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Rookies don’t always reach their full potential in their first season in the league; that role belongs to second- and third-year players, who after finally getting comfortable with their playbooks, teammates and surroundings, can finally break out.
This year, on the defensive side of the ball, there are no shortage candidates. A lot of defensive backs fit that category as they often improve more from year one to year two. In addition, some defensive linemen and edge rushers have similar opportunities.
Here are the top 10 defensive players who could break out in 2014:
Vaccaro already established himself as one of the best young safeties in the game last season as a rookie, despite not even being a starter.
This year, Vaccaro will start in a talent-heavy Saints secondary alongside Jairus Byrd, Keenan Lewis and old faithful, Champ Bailey. In Rob Ryan’s defense, Vaccaro has a chance to be a ballhawk as well as a hard-hitting run-stopper.
A trendy pick to break out in 2014, the Falcons’ 2013 first-round pick is already arguably the best defensive back on the roster. As a rookie, he had a league-high 15 pass break-ups to go with two interceptions, not to mention only 53.4 percent of balls thrown his way were completed.
In the tough NFC South, he’ll face the likes of Kenny Stills, Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson, so we’ll see if the sophomore is ready to step up to the challenge.
3. Dee Milliner
The 2013 first-rounder did not make Jets fans forget about Darrelle Revis right off the bat, but he did show signs of improvement throughout his first season.
Milliner was subject to getting beat, but cut down on his mistakes down the stretch. He had eight pass break-ups in his final six games, as opposed to three through the first seven. Rex Ryan will give him every chance to succeed, and with better pieces around him he’ll have more opportunities.
With Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas consistently grabbing the headlines, Maxwell is a forgotten man. In the Legion of Boom, Maxwell finished with a +8.0 coverage draft, per Pro Football Focus, which was 10th-best among any NFL corners. He also held opposing quarterbacks to a 57.8 quarterback rating, fourth-best among those who played 300 snaps.
Spikes was exiled from New England and landed with AFC East rival Buffalo, but perhaps the Pats didn’t look closely at how well the inside linebacker performed over the years.
According to Pro Football Focus, Spikes’ run-stop percentage increased from 2011 to 2012 and again from 2012 to 2013, finishing with a 12.2 percentage last season — which was second-best in the NFL for his position. He has a chance to man the middle of a very talented Bills defense now.
With the Patriots front seven depleted by injuries last year, Collins was thrust into action and wound up being arguably their top performer.
Collins was a force to be reckoned with in the playoff victory over Indianapolis, primarily against the run but also as a pass-rusher and in pass coverage. This year, he’ll be a key contributor on the revamped unit.
The Giants are notorious for grooming defensive line talent, and when they selected Hankins in the second round of the 2013 draft it looked like they pulled off a major heist.
Hankins finished with a +9.5 run defense grade and a 10.5 run stop percentage as a rookie, according to Pro Football Focus, which was seventh out of 77 defensive tackles. He’s in store for a larger role in 2014, and based on his previous success should take on a bigger role.
The conscious decision to let Jared Allen walk had a lot do with the ongoing progression of Griffen.
Griffen has produced 13.5 sacks in one game started over the past two seasons, and now has a chance to shine under the tutelage of first-year Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, the guy who helped mold Michael Johnson thrive off the edge.
Who? Jackson was among the unheralded defensive linemen for the AFC champion Broncos despite earning a +19.2 grade by Pro Football Focus. He was the No. 13 defensive tackle in the league, strong against both the run and the pass, and has a chance to build on an already stellar year.
10. Ziggy Ansah
The former first-round pick dealt with a concussion, abdomen and ankle injuries his first season, and now will be counted on to be the pass-rusher opposite Jason Jones. With Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh, Ansah improved down the stretch of 2013 as he grew more familiar in his scheme, and at full health and more knowledge of the Lions defense, Ansah should turn heads this coming year.
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