Published: Dec 24, 2020 at 11:19 AM
Everyone wants to begin their NFL career on the right foot — and the players listed on my 2020 Defensive All-Rookie Team couldn’t have gotten off to a better start.
Before we dig into the roster, I’d like to first list some of the outstanding rookie defenders who just missed the cut:
Honorable mention: Jordyn Brooks, LB, Seattle Seahawks; Kamren Curl, S, Washington Football Team; Michael Danna, DE, Kansas City Chiefs; Trevon Diggs, CB, Dallas Cowboys; L’Jarius Sneed, CB, Kansas City Chiefs.
Be sure to check out David Carr’s Offensive All-Rookie Team.
Washington Football Team
Considering Washington’s uncertain long-term quarterbacking situation heading into 2021, an argument could be made that the team would have been better off drafting a prospect like Tua Tagovailoa or Justin Herbert instead of Young with the second overall pick in last April’s draft. One thing isn’t debatable, however: Young has shown all the earmarks of being an elite NFL pass rusher, leading all rookies in sacks (5.5) and forced fumbles (three). He also plays the run better than I thought he would.
Vikings general manager Rick Spielman has a history of striking pass-rushing gold in the middle rounds of drafts, landing Danielle Hunter in the third round in 2015 and Everson Griffen in the fourth round in 2010, and it looks like he successfully tapped that well again with Wonnum. The fourth-round pick has racked up three sacks — including a strip-sack of Aaron Rodgers during Minnesota’s Week 8 upset of Green Bay — and eight QB hits while playing on a rotational basis. Wonnum should be ready to compete for a starting role in 2021 opposite Hunter, who will be returning from a season-ending neck injury.
Brown has improved by leaps and bounds. He wasn’t a huge factor on the field initially this season, especially with regard to rushing the passer, but he’s come on lately, first as a run-stopper and more recently showing the kind of pass-rush skills that could make him an interior force for years to come. After logging zero sacks for his first 13 games, Brown brought down Aaron Rodgers twice in Week 15. He’s always chasing somebody on every play. Brown is a great competitor who is going to be a great player.
San Francisco 49ers
Kinlaw had huge shoes to fill after San Francisco drafted him to replace departed veteran DeForest Buckner. The South Carolina product has had a modest statistical output thus far, contributing 34 tackles and 1.5 sacks, although he did return a pick for a touchdown in San Francisco’s Week 12 win over the Rams. For his part, head coach Kyle Shanahan thinks “people get way too caught up” in sack totals, and he anticipates better performances from everyone on the defense in 2021, when the injury-riddled front will return key pieces — notably Nick Bosa — to the field.
Baltimore has drafted precisely three inside linebackers in the first round: Ray Lewis, C.J. Mosley — and Queen. That tells you just how high the bar was set for Queen, who has responded with a team-high 97 tackles in 14 starts. He’s also made several big plays, most recently a huge fourth-down sack of Gardner Minshew in Baltimore’s blowout win over Jacksonville. The next step I’d like to see him take is to become more consistent in pass coverage.
Los Angeles Chargers
Murray has experienced growing pains at times, including being benched in Week 9 against Las Vegas after having some hiccups with communication. But as with Queen in Baltimore, Murray is trending up as the regular season ends, leading the team in tackles (95) heading into Week 16. I’d like to see more game-changing plays from Murray, who has yet to register a pick, a forced fumble or a fumble recovery, though he did finally get his first career sack against Cam Newton in Week 13.
A star hybrid linebacker-defensive back in college, Simmons got off to a slow start in Arizona while learning coordinator Vance Joseph’s scheme, tasked with mastering multiple positions without the benefit of a standard preseason, and he appeared in just 20 percent of Arizona’s defensive snaps in the teams’ first six games. Then, in Week 7, he announced his presence with a huge interception of Russell Wilson in overtime of a 37-34 win over Seattle. The No. 8 overall pick has played an increasingly bigger role since, logging 32 tackles — including a team-high 10 in Week 11 — and two sacks in that span.
Terrell’s did not have the smoothest transition to the NFL. To begin with, his last spotlight moment on the college stage was his rough performance against LSU in the College Football Playoff National Championship in January. Then he was forced to spend Weeks 3 and 4 of the 2020 season on the reserve/COVID-19 list. But he’s established himself as Atlanta’s No. 1 cornerback since, playing in at least 97 percent of the Falcons’ defensive snaps in 10 of the last 11 games. Interim head coach Raheem Morris said recently he’s “really fired up about where [Terrell is] going,” and I think one of those places should be everybody’s All-Rookie Team rosters.
Starting opposite standout cornerback Kyle Fuller in Chicago, Johnson no doubt knew he was going to be tested by rival quarterbacks from the jump — but he’s proved up to the challenge. With 15 passes defensed, Johnson ranks first among rookies and is tied for fourth overall. The only disappointment on his ledger is the absence of a pick. Johnson missed last Sunday’s win over Minnesota with a shoulder injury, but he’s shaping up to be a very, very good NFL player.
Antoine Winfield Jr.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers have had mixed results with defensive back prospects in recent years, whiffing on a string selected in the first four rounds stretching back to 2016. Winfield, drafted in the second round this year, is the type of boom pick who can compensate for Tampa’s many busts. Winfield Jr. is a do-it-all DB who, like his father, former multi-time Pro Bowler Antoine Winfield Sr., boasts great defensive instincts. One of Winfield Jr.’s biggest plays of the season came in last Sunday’s 31-27 win over Atlanta, when he hustled over to a wide-open Calvin Ridley to break up what would have been a touchdown pass in the end zone, forcing the Falcons to settle for a field goal and opening the door for Tom Brady‘s game-winning touchdown pass to Antonio Brown.
The fact that Blackmon was ready to play nine months after undergoing surgery to repair a torn ACL was remarkable unto itself. And then, when he stepped into a starting role to replace the injured Malik Hooker, the Colts’ defense didn’t skip a beat, with Blackmon contributing 35 tackles, six passes defensed and two picks while forming one of the NFL’s top young safety duos with Khari Willis.
The deserving front-runner for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award leads all rookies in tackles (100), and he also made NFL history by returning fumbles for touchdowns on back-to-back plays against the Vikings in Week 12. But his implementation by Carolina defensive coordinator Phil Snow is what has impressed me most. Snow has played the second-rounder out of Southern Illinois in multiple roles you wouldn’t expect a player from a small college to immediately handle. When I was talking to Chinn on SiriusXM NFL Radio, he mentioned that the behind-the-scenes tutelage of former Panthers stud Luke Kuechly has also helped, with Kuechly serving like a second coach to him. You can see just how much Chinn means to the Panthers by watching Carolina’s loss to Kansas City, which Chinn missed; without Chinn, the Panthers had to shuffle personnel in and out of the lineup in an effort to replicate his every-down impact, while Travis Kelce (10 catches, 159 yards) was free to rack up production without having to worry about Chinn.
Kansas City Chiefs
Dustin Colquitt was the most storied punter in franchise history, the all-time team leader in games played for the Chiefs — but his release in April was understandable, with Colquitt turning 38 in May and the team needing to save cap space after signing several key players to big-time extensions. Still, when you’re trying to replace someone who was as reliable as Colquitt for 15 seasons, it’s crucial to ensure there’s no drop-off. Kansas City appears to have succeeded with Townsend, who has solid gross (45.5 yards) and net (40.3 yards) punting averages, while landing 37 percent of his punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. He also has had just 15 punts returned, none for a touchdown.
Blankenship has brought some stability (and style!) to a position that caused some stress at the end of Adam Vinatieri’s 14-year tenure. The be-Rec-Spec’d Blankenship has made 90.6 percent of his field-goal tries, the fourth-best mark for a rookie in NFL history (minimum of 20 field goals attempted).
The sixth-round pick has averaged 28.8 yards per kick return, ninth-most by a rookie in NFL history (minimum of 20 kick returns) — and he’s one of just seven players this season to have returned a kick for a touchdown.