2007 Impact NFL Rookies: Defense

By Lloyd Vance
Updated: September 4, 2007

Patrick Willis

Patrick Willis

PHILADELPHIA — More than ever teams are now looking for rookies to make an immediate impact in their first year. Long gone are the “redshirt” mentalities of most teams, because they expect rookies at all levels (high draft picks, middle and low draft picks, and undrafted free agents) to earn their spot and help the team from day one.

This expectation is not as far fetched as in the past with college systems becoming more sophisticated and the learning curve between big time college football and the pros becoming less steep.

Yesterday, we took a look at the best offensive rookies for 2007.

Here is a look at some of 2007′s defensive rookies that I believe will continue the trend of first year impact players.

LB Patrick Willis, 49ers: This three-year starter from the SEC is dependable, because he plugs holes. To me, there’s not a linebacker or defensive player taken in the 2007 draft that will have a bigger impact on the NFL. Willis has outstanding versatility and with Hall of Famer Mike Singletary as his position coach look for a “DeMeco Ryans” type season (over 100 TKLS, 2 INT, 3 Sacks). I expect Willis to quickly become the central figure on the improving 49ers defense at the ILB/MLB position. His size (240 pounds) and speed (4.51) should make him an invaluable part in the entire defensive scheme. He averaged 11.42 per game in ’06 at Mississippi.

S Reggie Nelson, Jaguars: With Deon Grant leaving in free agency and Donovan Darius getting released, the Jags need a player of the future at the safety position. Nelson was everywhere for the National Champion Gators’ defense and he possesses blazing speed (4.35). He’ll provide great over the top coverage and help Pro Bowler Rashaun Mathis and you know he will contribute in his first NFL game on special teams (two blocked kicks at Florida in ’06). Nelson recorded 97 tackles (66 solos) with four sacks and six stops for losses in 2006.

MLB Paul Posluszny, Bills: With MLB London Fletcher signing with the Washington Redskins, a big hole was left in the middle until the two-time winner of the Bednarik Award was drafted. A tough smart high character Marv Levy type of player (a two-time captain at Penn State). Posluszny has good size (6-feet-1 1/4, 236), great football instincts, and intelligence. In his rookie year expect him to always be around the ball as shown by his stats as PSU’s all-time leading tackler (372). He had a career-high 116 tackles (69 solos) in ’06 and expect the same on cold days in Buffalo.

DT Alan Branch, Cardinals: From his days with the Steelers, Cardinals Head Coach Ken Whisenhunt knows the value of a huge man in the middle (Casey Hampton). Branch should be the main cog in stopping the run and anchoring the Cardinals D-line. Branch should quickly impact the Cardinals by challenging Gabe Watson as Arizona’s starting nose tackle. There are some questions about Branch’s lacks durability and work ethic, but he is a two-way DE/DT and at 6-foot-5, 323 pounds, he can play all of the positions along the D-line. He impressed me by showing discipline and commit at getting better after slimming down from close to 400 pounds early in his college career.

S LaRon Landry, Redskins: The Redskins didn’t have many picks (5) in the 2007 draft, but they did grab my pick for defensive rookie of the year in the LSU safety. Landry and FS Sean Taylor should form one the NFL’s best back pair. Landry reminds me of Eagles All-Pro safety Brian Dawkins and he is a difference maker. He started for LSU as a freshman in 2003, helping the Tigers to win it all and started the next 4 years. I believe he should be ready to start immediately in the NFL, like his brother Dawan (5th Rd pick by Ravens in 2006). His 12 career interceptions are tied for third all-time in school history and has 315 tackles in his career at LSU (7th All-time).

CB Leon Hall, Bengals: Cincinnati has stars everywhere on their team, but they have always needed a stay at home non-gambling corner and that is what Hall brings. Though he isn’t a “cover” corner with blazing speed, he makes up for it with instincts, size and athleticism. He maybe picked on early with veteran Delthea O’Neal and 2006 first rounder Jonathan Joseph holding down the other two spots, but Hall is a polished player coming from the Big Ten. He is Michigan’s all-time record-holder in career pass breakups with 43 and added 12 interceptions. He is not flashy, but he gets the job done like All-Pro Bucs corner Ronde Barber and former Michigan Heisman winner Charles Woodson.

OLB/DE Anthony Spencer, Cowboys: With the recent injury woes of Cowboys veteran Greg Ellis, look for Head Coach Wad Phillips to unleash Spencer in his attacking defense. Though not as explosive as his outside linebacker partner DeMarcus Ware, Spencer is a high-motor smart football player, who should make an immediate impact as a rookie. Like 2007 Free Agent superstar Adalius Thomas, Spencer is an interchangeable player who can rush the passer and drop in coverage if needed. A high character player coming out of Purdue, he led the nation with 26.5 tackles for loss and also had 10 1/2 sacks. Should help Ware and others on the Cowboys’ defense bring the heat f to help their secondary avoid big plays.

CB/S Eric Weddle, Chargers: The Chargers have been looking for a deep safety for some time since they jettisoned Rodney Harrision years ago. Chargers Defensive Coordinator Teddy Cottrell is getting an outstanding athlete that I know will make an immediate impact for the Chargers. He should contribute right away on special teams and compete with Clinton Hart for playing time. Weddle, who has excellent size and speed was a “Jack of all trades” at Utah playing multiple positions. A two-time Defensive Player of the Year in the Mountain West Conference, Weddle had 6 INTs in ’06 on defense and offensively contributed 147 rush yards, 47 passing yards, and 7 total touchdowns.

P Sav Rocca, Eagles: Rocca a former Australian-rules football star started out as a side note “rookie” to watch. But the 30-something punter showed that he has adapted to playing the American version of football by having a pre-season to remember finishing with a 45.4-yard average and dropping five punts inside the 20-yard line. The “Aussie Boomer” took the inside track in the race for the Eagles punting job from incumbent Dirk Johnson and never looked back. His best game was versus the Steelers including a great a 59-yard booming punt and several kicks within the 10 yard line. Rocca also did a decent job holding on David Akers field goals and I am hearing that Akers has confidence in the big (6-foot-5) punter.

KR Steve Breaston, Cardinals: Breaston will not see the field much as a wide receiver with Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Bryant Johnson in front of him, but I expect his impact to be on special teams. Breaston is a “football player” going back to his high school days in Pennsylvania when he led his team to the state title as an option quarterback. He has a can do attitude, which should help him make plays on special teams. He may not have the explosiveness of last year’s homerun return man Devin Hester (Bears rookie in ’06 that had an NFL record 6 returns for touchdowns), but he knows how to find holes in kick coverage and has enough speed to take it to the house. He set Michigan single-season records for punt returns and punt return yardage his freshman year.