Through three weeks of the preseason, there has been much to talk about throughout the league. The most important function of the preseason is to showcase the rookies or unknown players that each team possesses to see if they’re worth a spot on the final roster. Below is a list of the league’s best defensive rookies so far this year. Whether or not they will string all of these performances together is up to their coaches, as well as themselves.
Defensive End: Emmanuel Ogbah, Cleveland Browns
The Browns’ first draft under new Executive Vice President Sashi Brown was quite an adventurous one; many trades were made, and they ended up with a bevy of picks in the 2016 draft, as well as in 2017. One of the early picks Brown made was the selection of Oklahoma State Cowboy Emmanuel Ogbah, who is an edge player with an extreme motor. He has shown how well he can play for Cleveland, racking up 10 tackles (the high for rookies) and a sack, while consistently applying strong pressure from the defensive right side. It has become increasingly likely that he will see a large amount of snaps this year, and that’s not a bad thing for Believeland in their “new” rebuild.
Defensive Tackle: Jonathan Bullard, Chicago Bears
It was a surprise to some that Jonathan Bullard lasted until the third round in this year’s draft coming out of Florida. He plays with a high motor and is immensely strong for his size. So far this year, Bullard looks to be a steal. Through three games he has 7 tackles and 1.5 sacks, which puts him almost atop the rookie leaderboard. Bullard will be a key cog for John Fox’s defense this year and for years to come.
Defensive Tackle: Chris Jones, Kansas City Chiefs
While Chris Jones may be considered more of a 3-4 defensive end, he could play inside in a 4-3 defense, which is the setup that I am using. The former Mississippi State Bulldog was a second round pick for Kansas City, and he has played like a first rounder so far. Jones is one of the top graded rookies by Pro Football Focus, and it shows when you watch him play: While he hasn’t collected a sack yet, he can pressure the quarterback on almost every snap. The Chiefs have a bit of turnover on the defensive side this year, but it has appeared to work in a positive manner for them.
Defensive End: Noah Spence, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Former Ohio State Buckeye and Eastern Kentucky Colonel Noah Spence was quite the polarizing character in this year’s draft: after numerous failed drug tests, he was removed from Ohio State’s team and forced to transfer schools. If Spence had stayed in Columbus, we would have heard about him throughout the year leading up to this draft. He has collected 7 tackles and a sack, and is one of the better defensive ends in the rookie class. The Buccaneers front seven, boasting a trio of Gerald McCoy, Robert Ayers, and Spence, will be a force come the regular season.
Outside Linebacker: Matt Judon, Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens have started looking for the next new linebacker now that the era of Terrell Suggs is coming to an end. The may have found their new man in Matt Judon, coming out of… Grand Valley State University. After racking up 20 sacks in 2015 at the Division II level, he was selected in the fifth round by the Ravens, and he has looked like a steal so far. He leads all rookies with 3 sacks, collecting one in each preseason game. While the Ravens had a down year in terms of defense in 2015, look for that to change come this season.
Middle Linebacker: Shakeel Rashad, Houston Texans
The Texans’ defense has always been one of their strong suits, and Rashad provides depth at an important position. The undrafted linebacker out of North Carolina has been strong this year, collecting 7 tackles and also forcing a fumble. To add to that, he has a sole interception that was returned for 40 yards. Houston added two strong middle linebackers in the past two drafts in Bernardrick McKinney and Rashad, and they will only improve the defense in time.
Outside Linebacker: Jeremy Cash, Carolina Panthers
The Panthers seem to have an affinity for former safeties turned linebackers (see Thompson, Shaq, and Thomas Davis), and former Tar Heel Jeremy Cash is the newest one to add to their defense. Cash has been on the money so far this year, racking up 8 solo tackles, one of the highest numbers of all rookie linebackers. He has been effective in the passing game as well, providing strong coverage for the Panthers. This quartet of linebackers is one of the strongest in the game, and Cash will provide strong play for Carolina in the future.
Cornerback: Vernon Hargreaves III, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
This former Florida Gator was heralded as one of the best cover corners in the 2016 class, and he has proven this right so far this year. Hargreaves is the highest rated cornerback by Pro Football Focus, and his ball skills have shown up in the three games. He has 2 interceptions (which came in the same game) and 3 total passes defensed. His 2 interceptions makes him tied with two other players on this list.
Cornerback: Mackensie Alexander, Minnesota Vikings
Another member of the 2 interception club, Mackensie Alexander has done nothing but impress coaches, players, and media around the Vikings since coming to Minnesota. The second round pick has been strong in his play thus far. While many scouts knocked him for his ball skills, he has collected his 2 interceptions and 4 total passes defensed. He looks to be the heir to the #1 corner throne in the new US Bank Stadium.
Safety: Jayron Kearse, Minnesota Vikings
A former and current teammate of Alexander, many people were unsure as to when Jayron Kearse would be drafted. He ended up in the 7th round, where Minnesota took a chance on him. While he comes with flaws, the former Clemson Tiger has played higher than his slot suggests. So far he has tallied 2 interceptions and 3 total passes defensed, as well as 10 total tackles in his games. While Andrew Sendejo may be the starter for now, he could be a cap casualty in the future, leading to Kearse earning a starting spot for the up and coming Vikings.
Safety: Vonn Bell, New Orleans Saints
The former Buckeye and second round draft pick, Bell has been playing well for New Orleans, and he has proven his worth as the 61st overall pick. His ball skills are strong, and while he may not be a big hitter like former Saints defensive back Brandon Browner, he makes up for it with his instincts and coverage abilities. He boasts 17 total tackles and a pass defensed. The Saints’ secondary was a major issue early on last year, but it appears as though they have fixed their problems, which can partially be attributed to Bell.