NFL minicamps are officially in the books, which means we’re just over a month away from teams reconvening for training camp. That’s when the real action of the offseason begins – where you’ll begin to see players emerge as serious threats to post breakout seasons.
After running through the rest of the positions, we’ll cap off our series with defensive backs who are on the verge of breaking out and putting together great 2017 campaigns.
Byard is a little-known player, partly because of the fact he plays in Nashville with the Titans. However, the 2016 third-round pick is a potential ballhawk in the making. He started seven games for the Titans last season, recording 58 tackles with four passes defensed. He didn’t have a single interception, but his 19 picks in college show he knows how to come down with passes at times.
Now that the Titans have revamped their secondary with Logan Ryan, Adoree’ Jackson and Johnathan Cyprien, Byard’s job will become much easier. As a free safety, coverage around him should be much better. That’ll allow him more time to diagnose the play and break on the ball, thus leading to more interceptions.
He should improve in a big way this season as a second-year player, potentially bringing down three or four interceptions if he’s the regular starter, which he should be.
Jalen Mills, CB, Eagles
Mills fell all the way to the seventh round of last year’s draft due to off-field concerns and questions about his tweener position in the NFL. He found a home at cornerback with the Eagles, though, and is in line to be a starter for them this season.
He’s received rave reviews in practice this offseason as a standout player in the secondary, which is obviously a great sign heading into training camp. He’s not the biggest or strongest cornerback, but he simply knows how to make plays and always seems to find himself around the ball.
What he does need to do is cut down on the big plays allowed, which have been an issue early on in his career.
Kevin Johnson, CB, Texans
Johnson was limited to just six games in 2016 after being a first-round pick two years ago, so the start to his career has been a rough one. As a rookie, he had his bright spots with nine passes defensed and an interception, but there’s no doubt his time in the NFL has been tough.
He has a chance to break out in 2017 for a couple of reasons. Now healthy, Johnson should see an increase in playing time. That’s the first step toward becoming a cog in the secondary. Additionally, A.J. Bouye is in Jacksonville, opening up a starting spot opposite Jonathan Joseph.
There’s no reason Johnson shouldn’t be able to claim that spot in training camp and hold onto it for the entire season. He has good quickness, and his feet always put him in the right position to make a play on the ball, he just needs to play with better strength.
Minor issues aside, Johnson has the ability to play all over the secondary – a great asset for the Texans.
Eli Apple, CB, Giants
It didn’t take all that long for Apple to unseat Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie as one of the Giants’ starting cornerbacks, and he did so by playing solid defense. He did have his ups and downs throughout the year, but as a whole, he was probably better than the Giants expected by the end of the season.
His combination of size and speed make him a promising prospect despite his early struggles – especially as a run defender. That’s absolutely one area where Apple has to improve, but it’s not going to make or break his career.
Look for Janoris Jenkins to continue drawing opposing No. 1 receivers with Apple sticking with secondary targets in man coverage. That’s when he’s at his best as he continues to build confidence in the secondary.
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Sean Davis, S, Steelers
Davis can play pretty much anywhere in the secondary, and he showed that as a rookie. He gained experience at nickel corner and strong safety, while also playing deep coverage in some instances.
This season, Davis should get consistent snaps at strong safety, which will keep him around the ball more often. Racking up 100 tackles and a couple of picks are well within reach after he had 69 tackles and one interception in 10 starts last season.
The Steelers are getting younger in the secondary with Artie Burns and Davis, and we’ll see a big improvement from both players in 2017 – particularly in the exceptionally talented Davis.
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James Bradberry, CB, Panthers
Bradberry got off to a slow start as a rookie, struggling in coverage early on last season. He rounded into form as the year went on, and he’s poised to put together a really solid sophomore campaign.
With Sean McDermott gone, Steve Wilks will step up as the team’s defensive coordinator after serving as the secondary coach since 2012. That bodes well for Bradberry, who’s a big, physical cornerback. Wilks vowed to be more aggressive in his scheme this season, so the Panthers could go with more press coverage, which is an area where Bradberry is working to improve.
He’s going to be a key contributor in Carolina’s defense and could establish himself as one of the best young cornerbacks in the league this season with Wilks at the helm. Bradberry has all the makings of an elite shutdown corner.
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Jalen Ramsey, CB, Jaguars
You could make an argument that Ramsey has already broken out because if he plays the way he did in 2016 for the rest of his career, he’ll be a starter for 10-15 years. However, his ceiling is so unfathomably high that he has the potential to become the very best cornerback … this season.
He’s the whole package at corner: size, speed, awareness, instincts. It took him a little while to bring down his first interception – 15 weeks, to be exact – but he returned the second of his two for a touchdown and had 10 passes defensed in the final 10 weeks.
His confidence is never a question, either. He always wants to take on the best receivers, and more often than not, he shuts them down. Quarterbacks will learn not to test Ramsey in coverage, even if he doesn’t have the best hands, but seeing A.J. Bouye on the other side won’t make it easy to avoid the Florida State product.
One caveat: Ramsey had core muscle surgery this week. He's supposed to be ready for camp, but that kind of injury can be tougher for players at speed positions to recover from.
Karl Joseph, S, Raiders
The Raiders have done a good job revamping their secondary in recent years, from adding Sean Smith and David Amerson to drafting Gareon Conley and Obi Melifonwu. The most important piece of the defensive backfield might just be Joseph, however. The Raiders’ first-round pick last year was recovering from a torn ACL for much of the offseason, which limited his exposure to the speed of the NFL.
Now, he said he feels like a “new person” with a full offseason of work in 2017. That’s a great sign for the Raiders, especially after he played relatively well to begin with in 2016. This season, he’s going to really take off and could make a similar jump to the one Landon Collins made last year.
He’s a ferocious hitter with great range in the secondary, looking like a poor man’s Earl Thomas. Obviously, he’s not quite on that level yet, but he did have five interceptions in four games during his final year at West Virginia, so the ball skills are there.
Anthony Brown, CB, Cowboys
The Cowboys are going much younger in the secondary this season after opting not to re-sign Brandon Carr, Barry Church or Morris Claiborne. As a result, young guys like Brown, Chidobe Awuzie and Byron Jones will be asked to step up. Brown in particular will play a huge role in Year 2 after emerging as a starter late last season.
A sixth-round pick in 2016, Brown has all the traits you want in a shutdown cornerback: good feet, sticky in coverage, physicality, great awareness. And as a result of that, he’ll likely be the team’s No. 1 corner to start the year.
In 10 starts last season, he had eight passes defensed, one interception and a forced fumble, proving to be around the ball at all times. Brown is going to play a huge role in Dallas’ secondary and his play will directly impact how the defense as a whole performs.