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Nate Tice's Defensive Breakouts for 2022
Nate weighs in with nine defensive players he thinks will ascend next season.
This week, we were thrilled to welcome Nate Tice of The Athletic Football Show to the podcast to share with us his defensive breakouts for 2022. With a long background in playing and coaching at the college and pro level, Nate has developed a great eye for the game, so it was fun hearing which guys he felt were going to ascend next season. To hear the IDP take for each guy, be sure to check out the full episode.
Pete Werner, LB, New Orleans Saints
First off, whenever you see a linebacker wearing a number in the 20s, that blows your mind a bit. But that's the new world we're living in now. Anyways, throughout the season, I really thought Werner was an instinctive dude who also had some great athleticism. It was surprising, the way he could bend and make some of these tackles.
Werner and Demario Davis made a really fun linebacker pairing in New Orleans that allowed the Saints to only rush four a good amount of the time. They were a very traditional, set defense as far as their fronts, so the linebackers had to play very traditional: they had to really read the game, stay off blocks, and beat the guy trying to climb to them. I think Werner did a great job of that, especially as a young player. He’s somebody that I think can ascend even more.
I mean, this is just his first year doing all this stuff, so I think after another year, the game is going to slow down for him. Maybe more of a load gets put on him as a player, because I think at times they had him not really as the stack middle linebacker, but as more of a weak-side linebacker. He can be very disruptive. He’s not just a tackle accumulator. He can actually get into the backfield and create some TFLs because he reads the game so well.
Justin Madubuike, IDL, Baltimore Ravens
This is like a deep, deep dive, and it’s more of a personal pick. I’m not sure how relevant this guy will be for IDP because I don't know how stat-heavy he’ll be, but I do think he's disruptive. I thought 2021 would be more of a step up for Madubuike. Now, he did have a good year, but it wasn't really an eye-popping year statistically. But I do think with how the Ravens handle their guys, trajectory-wise, they ease them in as they approach their third or fourth year. That’s when they sign somewhere else for big money and the Ravens get yet another comp pick.
That's why I think Madubuike is due for a big year in 2022 with the Ravens. I wouldn't say he’s powerful, but he’s explosive and can shoot gaps. He gets into guards and pushes them back. I do think he could be a big TFL producer on rundowns, but he probably won’t be a big sack guy (he’ll likely have just 3-5) simply because of how the Ravens use him. I think as older guys walk, his playing time will increase in 2022 from where it was in 2021 (44.49%).
Madubuike might be the 200th player on your list, but I'm a big fan of his. I think he'll break out sooner rather than later.
David Long Jr., LB, Tennessee Titans
Long is one of those players who exemplifies why NFL decision-makers skew toward bigger players. It’s because the smaller ones tend to get hurt more often. Despite that, Long is a hell of a football player. He only played in 10 games in 2021, which speaks to the injury concern, but don’t let that distract you from the fact that he’s a no-brainer, good football player.
When he's playing, he's in a good situation. His line keeps him clean so he can read and react and run and make tackles. He's a tackle machine because his play recognition is so advanced. Remember the playoff game during Lamar Jackson’s MVP year when the Titans pulled off the big upset against the Ravens? Long was the defensive MVP of that game. He was a rookie who looked like he should be playing JV, but he was out there making tackle after tackle.
I don't think Long is a new name for anybody, but I do think he's legitimate. He's didn’t just come out of nowhere. He’s not a flash in the pan. He’s a real football player. He's just small.
Kyle Dugger, DB, New England Patriots
Dugger is a Swiss Army knife player who’s been really fun to watch. There’s a reason Belichick tabbed him from coming from the college he did (Lenoir-Rhyne) and taking him in the second round. This is not some fifth- or sixth-rounder we’re talking about. Belichick had a plan for this guy and he’s been easing him into a more versatile role where he plays slot and in the box.
That’s what Belichick likes in his DBs: the ability to move them all around. He wants to have guys in the slot, have double teams working, have guys in the box. He wants his safeties in the 210-225 pound range, which is something more NFL teams are starting to emulate.
Dugger, at 220 pounds, is a good cover guy and a great tackler. He’s around the ball, which is evidenced by his pass deflections (5) and interceptions (4) in 2021. He’s a fast guy (4.49 in the 40-yard dash), so when he gets the ball in his hands, he can do something with it.
I think his role is only going to increase. He's entering just his third year, and under Belichick’s tutelage, I think he’s going to become a player that more and more casual fans recognize.
Brian Burns, EDGE, Carolina Panthers
Burns is already a Pro Bowler, so obviously, people know about him. But in 2022, I think Burns takes that half-step and becomes a true superstar. When he came into the league, he was skinny all get out. Now, he’s grown into his frame and is playing with grown-man strength.
I thought his superstar turn would come in 2021, but no one really wanted to talk about the Panthers other than to say what a joke they were. So, I don't think he got that shine that guys like T.J. Watt, Myles Garrett, and Nick Bosa have gotten. That Panthers defense is fun, though. They have some good players and the way they played was really cool at times.
That’s why I think 2022 will be the next step for Burns, when offensive line coaches are saying, “Wow, everyone needs to chip help on him” like they do with the top guys in the league.
Rashan Gary, EDGE, Green Bay Packers
The national narrative still hasn’t caught up to how good Gary was in 2021. What changed was he learned how to best use his strength, and that’s important because Gary is not a freak athlete like Burns, who has outrageous bend at his size to go along with increased strength. Gary is a little more, let’s say, “normal” than that (while still being a freak athlete).
What would really help him this season is the Packers adding more beef to the middle of their D-line. I like Kenny Clark, but he’s more of a brawler, not a guy who clogs gaps and takes on double teams. When your team is “light” like the Packers are, everyone has to play more stout, so it’s taken a little time for Gary to figure out how to win like that.
I expect Gary’s role to increase to the point where we’re adding him to the list of Pro Bowlers the Packers have when Aaron Rodgers says he doesn’t have any help around him.
Darnell Savage, S, Green Bay Packers
I think the Packers have one of the best defensive backfields in the league with Savage, Adrian Amos, Jaire Alexander, and Eric Stokes. Amos and Savage, in particular, are one of my favorite safety pairings in the league. Amos is more the heady, physical one, and Savage is more the springy, deep post safety, so he’s not around the ball a lot.
Stat-wise, it doesn't really flash as much for him, so he’s not as much of a prize for IDP. He also didn’t have quite the star-making turn I expected in 2021, but that’s just because of how he plays, being that deep safety valve. In a real football context, Savage is going to keep getting better and better as his feel for the game improves, which will allow him to recover better.
Because Savage is so athletic, he doesn't have to pull the trigger as quickly as other safeties. But now he is reacting quicker, which is scary because he’s physical, fast, and it’s starting to come together mentally. In 2022, I expect Savage to continue to ascend as an NFL player.
A.J. Terrell, CB, Atlanta Falcons
Terrell is every NFL hipster’s pick as their favorite cornerback right now. I understand why, though: he’s a fantastic player. In 2022, I think we’ll view him as a top 3 corner in the league.
The way they use him is interesting. They’ll keep him on the same side and run Cover-2 a good chunk because that’s what Dean Pees like to do. They’ll run simulated pressures with Cover-2 behind it. But when they ask him to hold down the slot and man a guy up, I don’t think there are many players doing it better right now than what we saw from Terrell in 2021.
Doing this in just his second year, at an incredibly hard position like corner, is so impressive. The window for relevancy for corners is only three years sometimes, so the fact that Terrell played at an All-Pro level in just his second season is ridiculous. He’s the truth.
Patrick Surtain II, CB, Denver Broncos
I’m not breaking new ground here saying Surtain is good—he was the ninth pick in the 2021 draft for a reason. But in the second half of his rookie season, PS2 was doing some veteran stuff that made us remember why we liked him coming out of Alabama. He plays a savvy game and understands the modern rules of coverage, like when to pass guys off and when to drop off. When he was matching with guys, he understood his matching rules.
He’s also a physical tackler, which is always a plus, and he’s a willing tackler. Against the Bengals, he brought down Joe Mixon 1-on-1 in space, which is saying something since he was a cornerback drafted in the top 10. Those guys are usually OK not tackling. In their minds, they get paid to cover, not to tackle. PS2 doesn’t think like that at all; he craves the contact.
The national narrative is usually a year behind on guys, so don’t be surprised when Surtain is getting talked about as one of the true shutdown corners in the league in 2022.
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