While the quarterbacks in the 2016 NFL Draft, like Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, have received plenty of attention from analysts and fans alike, it’s clear that a majority of the promising talent in this year’s class lies with the defensive players who heard their names called in Chicago.
Whether it’s top-tier talent like Joey Bosa and Jalen Ramsey or second-round picks like Kevin Dodd and Jarran Reed, rookie defenders throughout the draft should become key contributors to their new teams right off the bat. With the draft well behind us, training camps around the corner, and the new NFL season about four months away, plenty can happen with these rookie defenders.
However, as we speak today, these five appear to have best shots at having productive campaigns in their first season — and competing for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
5. Vernon Hargreaves III
Drafted with the No. 11 overall pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Vernon Hargreaves III was the third corner taken off the board (behind Jalen Ramsey and Eli Apple). However, with excellent playmaking ability and natural coverage skills, Hargreaves could quickly prove to be the best player in the secondary from this class. He had 10 career interceptions in three seasons at Florida.
Last season, the Bucs finished with just 11 picks as a team, so the addition of Hargreaves could be huge. If he gets a handful of interceptions and scores a defensive touchdown or two while maintaining his assignments in coverage, it would be no surprise to see Hargreaves’ name called for DROY at season’s end.
4. Myles Jack
The Jacksonville Jaguars may have gotten the steal of the draft when they picked UCLA linebacker Myles Jack early in the second round. The LB was considered a top-five prospect, but only fell down the board thanks to a knee injury that cut his junior season short. However, that injury may not get in the way of his return to the field in 2016, according to recent medical reports.
If he is able to play up to his ability for the Jags next season, Jack can easily win Defensive Rookie of the Year with his combination of speed, coverage ability, and impact potential on every play. Ultimately, if healthy, Jack could be the player of the class. Of course, that “if” makes it difficult to bet on him.
3. Robert Nkemdiche
Robert Nkemdiche was considered one of the biggest “boom/prospects” of the entire draft, but with the Arizona Cardinals picking up the former Ole Miss Rebel, his talent could easily lead him to a memorable rookie campaign. At 6-foot-4 and 294 pounds, Nkemdiche provides a presence on the Cardinals’ defensive line that the team needed.
With playmakers behind him like Tyrann Mathieu and Patrick Peterson, Nkemdiche should make the unit better and contribute to another run at the Super Bowl. While his off-field concerns certainly raise a red flag, a fresh start in the desert could lead to big things for the former No. 1 recruit out of high school.
2. Reggie Ragland
Reggie Ragland was considered by many to be a top-20 talent in this year’s class, yet he slid all the way to the Buffalo Bills in the second round with the 41st overall selection. The linebacker was productive in his four seasons at Alabama though, earning SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors and contributing to championship teams throughout his tenure.
With a sudden chip on his shoulder after falling in the draft, the Bills should have a motivated linebacker with excellent tackling and pass rushing ability. Ragland could emerge as a leader on this defense and be taking home more honors next winter.
1. Leonard Floyd
The Chicago Bears have been adding talent at linebacker all offseason with the signings of Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman, but rookie Leonard Floyd (who they selected at No. 9 overall) could prove to be the biggest addition of them all.
Floyd was a pass-rushing specialist as a Georgia Bulldog, with 17 total sacks in his three season at the school. His length and athleticism should allow that production to translate to the NFL. Filling a major need for the Bears, Floyd could have a monster rookie season and prove to the best top-10 selection of the class.