The RSP blog spends an inordinate amount of time on offensive players, but don’t think for a hot second that I’m not monitoring defensive players. Not all of these rookies may be headliners, but they are prospects I’m watching closely this summer. In 2-3 years, you can bet at least half of these guys will be starters for their teams. As with the other lists, there’s no order to these guys or criteria – simply players who interest me for a variety of reasons.
Safety Tyrann Mathieu, Cardinals: Instinctive, intuitive, smart, however you want to put it, I’m a fan of players who not only understand their role, but they understand the broader context of the game and can incorporate this knowledge into their play. It’s a sign of a player with an integrated skill set. Mathieu is capable of playing nickel corner, safety, and returning punts. Beyond the concerns about Mathieu’s off-field battle with drugs, some analysts are concerned that Arizona’s rookie isn’t big enough to play safety or fast enough to play the nickel role. it sounds a lot like concerns many fans and analysts had about smaller receivers before the slot became an integral part of so many offensive game plans. Just as move tight ends and slot receivers represent part of the hybrid revolution in the NFL, I think that third safety/corner role is a natural part of this change. Charles Woodson’s single coverage shutdown of Percy Harvin in the slot on Monday Night Football a few years ago is a a good precursor of that safety/corner hybrid that Mathieu might become. I think Mathieu is more of a rover than a stick-and-cover guy, but he’s a smart, athletic, play-making defender impressing thus far.
Defensive End Devin Taylor, Detroit: Taylor earned some first-team reps in Lions’ training camp this weekend due to injuries of players ahead of him on the depth chart, and he flashed some skill. Taylor is best-known among draftniks as the end who succeeded Melvin Ingram as the guy opposite Jadeveon Clowney at South Carolina. Taylor had moments during his Gamecock career where he looked like a potential star, but never pieced enough of those plays together to generate this kind of promise in the eyes of scouts. They saw a big, strong, and quick end who wasn’t a smooth athlete. What I want to see is if this reported stiffness is actually a more awkward or unique way of moving around that might actually help him be a little more unpredictable as he develops better technique. I’m skeptical, but the moments he flashed at South Carolina keep me coming back to the well.
Defensive Tackle Kawann Short, Carolina: I thought Star Lotulelei had a great get-off at the line of scrimmage for a defensive tackle, but the Carolina staff believes Short is more explosive. Short, who was criticized at times for taking plays off, explains that he didn’t want to leave the field even when he was tired and this lent to the perception that he didn’t play with 100 percent effort. I’ll buy it. In fact, I’ll buy that the Carolina Panthers defensive front could have a rotation that gives offenses fits if Lotulelei and Short can start their careers on the right foot.
Safety D.J. Swearinger, Texans: Footballguys writer Jene Bramel called me a butthead last night after I selected Swearinger in our FBGs IDP Dynasty League. If you didn’t know about the South Carolina defensive back, then I’d say the good doctor of IDP’s name calling incident is a good endorsement of the defender’s promise. Swearinger is an aggressive player with control and when you find a defensive back who can cover and punish, you’re looking at a versatile option capable of playing both safety spots. Swearinger is a drawing praise for his confidence and production in training camp. He may start the season ahead of Ed Reed, who is still recovering from injury. Don’t be surprised if he switches to strong safety and stays on the field when Reed returns. If not, I think he’ll be on the field in a lot of pass-heavy sets.
Safety Earl Wolff, Eagles: When Josh Norris and Dan Shonka both love Wolff, then it’s time to pay attention to the safety from N.C. State. I began keeping tabs on him after he earned first-team looks in mini camp. Now he’s earning those same looks with the pads on. He has a knack for being around the football and the Eagles’ secondary hasn’t had quality play anchoring it since Brian Dawkins left town. Wolff has brains, speed, and he can tackle in space as well as bring it at the line of scrimmage. What I want to see is if scouts were wrong about him being too small to make tackles in the run game. In a safety class that might be the jewel of this 2013 draft, Wolff wasn’t the most talked about, but he might become one of the best of the lot when it’s all said and done. It depends on his ability to shed blocks and be a run-stopping force.
Safety Bacarri Rambo, Redskins: The athleticism is there, but the read-and-react skills need work. If he can develop into a conceptually strong professional and study his opposition’s tendencies, he could become a long-term starter. So far Rambo is earning reps as the starter so I’m interested to see how he progresses – especially in an NFC East where the passing games of this division can make the rookie pay for any false moves.
Linebacker Alec Ogletree, Rams: Ogletree is the second of three Georgia defenders I’m monitoring this summer. A former safety, Ogletree has the range and fundamental skills that reminded me stylistically of Keith Bulluck, which is why it made all the sense in the world for Jeff Fisher to select him. And it made further sense that Fisher brought in Bulluck to work with Ogletree this summer. Both players are physically similar and Ogletree has the potential to become a terrific player in space. He needs to get more consistent shedding defenders. I think in 2-3 years he’ll be a good outside linebacker for St. Louis who can play every down.
Safety Sean Williams, Bengals: The third Bulldog on this list, Williams came to Athens as a linebacker before switching to the defensive backfield. While there are better athletes at the position in this class, I think Williams is a smart player who applies that intelligence once he has a feel for his scheme. When he does, he makes strong reads and he can deliver the lumber. If Taylor Mays had Williams’ conceptual talent for the game, he’d be an All-Pro. Instead, I think Mays has a better shot of seeing the bench.
Outside Linebacker Barkevious Mingo, Browns: Dion Jordan was compared to Aldon Smith, but it’s Mingo who is likely to earn this type of role in Ray Horton’s incarnation of the Brown’s defense. Mingo is still adding some of that “man weight” that comes with work and age (18-25 years of age), but Peter King has already said the Browns outside linebacker is the best rookie he’s seen thus far.
I love Mingo and felt like between him and Jordan, Mingo has more upside as the destructive force, even if Jordan is the more polished, versatile option. I’m looking forward to seeing how seeing how fast Mingo can make the jump.
Cornerback Xavier Rhodes, Vikings: Rhodes is another physically impressive corner with size, speed, and quickness. He’ll have a good shot at starting this season and learning trial by fire. If you think Patrick Peterson is a big corner, get a look at Rhodes who is an inch taller and just a couple of pounds lighter (before he entered camp). Rhodes demonstrated room for growth at Florida State and his ceiling is high enough that he can become one of the better press corners in the league. Before a hamstring injury this week, he’s flashed the quick hands, hard punch, and tight coverage you want to see from a press corner. Considering that he’ll facing physical receivers like Calvin Johnson, Jordy Nelson, James Jones, Brandon Marshall, and Alshon Jeffery, I’m looking forward to seeing the initial returns. I’m expecting the forecast to be ugly with occasional glimmers of light.