NFL Analysis


6 min read

4 Potential NFL Breakout Candidates on Defense

Kansas City CB Joshua Williams (red jersey, helmet and socks; white pants) gets into a defensive stance in the open field with an opposing player in his line of sight
Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Joshua Williams (2) looks on against the San Francisco 49ers during the second quarter of Super Bowl LVIII at Allegiant Stadium. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

One of the most fun things about the NFL season is seeing which players make dramatic improvements.

Last year, that list included DaRon Bland, Trent McDuffie, Tyrel Dodson and Christian Barmore. So who are the potential breakout candidates on defense heading into the 2024 season? Here are four players on the verge of massive years.

NFL Players with Biggest Defensive Breakout Potential

Joshua Williams, CB, Kansas City Chiefs

The Kansas City Chiefs had to make several difficult decisions this offseason, including trading star CB L’Jarius Sneed to the Tennessee Titans for a third-round pick after unsuccessful negotiations. It'll be challenging for the Chiefs to replace him, but they have a young cornerback ready to step up to the challenge: Joshua Williams, a third-year player from Fayetteville State.

Williams was a fourth-round pick by the Chiefs during the 2022 draft and spent the last two years as Sneed's backup. The good news for Kansas City is Williams saw the field and made plays in a part-time role. Including the postseason, Williams has played more than 900 snaps in the past two seasons. While he doesn’t have much experience, he contributed some in the Super Bowl runs.

Williams' sample size is small, but his advanced numbers are encouraging. According to Pro Football Reference, opponents averaged just 4.9 yards per target when going after Williams last year. To put that in perspective, Sneed allowed 4.8 yards per target last season, the best of his career.

No one expects Williams to be a one-for-one replacement for Sneed, but there is a good chance Williams could be a quality cornerback right away. The cornerbacks' job won't be as difficult if the Chiefs can get more production from their young pass rushers.

Look for Williams to get the first crack at starting in Sneed's place and for him to improve with more reps.

Denver Broncos edge rusher Baron Browning (white jersey, navy helmet) wraps up WR Nico Collins
Houston Texans wide receiver Nico Collins (12) is tackled by Denver Broncos edge rusher Baron Browning (56) in the second half at NRG Stadium. (Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports)

Baron Browning, EDGE, Denver Broncos

A former college linebacker rarely transitions to edge rusher, but it has happened a few times in recent years. Micah Parsons is the most famous example, but Haason Reddick and Zaven Collins did it too.

Baron Browning is the latest player to move from off-ball linebacker to edge rusher. At Ohio State, Browning played 43 games as an off-ball linebacker and spent his entire rookie season (2021) with the Denver Broncos as a middle linebacker.

He moved to the edge in 2022 before battling hip and back issues. Browning made significant strides as a pass rusher during the last two seasons, posting a pass-rush win rate of 12.5 percent, courtesy of TruMedia. He's recorded 9.5 sacks and 21 quarterback hits on 1,017 defensive snaps.  

Going into his fourth NFL season, Browning is expected to be one of the Broncos' starting edge rushers. Given his productivity on limited snaps, it’ll be fascinating to see how he looks as a full-time starter.

Don't be surprised if Browning becomes a double-digit sack player sooner than later.

An image from down low of Baltimore Ravens linebacker Trenton Simpson (purple jersey, black pants) running onto the field in a cloud of smoke
Baltimore Ravens linebacker Trenton Simpson (30) enters the field before the game against the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship football game at M&T Bank Stadium. (Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports)

Trenton Simpson, LB, Baltimore Ravens

The Baltimore Ravens were in a tough spot this offseason with Patrick Queen. He was a disappointment during the first three years of his career (after being selected in Round 1 of the 2020 NFL Draft).

The Ravens declined his fifth-year option, but Queen had a Pro Bowl season in 2023. Rather than giving him a huge contract after one good year, the Ravens allowed him to walk in free agency, and he landed with their biggest rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers.

One of the reasons the Ravens let Queen walk was because they drafted Trenton Simpson in 2023. The Ravens have become a draft-and-develop team, allowing them to be competitive for so long. Rather than paying Queen elite money, they are handing Simpson the reins and hoping he can fill the void.

The good news is Simpson has all the athletic traits to be a fantastic linebacker. At the NFL Combine, he ran a 4.43-second 40-yard dash at 235 pounds and has above-average height and length. Simpson didn't play much as a rookie, but he made an impact anytime he was on the field.

Simpson will open the season as a starting linebacker next to Roquan Smith. Together, they will form one of the league's most athletic linebacker duos.

While Simpson is under a lot of pressure to become a big-time player in Year 2, at this point, we should trust that the Ravens will find a way to ensure he is productive.

Chicago Bears CB Tyrique Stevenson (white jersey, navy pants and helmet with orange accents) lays out with his left arm extended to get a hand on the ball in the hands of a wide receiver
Chicago Bears cornerback Tyrique Stevenson (29) breaks up a potential touchdown reception against Green Bay Packers wide receiver Romeo Doubs (87). (Dan Powers/USA TODAY NETWORK)

Tyrique Stevenson, CB, Chicago Bears

Of all the positions in the NFL, quarterback and cornerback might be the two hardest for rookies to play. The mental toughness needed to thrive at both positions is incredible, which is why so few young players step up and succeed right away.

However, Tyrique Stevenson had a fantastic rookie season for the Chicago Bears, starting 16 games in 2023. While he had his fair share of rough moments, he created several significant plays. Stevenson recorded four interceptions, 16 pass deflections and two forced fumbles. He was the playmaker the Bears hoped they would get when they selected him 56th overall in the 2023 NFL Draft.

Chicago signed Jaylon Johnson to a monster contract extension this offseason, ensuring the team will keep him and Stevenson together for at least the next three years. Stevenson won't be tasked with covering No. 1 receivers often, meaning he'll see a lot of 1-on-1 coverage on the other side.

Given how well his rookie season went, it wouldn't be surprising for him to level up his game further. With the Bears' defense rapidly improving, this could be a Pro Bowl-type season for their second-year player from Miami (FL).

Expect big things from Stevenson and the Bears' defense this year.