I previously wrote an article in which I predicted the breakout stars for the 2020 season with one from each division in football. It was pointed out to me that every pick was on the offensive side of the ball, hey it’s an offence first league these days, sue me!
Therefore I now bring to you my breakout stars for the upcoming season – defence edition. Defence wins championships, right? Those guys deserve credit too.
As a reminder, or in case you didn’t read my first article (if you didn’t, why not? You should read everything I write!). This isn’t a prediction of the MVP of the league, it’s no reflection on team success and I’m excluding rookies. Let’s get it on…
NFC North: Jaire Alexander, Green Bay Packers
2019 stats: 58 tackles, 2 INTs 2020 prediction: 60 tackles, 2 sacks, 4 INTs
Alexander has produced a couple of solid years as a member of the Packers secondary, but he hasn’t really popped yet. Kevin King outshone him last year with 5 INTs to Alexander’s 2, but I think in 2020 we see that flip flop. It’s not just interceptions that make a cornerback though, Alexander is a very physical corner. He’s accumulated 124 tackles in 2 seasons, which is impressive considering his small stature. Watch for Jaire Alexander to flourish in what could be a weak NFC North in 2020.
NFC East: Montez Sweat, Washington Redskins
2019 stats: 50 tackles, 7 sacks 2020 prediction: 60 tackles, 12.5 sacks, 1 INT
I eluded to Sweat in my previous article, so it stands to reason that he’s my focus here. The Redskin’s defence in 2020 could actually be pretty stacked, especially up front, and I’m sure Ron Rivera will bring the franchise back to at least respectability. As for Sweat himself, he came into the league as an athletic freak and has shown promise with 7 sacks in his rookie season. Now in year 2, he could really explode.
NFC South: Marcus Davenport, New Orleans Saints
2019 stats: 31 tackles, 6 sacks 2020 prediction: 45 tackles, 15 sacks
The Saints made a big splash in the 2018 draft by trading up to the middle of the first round, in what most people thought was for Lamar Jackson, it turned out to be for Marcus Davenport. Seen by many at the time as a finishing piece to the Super Bowl squad, Davenport has shown glimpses but not been consistent enough. 53 tackles and 10.5 sacks in 2 seasons isn’t worthy of a player who cost two first-round picks. If he stays healthy, he has a chance playing across from Cam Jordan to really break out for New Orleans.
NFC West: Benson Mayowa, Seattle Seahawks
2019 stats: 15 tackles, 7 sacks 2020 prediction: 30 tackles, 12 sacks
It feels a little strange to be picking a 28-year-old pass rusher, who has been in the league since 2013, as a breakout star. Mayowa registered 7 sacks for the Raiders last season, despite only playing 29% of defensive snaps (per pro football reference). That is a pretty incredible return for a man considered to be a journeyman. This is the 5th time he’s moved teams in his NFL career, so that label of a journeyman is fair by this point, but he’s becoming a solid contributor. The other reason I’m highlighting Mayowa is Seattle’s desperate need for a pass rush and if he can contribute in that area, he will get game time. This relatively unknown veteran, could be a household name in 2020.
AFC North: Jessie Bates III, Cincinnati Bengals
2019 stats: 100 tackles 3 INTs 2020 prediction: 110 tackles, 5 INTs
I had my little dig at the Bengals in my offensive breakout stars article and I stand by that, they will still struggle in 2020. That being said, a rare bright spot for them over the past 2 seasons has been the safety out of Wake Forest. Bates is a hard-hitting safety, with an eye for the ball. That makes for a star in the NFL. The one thing that has held him back from getting more widespread attention is the struggles of the team. In 2020 I don’t even think that will be enough to keep him down.
AFC East: Ed Oliver, Buffalo Bills
2019 stats: 43 tackles, 5 sacks, 1 forced fumble 2020 prediction: 55 tackles, 12 sacks, 4 forced fumbles
I’m really favouring the Bills in 2020 and highlighting some of their sophomore players to have a big impact - I also selected Devin Singletary as the offensive breakout player. Ed Oliver was seen as one of the big steals early in last year’s draft when Buffalo picked him up at the number 9 pick. His rookie season started off slow though and he was benched after 1 sack from 8 starts. That benching seemed to light a fire under Oliver and from week 11 to 13 he amassed 4 sacks to finish the season with 5. This upcoming season I think we’ll see why he was considered a close resemblance to Aaron Donald coming out of college.
AFC South: Kenny Moore II, Indianapolis Colts
2019 stats: 61 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 2 INTs 2020 prediction: 80 tackles, 2 sacks, 5 INTs
I found the AFC South a tough division to pick a true breakout star for 2020 from. The division is made up of teams that look like they’re trying their best to fail (Jags and Texans) or established stars such as J.J. Watt or Adoree Jackson. Therefore if I’m putting my neck on the line to pick a breakout star, (that is the point of this after all) then I felt like I needed to go out on a limb a little. Moore has actually carved out a decent career so far, the 2017 undrafted free agent received a very respectable grade of 75.5 from Pro Football Focus last season. His 6 INTs and 4 sacks in 3 seasons show his ball-hawking ability and his commitment to playing physical. Also, there are reports that the Colts are looking to trade Quincy Wilson, which would free up Moore to be a key starter on defence in 2020.
AFC West: Jerry Tillery, Los Angeles Chargers
2019 stats: 17 tackles, 2 sacks 2020 predictions: 50 tackles, 7 sacks, 10 tackles for loss
I was tempted to go with Clelin Ferrell here, however, if I went for a Raider in both articles I’d be seriously accused of being a biased member of the Raider Nation. Don’t get me wrong, that’s exactly what I am. However, to stop that happening, I’ll go for another 2019 first-round pick in Jerry Tillery. A lot was expected of Tillery last season, especially considering he fell into what was seen as a favourable situation in L.A. For whatever reason it just never came together for him, or the team in 2019 and I think that changes in a big way.
Article written by Scott Glynn and first published on 10/05/20.