Rookies making an impact out of the gate is one of the most exciting aspects of a new NFL season. With that said, the true test is sustaining success. Can they keep making an impact even after there is game film that reveals how they are going to be used, how they win and where they have deficiencies?
Kudos to these five rookie standouts but seeing where they fall in a few weeks will be the true test. Let’s examine the five best defensive rookies in the NFC through the first four weeks of the season.
5. Da’Shawn Hand, DL, Detroit Lions
While I don’t think Hand offers a high ceiling, his Alabama pedigree has prepared him well to step in right away as a prominent piece of the Lions defensive line. After filling a reserve role in Week 1, Hand has started each of Detroit’s last three games and settled in nicely.
Most of his contributions have come defending the run but he had an excellent day rushing the passer in Week 4 against Dallas. Hand should continue to factor into the rotation given his technique, play strength and versatility to fill multiple roles along the front.
4. Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Dallas Cowboys
Every week, Vander Esch continues to have more and more on his plate, showing steady growth and was a starter in Week 4 against Detroit. For the most part, Vander Esch has been effective both defending the run and pass with some impressive moments of closing speed and the ability to finish.
The splash plays haven’t been there yet for Vander Esch but he’s doing well to fulfill his assignments as he earns more playing time. Given his physical traits and development, more big plays are certain to be in his future.
3. Roquan Smith, LB, Chicago Bears
Smith’s lengthy contract negotiation put him behind to start the season and he only played a few snaps in Week 1 but has since been a full-time starter for Chicago and is playing extremely well. His range, urgency and physicality has flashed early as he continues to acclimate himself to Vic Fangio’s defense.
The Bears boast the NFL’s No. 7 defense and is third in scoring. With Smith in the starting lineup, the Bears haven’t allowed more than two touchdowns in any game. He’s settling in nicely as the man in the middle.
2. Fred Warner, LB, San Francisco 49ers
The NFC’s leading tackler, Warner has been a standout for the 49ers. He started from Day 1 and is acclimating nicely to an inside linebacker role.
Coming out of BYU, Warner’s traits were easy to identify when studying his tape but the challenge for him was transitioning to a full-time off-ball role in the NFL after spending most of his time as an EDGE defender in college.
There’s been a few blunders but I’ve been impressed with how quick Warner has processed his keys and committed. The Warner and with 2017 first-round pick Rueben Foster has the makings of the next Patrick Willis – NaVorro Bowman duo roaming the second level in San Francisco.
1. Jaire Alexander, CB, Green Bay Packers
After allowing an NFC worst passer rating against its coverage of 102, the Packers completely overhauled its secondary with the headlining addition being Alexander with pick No. 18 in the Draft.
Playing both outside and in the slot, Alexander has played all over the secondary and provided a versatile cover man capable of winning in a variety of techniques. He’s even been used as a blitzer and created a sack.
Alexander should have two interceptions already this season but hauled in his first takeaway in the Packers’ shutout win over Buffalo in Week 4. He is already developing into a true No. 1 corner as a rookie.