Every new NFL season brings new surprises to the world: injuries and performance create opportunities for some lesser known names, and these players shine. There is likely to be at least a handful of new players that can capture the spotlight every year, and 2016 is no exception to the rule. Last year brought us new stars like Josh Norman, an even better Cam Newton, and a rejuvenated NaVorro Bowman. The names below highlight some people to watch on the defensive side of the ball come Sunday.
CB Nevin Lawson, Detroit Lions
When Rashean Mathis was sidelined with a concussion in 2015, Lawson stepped into his place, and performed admirably. Now that Mathis has retired, the position is his to lose. Playing across from #1 corner Darius Slay will likely attract many quarterbacks to throwing toward Lawson, and if he can play at the same level as he did this past season, Detroit will have a very strong secondary.
S Maurice Alexander, Los Angeles Rams
In 2015, there were many questions surrounding parts of the Rams’ defense, specifically at the safety and linebacker position in regards to Mark Barron. Now that he has found a home at the SAM position, there is no question who the starting strong safety is for the Rams: Maurice Alexander. Alexander has been a good player in spurts, and now that he is given a full time starting role, he will be able to showcase his true abilities and prosper for Los Angeles.
DL Kony Ealy, Carolina Panthers
Kony Ealy’s 2015 regular season sack total: 5.0
Kony Ealy’s Super Bowl L sack total: 3.0
When given a major role in Carolina’s defense, Ealy has been able to shine. It wasn’t often that he was starting in 2015 because of Jared Allen playing ahead of him. Now that Allen has retired, Ealy can put on a show week in and week out with his pass-rushing ability. Carolina’s defense is poised for another strong year.
LB Preston Smith, Washington Redskins
Smith collected 8 sacks in his first year as a member of the Redskins, and he has the chance to do even more this year. If he makes his second-year jump, he will break double digit sacks, and be a force for the already strong, underrated Redskins’ defense. Playing across from Ryan Kerrigan and other strong rushers like Trent Murphy will only benefit him.
DL Trey Flowers, New England Patriots
A 2015 4th round draft pick out of Arkansas, Flowers spent the past season on injured reserve with a shoulder injury. In his time back this preseason, he collected 1.5 sacks (one of which he forced a fumble on, and returned it himself for a touchdown) and was able to constantly generate good pressure, either coming from the edge or on the inside. With Rob Ninkovich suspended, he will likely see good snaps on passing plays, where new addition Chris Long will come off the field.