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  • Even in a year of record-setting offense, there are a handful of first-year players thriving on the defensive side of the ball. Sizing up the best of a great crop of defensive rookies.
By Andy Benoit
December 12, 2018

This is the most fascinating Defensive Rookie of the Year race in recent memory, as so many high-drafted players are overachieving. Already the 2018 draft has produced at least a dozen stars. Let’s rank and analyze them as they stand right now.

12. Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Dolphins (11th overall)
There was talk that Fitzpatrick was drafted to stabilize centerfielder in Miami’s secondary. But so far, the 6' 1", 202-pounder has shown the keen versatility that defined him at Alabama. After playing slot corner early in the year, Fitzpatrick dabbled at free safety and strong safety before recently settling in at right cornerback. He has performed mostly well at all spots, especially (and most importantly) against vertical routes, which he defends with an almost eerie calm.

11. Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Bills (16th overall)
The NFL’s youngest player (he won’t turn 21 until May) struggled immensely in zone coverage early in the season, making play-action the favorite tactic of every Bills opponent. But to Edmunds’s credit, he has become more patient with his reads early in the down, which has allowed him to better employ his speed late in the down. With fellow starting linebacker Matt Milano having a surprisingly stellar season before fracturing his fibula on Sunday, Buffalo’s defense is set inside for the foreseeable future. Linebackers are crucial to this team, as head coach Sean McDermott has brought over many of the double-A-gap pressures and disguises that he ran with Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis in Carolina.

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10. B.J. Hill, DT, Giants (69th overall)
Giants defensive coordinator James Bettcher said early in the season that he’s never had a more ready-made rookie than Hill. Precocious professionalism earned the NC State product immediate playing time, and now we’re seeing him play with faster, sharper technique, which happens when a young guy gets more comfortable. Hill might not have the initial burst to ever be a dominant top-shelf playmaker, but his mechanics, awareness and tenacity can make him an everydown force.

9. Fred Warner, LB, 49ers (70th overall)
Warner might be destined for a career of unjust obscurity given that, as this list is about to reveal, he’s part of what could turn out to be the best linebacking draft class of all time. From Day One, Warner has shown veteran-like awareness for his run gap responsibilities, and he has never looked like a liability in coverage, which can be hard to avoid for a young linebacker in a Cover 3-based scheme like San Francisco’s.

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8. Rashaan Evans, LB, Titans (22nd overall)
Much like Roquan Smith, Evans at first came along slowly after missing time (in his case, due to injury). But recently he has played in more and more of Tennessee’s sub-packages, where the pass-rushing prowess he showed at Alabama is starting to shine through, both on blitzes and straight rushes off the line of scrimmage. What stands out even more is Evans’s old-school physicality when taking on blocks and ball-carriers.

7. Bradley Chubb, Edge, Broncos (5th overall)
Though not quite as athletically pliable as teammate Von Miller (who sets that bar for all front-line defenders), Chubb has the edge-bending ability that’s required for sustained pass-rushing success in the NFL. With his 12th sack on the season last Sunday, he has already broken Miller’s team record for sacks by a rookie. And unlike many young players, Chubb does not need much space in order to operate. In fact, he has played most of his snaps in high-traffic areas, as he often aligns on the formation’s strong side. (This, by the way, allows Miller to play the weak side, where he’s harder to double-team.) Chubb can consistently dominate tight ends, and his greatest strength is setting the edge, which makes those around him better in run defense.

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6. Jaire Alexander, CB, Packers (18th overall)
In today’s NFL, corners who can match up one-on-one are invaluable, especially when they can do so from outside or in the slot. That negates the formational flexibility that define some of the league’s more advanced aerial attacks. Alexander has been part of Packers D coordinator Mike Pettine’s staple defensive back blitz packages, and his man coverage prowess has allowed Pettine to be more assertive with other blitz designs. Yes, it’s been a season of secret highs and lows for Alexander—he’s given up some big completions on plays where he had great coverage, and he’s also been beat for would-be touchdowns on balls that, for one reason or another, were not thrown. Highs and lows are expected for an aggressive young corner in an aggressive scheme. It’s most telling that Green Bay is so comfortable relying heavily on its rookie corner.

5. Roquan Smith, LB, Bears (8th overall)
His prolonged holdout indeed carried consequences, as the Georgia product was slow to pick up Chicago’s nuanced, complex scheme after missing training camp. But with each passing week Smith has looked sharper, showing the sideline-to-sideline range that gives Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio the comfort to play what’s basically a 5-2 base front. Smith is also learning to apply the subtle alignments and post-snap movements that make Fangio’s matchup zones so maddeningly blurry. That’s partly why Chicago’s safeties (particularly Eddie Jackson) can be so aggressive.

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4. Darius Leonard, LB, Colts (36th overall)
Indy’s rebuilding defense figured to be at least a year or two away from respectability, but it surpassed that level months ago. Leonard is the biggest reason why. In first-year defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus’s scheme, linebackers must play off defensive linemen who are constantly shooting into different gaps. Leonard does that very soundly, while showing he can explode into designated gaps himself when called upon.

3. Denzel Ward, CB, Browns (4th overall)
Many were surprised when Browns GM John Dorsey took Ward fourth overall, but defensive coordinator Gregg Williams needed a matchup corner to stabilize the outside man coverages that pair with his diverse zone blitzes. The Browns may not feel comfortable with Ward against bigger receivers (a few weeks ago they gave DeAndre Hopkins duty to No. 2 corner T.J. Carrie, for example), but they like Ward against any small-to-medium-sized receiver. That’s rarer than you think; only a handful of corners in recent years have traveled consistently with the Antonio Brown, T.Y. Hilton types.

2. Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Cowboys (19th overall)
The Boise State product had started just 14 games of 11-man football upon entering the NFL; as in high school he played eight-man in Riggins, Idaho (population: 413). Vander Esch said prior to the draft that the eight-man game was beneficial because it forced him to tackle in space. Turns out that wasn’t just pre-draft spin. He might already be the NFL’s best open area tackler—a crucial note in an era where offenses more than ever look to quickly get the ball in space. Given how swiftly and effortlessly he covers ground and closes in, and his rising coverage acumen (his technique in man and awareness in zone have looked better each week), Vander Esch will soon be the NFL’s best linebacker, assuming his football IQ is indeed as sharp as it appears.

1. Derwin James, S, Chargers (17th overall)
He’s the type of safety we thought could only be produced in a lab: long arms, thick frame, athletic burst and uncapped physicality. So far James has played predominantly in the box, both up on the line of scrimmage and off the ball, but he’s shown the nimbleness to venture back in space or, in certain scenarios, cover the slot. Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley has expanded his Seahawks-style scheme over the last two years and must push even further; James, one of football’s most explosive blitzers, should be sent after the quarterback 10-12 times a game. He alone justifies turning the Chargers into a Ravens-style fire zone defense.

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NFL Game Pass

’TACKLE ELIGIBLE’ PLAYS MUST BE CURTAILED

I get called a killjoy for saying that these “tackle eligible” passes, like the one Detroit’s Taylor Decker scored on against the Rams two weeks ago, should be outlawed. But someone needs to flip on the lights and yell, “party’s over!”

It’s patently unfair that a player in an ineligible jersey number can align at offensive tackle and have the ball thrown to him all because he wiped his chest before the play to tell the referee “Hey, the rules say I’m normally ineligible, but for this play I’d like to be eligible.”

The most common retort I get here is that the referee clearly announces before the play that Number—say 68—is eligible, and so the defense should pay attention and guard Number 68. Wrong. A defender prior to the snap should not be held responsible for hearing what an official says over a loudspeaker (sometimes too quickly, mind you). Players are communicating with their coaches and teammates; no other scenario in football forces them to quickly process a third-party message like this.

Besides, what happens when an offense takes it to an extreme like the Bears did against those same Decker-victimized Rams Sunday night? On Bradley Sowell’s touchdown, the Bears had five—five!—“ineligible numbered” players report as eligible. How can you expect a defense to immediately sort out assignments against five ineligible-numbered players?

We’re told these throws to linemen make football “fun.” Let the fat guys catch a pass! Fine, but bring some order to it. Simply make the first two players aligned on each side of the ball ineligible, and every other player automatically eligible. Let the formation sort it out. This would still allow for passes like on the Sowell play but not cheap passes like the Decker player.

TWEET ELABORATION

What a disaster this trade turned out to be. The Bills gave up a third- and seventh-round pick for a receiver who would catch 39 balls for 571 yards in 18 games, and at times was at least a small off-field distraction. Benjamin, in theory, was the right fit for Josh Allen, an occasionally wild fastball thrower who could use a big, forgiving target inside. But Benjamin has never learned to use his size. Poor mechanics and physicality have caused him to play small, and he doesn’t have the speed and quickness to compensate. With so much film now on how to stop him, don’t expect the 2014 first-round pick to be more than a No. 4 receiver in Kansas City.

JOSH ALLEN’S LEGS

They need to be a featured part of Buffalo’s offense. Allen has done a great job using his legs on scrambles against man coverage, where Buffalo’s increasingly vertical passing attack is lifting defenders and creating voids in the middle of the field. These last three weeks of 2018 must be spent incorporating Allen more into the foundational run game designs, like what the Panthers do with Cam Newton. The next question will be whether Allen can develop into a quality on-the-move thrower. If he can, Buffalo’s run-pass integration designs will be hard to handle in 2019 and beyond.

LET’S MAKE A BETTER WORLD

People who implore you to “just go with the flow” are usually being bullies. They don’t want to make plans or solve problems themselves, and they get intimidated by the Type A’s who actually can and do. So, they paint those Type A’s as controlling tightwads who can’t appreciate the world for what it is. In doing so, they ignore the fact that most modern conveniences and advancements have come from Type A’s who are willing to see a world beyond just what Henry David Thoreau says is there. Next time someone tells you to “just go with the flow,” tell them to go build a dam. The best flows are the ones we make and manage ourselves.

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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