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Breakout or fakeout: Which emerging defensive stars are for real?

Julian Catalfo / theScore

In this two-part series, theScore's football editors give a verdict on whether 2023 breakout players will continue their success in 2024.

We looked at offense first. Next up are the defensive players. Rookies from last season weren't considered.

2023 stats: 56 tackles, 13 sacks, 12 tackles for loss, 1 forced fumble

Few teams develop defensive linemen like the Baltimore Ravens, and Madubuike authored one of the most productive seasons in franchise history. And he didn't rely on one or two standout performances: He was consistent week-to-week, playing 13 games with at least half a sack, 10 with at least one tackle for loss, and eight with double-digit quarterback hits.

Madubuike kept some Hall of Fame-caliber company in 2023. His 33 total pressures and 16 QB knockdowns were both second behind Chris Jones and just ahead of Aaron Donald among defensive tackles. The other defensive tackles who put up Madubuike's kind of pressure stats are almost exclusively stars.

Additionally, Madubuike is one of just five defensive tackles with 10-plus sacks and 30-plus QB hits in a season since 2009. Again, he's in outstanding company with Donald (twice), Williams, and Cox.

Madubuike isn't a one-trick pony either. He had the sixth-best missed tackle percentage last season among defensive tackles with at least 40 combined tackles. The 26-year-old might be a pass-rusher first, but opposing offenses can't exploit him in run defense.

Re-signing Madubuike to a big-money extension shows that the Ravens view him as a long-term star. Baltimore has a long history of allowing defenders to walk as free agents instead of giving them a second contract - like Matthew Judon, C.J. Mosley, and Za'Darius Smith, among others - so it's notable that the team considered Madubuike a must-keep player.

There is some concern that former defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald's exit to the Seattle Seahawks could cause Madubuike to regress, but Baltimore promoted from within by hiring Zach Orr, so there should be scheme continuity. Madubuike wasn't on many people's radar entering 2023, but he seems poised to scare quarterbacks for many years to come.


2023 stats: 66 tackles, 17.5 sacks, 17 tackles for loss, 2 forced fumbles, 1 interception

With a huge contract on the line, Allen finally reached the elite level of production many expected of him when he was drafted No. 7 overall in 2019. But the pass-rusher didn't suddenly become great just because his first major NFL payday was riding on it.

Allen bested his previous career-high sack total (10.5 in his rookie season) in by seven in 2023. But sacks can be volatile year-to-year, with pressures often a better indicator of future success. Allen only had seven sacks in 2022, but there were signs that a breakout season was coming, as he finished seventh in total pressures with 40. He was also 13th in PFF's PRP metric, which combines sacks, hits, and hurries relative to how many times a player rushes the passer.

The 26-year-old bumped up his pressure total to 46 in 2023 - which ranked second in the league - while his 33 QB hits were third and his 13 QB knockdowns were seventh. Meanwhile, only Myles Garrett had a better true-pass-set win percentage, with Allen beating his blocker 33.5% of the time, per PFF.

The main flaw in Allen's game remains his inconsistency against the run. His missed tackle percentage of 9.6% was the 17th-worst mark among 41 edge defenders with at least 30 combined tackles. But that's often the trade-off required to be a dominant pass-rusher.

With a steady upward trend in performance culminating in his outstanding 2023 season, Allen is a safe bet to stay at this level. He might not be in the elite tier of pass-rushers with the likes of Garrett and T.J. Watt, but he's firmly at the top of the next-best group and well worth the five-year, $141.25-million extension he received this offseason.


2023 stats: 52 tackles, 12.5 sacks, 15 tackles for loss, 1 forced fumble

The Vikings rewarded Greenard with a four-year contract worth a reported $76 million after a breakout 12.5-sack season. His $19-million average annual value is 14th among all edge rushers, per Over The Cap. But there are serious questions about whether the pass-rusher's price tag will match his production.

Greenard certainly got to the quarterback and made the most of his opportunities. However, his total number of opportunities and his efficiency left a lot to be desired. The former Houston Texan recorded 48 pressures in the regular season, good enough for 53rd in the NFL among players with at least 300 pass-rush snaps, per PFF. His win rate was also 49th in the NFL, according to PFF's data.

Out of all the pass-rushers who matched or bettered Greenard's 12.5 sacks in 2023, only one player had a worse pass-rush win rate.

While Greenard posted an eight-sack campaign in 2021 in a smaller sample size, his efficiency was lacking then, too. His win rate came in at 14.4% - better than 2023, but only 27th among defenders with at least 200 pass-rush snaps.

The Vikings signed Greenard in hopes that he could replace Danielle Hunter, who departed for the Texans after a monster 16.5-sack campaign. Although the new signee is three years younger, Greenard might still represent a step down compared to Hunter and other dominant pass-rushers.

Verdict: FAKEOUT

2023 stats: 139 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, 1 INT, 2 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery, 10 passes defended

Quincy, the older brother to Jets defensive lineman Quinnen Williams, was a boom-or-bust defender in 2023. He parlayed frequent booms into a first-team All-Pro nod, but that won't be easy to repeat.

We'll start with the good: Williams had 80 stops, which PFF defines as a tackle that prevents an opposing player from gaining more than 45% of the necessary yardage for a new set of downs on first down, preventing a gain of 60% or more on second down, and stopping a first down on both third and fourth downs.

His 52 stops in the run game ranked first among all linebackers, and his 11.3% stop rate ranked fourth. Unfortunately, it's difficult to keep producing stops at that rate. Only eight linebackers have had multiple seasons with 300 or more run-defense snaps and a run-stop rate of 10% or higher since 2014, per PFF:

  • Luke Kuechly (2014, 2018)
  • Bobby Wagner (2015, 2017, 2020, 2023)
  • Lavonte David (2014, 2017)
  • Derrick Johnson (2015, 2016)
  • D'Qwell Jackson (2014, 2015)
  • Alec Ogletree (2014, 2016)
  • Zach Cunningham (2019, 2020)
  • Mark Barron (2015, 2017)

Despite racking up 139 total tackles, the 27-year-old had a missed tackle rate of 13.2%, per PFF. That's only marginally better than his 14.8% rate in the category across five seasons.

Williams hauled in his first career interception in Week 16 against the Commanders and totaled a solid 10 deflections, but he was far from extraordinary in coverage. He gave up 516 receiving yards and a 72.8% completion rate when targeted through the air, with 454 of the yards allowed coming after the catch. The latter mark was the fifth-highest among all linebackers, per PFF.

He had just four games where he allowed a completion rate of 60% or less compared to six contests allowing an 80% rate or higher. Opposing teams also scored four touchdowns against the 5-foot-11, 225-pounder through the air, fourth-most among backers. He finished the season allowing a 96.1 passer rating in coverage.

It's unlikely that Williams will produce impact plays at the same clip in the future, and he remains a target in the passing game. Don't expect Williams to keep racking up All-Pro honors.

Verdict: FAKEOUT

2023 stats: 36 tackles, 4 INTs, 10 passes defended, 1 forced fumble, 1 touchdown

Like several other defenders on this list, Johnson's career season came at just the right time. The cornerback turned an impressive 2023 campaign into a four-year, $76-million extension that put him among the 10 highest-paid players at his position.

Johnson was PFF's top-ranked cornerback in coverage for 2023, and it's easy to see why as the 25-year-old developed into one of the league's most consistent cornerbacks.

Among corners with 50-plus targets, Johnson tied for first in yards allowed per target (4.8) and total yards (279), ranked second in total yards allowed (279), and came in third in yards allowed per completion (8.7) and passer rating when targeted (50.9). Quarterbacks almost would have been better off tossing the ball into the dirt rather than challenging Johnson. Even when he did allow catches, he rarely allowed a receiver to make a play afterward, giving up the seventh-fewest yards after catch (119).

During his final five games of the season, Johnson created "Jaylon Island." No receiver facing him had a fun vacation. It's likely no coincidence that Johnson found his best form of the year shortly after Chicago finally helped address its pass rush by acquiring Montez Sweat, giving Johnson the backup he needed to explode.

Cornerback play is among the most volatile in football due to the difficulty of the position and the small margins between a defended pass and a 70-yard touchdown, so some minor regression from his All-Pro form wouldn't be cause for concern.

What is worrying is Johnson's availability. He's yet to finish a full season in four years, including three missed games in 2023. If he can stay healthy, all indications are that he's a lockdown corner about to enter his prime.


2023 stats: 80 tackles, 7 passes defended, 5 forced fumbles, 3 sacks

McDuffie showed why the Chiefs opted to use a first-round pick on him two years ago by emerging as a key contributor on their Super Bowl-winning defense this season. While he didn't record an interception, the cornerback made an impact in other ways, putting up three sacks, nine quarterback hits, seven passes defended, and five forced fumbles, which placed him third across the entire NFL.

It was an elite season that put McDuffie in rarified air, even if it might not seem that way on paper. Since forced fumbles began being tracked in 1999, McDuffie is only the second cornerback and fifth defensive back ever to record three sacks and five forced fumbles in a season:

  • Trent McDuffie (CB, 2023)
  • Antoine Winfield Jr. (S, 2023)
  • Drew Coleman (CB, 2010)
  • Roman Harper (S, 2010)
  • Brian Dawkins (S, 2002, 2008)

Don't disregard McDuffie's coverage ability based on his lack of interceptions; he likely just wasn't targeted enough. The 23-year-old averaged 8.1 snaps per target, 10th highest in the NFL among cornerbacks with 400 coverage snaps, per PFF.

However, McDuffie showed his true ability in the postseason against the hardest competition under the brightest lights. He allowed just 44% of targets in his direction to be completed in the playoffs, per PFF. No other cornerback with at least 10 targets bested him in that area.

Considering McDuffie's versatility in the slot or outside, his coverage ability, and his rare knack for rushing the passer and terrorizing ball carriers, it's pretty clear that the Chiefs have discovered their latest gem at defensive back.


2023 stats: 69 tackles, 9 INTs, 15 passes defended, 5 touchdowns

Frist-team All-Pro Bland was a relative unknown for most fans outside of Dallas before 2023, but he really stepped up following Trevon Diggs' season-ending injury. The cornerback provided one of the moments of the season when he broke the NFL record for pick-6s in a campaign in just his 11th game. But was Bland just in the right place at the right time, or is he a legitimate star in the making?

Interceptions are a volatile stat. Some cornerbacks seem to have more of a knack for finding the football than others, but even players good enough to lead their position in a season often struggle to replicate that form.

Diggs topping all cornerbacks on that list lends weight to the theory that Dallas' aggressive defensive scheme, which will change in 2024 after Mike Zimmer replaced Dan Quinn, has helped give its defensive backs more chances at creating turnovers.

Bland also didn't set the world on fire in terms of coverage outside of interceptions. He gave up four touchdowns and allowed 13.2 yards per completion, which ranked 66th among 90 cornerbacks with at least 40 targets. His allowed completion percentage of 59.5 ranked 38th, and his 445 air yards placed 77th. He also only had six pass breakups, though a low number is expected when a player turns so many targets into interceptions.

With Diggs set to return in 2024, Bland will likely be tested even more as quarterbacks bank on his 2023 interception total being a fluke. While the 24-year-old is only in his third season and has room to improve after being thrust into the lineup last year, he may have fewer interceptions to mask his coverage mistakes.

Verdict: FAKEOUT

2023 stats: 81 tackles, 4 INTs, 13 passes defended, 1 forced fumble, 3 sacks, 10 tackles for loss, 1 touchdown

Hamilton stuffed the stat sheet on his way to earning Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro honors last season. His jump in production from 2022 is partially thanks to a significant increase in snaps (548 as a rookie, 937 in 2023), but there are reasons to be optimistic about Hamilton beyond more playing time.

The 6-foot-4, 220-pounder took a small step back in overall missed tackle rate, going from 11.5% to 12.2%, but he more than made up for that with 33 stops, according to PFF. However, it's his impressive coverage skills that make Hamilton a game-changer.

Hamilton was targeted 61 times, allowing 37 receptions (60.7%) for 258 yards and a single touchdown. His 48.4 passer rating allowed ranked fourth among all safeties despite being the fourth most-targeted safety, per PFF. None of the three safeties that allowed a lower passer rating were targeted more than 27 times.

Offenses went after Hamilton on shorter routes most frequently, with his 5.2-yard average depth of target tied for the fourth shallowest among safeties. The 23-year-old parlayed those short targets into bad situations for the opposition with 22 stops as a tackler and just a 6.1% missed tackle rate in the passing game.

The Notre Dame standout's production rushing the passer highlights his versatility. He posted 14 total pressures and three sacks on just 37 pass-rush snaps, per PFF.

Hamilton is poised to be one of the NFL's best and most versatile safeties for years to come.


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