10 defensive sophomores poised for a giant leap
Icon Sportswire / Getty

theScore's Mike Alessandrini, Jack Browne, and Alex Chippin reveal which second-year defensive players are poised for breakout campaigns in 2019.

Marcus Davenport, DE, Saints

Jonathan Bachman / Getty Images Sport / Getty

The UTSA product was just hitting his stride last season when a foot injury derailed the second half of his campaign. Davenport collected four sacks in a five-game stretch (Week 3 to Week 8) before going down, but then notched just 0.5 in seven contests afterward (including two playoff games). Regardless, the edge rusher entered the NFL as a raw prospect, so a year of experience should go a long way in his development. Davenport's already polished against the run, as he didn't miss a tackle last season and ranked 27th in the league by coming up with a stop on 7.5 percent of his snaps against running plays, according to Pro Football Focus. This season, he'll get more pass-rushing opportunities while inheriting many of the snaps vacated by the departed Alex Okafor.

Jaire Alexander, CB, Packers

Alexander flashed All-Pro potential at times in 2018, but yielded too many big plays - he gave up 14.6 yards per reception and ranked 78th in burn rate, which measures how often a receiver got more than 5 yards of downfield separation, according to PlayerProfiler.com. Still, the former Louisville star was tasked with covering his opponents' best receiver each week while lacking any reliable safeties to help him out. The Packers addressed that issue this offseason, signing Adrian Amos and drafting Darnell Savage, while also bolstering their pass-rush to alleviate pressure on the secondary. Alexander peaked against the Rams in Week 8, breaking up five passes while spending most of the day guarding Brandin Cooks, and he's well-positioned to perform like that more consistently in 2019.

Harold Landry, LB, Titans

Icon Sportswire / Icon Sportswire / Getty

The Titans saw Brian Orakpo retire and allowed Derrick Morgan to walk in free agency (he remains unsigned), but they shouldn't be sorry to see those veterans depart, as Jurrell Casey was the only Titan to rank top 40 in quarterback pressures last season, according to PFF. Meanwhile, Landry cracked the top 50 and also had 4.5 sacks despite playing only 56.6 percent of snaps, according to Football Outsiders. Not only will Landry get more chances to hunt quarterbacks in 2019, but he should also get plenty of one-on-one looks due to the presence of free-agent signing Cameron Wake, who ranked third overall in ESPN's Pass Block Win Rate and will be the defender offenses look to take away first.

Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Bills

Edmunds, who turned 21 in May, is one of the NFL's youngest players. He's also one of its most athletic defenders, with rare size - 6-foot-5, 253 pounds - and explosiveness for his position. However, Edmunds faced a steep learning curve as a rookie. His raw skill set was clear in the first half, but he struggled with the speed of the NFL. Things quickly slowed down for Edmunds, though, especially in coverage. He had a targeted passer-rating mark of just 68.7 in the second half of the campaign, compared to 111.5 over the first eight games, according to PFF. He also stepped up his run defense, notching 43 total tackles (plus a sack and two interceptions) in December alone. In the center of the Bills' talent-rich defense, the sky is the limit in Edmunds' sophomore year.

Kemoko Turay, DE, Colts

Icon Sportswire / Icon Sportswire / Getty

Last season in Indianapolis, all eyes were on Darius Leonard. But he wasn't the only defensive rookie who impressed for the Colts, as Turay racked up four sacks and 12 quarterback hits in his first nine games. Unfortunately, injuries to his neck/shoulder and hip, as well as the return of fellow rookie Tyquan Lewis, caused his snaps to drop as the season went on. Still, Turay's 38 pressures ranked third among rookies, according to PFF, despite him playing more than 200 fewer snaps than the two players ahead of him (Bradley Chubb, Genard Avery). Now healthy and with Justin Houston as a mentor, Turay could be the young Colt who makes headlines in 2019.

Poona Ford, DT, Seahawks

Every year, a handful of undrafted free agents make a shock impact. The undersized Ford, who stands 5-foot-11, was certainly in that group in 2018. Despite backing up breakout star Jarran Reed (who had 10.5 sacks) and Shamar Stephen for most of the season, Ford excelled when his snaps increased after his only start of the year in Week 13. Across the final five regular-season games, his expanded role helped Seattle allow just one 100-yard rusher. The rookie also tied for the fourth-best stop percentage (12.6 percent) among interior linemen, according to PFF, which saw him sandwiched between Pro Bowlers Akiem Hicks and Kawaan Short. With Stephen gone, Ford should be first in line to start next to Reed, whose presence could help unlock the sophomore's potential as a pass-rusher.

Avonte Maddox, CB, Eagles

Mitchell Leff / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Injuries atop the Eagles' depth chart forced Maddox into a starting role early last season, and he overcame initial struggles to cement himself as a solid contributor down the stretch. Overall, advanced metrics favored Maddox more than traditional stats. In coverage, he ranked second out of 132 qualifying corners in yards allowed per snap (0.56), fourth in passer rating against (59.9), and second in snaps per target (11.8), according to PFF. He got burned a few times, especially in the playoffs, but it's easy to see him blossoming into a Pro Bowl candidate as a sophomore, as he can play outside or in the slot, or line up at either safety spot - rare versatility for such a young player.

Rashaan Evans, LB, Titans

The immediate success of first-year linebackers like Leonard and Leighton Vander Esch meant it was hard for others at the position to garner much of the spotlight. Evans also had to deal with a hamstring injury that sidelined him from training camp all the way through the preseason, hampering his ability to learn Tennessee's scheme. And even when he returned, the sideline-to-sideline speed he displayed at Alabama wasn't there until late in the year. From Week 13 on, though, Evans was PFF's third-best linebacker. He'll have to force his way into the starting lineup after Jayon Brown starred in his absence, but thanks to his first-round status and Wesley Woodyard's age (33), the Titans will likely give Evans every chance to do so.

Maurice Hurst, DT, Raiders

Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Hurst fell to the fifth round due to a heart issue detected at the combine, but he quickly displayed why he was projected to be a Day 1 pick despite playing on a defensive line that was among the least talented groups in the NFL. Somehow, the Raiders had just 13 sacks in 2018 - 17 behind the nearest team - but Hurst led the way with four and ranked third on the roster in tackles. Meanwhile, his raw production and advanced stats don't blow you away - he tied for third on the Raiders in run stops and didn't miss a tackle in 472 snaps, according to PFF - but within the context of Oakland's terrible defense, they're much more impressive. In Year 2, Hurst will need to improve as a pass-rusher to get more acclaim, though his job will be far easier if Arden Key or Clelin Ferrell can be a legitimate threat off the edge.

Ronnie Harrison, S, Jaguars

One of the knocks against Harrison coming out of Alabama was a tendency to be overly aggressive in run support, leading to too many missed tackles - not an ideal trait for a safety. But while Harrison played just 328 snaps in 2018, his athleticism and coverage ability - he allowed a passer rating of just 62.8 on 16 targets, according to PFF - were obvious despite his tackling issues popping up from time to time. Now, with veterans Barry Church and Tashaun Gipson gone, Harrison and Jarrod Wilson are set to start in Jacksonville's talent-rich defense. Meanwhile, cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye are likely to regain their form, which should give Harrison a good chance to emerge as a key playmaker in the secondary if he can clean up his work against the run.

Comments
10 defensive sophomores poised for a giant leap
  Got something to say? Leave a comment below!
Daily Newsletter
Get the latest trending sports news daily in your inbox