New Jets safety Jim Leonhard is among the defenders projected to raise his profile this upcoming season.
Earlier this week, I discussed five offensive players we should keep an eye on this summer and into September – players who may not be considered household names but who should show us some production and have us taking notice in 2009.
Here are five players on the defensive side of the football who could surprise us with their play this fall.
Leonhard had an INT in the wild-card playoffs against the Dolphins last year.(Gregory Shamus/Getty)
1. Jim Leonhard(notes), SS, New York Jets
Leonhard finally got his chance to step into a starting role last season in Baltimore when starting safety Dawan Landry(notes) was injured. Leonhard responded with 69 tackles and one interception in the regular season. He added 16 tackles, an interception and one forced fumble in the Ravens’ run to the AFC championship game.
Now, he enters training camp in New York as a full-time starter, and we should expect him to produce in Rex Ryan’s system – one of the major selling points when Leonhard chose the Jets over the Eagles in free agency. Leonhard has the ability to play man-to-man on the slot in three-wide-receiver sets, can play the nickel corner in a pinch and has good enough feet to match up with tight ends in the AFC East. Plus, he should be a factor in the punt return game. Players like Leonhard, who haven’t been handed anything on a silver platter in their careers like many first-round picks, continue to work hard even after they’re given a starting role. Expect him to make some plays in this defense.
2. Mike Jenkins(notes), CB, Dallas Cowboys
Jenkins will start opposite fellow cornerback Terence Newman(notes) in his first year as a full-time player. Although I expect Newman to draw most of the tougher matchups in the NFC East, expect Jenkins to see plenty of action on his side of the field.
One thing we have to remember about the Cowboys is that they’re a pressure team that sends players after the quarterback. In return, they count on their secondary to play a lot of man-to-man coverage in blitz packages. The Cowboys totaled 59 sacks in 2008, and they should continue to be a defense that relies on pressure to create plays. Because of this, Jenkins will have plenty of opportunities to make some plays on the ball, and if Newman can continue to play at a top level, opposing offenses will look to try and exploit Jenkins. Lots of opportunities for Jenkins, and I believe he has the talent to get it done.
3. Glenn Dorsey(notes), DT, Kansas City Chiefs
The biggest jump in development for most NFL players is from their rookie season to their second year. I don’t see any reason we can’t expect the same for Dorsey, the former first-round pick of the Chiefs who was average in his first season.
Sometimes, coaching changes can light a fire under players, and this is the hope in Kansas City because we all know that Dorsey has the talent to be very productive at this level. I like the idea of the Chiefs using him as an end in their 3-4 scheme and as a tackle in the sub packages on third-down situations, where the former LSU star can use his quickness and explosion off the football to get to the quarterback and put some sacks next to his name. Dorsey should have a solid season in ’09 and show us why he was a first-round pick.
4. Paul Posluszny(notes), MLB, Buffalo Bills
Posluszny had a solid season in ’08 for Buffalo, but the big plays were still missing. He totaled more than 100 tackles, but only contributed one interception, one forced fumble and no sacks. Expect those numbers to increase in 2009.
The Bills are still a defense that uses the Tampa 2 as it core coverage and against the run, the Mike linebacker is allowed to run freely to the football if the defensive tackles can keep blockers off him. Posluszny has the lateral speed to match running backs to the sidelines and the size to come downhill and take on lead blocks and ball carriers in the hole. But where he has to take that next step is on first- and second-down passing situations and run the middle of the field in the Tampa 2 and make plays on the ball. It’s the same role that Brian Urlacher(notes) performs for the Bears. I like Posluszny’s game, but he must take it to the next level and become more than a guy who racks up tackles. He needs to make some game-changing plays.
5. Will Smith(notes), DE, New Orleans Saints
The Saints added to their overall talent and depth this offseason in the secondary. However, without some pressure up front, all those moves will go unnoticed as pressure always leads to plays in the secondary.
Smith’s ability has come into question the past two seasons as his sack numbers have declined from 10½ in 2006 to seven in 2007 to only three last season. However, the Saints have a brand new system under new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, and not only will every player be held accountable for every single rep they play on Sundays, they will also be put in positions to make plays. Therefore, expect Williams to get the best there is out of Smith and run some stunts up front to put him in position to get to the quarterback. Turnovers are a key to any Williams defense, and I expect Smith to be taught that once he reaches the quarterback to get the football on the ground. I see a big year in New Orleans for the former first-round pick.