5 NFL Defensive Rookies Who Could Be Immediate Stars

Jalen Carter

Getty Jalen Carter on the field for Georgia in 2022.

At least on paper, the incoming crop of defensive rookies is loaded.

Despite the NFL tilting further in favor of the offense than ever before, there were 16 defensive players chosen in the first round to only 15 offensive prospects, headlined by EDGE Will Anderson and cornerback Devon Witherspoon both coming off the board in the top-five picks.

This spring featured one of the deeper cornerback classes in recent memory, and there should be at least a handful of immediate starters emerging from the first round alone.

So, which defensive rookies have the best chance of becoming immediate stars this fall? Here’s a prediction, with insight from NFL scouts and executives mixed in:

5. Joey Porter Jr., CB, Pittsburgh Steelers

Joey Porter Jr. follows his legendary father’s footsteps into a starting role in the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ defense, carrying an extra large chip on his shoulder from sliding out of the first round to No. 32 overall. That’s likely bad news for the rest of the NFL.

One of the longest cornerbacks in this year’s class, Porter’s 6-foot-2, 195-pound frame give him the ability to neutralize opposing receivers and caused opposing quarterbacks to shy away from targeting him last season.

“He’s going to be really good covering smaller receivers,” an AFC scout told Heavy. “He’s long, a really good athlete, and tough. The fact that he’s a Steeler seems to mean something extra to him, too.”

Porter Jr.’s massive wingspan helped him hold opposing receivers to just 143 total yards last season, according to Pro Football Focus, and opposing quarterbacks to a pedestrian 63.6 passer rating when targeting him. The Steelers have an instant starter and high-impact cornerback to continue building around, in Porter Jr.

4. Devon Witherspoon, CB, Seattle Seahawks

There might not be a cornerback with better ball skills in this year’s class than Devon Witherspoon, and he’ll walk right into a starting role in the Seattle Seahawks‘ secondary.

“Devon’s competitive as hell,” an NFC executive told Heavy. “And tough as they come. It’s like he was built to play for the Seahawks.”

According to Pro Football Focus, Witherspoon only allowed 22 receptions on 60 targets last season, surrendering just 3.3 yards per target with 14 pass breakups and three interceptions.

Seattle might not yet have its next incarnation of the “Legion of Boom,” but there’s a good chance that Witherspoon Island is about to pop up in the Emerald City thanks in large part to Witherspoon’s competitiveness and range on the outside.

3. Deonte Banks, CB, New York Giants

New York Giants defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale couldn’t contain his excitement that Banks would be the team’s selection as general manager Joe Schoen phoned in the No. 24 overall pick. It’s easy to see why.

While Banks had just one interception in 2022, opposing quarterbacks posted a mere 71.4 passer rating when targeting handsy 6-foot and 200-pound cornerback. Banks’ speed and versatility give him the potential to make an instant impact, and a worthy counter-punch to the NFC East’s bounty of elite receivers.

Banks’ presence on the perimeter affords Martindale a little more freedom to do what he loves most, and what his defense is built on; blitzing. New York has a long way to go in terms of building out a secondary, but Banks has the frame and athleticism to be a cornerstone.

2. Jalen Carter, DT, Philadelphia Eagles

General manager Howie Roseman once again managed to marry value with elite talent and need for the Philadelphia Eagles, stopping the slide of arguably the most dominant defensive player in this year’s class at No. 9 overall.

There likely won’t be much easing Carter into the Eagles’ rotation, following the departures of Ndamukong Suh and Javon Hargrave from a line that powered a run to the Super Bowl last season.

“From a talent standpoint, Jalen is a perfect fit for what the Eagles do up front,” an AFC South Scouting Director told Heavy.

Not only will Carter take up all kinds of space in the run game alongside Fletcher Cox, but his 16.3 pass-rush win rate last season at the University of Georgia gives him the potential to round out one of the more disruptive interior pass-rush duos in the league.

1. Will Anderson, EDGE, Houston Texans

The Texans are seemingly all in on importing the San Francisco 49ers‘ defense to Houston, and handed new head coach DeMeco Ryans a cornerstone to build around in EDGE rusher Will Anderson.

During his time in Tuscaloosa, Anderson was nearly unblockable. The explosive 6-foot-3 and 253-pound defensive lineman posted a stellar 20.4 pass-rush win rate in 2022, along with 14 sacks and 51 pressures. As a three-year starter, Anderson logged 207 pressures, underscoring just how disruptive he can be, while going up against some of the nation’s premier offensive tackles in the SEC.

Houston has a long way to go in terms of building out its front-seven, but Anderson is going to be the kind of player who wreaks havoc on opposing backfields, while potentially drawing double teams to create opportunities for the players around him, as well.

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