SOMETHING HARD to quantify hit the NFL in the first half of the season. Not quite a trend, but more than a feeling: Young defensive players--rookies, second- and third-year players--are making a bigger impact than, well, maybe ever. ¬∂ The Colts are 8-0 and on track for the Super Bowl using seven key defensive players who are 25 or younger; Colts defensive end Robert Mathis, 24, is tied for the NFL sack lead with eight, while linebacker Cato June, 25, is second in the league with five interceptions. The Jets followed middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma's young leadership to the playoffs last year, and now two contenders--Cincinnati (with Odell Thurman) and Seattle (Lofa Tatupu)--have rookie middle 'backers calling defensive signals. In Chicago safety Mike Brown, 27, is the old man of a rock-solid secondary for the NFC North--leading Bears. None of his fellow starters (cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher and rookie safety Chris Harris) has turned 25 yet. Five rookies are playing in Cowboys defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's rotation, helping Dallas contend in the resurgent NFC East. The most accomplished of the young bunch, and certainly the most recognizable, may be Steelers safety Troy Polamalu (page 44), who in just three seasons has become a force in the league, ranging all over the field, hair flowing as he delivers game-changing plays.
"I see it every week, right in front of me," says Chiefs defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham. "The league is changing. First-day draft picks are coming in and making an impact early on defense."
"If you're good, you're good," says Tillman, 24, an intelligent third-year player who has started since October of his rookie year. "LeBron James was--what?--18 when he came into the NBA. Michelle Wie's playing with the best at 16. No one said, 'Oh, she's too young.' Football's not old school anymore, where you sit till you're a senior in college, then get to play, then sit for two or three years before you get your chance in the NFL. When I came to camp as a rookie, it was all about who was the best guy."
The philosophy of building a defense with star free agents and supplementing them with meat and potatoes in the draft began to wane in the late '90s, after several high-profile mistakes. In 1998 Jacksonville gave linebacker Bryce Paup a five-year, $21.8-million deal, and he gave the Jags 7 1/2 sacks in two years before being cut. That same year cornerback Doug Evans (Carolina), defensive end Gabe Wilkins (San Francisco) and defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield (Washington) signed for a combined $79 million; they made zero Pro Bowls for those teams. In '99 Dale Carter signed a six-year, $38 million deal and gave Denver one lousy season on the field and a second in which he was suspended for substance abuse.
"Money can make fools of all of us," says Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer. "There've been some lessons learned from free agency. And I've changed a little bit when it comes to the draft. I used to say draft a guy and let him sit till he learns it, maybe two or three years. Now, the last five or six years, they've got to produce in year two and three."
The first five picks in last April's draft were offensive players, but 34 of the next 59 were defenders. And there's no question that the bigger impact has been made by the defensive rookies, led by Thurman, San Diego's Luis Castillo and Shawne Merriman, and Dallas's Demarcus Ware--any of whom could make the Pro Bowl this season.
Says Tennessee director of pro scouting Al Smith, a 10-year NFL linebacker who retired in 1997, "On our side of the business we're seeing it's better to draft a good prospect and develop him rather than spending $10 or $15 million on a signing bonus in free agency and getting burned. With guys like Merriman and Ware, you basically tell them, 'Get to the quarterback and don't jump offside.'"
In addition to Polamalu, these are the young turks who have made their mark on defense in the first half of 2005.
Cato June, 25, LB, Indianapolis.
On the second day of the 2003 draft, June, a 6-foot, 217-pound safety at Michigan, was picked by Indianapolis in round 6, then got a call that changed his football life. Coach Tony Dungy said the team planned to try him at linebacker, a position he'd never played before. June proved to be a quick learner, morphing into a sideline-to-sideline playmaker--he bulked up to 227 and led the Colts with 128 tackles last year as a first-year starter--as well as one of the NFL's best coverage linebackers. So far this year he has returned two of his five interceptions for touchdowns. The first broke open the season opener at Baltimore. The second, a 24-yarder at San Francisco, showcased his speed and agility. "I'm feeling more comfortable every week," June says. When he's all the way there, he just might be the next Derrick Brooks.
Luis Castillo, 22, DE, San Diego.
The 6'3", 303-pound tackle-end out of Northwestern made more news before the 2005 draft for his steroid admission (he says he used a steroid precursor banned by the NFL to speed his recovery from an elbow injury) than for his football. He's started at left end since Week 2, and his heft has helped San Diego hold foes to 79.5 yards per game on the ground. "I loved him before the draft," Kansas City's Cunningham says. "A blind man could have picked him." The man who did, Schottenheimer, says, "I don't know that I've seen a defensive lineman come into the league and play as well as early as Castillo has." What's so valuable about Castillo, and why the Chargers valued him highly enough to use a first-round pick on him despite the steroid incident, is his versatility. He doesn't have classic NFL nosetackle size, but he does have the ability to spell Pro Bowl nose man Jamal Williams when the Chargers need him to.
Charles Tillman, 24, CB, Chicago.
In his rookie year, 2003, with Chicago nursing a late 13-10 lead over Minnesota, Tillman was covering Vikings wideout Randy Moss. As Daunte Culpepper floated a throw toward Moss in the end zone, Tillman went up and wrestled it away for an interception. Corners need to ooze confidence; Tillman already had it at age 22. "If I don't have confidence, if I doubt myself, Moss would have caught that football," Tillman said last week. "In this position if you start thinking, you get burned. You've just got to use your instincts and fight out there." Fast-forward to Week 8 this year, Bears and Lions tied at 13 in overtime at Detroit. The Chicago front pressures Lions quarterback Jeff Garcia. Tillman lies in the weeds. Garcia floats one across the middle. Tillman picks it cleanly and sprints 22 yards for the winning touchdown. He's a technically sound cornerback who rarely gets beaten deep and clearly has a nose for the big play.
Jared Allen, 23, DE, Kansas City.
The Chiefs picked Allen in the fourth round of 2004 in part because they needed a long snapper and he had done that at Idaho State. But they were so deficient on defense, particularly their pass rush, that they gave Allen an early shot at defensive end last year, and the move paid off. At 6'6" and 265 pounds with quick feet, Allen sacked Mike Vick twice in one game in '04. "I should have had him three times," Allen said last week, with a tinge of regret. His nine-sack rookie year means that he now gets chipped more by running backs and tight ends, but he's shrugged off the extra attention and still delivered five sacks this season, three in one game against Washington. "I love him, I love him, I love him," Cunningham says. "Monster attitude, relentless, great character. He could be good for a long time."
Darrent Williams, 23, CB, Denver.
Last year the Broncos signed cornerback Champ Bailey for $63 million over seven years. Now, with Bailey in and out of the lineup with a bad hamstring, they're getting great cornerback play from two rookies, second-rounder Williams and third-round pick Domonique Foxworth. This is why the Denver coaches love Williams: Against Philadelphia he covered Terrell Owens for about 15 snaps, and Donovan McNabb threw two passes Owens's way, both incomplete. "I really wanted him to throw at TO when I had him," Williams says. "You build a reputation by playing well against guys like that." Against Philly the 5'8" rookie bobbed and jumped at the line, keeping the Eagles guessing before flying in for a rib-jarring sack of McNabb. Williams plays like a 6'1" veteran. Nothing fazes him. "My uncle, Stanley Williams, taught me the most valuable lesson I learned growing up--don't back down. When you're a corner my size, it's something you need to remember all the time."
Don't back down. Good credo for the new wave of D stars.
Polamalu ransacked the Pack last Sunday, returning one of his two fumble recoveries 77 yards for a touchdown.
Linebacker June is a key playmaker in Indy.