Continuing out the sophomore series that began yesterday at The Draft Network, I've been tasked with detailing the Top 5 second-years in the NFC North.
It was a balanced group in this division. I didn't have many troubles sussing out a Top-7 or so, but when push came to shove with the rankings, I had trouble deciding who went where. Keep that in mind, Vikings fans -- I imagine you won't be stoked about your lot here.
1) Roquan Smith, LB, Chicago Bears
I remember when the Eagles (Go Birds!) were lining up to play the Bears in the wild card round, and I ripped through some Chicago film to see how their defense suffocated offenses in an era of football in which that...just doesn't happen.
There were a lot of answers. One of them was Akiem Hicks; another was Adrian Amos; another was Roquan Smith. Smith brought exactly what made him great at Georgia to the NFL, with unbelievable explosiveness, body control, and physicality working from sideline to sideline. Smith is an even stronger coverage player in the league than I expected him to be during the 2018 NFL Draft, and he belongs with Leighton Vander Esch in conversation of the top rookie season for linebackers last year.
2) Jaire Alexander, CB, Green Bay Packers
I was a Jaire stan during the 2018 Draft cycle, and boy I ain't budging after his rookie season. Alexander caught national attention with a FIVE pass break-up game against the Rams, and continued to bring great ball skills and aggressiveness in coverage for the majority of his rookie year (Alexander missed the last 3 weeks with injury).
Alexander ended the season with 11 PBUs and an INT on 13 games played (11 starts), and has solidified his role as a starting outside corner for the Packers. By Year 2, he may already become the Packers' most consistent cover man, and shadow WR1s accordingly.
3) Da'Shawn Hand, DL, Detroit Lions
I...did not think Da'Shawn Hand was going to be a very good pro player. Now, a staunch tweener producing on a New England defensive line isn't a surprising story, but Hand brought so little as a pass-rusher to the Crimson Tide, it was tough to see him become a three-down player in the league at all -- let alone in Year 1!
But indeed he did. Hand played just under 50% of the snaps across the 13 games he played, with 3 sacks and 4 TFLs. Not world-ending numbers, but solid numbers for a 5-technique who's primarily two-gapping. Hand should retain his starting role on the line even with the additions of Trey Flowers and Austin Bryant, given his versatility and strong presence against the run.
4) Brian O'Neill, OT, Minnesota Vikings
I struggled with putting O'Neill below Hand, as O'Neill likely has a higher-ceiling projected forward into 2019 and beyond. O'Neill was projected to redshirt the 2018 season and push for a starting job this year, but he performed well at RT when Mike Remmers went down in midseason and never let it go.
O'Neill's frame and athletic ability illustrate that of a high-upside starter in the league, and his technical growth thus far has outpaced my expectations. It will be interesting to see if EDGEs scout him better now that he's the unquestioned starter, and better attack his anchor and over-aggressive punches.
I'll probably look back on this next year with disgust, for having O'Neill too low.
5) Frank Ragnow, OG, Detroit Lions
Ragnow: just a stalwart, man. Locked into the starting LG job in camp despite coming out as a center and never let it go. Ragnow was just fine his rookie season: he had his growing pains transitioning to a new-ish spot and NFL play, as he wasn't able to physically outclass his opponents as he did on the collegiate level.
But with that acknowledged, Ragnow wasn't a liability and at times was a bright spot, buttressing an improved 2018 running game -- which, of course, is how the Lions are going to become a winning team. I'm not sure he has Pro Bowl upside, but he's a plug-and-chug starter, and that's always nice to have.
Green Bay CB Josh Jackson
Detroit RB Kerryon Johnson