With an emphasis on scoring and knowing how much offense drives the results of games in the NFL, it can be easy to overlook defense. It can be even easier to overlook defensive players on average defensive units. But when going through games each week, there are a few that consistently stand out, so here are three underrated defenders in the 2020 season. Now, underrated can mean different things to different people. These aren’t an attempt to be hipster picks that no one knows about, but more to shine a light on players who should be getting more recognition at this point in the year.
Brian Burns, EDGE, Carolina Panthers
The 2020 Panthers defense was supposed to be terrible. It hasn’t been great but it’s been passable, 21st in DVOA, which is a huge step beyond what many expected for that unit. Carolina still can’t stop the run, but the pass defense has been surprisingly effective. A number of young cornerbacks have flashed but the biggest star on defense has been Burns, the second-year edge rusher out of Florida State.
Burns showed his high upside potential last season and we highlighted him as a potential breakout pass rusher prior to the season. But in 2019, he spent a lot of time on special teams and wasn’t given a feature role on defense despite being a first-round pick. That’s all changed with the new coaching staff this season and Burns has used that opportunity to shine.
Per ESPN’s Pass Rush Win Rate, Burns is third among edge rushers behind only Jerry Hughes and T.J. Watt. Among 95 pass rushers with at least 70 pass rush snaps, Burns is 10th in overall pressure rate. Burns only has two sacks on the season, but he’s been consistently close to opposing quarterbacks and has been beaten more by the quick release on passes than offensive linemen keeping him away from the QB.
He has a combination of speed, acceleration, and bend that can give him the advantage against whatever opposing tackles try to block him.
It’s not just great play against the pass, either. You can’t blame Burns for Carolina’s poor run defense this season. He’s 10th among edge players in Run Stop Win Rate and one of three players, along with Khalil Mack and Brandon Graham, in the top 10 of both Pass Rush and Run Stop metrics.
J.C. Jackson, CB, New England Patriots
New England’s defense isn’t the dominant force it was last season but cornerback J.C. Jackson is one player who has matched his 2019 performance. Jackson isn’t technically a “starter” on the defense, he’s been credited with just one start this season, but he’s been on the field for at least 60% of New England’s defensive snaps in every game. The Patriots have one of the most defensive back-heavy defenses. They’ve yet to play a snap in “base” defense with 43% of their snaps in nickel, 37% in dime, and another 19% with seven defensive backs on the field.
When Jackson is on the field, he has gotten to play on the outside opposite Stephon Gilmore, who is usually shadowing the opposing team’s top receiver but Jackson has shut down whoever he’s been against over the past two seasons. Cornerback charting metrics can be wildly unstable from one year to the next but Jackson has again measured among the best in 2020 after finishing there in 2019.
This year, Jackson ranks ninth in Adjusted Yards allowed (adjusting for touchdowns and interceptions allowed) per coverage snap among 100 cornerbacks with at least 100 pass snaps, per Sports Info Solutions. He’s also been around the ball when targeted. He has two interceptions and another four passes defensed on 19 targets. He stands out in just about every way among the New England cornerback group.
Jackson will turn 25 years old in November and he’s already proven himself to be one of the better and consistent cornerbacks in the league. While the Patriots have been forced to scheme around some lost talent on the defensive side of the ball, Jackson has allowed New England to feel good about one part of the defense.
Jessie Bates, S, Cincinnati Bengals
Bates, a 2018 second-round pick of the Bengals, has broken out into one of the league’s best deep safeties. There’s a combination of range and awareness that has been on display and made throwing the ball down the field nearly impossible against Cincinnati.
Cincinnati has played a lot of single-high safety, which has allowed Bates to patrol the deep middle of the field. He has a pass defensed in all but one game this season and in fourth overall in passes defensed on the season. Many of his best plays in 2020 have come from him playing deep, watching the quarterback, and reacting to the routes unfolding in front of him.
Per SIS, the Bengals have the fourth-lowest positive play rate allowed (percentage of plays with positive EPA) on passes thrown at least 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, 26%. Compare where successful plays have occurred against defenses league-wide and where they’ve been successful against the Bengals.
Bates’s play is part of the reason the Bengals have been part of the reason why the Bengals have been around average in pass defense, 16th in DVOA, while the improvements expected from free agent additions in the secondary haven’t been able to get on the field.