Like so many other positions, defensive back breakouts now seem more common as a result of the ever evolving passing game. Just last year alone had Josh Norman, Darius Slay, Tyrann Mathieu, Jason Verrett and even rookies such as Marcus Peters and Jason Verrett take their games to the next level. This year, the defensive backs are a mix of corners and safeties. Both positions where added versatility is more essential than ever. All four of these players are ones to keep an eye on as their teams look to make the next step defensively.
Rodney McLeod, Eagles: Not many casual fans have heard of McLeod, but teams certainly took notice. After spending his first four years with the Rams, this offseason the Eagles signed him to a five year contract for $37 million. While that may seem steep to those who don’t know much about him, this figures to be money well spent.
McLeod last season took big strides in terms of playing both the run and pass. Now he gets to partner up with a top notch safety in Malcolm Jenkins and play behind what should be be an impressive pass rush. As a defensive coordinator, Jim Schwartz has done nothing but get results. Throw in a nice front seven and a lot of pieces are in place for the Eagles to be a sneaky good defense this season. Adding someone of McLeod’s caliber should be a big boost to that happening.
Delvin Breaux, Saints: Breaux’s journey to get to the league is one of the more fascinating among hundreds of them. Originally a top recruit destined for LSU, he fractured his vertebrae in high school and never played a down for the school as many thought he would never be able to play again. Despite that, Breaux kept grinding going through the Arena League and CFL before getting his shot last year with the Saints.
While the Saints pass defense bordered on historically bad last season, it says a lot that Breaux by the middle of the year was already their best defensive back. Of the passes thrown in his direction last season, less than half of them were completed and he also added in 15 pass deflections for good measure. This figures to be another rough year defensively for the Saints, but the constant development of Breaux is a bright spot worth watching.
Byron Jones, Cowboys: NFL defensive backs are obviously world class athletes, but even among them Jones is something special. All you need to do is check out some of the numbers he put up at last year’s combine for that to be apparent. Besides that, the guy can play too. While Jones lined up all over the place last year for the Cowboys, this season he figures to line up at safety.
Due to his freakish speed and lateral movement, Jones should be a fantastic fit at the position. With a history of playing corner in college and last year with the Cowboys, Jones should fare well when asked to cover slot receivers and tight ends. In other words, he could be the answer to the corner-safety hybrid role that the Eagles have used in past years with Malcolm Jenkins. With their various absences to the pass rush to start the year, the Cowboys could use a big boost from the secondary in 2016. Jones looks like a good bet to make due on his end of the deal.
Quinten Rollins, Packers: We’ve often heard about tight ends making the transition from basketball to football, but at other positions it isn’t as common. That is what made Rollins’ impressive rookie debut so impressive. After playing four years of basketball at Miami (Ohio), he only played one year of college football before entering the NFL. In the time he did play, he showed a physicality teams like in the run game and used his length to play against the pass.
At the time of writing, Rollins isn’t a starter on the Packers depth chart, but you never know when an opportunity will call. Predicting a breakout in 2016 may be a little much, but with so many three wideout sets, he will play frequently and show everyone what he’s capable of.