With teams relying on defensive backs more every season with the continued passing game emphasis, breakouts among secondary players have been more common than ever. Last year we saw corners such as A.J. Bouye and Janoris Jenkins take their games to the next level, while Landon Collins broke out in a big way from the safety position. This year, the players I could see breaking out are a mix of cover corners and safeties who could become well rounded players. All of these teams are looking for improvements from their defense, and a breakout campaign from the players I mention would be a huge step in that direction.
Jalen Ramsey, Jaguars: In recent years, we’ve seen some premier corners of their eras (Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman) take their games to the next level in year two. Ramsey has the potential to be that type of player and showed why in his rookie year. Not only is he physical with opposing receivers, but Ramsey isn’t afraid to get in and contribute on run defense either. With A.J. Bouye now starting opposite him and what on paper could be a scary Jaguars defense, there is a lot to like about Ramsey in 2017 and beyond.
James Bradberry, Panthers: The Panthers had a rough 2016 after a magical Super Bowl run the year prior. One of the reasons for that could be attributed to the young secondary, but Bradberry emerged as a player to watch in that group. Bradberry not Ramsey actually had the highest overall grade from Pro Football Focus among 2016 rookie corners. Despite being thrown at once every six snaps in coverage, Bradberry responded by allowing just 1.08 yards per coverage snap. The Panthers once again have the front seven talent to make up an imposing defense, and if Bradberry can emerge as a true lockdown option in the secondary, that’s one extremely important position the team no longer has to worry about.
Karl Joseph, Raiders: While the Raiders are one of the more hyped AFC teams entering 2017, aside from Khalil Mack they still need to figure things out defensively. A first round pick last year, Joseph’s rookie season got off to a slow start due to injuries, but has the potential to give the team a huge lift at the strong safety position. Joseph has coverage ability, flashed ball skills in college and throughout camp has earned rave reviews from teammates. If there is a safety that is going to make a Landon Collins-esque leap in year two, Joseph could be the guy.
Sean Davis, Steelers: In recent years, the Steelers have made a point to get younger in the secondary and did so selecting Davis along with cornerback Artie Burns in the first two rounds of the 2016 draft. At 6’1″ 201 with 4.4 speed, the Steelers initially liked Davis’ versatility. As a rookie, he played as a slot corner and safety but for 2017 it appears strong safety is where he will stick. Davis showed flashes in coverage, but had some struggles against the run as a safety. Now fully committed to the position, it wouldn’t be surprising if Davis was much improved in 2017.
Kevin Johnson, Texans: Before a Jones fracture in his foot cut his second season short, Johnson looked like he was destined for a breakout year. Targeted once every 6.2 coverage snaps, opponents completed less than 50% of their passes when throwing Johnson’s way. He also managed a stingy 0.91 yards per coverage snap in that time which is comparable to what corners such as Patrick Peterson, Xavier Rhodes and Darius Slay recorded in 2016. With A.J. Bouye leaving in free agency, that leaves more snaps for Johnson even if it would be in three corner sets. The Texans defense boasts one of the league’s premier front seven’s, so with them making life easier for the secondary and vice versa, it wouldn’t be surprising if Johnson builds off his 2016 play.
Kevin Byard, Titans: While becoming a trendy AFC South pick, the Titans defense still has a few question marks in their secondary entering 2017. They don’t pertain to Byard who looked like a potential star as a rookie playing free safety. Byard was one of the top three safeties in the entire league in stopping the run last season per Pro Football Focus. He also ranked in the top four at the position in terms of yards allowed per coverage snap with 0.22. So if you didn’t now who Byard was, he’s certainly a player with a bright future. When teams win, the unsung heroes are usually brought into the spotlight. For the Titans, Byard could be one of those players and a Pro Bowl appearance in year two isn’t far fetched.