From TSN:Players poised to bust out on defense
July 15, 2003
Our 2003 defensive breakout team (rookies were not considered):
The immensely talented Gerard Warren of the Browns has committed himself for the first time in his life, showing up consistently for Cleveland's offseason program and cutting about 18 pounds to 320. "He has a chance to have a monster impact year where he emerges on the scene," Browns coach Butch Davis says. "The last three or four months, I don't think I've seen anybody work much harder. He really wants to become a force in this league."
In his first two years, Marcus Stroud wasn't a consistent performer for the Jaguars. He did some nice things last season but is capable of much more. Stroud has lost 15 pounds and is down to about 305. In coach Jack Del Rio's new defense, Stroud will be asked to penetrate more and read less. "I think he's going to take off in this system," Del Rio says. "He's an athletic guy, and we'll allow him to be more athletic."
Nobody on the Bengals outworks Justin Smith, and the payoff should come this season. Smith had 812 sacks in 15 games as a rookie two years ago but dropped off to 612 sacks in 16 starts last year. In coach Marvin Lewis' defense, Smith's role will be a little different. He will stay on the right side regardless of the offensive formation instead of shifting to the weak side. Lewis also will feature more zone blitzing and pressure packages, which should help get Smith away from double-teams.
Even though Kalimba Edwards didn't play a lot as a rookie for the Lions, he led the team with 612 sacks. Now that he has bulked up to 260 pounds and has a better understanding of leverage and how to use his long arms, Edwards should make a major impact.
Another end with the potential to break out is the Bears' Alex Brown.
The Broncos' Ian Gold has plenty of motivation because he is in the final year of his contract, and that motivation should coincide with opportunity. In Larry Coyer's new defense, Gold is the weakside linebacker. More than in the past, Gold will be free to run to the ball, which is what he does best. Gold also could be asked to blitz more in his second season as a starter.
With Mike Peterson having left the Colts for the Jaguars, David Thornton assumes the feature position -- weakside linebacker -- in coach Tony Dungy's defense. Playing "Will" for Dungy should mean leading the team in tackles for Thornton, who played nickel linebacker last season and did it well enough to give the Colts confidence to let Peterson walk. With an exemplary work ethic and attitude, Thornton, a former walk-on at North Carolina, will attack his opportunity.
Our third linebacker, Levar Fisher of the Cardinals, also plays on the weak side. He was pushing Rob Fredrickson for the starting job last year when he injured his knee. The second-year player has tried to make up for the lost time in the offseason by working overtime with Arizona's coaches. "He has a lot of flash to him," Cardinals coach Dave McGinnis says. "He gets to the ball."
Two runners-up: Jamie Winborn of San Francisco, who appeared primed to break out last year before getting hurt early in the season, and Robert Thomas of the Rams, who came on strong late in his rookie year and is making the transition well to middle linebacker.
Dallas' Roy Williams was impressive as a rookie, and he could improve by a quantum leap this year. In 2002, the Cowboys didn't have defined roles for their safeties with regard to strong and free. That changes this season with Williams being assigned to play strong safety. That means he will be in the action more, and he will be called on to blitz. Playing close to the line of scrimmage is what Williams does best.
It isn't a rule that a safety must be named Williams to make our breakout team, but it helps. Tank Williams of the Titans has bulked up to the point he is bigger than some of the team's linebackers. And at 235 pounds, he still can cover the deep middle and run like a greyhound.
Another safety who merits mention is Jon McGraw of the Jets.
After missing most of training camp because of a contract dispute, the Chargers' Quentin Jammer never capitalized on his special talent during his rookie season. Jammer was uncomfortable with his assignments, and it showed. Now that he has had a full offseason to study his playbook, Jammer should look like an entirely different player.
The Rams are so confident in second-year man Travis Fisher that they allowed Dre' Bly and Dexter McCleon to leave. Although Fisher's inexperience was evident at times, he played well down the stretch when injuries forced him into the lineup. A former 100-meter state champ in Florida, Fisher does not lack speed. "His DB skills have really improved," Rams defensive coordinator Lovie Smith says. "His man technique is better, his knowledge of the defense is better and his body is in better shape."
Senior writer Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Sporting News.