The NFL’s next generation of defensive stars has been bred from the past few drafts, mostly from first-round picks. Names such as Leonard Williams, Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Peters already are approaching “household name” territory, and they’ll undoubtedly get there in a year or two. After breaking down the offensive side of the All-Under-25 team, let’s take a look at a defense filled with young studs.
DE: Leonard Williams, New York Jets
Leonard Williams is the type of player who could start for just about every NFL team. He’s a versatile player on the defensive line with the ability to play end and tackle. Williams was outstanding as a rookie in 2015, and while his sack numbers don’t show that, he was getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks routinely. Williams is on his way to becoming a perennial Pro Bowler, giving the Jets three dominant players up front with Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson being the others.
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DT: Malcom Brown, New England Patriots
Many believed the Patriots got a great value pick by taking Malcom Brown with the final selection of 2015’s first round. That turned out to be true as he stood out as a rookie last season. Brown started 12 games, made 48 tackles and sacked the quarterback three times. He wasn’t exactly Vince Wilfork’s replacement, but Brown was a big part of the Patriots’ underrated defense last season. He’s a three-down player at defensive tackle. Aaron Donald just missed the age cutoff here, otherwise he would have been the choice.
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DT: Johnathan Hankins, New York Giants
Johnathan Hankins will have a new running mate at defensive tackle when the season begins after the Giants signed Damon Harrison in the offseason. Hankins’ impact can’t be overlooked, though. Last season, his third in the NFL, he played just nine games but had 30 tackles. In 2014, he had seven sacks and 50 tackles in 16 games, which is the kind of production New York should expect.
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DE: Kony Ealy, Carolina Panthers
After a slow start to his rookie season in 2014, Kony Ealy emerged as a force last season. He had just five sacks, but his impact was felt against the run and the pass. Ealy forced three fumbles and had 32 tackles, both of which were up from his first-year production. So long as Ealy continues to improve as a pass rusher, he’ll prove to be a second-round steal.
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LB: Anthony Barr, Minnesota Vikings
Anthony Barr put his supreme athleticism on display last season, starting 14 games for the Vikings. He racked up 68 tackles, 3 1/2 sacks, seven passes defensed and three forced fumbles. Barr is the prototypical outside linebacker in today’s NFL, boasting range, coverage ability and instincts. He has the potential to become a real playmaker in the middle of Minnesota’s defense.
Getty ImagesAdam Bettcher
LB: Ryan Shazier, Pittsburgh Steelers
Like Barr, Ryan Shazier has speed that's undeniable. His injury history, unfortunately, is as well. He’s played just 21 games in his first two seasons, suffering a handful of injuries. When he’s on the field, though, he’s an impactful player. Last season, Shazier had 87 tackles, two forced fumbles and 3 1/2 sacks, all in just 12 starts. If Shazier can stay healthy and avoid missing time, the world will see how great he can be. And he’s just 23 years old.
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LB: Deone Bucannon, Arizona Cardinals
Sometimes, a position switch is all a player needs. Deone Bucannon moved form safety to linebacker, and it has worked wonders for his game. He started all 16 games last season, totaling 112 tackles, one interception and three forced fumbles. Bucannon isn’t like most other linebackers – he’s smaller and faster with great range – but he can do everything the best at his position can do. Bucannon could start a trend of bigger safeties moving to linebacker.
Getty ImagesMichael Thomas
CB: Marcus Peters, Kansas City Chiefs
Marcus Peters came into the NFL with character concerns after being dismissed from the Washington football team. He put those worries to rest quickly last season, putting together a Pro Bowl season as a rookie. Peters tied for the league lead with eight interceptions while also knocking down 26 passes. Although he was beat in coverage at times, his playmaking ability jumps off the screen. He’s now the No. 1 corner in Kansas City, and deservingly so.
John Rieger-USA TODAY SportsJohn Rieger
CB: Ronald Darby, Buffalo Bills
Unlike Peters, Ronald Darby didn’t make the Pro Bowl. He was arguably the more reliable corner, though. Darby gave up fewer big plays and was more consistent in coverage, while still batting 21 passes and picking off two. Darby, a 2015 second-round pick, is still extremely young (22 years old) and has plenty of room to grow, which is only a good thing for the Bills. He’s well on his way to becoming a top-10 cornerback in the NFL.
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S: Tyrann Mathieu, Arizona Cardinals
A safety/cornerback hybrid, Tyrann Mathieu is simply a game-changer in the secondary, regardless of where he’s playing. Injuries have hurt his NFL career thus far, but there’s a reason the Cardinals locked him up long-term this offseason: He’s the best at what he does. Mathieu was a candidate to win Defensive Player of the Year last season before getting injured, and if he plays all 16 games this season, he’ll be a contender for the award again.
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S: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Green Bay Packers
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix isn’t the versatile Swiss Army knife that Mathieu is, but he’s improved each year to vault himself into the discussion as a top safety. Clinton-Dix was a rangy ball hawk in college, and although he has just three career picks in the NFL, his coverage ability is top-notch. Clinton-Dix is still very young, but with two seasons under his belt, he doesn’t lack maturity or experience.