metrics, and sixth among safeties in yards per pass. Jones is only 25 and is definitely trending up.