ESPN Insider breakthrough defensive players
Breakthrough Players: Defense
By Ryan Early
Monday, July 14
Updated: July 15
8:14 AM ET
Our look at 2003's breakthrough players continues today with the defenders. These are young, talented athletes who either showed flashes of potential last year or are stepping into larger roles with their team in the upcoming season. While it is harder for defensive players to receive national recognition, their hometown fans will quickly recognize these players to be among the best defenders on their team.
While it is impossible to predict a story like that, here are several players poised to emerge as headline makers in the 2003 season.
Albert Haynesworth, DT, Titans - Haynesworth didn't start a game his rookie season until mid-December, but he emerged as a force in the playoffs. Haynesworth was the 15th overall pick in last year's rookie draft because of the mobility he has with a 320-pound body. The trend in the NFL is to get two mammoth tackles to clog the middle of the line against the run and then have almost all of the pass rush come from the outside. Haynesworth has the rare ability to plug the interior line by stacking up multiple blockers, or rip past them with a fast pass rush move. With the Titans losing both Henry Ford and John Thornton in free agency, the Titans are counting on Haynesworth to play a lot of minutes.
Kalimba Edwards, DE, Lions - Edwards is both the tallest lineman on the team at 6-5, and also the lightest at 264 pounds. This long, lean body looks like you took a proto-typical NFL lineman and then stretched him longwise, but it serves Edwards well as he led the team with 6ÃƒÂ‚Ã‚Â½ sacks as a rookie. His long torso and even longer arms keeps offensive linemen from getting close and locking on to him. His above average speed and technique allow him to move past offensive tackles with a variety of moves, and double digit sacks are certainly attainable, even with the Lions' subpar supporting cast.
Chike Okeafor, DE, Seahawks - Defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes plans on improving the Seahawks' defense and he's getting a lot of help with personnel additions. One of the least heralded new members of the team is its new right defensive end who signed just a two-year, four million dollar deal to jump from the 49ers. In his four years in the league, his most memorable moment was tackling Giants lineman Rich Seubert on the botched field goal that ended the playoff game last January. But while NFL fans may have briefly wondered who that 49er was who got away with pass interference, general managers were trying to woo him to their team just a few short weeks later. A first-year starter in 2003, Okeafor made six sacks and 43 tackles. This year, not only will his skills further develop but he will be surrounded by a better supporting cast. In the pass happy NFC West, Okeafor will get plenty of opportunity to make a living in opponents' backfields.
Charles Grant, DE, Saints - As a part-time player last year, Grant sacked the quarterback seven times. The Saints hope that was just a hint of future greatness as they have dramatically re-worked a defense that finished 27th overall last year. A late-first-round draft pick last year, Grant needed time to develop his technique and learn more pass rush moves before moving into the starting lineup. The Saints are a team used to finishing among the league leaders in sacks so 2002's total of 39 was a major disappointment. They have suffered a lot of roster turnover since Jim Haslett became head coach, but Grant is one of the centerpieces of their new defense. Grant never gives up on a play, which is good since he often takes himself out of the play with a wrong read or his inexperience. He'll learn on the job and should really shine over the second half of the season.
Akin Ayodele, LB, Jaguars - A converted defensive end, Ayodele is being projected as the starting strongside linebacker on the Jaguars' improved defense. Weighing over 250 pounds, Ayodele has the size to take on blocking tight ends at the point of attack and the pass rush skills to be effective as a blitzer. His ability to get to the quarterback is what makes him a future household name as double digit sacks is well within his reach. However, Ayodele struggles in pass coverage, looking unsure of himself and stiff in his movement. He started only three games his rookie season but saw action in all 16 and had over 50 tackles, three sacks and an interception. Don't be surprised if he's moved to defensive end in the nickel and dime defense.
Jamie Winborn, LB, 49ers - Officially, Winborn hasn't even won back his starting job yet as he missed 13 games last season after blowing out his knee. Yet there's very little doubt that Winborn will be healthy and starting the season opener Sept. 7 against Chicago. First games have been big for Winborn in his first two pro seasons. In his first start in 2001, Winborn set the 49ers team rookie record with 13 tackles. In the first game of the 2002 season, he made 16 tackles, including a sack, against the Giants. Winborn will play weakside linebacker, but fits especially well with new head coach Dennis Erickson's attacking philosophy. Winborn is at his best when he's moving toward the line of scrimmage, either chasing a running back or blitzing a quarterback. Not content to just make the tackle, Winborn likes to punish the ball carrier once he gets there. The weakest part of his game is his pass coverage, but he still made two interceptions his rookie season despite starting just four games.
Scott Fujita, LB, Chiefs - Fifth-round draft picks are supposed to concentrate first on just making the team and finding a niche on special teams. That's how Scott Fujita started his rookie season, but his amazing work ethic showed itself on the practice field quickly as he never took a play off or stopped chasing on a play. While he isn't as fast as most linebackers, he always seemed to be around the ball because of his extra effort. By the midway point of the season, Fujita was a starter and was named the team's best rookie at the end of the year. Looking at his frame, one is reminded of the gangly Ted "The Mad Stork" Hendricks as Fujita is over 6-5. That height makes him amazingly successful at covering tight ends from his strongside position as those players are used to towering over defenders and have a hard time adjusting to this young Chief backer.
Will Witherspoon, LB, Panthers - The Panthers' defense may have the best front four in the league, but just in case a ball carrier evades their fearsome foursome they will count on their new lightning fast weakside linebacker to chase him down in the open field. Witherspoon started half the games in his rookie season and had an impressive 63 tackles, 50 of them solo. He is undersized, but seems to be playing at a faster speed than everyone else. It is that combination of speed and acceleration that lets him chase down so many runners from behind. When offenses start game planning for the Panthers, they will soon decide to run at Witherspoon to try to overpower him rather than run away from him and watch as he crosses the entire field to make the play.
Raynoch Thompson, LB, Cardinals - By NFL standards, Thompson is a freak of nature. Weighing in at just 217 pounds, he has the body of a safety yet is the Cardinals best linebacker. Looking at his toothpick frame, you would think that Thompson would try to run around would be blockers, and he will do that if he thinks it will be to his advantage. But he has no qualms about taking on a blocker or delivering a blow. Where he really excels, though, is in coverage, where his small size allows him to keep up with running backs much longer than an average linebacker. That's a big plus for the Cardinals considering their poor pass rush gives opposing quarterbacks far too much time to find an open receiver.
Phillip Buchanon, CB, Raiders - Just as a franchise quarterback is a rarity that can make or break a team's offense, a true shutdown cornerback or the lack thereof can alter the entire strategy and effectiveness of a defense. The Raiders are in the extremely rare position of potentially having two shutdown corners. Charles Woodson is already one of the league's elite cornerbacks. Buchanon came into the NFL with near-elite man coverage skills and make-up speed, allowing him to take plenty of risks on the field which he could still recover from before the ball got to the target. The Raiders wanted to ease him into the lineup his rookie season giving him four games as the nickel back before making him a starter. He had already intercepted two passes, returning one of them for a touchdown, and was also making a big splash on special teams returning a punt for a touchdown, when he was lost for the remainder of the season with a broken wrist.
Travis Fisher, CB, Rams - As a rookie, Fisher stepped into the starting lineup when veteran Aeneas Williams was lost with a foot injury and quickly proved that he belonged. He has great speed, can change directions quickly and doesn't shy from tackling. Though he is young, the Rams' defense protects Fisher by giving him a small area of the field to be responsible for. The security of having experienced corners like Dre Bly and Dexter McCleon to help out is gone, as both of them were lost via free agency. But if the play of the Rams' front seven improves, Fisher will have no problems excelling in his second year.
Michael Lewis, S, Eagles - The Eagles sent three defensive backs to the Pro Bowl after the 2002 season. The one starter who didn't make it, strong safety Blaine Bishop, was just holding the position for a year until Michael Lewis could take over. While playing among such elite defenders may be daunting, it also provides a great security blanket for the second-year player as he can lean on them for their expertise and support. He actually took over the starting job for the final four games of the 2002 season, finishing strong with both an interception and forced fumble in the team's last regular-season game. But they decided to go with the veteran's experience in the playoffs. Lewis played near the line of scrimmage exclusively in college and learned to have a linebacker's mentality in playing the run. But at the Senior Bowl before last year's draft, most scouts were shocked to see how well Lewis did in the coverage drills. That versatility made him a second round draft pick for the Eagles, and now a secure starter in just his second season.
Matt Bowen, S, Redskins - Up until this season, NFL teams almost never considered bidding on another team's restricted free agents because of the draft pick compensation. This year, the Redskins turned that thinking on its ear by deciding that a known quantity in a veteran player was better than the guessing game that takes place in the NFL Draft. Bowen wasn't even drafted in 2001 and instead joined the Packers as a free agent. He had all the physical ability to succeed on this level, but had never been asked to do much pass coverage and was extremely raw. After the Packers spent years developing and teaching their young safety, Bowen was called on due to injuries to others last year and showed that he had learned quite a bit from his coaches. He finished the season strong, especially in the playoffs when he made 15 tackles against the Falcons. When the Packers gave him the low tender offer as a restricted free agent, the Redskins pounced knowing they would not have to give any draft pick compensation at all since the Packers had never spent a draft pick on him. Because of this, the Redskins think Bowen could be the steal of this year's free agency class. While he should play the free safety spot which requires more speed, the Redskins have had him learning both the free and strong safety spots.
Marques Anderson, S, Packers - As the newest and youngest member of one of the league's best secondaries last season, Anderson made a big splash with four interceptions and two touchdowns by Week 11, including a three-game stretch where he totaled 30 tackles. But he faded badly in December, frequently finding himself out of position and unable to make a tackle, let alone another big play. The other three starters in this secondary, safety Darren Sharper, cornerback Mike McKenzie and free-agent acquisition Al Harris from the Eagles, all play aggressively and are willing to take big risks to make a game changing play. Anderson will be given the unenviable task of knowing when his teammates will take that risk and moving to a spot to back them up. He also will be making his first read into the backfield as his teammates are much more concerned with pass coverage. That should leave Anderson to be among the league leaders in tackles.
Jon McGraw, S, Jets - The Jets had major problems at safety last year as Sam Garnes wasn't as fleet of foot as most NFL starters and Damien Robinson's play was very inconsistent. Garnes is still around and will play closer to the line of scrimmage than is normal in the cover-2 scheme. Behind him will be second-year man McGraw, who is much bigger and stronger than Robinson was, and showed his speed in the team's dime cover package last year. McGraw has good instincts, can cover a lot of ground, then deliver a blow when he gets to the ball. But his lack of experience will be very prominent early in the season as he struggles to make the correct defensive calls and will get caught out of position on play-action passes.
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