Last year notable defensive backs that broke out were Richard Sherman (and on a national term the three other starters of the Seahawks secondary), Tim Jennings, Reshad Jones and then as a rookie Casey Heyward had a big impact being among the league leaders in interceptions. With passing becoming such an emphasis, the ability to emerge as a lockdown guy or an all around player are that much higher. These players mentioned play different positions (four of the players are cornerbacks while two are safeties) but they do have the common ground of being players with the skills/opportunity to make a leap in 2013.
Morris Claiborne, Cowboys: Along with a franchise quarterback, the hardest position to find in the draft might be a lockdown cornerback. These are the type of guys like a Champ Bailey or Darrelle Revis that year after year can be counted on to stop the other team’s top receivers. There are a lot of people who believe Claiborne can eventually become one of those guys. He has all the physical traits and now it’s just about improving and getting more reps. It helps that Claiborne gets to line up across one of the five most physically gifted receivers the league has to offer in Dez Bryant every day in practice.
If the Cowboys want to compete in a division with quarterbacks such as Robert Griffin III and Eli Manning, they will need to have a strong pass defense. Claiborne building off a solid rookie season would be a great help.
Harrison Smith, Vikings: Before going pro, Smith spent his first few years at Notre Dame as a linebacker before switching to safety. It definitely shows in his game as he is strong in run support and defends the pass as well. He was very impressive in his rookie season making plays all over the field which is scary considering as a safety he is still pretty raw. With Antoine Winfield gone (and now retired) Smith will be looked to as a younger player to lead a secondary that plays six games against the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler.
If the Vikings look to at least clinch a playoff berth like they did last season, Smith’s continued development would be a major factor in it happening.
Josh Norman, Panthers: Coming out of Coastal Carolina, Norman has the physical skills to play at the NFL level but maturity and the adjustment to the league resulted in some struggles. He was removed from his starting job for the last four games of the year but there have been reports that the benching was a humbling experience for him.
While one shouldn’t look too much into preseason stats, Norman showed he was clearly motivated as he had three interceptions through the first two games. The Panthers have pieces in place to make a playoff run and the emergence of a corner with Norman’s skills would be a great boost.
Mark Barron, Buccaneers: I was very high on Barron entering his rookie year as predicted him as my rookie of the year in my preseason predictions over Luke Kuechly. While that prediction didn’t work out, what Barron did in his rookie season didn’t discourage me from thinking he could eventually be an All Pro type player.
With the additions of Darrelle Revis and Dashon Goldson in the secondary, Barron will be able to do what he does best. That is attack near the line of scrimmage and make big plays. While the Buccaneers secondary was very poor last season, their offseason additions should improve the unit drastically. However, it could be the internal scheme adjustments for Barron that will help the most in the long run.
Cortez Allen, Steelers: The Steelers might have found another defensive gem and this time he comes from The Citadel. With Keenan Lewis leaving for the Saints, Allen can now step into the starting lineup. He doesn’t have all the pressure on him right away as Ike Taylor will most likely draw the opponents top receiver. It is also worth noting that Allen is a favorite of the well respected writers at Football Outsiders and they have the numbers to back it up.
When he played, Allen allowed only 6.3 adjusted yards per pass which ranked 12th among all cornerbacks. The Steelers are trying to get younger but also having some older pieces that give them the ability to compete. Players like Allen have the most to gain out of this as past numbers show that he should do fairly well for a team that usually gets the most out of their defensive backs.