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NFL Breakout Player Candidates 2020: Defense

Every year there are a load of NFL players who burst onto the scene and become superstars. Most breakouts usually come from 2nd-year players, but a player can breakout at any age. The criteria to be considered a breakout candidate for this article is the player has to have played at least half a season and have not been a Pro Bowler in their career up to this point. Let’s dive into some defensive player candidates for a breakout year in 2020. You can check out the offensive player version of this article by clicking here.

Interior Defensive Linemen

Jeffrey Simmons, Tennessee Titans
Jeffrey Simmons is an NFL breakout candidate in 2020, Photo: Donald Page/Tennesse Titans

Jeffrey Simmons had a strong rookie season for the Titans in 2019 after debuting late in the season due to injury. Simmons fell to the 19th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft due to serious injury concerns. His raw talent was worthy of taken before then, but Pick 19 was not bad considering some of the reports coming out about his injuries. A torn ACL in February before the draft caused the fall and concern. However, it turned out to be a steal for the Titans as Simmons performed at a high level right out of the gate, starting with an impressive debut. Simmons was disruptive with 32 tackles and 2.0 sacks in an extremely limited time in the field. Simmons only played 28% of Tennessee’s defensive snaps, a very small sample size. With more time on the field, Simmons could see a huge leap in his numbers. He clearly surpassed expectations heading into his rookie season, as some thought he’d miss the entire campaign. The Titans demonstrated immense confidence in Simmons this offseason. Tennessee traded away franchise icon and 5-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jurrell Casey to the Broncos for a 7th-round pick. They simply traded away a team legend in what was effectively a salary dump. This deal signified a changing of the guard from Casey to Simmons on Tennessee’s defense. This move showed that the Titans believe that Simmons can anchor their defensive line. Jeffrey Simmons has a major chance for a breakout 2020 season and a possible Pro Bowl berth with much more playing time, a larger role, and development on the NFL level.

Quinnen Williams, New York Jets

Quinnen Williams had an extremely disappointing rookie season after being the 3rd overall pick of the 2019 NFL Draft. Jets fans expected him to be a sack machine as a rookie and live up to comparisons he got during the draft process to legendary defensive tackles like Aaron Donald and Geno Atkins. Obviously, that was asking for too much and Williams underperformed in 2019. However, calling him a bust already is extremely short-sighted. Williams was a great run defender as a rookie, playing a huge role in New York’s second ranked rushing defense in all of the NFL. In addition, Williams had an injury early on in the season which stunt his growth in the NFL learning curve. Rookies often have a tough time adjusting to the NFL, and the injury did him no favors. His sheer playing time was also a major factor in a lackluster season. Williams only played 46% of the Jets’ defensive snaps. In that limited time, he piled up 28 tackles and 2.5 sacks, which is productive for such a small sample size. Williams has been working extremely hard to improve his game this offseason, according to his trainer. Quinnen Williams surely disappointed as a rookie, but he showed flashes while playing less than half the snaps for the Jets defense. Williams has a chance for a huge breakout season in 2020 with more experience and simply more time on the field.

Other players to watch:

Da’Ron Payne, Washington Redskins

Ed Oliver, Buffalo Bills

Edge Rushers

Montez Sweat, Washington Football Team
Montez Sweat is an NFL breakout candidate in 2020, Photo: Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

Montez Sweat had a very productive rookie season in 2019 for Washington. Despite the team having an atrocious 3-13 season, Sweat was surely a bright spot. He produced well even though the team was often outmatched. Sweat racked up 7.0 sacks, 50 tackles, 27 pressures, and 13 QB hits. That is a very impressive stat line for a rookie edge rusher getting used to the NFL. Sweat should be an improved player as he gets used to the NFL level of competition in Year 2. In addition, Washington is set to have a great defensive line, and they should help open up pass rushing lanes for each other. Washington just drafted generational talent Chase Young, who will join Sweat, and star Ryan Kerrigan as their edge rushing rotation. In the interior of the line, Washington has three young studs in Payne, Matthew Ioannidis, and Jonathan Allen. That is an absolutely loaded defensive front, which should be among the NFL’s best. Sweat should surely benefit from playing on a defensive line surrounded by great players. Montez Sweat is bound for a breakout 2020 season with more experience and fantastic teammates.

Kemoko Turay, Indianapolis Colts

Kemoko Turay was well on his way to a breakout season in 2019, before it was derailed by injury. Turay had a monster start to the season until a Week 5 ankle injury ended his 2019 campaign much too early. According to PFF, Turay had a 26.5% pass-rush win rate when on the field in 2019, which was number one out of 124 qualifying starting edge rushers. Coming out of Rutgers in 2018, Turay adapted to the NFL fairly quickly with his rare blend of size, speed, and power. His insane bend and instincts make him even more special. In addition, Turay is 6’5′ with a 4.65 40-yard dash, a unique combination for an edge rusher. Up until the injury, PFF also gave Turay a 91.3 overall player grade, which is considered elite. Turay put up 1.5 sacks and 7 pressures during 2019. However, he only played 8% of Indianapolis’ defensive snaps. That’s right, only eight percent. Turay seeing the field for significantly more time is scary for opposing quarterbacks and offensive tackles to think about. Lastly, with Pro Bowl defensive tackle DeForest Buckner now in the fold for the Colts, the defensive line will be even more lethal. All in all, with simply more time on the field, Kemoko Turay has a chance to breakout and become one of the NFL’s best edge rushers in 2020.

Other players to watch:

Brian Burns, Carolina Panthers

Marcus Davenport, New Orleans Saints

Middle Linebackers

Devin White, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Devin White is an NFL breakout candidate in 2020, Photo: Unknown

Devin White had a strong rookie season in 2019. White is a phenomenal talent who has an extremely bright future. The 5th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft out of LSU, White headed to Tampa with major expectations, and is on his way to exceeding them. White has a nose for the football, and showed that off in 2019, racking up 3 forced fumbles and 4 fumble recoveries. He did that despite missing 3 games during 2019. In the 13 games White did play, he posted 91 tackles and 2.5 sacks. White is speedy, running a 4.42 40-yard dash, well above the average linebacker speed. I am bullish on White’s future in the NFL. He has all the tools a middle linebacker, the quarterback of the defense, needs. His speed, power, leadership, and ability to dissect plays is uncanny, and reminds me of legendary middle linebackers like Ray Lewis and Luke Kuechly. White benefitted in his rookie season from playing with star veteran linebacker Lavonte David. He will surely continue to benefit from David, who is a great leader on and off the field. With Tom Brady joining the Bucs, they are poised to contend in the NFC, and White should play a huge role in that. Devin White is in play for a major breakout season in 2020, and he has the potential to wind up being one of the best linebackers in the game.

Dre Greenlaw, San Francisco 49ers

Dre Greenlaw had a solid rookie season for the 49ers in 2019, and he capped it off with a legendary play. Greenlaw started 11 games for the Niners last season with an impressive 94 tackles. He was thrown onto the scene mid-season after linebacker Kwon Alexander went down with an injury. Greenlaw was not only a solid tackler, but he was good in coverage as well. He did not give up a single catch for a first down, according to PFF. Despite his good season, Greenlaw was mostly unknown until the 4th quarter of the last game of the NFL regular season. The winner of the game would win the NFC West, the loser would be a Wild Card team. The stakes for the Niners were win and be the #1 seed, or lose and be the #5 seed. With the Seattle Seahawks driving for a potential game-winning touchdown, they found themselves in the red zone with under a minute to play. On what would be the final play of the game, Seattle tight end Jacob Hollister caught the ball at the 1-yard line and had what appeared to be a free walk into the end zone. At the last second, Greenlaw appeared at the goal line, stuffing Hollister inches before the end zone. It was one of the greatest tackles you’ll ever see, and it set up the 49ers’ Super Bowl run, as they received home field advantage due to the Week 17 win. This play showed Greenlaw to the world, displaying his tackling ability and clutch play. Dre Greenlaw is set up for a breakout 2020 season as he gains experience at the NFL level and his great skillset improves.

Other players to watch:

Alex Anzalone, New Orleans Saints

Mack Wilson, Cleveland Browns

Cornerbacks

Trayvon Mullen, Las Vegas Raiders
Trayvon Mullen is an NFL breakout candidate in 2020, Photo: Le'Andre Fox/Las Vegas Review-Journal

Trayvon Mullen had an underrated and really good rookie season for the Raiders in 2019. He exceeded expectations, especially as the #1 corner on the team late in the season. Mullen only tallied 1 interception, but his advanced numbers show more of the whole story, and they are much more impressive. Mullen only allowed a 56% completion percentage on targets his way, good for 25th in the NFL among qualifying cornerbacks. That is very solid for a rookie trying to get used to the speed of the NFL. Mullen also only allowed 6.6 yards per target and had a 79.7 passer rating allowed when targeted. Those are both solid numbers for any player, especially a rookie. Mullen also racked up 10 pass deflections and 50 tackles across the 2019 season. The Clemson product is looking like a second round steal for the Raiders. As the Raiders move from Oakland to Las Vegas, Mullen should be a long-term staple on the team. Trayvon Mullen is in prime position for a breakout 2020 season as he grows off of a solid rookie campaign.

Jamel Dean, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Jamel Dean is largely unknown but majorly flashed when given the opportunity in 2019. In his rookie season, Dean only started 5 games but surely stuffed the stat sheet. He racked up 2 interceptions and 17 passes defended. The 17 pass breakups is absurd. Dean was on pace to break Darrelle Revis’ record of 31 in a season back in 2009 had he played more. When you look at the advanced stats, the numbers also stack up among the best in the NFL. Dean’s 50% completion percentage allowed was 7th in the NFL among cornerbacks. His 6.1 yards allowed per target was 12th in the NFL among cornerbacks. The sample size is very small as he only played 33% of Tampa’s defensive snaps. However, Dean should be able to put up great numbers like these with more playing time and NFL experience. Dean’s raw tools give him the build of the ideal NFL cornerback, as he is 6’1″ and runs a blazing 4.30 40-yard dash. Dean was a great 3rd-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, and he is a key part of a promising young Buccaneers cornerback room. Dean joins Carlton Davis and Sean Murphy-Bunting as the projected starters in 2020, and they should establish themselves as one of the best groups in the league. Jamel Dean is in line for a breakout 2020 season in which he could prove to be one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, as he gets more playing time and gains experience after putting up crazy numbers when on the field during his rookie year.

Other players to watch:

Byron Murphy, Arizona Cardinals

Mike Hughes, Minnesota Vikings

Safeties

Juan Thornhill, Kansas City Chiefs
Juan Thornhill, Photo: Unknown/AP

Juan Thornhill played a big role for the Super Bowl Champion Chiefs during his rookie season, despite him missing the entirety of the playoffs. He was the starting free safety for all 16 regular season games in 2019 and he stepped up immediately. Thornhill meshed perfectly with star strong safety Tyrann Mathieu. Thornhill had 3 interceptions and 58 tackles on the year. Looking deeper, he really performed well. He allowed a 46% completion percentage when targeted and had a 43.0 passer rating allowed when targeted, both of which were good for 2nd in the NFL among all safeties. Thornhill also only allowed 4.3 yards per target, which was first in the league among all safeties. Thornhill suffered a devastating torn ACL in Week 17 that caused him to miss Kansas City’s legendary postseason run. Despite this, he looks like a great 2nd-round pick and a special player after just one season. Juan Thornhill is primed for a breakout 2020 season where he may become one of the best safeties in the game as he gains experience and develops off of a great rookie season.

Darnell Savage, Green Bay Packers

Darnell Savage is an electric player who had a solid rookie season in 2019. The first round pick out of Maryland met expectations as a rookie. There is still tons of room for growth however. In 14 games, Savage posted 2 interceptions and 55 tackles. He proved to be strong in coverage, only allowing a 57% completion percentage on targets towards him, 6.6 yards per target, and a 71.1 passer rating allowed when targeted. All of those are solid numbers for a rookie. He is said to have learned the defense rapidly and understand packages on the fly, both of which are unique traits for a rookie. Savage is speedy, running a 4.36 40-yard dash, and has top-notch instincts. He has the opportunity to become a game wrecker this season and beyond as he gets used to NFL competition. Darnell Savage has a big opportunity to breakout in 2020 and possibly earn a Pro Bowl nod as his flashy game develops on the NFL level.

Other players to watch:

Taylor Rapp, Los Angeles Rams

Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, New Orleans Saints

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