Breakout Player Recap: Defensive Backs

Mark BarronThe emphasis on the passing game has been a reoccurring theme throughout this series. So what’s a better way to cap it off then with the guys who have to stop it? Like pass rushers, teams can not have enough depth in the secondary. A strong secondary could buy the defensive line time to get to the quarterback which could lead to sacks or errant throws. Most of the defensive backs I projected to breakout were slowed down at one point by injuries. While none of them all really broke out, they still have room to grow in the coming years. What I wrote about them going into 2013 can be found here.

Morris Claiborne, Cowboys: 2013 is a season Claiborne  and the Cowboys defense as a whole would like to forget. In his second season, the former top ten pick dealt with both being benched and a hamstring injury. On top of all that, Claiborne also underwent offseason shoulder surgery. Claiborne’s play in his second year didn’t match that of his first as metrics from Pro Football Focus rated him as one of the worst corners in the league in 2013. While the physicals gifts are there, Claiborne is entering a “make or break” season in 2014. Going into the year as the third corner, he first has to focus on getting healthy before getting back on the field.

While it seems early only two years in, Claiborne has been starting to earn the “bust” label according to some pundits. Considering his pedigree, I say it is too early to completely rule him out. However, it is surprising that this happened as Claiborne was considered one of the surer things in his draft class.

Hit or miss: Miss

Harrison Smith, Vikings: Smith looked like an emerging star in his rookie year, but injury limited from building off that in 2013. After playing in the first five games of the year, Smith needed surgery for turf toe and was placed on the injured reserve/designated to return list. He returned for the final three games of the season and considering the time played, had solid statistics. In eight games Smith had 58 tackles, two interceptions and a fumble recovery.

With defensive minded Mike Zimmer as the Vikings new head coach, look for Smith to be a focal point of the Vikings defense. This makes even more sense when considering his ability to play both the pass and the run. The ability to play both is essential in the NFC North where the Vikings are up against three potent offenses with the ability to beat you both ways.

Hit or miss: Push

Josh Norman, Panthers: Heading into last season, Norman was a young corner whose tendency to gamble on plays got him in trouble. He received tons of praise in the offseason and built off that with a very strong preseason. However, that didn’t carry over into 2013  season as he struggled early on. The fact that he suffered an MCL sprain didn’t help Norman’s cause, but he was a healthy inactive at times last year. Entering 2014, some have said that Norman is on the roster bubble in Carolina. Even if things don’t work out with the Panthers, Norman should get chances. He’s only 26 entering his third year and at 6’0’ 195 pounds fits the mold of the bigger corners that are becoming commodities around the league.

Hit or miss: Miss

Mark Barron, Buccaneers: In my preseason write up, I mentioned that Barron would get to play closer to the line of scrimmage with the additions of Darrelle Revis and Dashon Goldson to the Buccaneers secondary. While Barron did play closer to the line recording two sacks, the rest of his numbers are very similar to those from his rookie campaign. On the year playing with a lingering hamstring injury, Barron recorded 88 tackles, two interceptions and a fumble recovery in 14 games.

While Revis bolted for the Patriots in the offseason, Barron should benefit from playing for a defensive oriented coach in Lovie Smith. The Buccaneers have some fantastic defensive pieces in Gerald McCoy and LaVonte David already in place. Don’t be surprised if Barron sooner rather than later makes progress towards becoming that caliber of player.

Hit or miss: Push

Cortez Allen, Steelers: Allen had a lot of things going his way entering 2013 that made me high on him as a potential breakout candidate. He was entering the starting lineup for a Steelers franchise that is known for getting the most out of their defensive backs. On top of that, he was also a favorite of the highly respected Football Outsiders as their data indicated he was amongst the best in coverage when he played in 2012.

In 14 games, Allen recorded 51 total tackles and two interceptions one of which was returned for a touchdown. Allen outplayed Ike Taylor this past season and entering his contract year has already mentioned he wants to cover number one receivers this upcoming season. Entering the final year of his contract, the 6’1’ 196 pound corner out of The Citadel looks like a prime candidate for a contract extension. While 2013 was a very nice first year in terms of starting games, don’t be surprised if Allen builds off that to bigger and better things in the future.

Hit or miss: Push

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