Rookie Watch – Defense
Following up on my top five rookies on offense last week, I take a look at the best of the 2020 NFL Draft Class on defense.
Defensive specialists don’t often get the hype of a quarterback, receiver or offensive lineman. They are often the less glamorous, gritty characters whose purpose is simply to stop the opposing team scoring. That said, these players are as critical to the success of the team that picks them. Often becoming the crucial link that turns middle of the pack into a contender or a contender into a champion.
Defenders can steal the limelight too – see Deion Sanders in Atlanta, Dallas and San Francisco. The Chicago Bears Super Bowl winning team boasted Walter Payton. But won it with the likes of Mike Singletary, Dan Hampton and William “The Refrigerator” Perry. Ray Lewis in Baltimore, the Watt brothers JJ and TJ and latterly Nick Bosa have all had huge impacts. So what does our rookie watch tell us about the top contenders?
So, who is in the running for Defensive Rookie of the Year?
1. Patrick Queen, LB, Baltimore – 67 tackles, 2 sacks]
The Ravens take a linebacker late in the first round. Measuring 6 feet tall and just over 230 lbs. They are not the first in their position taken. But as their rookie year unfolds, their speed and aggression marks them out as something special. It’s clear this player will be the cornerstone of this defense for years. Sounds like Ray Lewis, doesn’t it?
There are real similarities here, but I’m talking about 2020, not 1999. Or am I? Patrick Queen was taken with the 28th pick, Lewis was the 26th. Queen is 6ft and weighs 232 lbs, running a 4.50 40 yard-dash. Lewis measured 6ft, 235 lbs and ran a 4.58 40 yard-dash at the pre-Draft combine. Queen was the fifth linebacker taken, as was Lewis.
Queen has had a solid rookie campaign. His speed and aggression in a blitz-heavy Ravens’ defense has been a brilliant fit. He was an absolute steal as the 28th pick. If the similarities with the great Ray Lewis continue, Baltimore will have it’s next great linebacker. And could be championship contenders for years to come.
2. Chase Young, DE, Washington – 19 tackles, 3.5 sacks
Defensive ends out of Ohio State come pretty highly rated. Following in the footsteps of Joey Bosa and his brother Nick, Chase Young was taken as the second overall player in the draft. He was the consensus pick as the best player coming out of college football.
Quick and powerful, Young’s stats don’t really do him justice. He joined a Washington team with needs everywhere but in pretty good shape on the defensive line. 2019 first round pick Montez Sweat, Jonathan Allen, Ryan Kerrigan and Daron Payne have given opposing linemen nightmares with Young alongside them this season. Having started his rookie season with two sacks of Carson Wentz, Young has struggled with injury concerns. But has been a menacing threat to quarterbacks, racking up high numbers of pressures. If he hasn’t got to the opposition’s signal caller, chances are one of his team-mates has. Washington’s weak offense often doesn’t give it’s defense enough time off the field to be really effective for the full game. Young, though, has lived up to his expectation as the second player taken in the draft.
3. Antoine Winfield Jr, S, Tampa Bay – 59 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 interception
Taken with the 45th pick out of Minnesota, Winfield has impressed in his rookie season. Fitting in as Tampa Bay relaunched themselves as a contender with the arrival of offensive glitterati Brady, Gronkowski and latterly, Antonio Brown. Like Winfield though, their defense is quietly underrated. Todd Bowles is building a versatile unit where the rookie’s athleticism and flexibility is a superb fit. With two sacks and an interception to his name already this season, FOX Sports named him their midseason defensive rookie of the year. He is closing in on Queen and Young. And has a real chance at winning the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year accolade.
4. Julian Blackmon, S, Indianapolis – 26 tackles, 2 interceptions
The third round (85th overall) pick out of Utah was forced into an earlier start than initially thought. A season-ending achilles injury to Malik Hooker put Blackmon in the Colts’ secondary. While his stat line looks lighter than others in the safety position, the rookie has made plays as part of a talented Colts defensive unit that have stood out. He has been responsible for six pass breakups on top of his two interceptions. His forced fumble of Marques Valdes-Scantling in overtime against Green Bay elevated Indianapolis to 7-3, sharing the AFC South lead with Tennessee. Blackmon has seized his opportunity. And looks to be a permanent fixture in a talented Indianapolis defense for years to come.
5. Jeremy Chinn, LB, Carolina – 74 tackles, 1 interception
Last but not least on our top 5 rookie watch defenders is Jeremy Chinn. The second round (64th overall) pick out of Southern Illinois leads all rookies on tackles.
Like Isaiah Simmons, who has had a comparatively quieter start to his rookie campaign, Chinn was viewed as something of a Swiss army knife defender. Comfortable at linebacker or safety, his progress in his first year is drawing comparisons to former Panther great Luke Kuechly.
Now learning a new trade in Carolina’s scouting department, Kuechly has been passing on advice to Chinn who is soaking it up. It appears his role on the team isn’t just limited to plays on the field. According to Alaina Getzenberg and Jonathan M. Alexander in The Charlotte Observer: “One thing that probably won’t be taken into consideration but should is his role on the team. Other Panthers defenders have discussed Chinn as one of the emotional leaders of the defense. He’s someone that veterans look to. That’s rare for a rookie.”
Rookie Watch honourable mentions
When you put your top five out in a defensive rookie watch, tht doesn’t ean there aren’t some great other players out there for consideration too.
Isaiah Simmons, S, Arizona – has hit form in the last three weeks. But probably a little late to be in contention.
Jaylon Johnson, CB, Chicago – 12 passes defended and has slotted in well opposite Kyle Fuller.
Derrick Brown, DT, Carolina – less impact than Chinn initially but the first-rounder is finding his feet.
Javon Kinlaw, DT, San Francisco – tough gig filling in for DeForest Buckner. With Nick Bosa out though he still looks the part in a star-studded 49ers defensive line
This article was contributed by Gareth Evans who continues to enjoy sharing his passion for college football with us all.
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