The NFL doesn’t have an award for Breakout Player of the Year. But if it did, Landon Collins would have won it last season – at least on the defensive side.
The New York Giants safety went from decent rookie to Defensive Player of the Year candidate in his first two years after being selected with the first pick of the second round in 2016. Collins was expected to be a good player, but not this good and not this fast.
With a slew of talented defensive backs entering the league over the past few drafts, we take a look at who the next young breakout safety will be in 2017.
Karl Joseph, Raiders
The top safety selected in the 2016 draft had a rocky start to his rookie season, being limited in training camp and not playing the opening two weeks due to a knee injury. However, the 23-year-old made a splash in his debut start, racking up 10 tackles and earning a full-time starting role until being knocked out with a toe problem in Week 14.
Joseph is experiencing his first full offseason as a first-string safety, and said he’s feeling more comfortable after being “timid” in his rookie year. He’s caught the eye of all-time great Ronnie Lott, who sees a lot of himself in Joseph.
Keanu Neal, Falcons
It’s taken just one year for Neal to earn the Kam Chancellor role in Dan Quinn’s defense. The hard-hitting defender eclipsed 100 tackles in 14 games as a rookie (Collins did the same) and played a key role in the Falcons’ Super Bowl run.
Neal’s comparison to Chancellor isn’t just due to them playing in the same scheme and having a physical reputation; the two violent safeties also train together in the offseason.
Though he forced five fumbles and nine pass breakups, Neal didn’t record an interception in 2016, but even Collins notched just one pick in his first year.
Sean Davis, Steelers
Pittsburgh put a lot on Davis’ plate in his first season, asking the second-round safety to start the year as its nickel corner. He performed admirably until a costly facemask penalty resulted in a loss to the Cowboys in Week 10.
The following week, Davis began to start at strong safety, which sparked a winning streak that didn’t end until the team met the Patriots in the AFC Championship. The 23-year-old was named the Steelers’ Rookie of the Year, finishing the campaign with 70 tackles, one interception, one-and-a-half sacks, and five pass breakups.
Vonn Bell, Saints
New Orleans’ second-rounder entered the season as the team’s third safety behind Kenny Vaccaro and Jairus Byrd, but ended up playing more snaps than any Saints defender. It took him just one game to earn the starting strong safety spot, where he played outstandingly despite the Saints’ poor all-around defense.
According to Pro Football Focus, Bell was one of two safeties to play at least 200 snaps without missing a single tackle in run defense, along with the Green Bay Packers’ Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. For reference, Bell played a total of 1,115 snaps.
With Byrd released from the team, he’ll see even more snaps and will be given more opportunities to make plays, as the Saints expect an improved defense in 2017.
Clayton Geathers, Colts
A fourth-round pick in 2015, Geathers was quiet as a rookie before bursting onto the scene in his sophomore season. Unfortunately, the 25-year-old had his year cut short by a neck injury that has put some doubt in his status for Week 1.
But if Geathers gets healthy in training camp, he’ll be one to watch out for in 2017. The third-year pro recorded 59 tackles in nine starts – 50 of them solo stops – as well as five pass breakups and a forced fumble.
Collins and Geathers were Pro Football Focus‘ two most improved second-year safeties. The Colts defender will now be paired with rangy rookie stud Malik Hooker on the back end, and will have more freedom to be an aggressive playmaker.
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