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It's never too early to start thinking about next season. Here's who will be breaking out once September kicks off

By Andy Benoit
February 14, 2014

This is the final installment of a two-part series on players who will find the spotlight next season. The 2014 All-Emerge Team: Offense can be found here.

Defensive End

Cedric Thornton, Eagles

Thornton emerged last year, but few noticed. Assuming he continues to develop at his current pace, he’ll be impossible to overlook in 2014. The undrafted fourth-year pro is primarily a strongside defensive end in Philly’s one-gap style 3-4 (i.e. the J.J. Watt position), but he can also play nose tackle or shoot gaps as a nickel three-technique. He has country strength, good initial burst, sound east-west movement skills (critical in run defense against spread attacks), natural leverage and a relentless motor that’s best exhibited in the way he sheds blocks late in the down. Thornton is already one of the league’s premier point-of-attack run-stuffers; soon he’ll be considered one of the premier players period.

Devin Taylor, Lions

Taylor, at 6-7, is built like a thinner Chris Canty, but he plays like a bigger Shaun Phillips. The 2013 fourth-round pick has unusual initial quickness for his frame, and he’s pliable enough to bend the corner. Previous Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham occasionally used Taylor as a standup joker. It’s unknown exactly what type of scheme new boss Teryl Austin will employ. Regardless of the system, Taylor should thrive as long as he gets regular snaps as an edge-rusher.

Defensive Tackle

Damon Harrison (John Grieshop/Getty Images) Damon Harrison (John Grieshop/Getty Images)

Damon Harrison, Jets

Undrafted out of William Penn last year, the man nicknamed “Snacks” recently stole a starting job from Kenrick Ellis, who is an above average NFL nose tackle. That’s a tremendous emergence for someone who, two years earlier, was facing NAIA competition. His combination of size and initial quickness, factored with his innate sense for crumbling blocks in traffic, makes him a potential Pro Bowl force in a free-wheeling Jets scheme that’s built around disruptive defensive linemen.

Mike Daniels, Packers

The 2012 fourth-round pick blossomed into a regular rotation player last season, operating primarily in Green Bay’s nickel package. He has enough quickness to pressure the passer, and at 295 pounds he should be able to hold up on an every-down basis. He might get the chance to prove it, if the inconsistent B.J. Raji is deemed too expensive to re-sign. Daniels makes a lot of plays late in the down, as he has good block-shedding technique and the athleticism to capitalize on whatever space he creates.

Inside Linebacker

Kiko Alonso, Bills

It might be a stretch to say that, come Christmas, this second-rounder from Oregon will be mentioned in Defensive Player of the Year discussions. Alonso is one of the few players whose football IQ and natural instincts pop out on film. His plus size and speed only augment the pop. And that pop is equally evident against the run (159 tackles) and pass (four interceptions), which is rare. Alonso took over as the Bills’ defensive signal-caller on Day 1 (also rare); he should have no trouble transitioning to new coordinator Jim Schwartz’s system.

Vincent Rey, Bengals (restricted free agent)

The four-year backup shined as an everydown player when filling in for an injured Rey Maualuga last November. It was surprising the Bengals did not insert him as their fulltime nickel ‘backer down the stretch (he split some nickel snaps with Maualuga). Rey moves with speed and fluidity as an open space pass defender, blitzes with ferocity and knows how to employ these attributes against the run. His numbers even reflect it: four sacks, two interceptions, five pass deflections, one forced fumble and 57 tackles. Not bad for a second-string role player. Restricted free agents are rarely signed by new teams because their old team is then entitled to a draft pick from that new team. For Rey, it will likely be a mid-rounder, which would be worthwhile for a club in need of a good all-around inside ‘backer.

Outside Linebacker

Brandon Graham (Drew Hallowell/Getty Images) Brandon Graham (Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)

Brandon Graham, Eagles

It wasn’t supposed to take this long for Graham to emerge; the Eagles drafted him 13th overall in 2010. But his development was halted by a late-2010 knee injury, and he never quite found a niche in the 4-3 schemes that Andy Reid’s defensive coordinators ran. In Billy Davis’s hybrid 3-4, Graham operates primarily as an outside linebacker (though he’s also been effective lining up with his hand in the dirt). He should see more playing time with Trent Cole coming off a somewhat inconsistent 2013 campaign. And if he can’t take snaps from Cole, he’ll take them from someone else. Simply put, Graham will be the Eagles’ most dynamic pass-rusher in 2014.

Melvin Ingram, Chargers

Because New England’s Jamie Collins already began his emergence into superstardom this past postseason, we’ll shine the light on another versatile young pro. Those who follow the Chargers closely know that Ingram, a 2012 first-rounder, has already emerged as a solid starter. But because his tremendous skill set has not translated to tremendous statistics (two sacks in 20 games), casual fans are unfamiliar with the five-tool star. Ingram’s remarkable return last November from a May ACL injury helped spearhead San Diego’s playoff run. He has the explosiveness and bendability to be a double-digit sack artist, but he’s more valuable as a utility player. Fortunately, crafty defensive coordinator John Pagano knows that.


Stephon Gilmore, Bills

The popular cornerback debate is Revis or Sherman? By this time next year, it will be Revis, Sherman or Gilmore? Gilmore is lanky, strong and pliable. His 2012 rookie season was every bit as impressive as Revis’s 2007 rookie season. The only difference was Gilmore played in the quieter part of New York. Almost half of Gilmore’s 2013 sophomore season was lost to a wrist injury, but after he got back to 100 percent, he was soon used as a Cover-0 corner on the left side. This season, expect Gilmore, who is more of a stopper than ball-hawk, to be a Cover-0 corner all over the field, following the opponent’s No. 1 receiver.

Dwayne Gratz, Jaguars

Jacksonville’s defense was noticeably stronger when its third-round rookie was in the lineup last season. Head coach Gus Bradley wants to run the same defensive scheme here that he did as a coordinator in Seattle, so physicality at corner is key. Gratz is only 5-11, 200 pounds but plays big. He has a natural feel for press-man. He might not quite have the recovery speed to be elite, but he can still be everything the Jaguars need.

Slot Cornerback

Brandon Boykin, Eagles

D.J. Swearinger (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images) D.J. Swearinger (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

Boykin improved in man coverage over the course of his sophomore season, at times defending top-tier receivers down the seams with no safety help. He displayed strong adjustment skills against pick and rub routes, which is crucial for playing inside. He was also used in blitz packages, which likely will expand in Billy Davis’s second year as Philly’s defensive coordinator. Most importantly, he was a playmaker, intercepting six passes, including the game-clincher at Dallas that secured the NFC East title.

Strong Safety

D.J. Swearinger, Texans

This is a somewhat risky call because the second-rounder from South Carolina has so far played with the type of oversized chip on the shoulder that can stunt a career. But, as many a clichéd pregame show profile pieces have taught us, those chips can fuel a player’s rise to stardom. Or something like that…

Really, what fuels players to stardom is talent and football IQ. Swearinger has the former and he’s cultivating the latter. Last season, as a dime safety (and eventually a starter) he improved as a man-to-man defender against tight ends and became increasingly versatile in zone coverage. He’s capable of covering in space or coming down in the box. Unfortunately, he’s equally capable of making blunders—especially in space, where too often his ferocity backfired when he tried to tackle too high. New defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel will have to help his young stallion instill firmer fundamentals and patience.

Free Safety

George Iloka, Bengals

After coming on slowly as a fifth-round rookie, Iloka captured a starting job late in 2013 thanks largely to his comfort in centerfield. Reggie Nelson might be the titular free safety, but with his proclivity for edge blitzing—which he did in Mike Zimmer’s scheme and, presumably, will continue to do under linebackers coach turned coordinator Paul Guenther—whoever is at strong safety for the Bengals must be able to cover downfield and in space. Iloka can. He has exceptional range for a 6-4, 225-pounder, and he’s developing the route recognition to convert that to playmaking opportunities. And, of course, with his size, Iloka is a sturdy tackler, not just in the box but also the open field. 

The 2014 All-Emerge Team: Offense can be found here.


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