This season in 2018, the NFL's defenders made their impact known in many different ways. Whether it was on the defensive line, owning the middle of the field at linebacker, or in the secondary, they were easy to recognize. The best thing, is that most of the players that you'll see on this list just completed their first year at the least, or they just completed their fifth year at the most. So if you want to see a list of defenders that will be household names in the years to come, then you're in luck.
Defensive Line: Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams
Aaron Donald throughout his career has wrecked havoc on opposing offenses. Last year, he helped the Rams clinch their first playoff berth since 2004, and was rewarded with the defensive player of the year award. This year, he has taken his dominance to a new level as he racked up 20.5 sacks: the most ever by a defensive tackle. This all came while leading the Rams to their first Super Bowl since 2001. What was also impressive for him was the four forced fumbles he had which includes 3 strip sacks. Not bad at all for someone who plays a position that mainly involves stopping the run, rather than sacking the quarterback. Don't worry however, Donald also recorded a career high 25 tackles for a loss. He was once again rewarded with the defensive player of the year award. His play has been noticed by other greats such as Hall of Fame defensive tackle John Randle who said that Donald can change football. He is not wrong. With a guy who trains, studies, and dominates the game as well as anyone can do it, Donald will probably do just that.
Defensive End/Outside Linebacker: Khalil Mack, Chicago Bears
Throughout his career, Mack has gotten better and better every year. All you need to do is to look at his stats and his impact. In his rookie year in 2014, Mack had 4 sacks and 76 combined tackles for an Oakland Raiders team that went 3-13. The next year, Mack exploded with 15 sacks which included 5 sacks and an upset win against the eventual Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos. Mack followed his breakout season with winning the defensive player of the year award and helped the Raiders to their first playoff berth since 2002. Another another double digit sack season in 2017, Mack was traded to the Chicago Bears after holding out for the majority of the offseason. In his first game as a Bear, Mack recorded 1 sack, a forced fumble which he recovered, and a pick six. Despite the Bears losing that game, they made sure that it wouldn't happen again. Chicago went 12 -3 for the rest of the season. Mack was not only recording his vintage stats, but he had the impact to prove his value. Former Bears great and Hall of Famer Dan Hampton said that Mack, not Hall of Fame linebacker Brian Urlacher is the best Bears defender in the last 30 years. By the time the season ended, Mack recorded 12.5 sacks and a whopping 6 forced fumbles while leading the Bears to a division title. As for Mack's future, get used to lots of sacks, forced fumbles, and wins.
Linebacker: Darius Leonard, Indianapolis Colts
In just one season, the second round pick Leonard established himself as the quarterback of the Colts’ defense. In all of the 18 games that Leonard played in which includes the 2 playoff games, he was all over the field. His stats prove that. Leonard’s regular season stats includes 163 tackles, 7 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, and 2 interceptions. He also helped the Colts make the playoffs in which he got an interception in the game that they clinched their playoff berth. In the 2 playoff games that the Colts were in, he recorded 27 tackles and 1 forced fumble. Despite surprisingly not making the pro bowl, he was rewarded with a Second Team All Pro selection and won the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. Leonard’s high level play is something that will probably continue in the years to come, so football fans shouldn’t be surprised when Leonard becomes a star.
Secondary: Strong Safety, Jamal Adams, New York Jets
If you want to see a player who gives everything he has out on the field, then this is the guy. Drafted 6th overall in 2017, Adams had a strong rookie season recording 83 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 forced fumble, and 2 fumble recoveries. He was rewarded by making First Team all Rookie, but Adams knew he could do better. In fact, he vowed to do better. This season, he did do better. Adams had 115 tackles, 3 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, and 1 fumble recovery. His skills defending the pass also improved as his pass deflections went from 6 last year, to 12 this year. He also recorded his first career interception and returned it 38 yards. He made the pro bowl and won Defensive MVP as well as making Second Team All Pro. It’s more than the stats however. On every play, Adams goes 110% and usually gets rewarded most of the time which was evident this year. His role as a leader on the Jets defense is also noticed. After 2 years, Adams is already paving a clear path to becoming not just a great player, but a generational player.
Secondary: Cornerback, Jalen Ramsey, Jacksonville Jaguars
Ramsey since his rookie season has emerged as one of the elite cornerbacks of his generation. In just 3 years, Ramsey has recorded 9 interceptions and 44 pass deflections. Now you may see those stats and say that their good, but not great. The reason why is because Ramsey has the ability to take receivers out of the game. He officially had that reputation last year as he helped the Jaguars clinch their first division title since 1999 and their first playoff berth since 2007. In his first playoff game, he shut down any Buffalo Bills receiver that was against him and clinched the game with an interception. In the next game, Ramsey made a key fourth down stop in a Jaguars upset over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Their run ended against the New England Patriots, but Ramsey had officially established himself amongst the NFL’s elite. The next season, he didn’t do better than last season, but he still dominated other teams’ receivers. Amongst all of the other emerging shutdown cornerbacks such as Marshon Lattimore of the New Orleans Saints and Denzel Ward of the Cleveland Browns, Ramsey still stands amongst all off them. Even if he losses that title, he will still be a household name in the years to come.
Secondary: Free Safety, Eddie Jackson, Chicago Bears
In just two years, Jackson has proved himself to be a game breaking talent for a Chicago Bears team that could be a Super Bowl champion in the future. Jackson’s path to becoming an elite NFL player is the same as Jamal Adams with a couple differences in the way. One difference is that unlike Adams, he was drafted in the 4th round. His position is also free safety. But other than that he had a solid rookie season which included having 2 75+ touchdowns in the same game against the Carolina Panthers. One was a fumble return and the other was an interception return. He finished his rookie season with 73 tackles, 2 interceptions, 1 forced fumble, and 3 fumble recoveries.
What was to come next year was even more amazing. Jackson despite having only 51 tackles this year, had a whopping 6 interceptions, along with 2 forced fumbles and 1 fumble recovery to go with that. What was also impressive, was the 3 touchdowns he had. 2 were off interceptions and the other was off a fumble recovery. His play was essential to the Bears making the playoffs and clinching their division for the first time since 2010. In the clinching game, Jackson picked off Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. However, he injured himself while falling down. The Bears were upset in the first round by the Philadelphia Eagles. The question next year is whether Jackson can stay healthy this time towards the end of the season, because if he can, he can very well be the best player at his position for a long time.
This list highlights the players on offense who have established, or are beginning to establish themselves as generational talents. After Ray Lewis, Brian Urlacher, Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu, and Charles Woodson retired midway in this decade, the NFL hasn’t had that much players that could be thought of as great players, let alone players that are stars but not generational talents. But after this season, NFL fans can now watch a new group of future that extends even beyond all of the players that I mentioned. Get excited football fans, these future stars are only beginning to mark their names.
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