This is the second part of an article published on Tuesday that highlighted the unexpected offensive contributor from each AFC North team. Today we will take a look at defensive players that unexpectedly made significant contributions for their teams.
Before the 2013 season began, Cincinnati’s defense was already recognized as one of the best in the league. The defensive line was coming off of a very productive season, Vontaze Burfict was emerging as the leader of a solid line-backing group and the secondary was filled with former first round picks and stable veterans. The lone position of question on defense was at free safety where, in the previous season, the Bengals were forced to use Taylor Mays, Nate Clements, Chris Crocker, and Jeromy Miles. None of the four players met Marvin Lewis’s expectations, so a change was necessary. In the third round of the 2013 draft, the Bengals selected a safety out of Georgia named Shawn Williams, who was expected by most to start with Reggie Nelson at safety in the upcoming season. Training camp arrived, players battled, and a forgotten free safety, George Iloka, worked his way to the top of the depth chart. Iloka was one of the last selections in the 5th round of the 2012 draft, and during his rookie season he made irregular appearances on special teams, finishing the season with two tackles. After the season George admitted he was lost at times, but that he learned a great deal from Chris Crocker and was determined to change his approach in 2013. Well, it worked. Iloka started all 16 games at Free Safety finishing the season with 68 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery, 1 interception and 7 passes defensed. While Iloka didn’t have flashy, highlight reel plays, he also didn’t have any terrible blown coverages or ugly missed tackles. In fact, Iloka had such a solid season all around that Pro Football Focus selected him as the starting Free Safety for their All AFC North Team. What was once a position of need for the Bengals, has now become an obvious strength on defense. And at 23 years of age, George Iloka has set the stage for what could be a very promising career.
The Baltimore Ravens lost some key pieces on defense after their Super Bowl victory. Ray Lewis retired and moved on to work for ESPN, Ed Reed signed a free agent deal with Houston, Cary Williams moved to Philadelphia, Paul Kruger went to Cleveland, and the expected replacement for Ray Lewis, Dannell Ellerbe, signed a big contract with Miami. Replacing both starting inside linebackers would be a tough task for any NFL team, so Baltimore moved quickly by taking a risk on the recently released Rolando McClain. Unfortunately, a few weeks later the problematic defender retired for personal reasons. When it came time for the draft, inside linebacker was an obvious choice for the Ravens and one of the top prospects, Arthur Brown, fell to them in the second round. With the unproven Brown and former backup Jameel McClain penciled in as the starting pair in the middle, Baltimore was forced to make one more move by signing veteran Daryl Smith just before training camp. Smith was viewed as a stable presence on Jacksonville’s defense for eight consecutive years, but he suffered a significant groin injury in 2012 that forced him to miss the final 14 games of the season. If Smith could successfully rehab from injury, many thought Baltimore would have a good, but not great, replacement for their LB group. As it turned out, Smith became an integral part of the defense, started all 16 games, and ended up setting career highs in tackles (123), sacks (5), interceptions (3), and passes defended (19). Smith’s 19 passes defended was third most in the league, and tied for first among all linebackers. The switch from Jacksonville to Baltimore clearly improved Smith’s approach to pass coverage, and he seemed to flourish when surrounded by a more talented group than he previously had. While it will be hard for fans to expect a more productive year from Daryl Smith in 2014, they should certainly hope for similar production from the much-improved veteran.
Pittsburgh’s 8-8 campaign in 2012 left a sour taste in fans mouths as the team saw significant declines in the overall defensive performance and the production in the running game. The Steelers defense was viewed by many as an aging group with a significant need for younger replacements. This would be a tough task to accomplish given the limited salary cap in Pittsburgh. With only the draft to make improvements, Pittsburgh used their first and fourth round picks on Jarvis Jones and Shamarko Thomas with the hope that they could be big contributors in 2013. Unfortunately, that’s not how things worked out for either player, but one former first round draft pick did emerge late in the season to give Steeler fans hope for the coming year. Cameron Heyward, the Steelers first round pick in 2011, was generally unimpressive in his first two seasons with the team. He played in every game his first two seasons, but in an extremely limited role. As injuries affected the defensive line in 2013, Heyward was given more of an opportunity and appeared to solidify himself as a starter in 2014. Cam set new career marks of 59 tackles, 5 sacks, 1 fumble recovery, 7 passes defended and somewhere around 35 QB hurries depending on which source you reference. As the season progressed, Heyward continually bullied opposing offensive lineman and was a noticeable force on an underwhelming defense. If Pittsburgh can successfully build around Heyward on the defensive line, then the future in Pittsburgh will assuredly be bright.
In 2013, Cleveland’s defense was expected to build on a solid 2012 where many young players established themselves as important starters. Following the draft selection of Barkevious Mingo, and the signings of Desmond Bryant, Paul Kruger and new coordinator Ray Horton, the Browns seemed to be in great shape defensively. The main area of need was at free safety where only three unproven candidates battled for the starting position in training camp, and Tashaun Gipson beat out two unknowns in Johnson Bademosi and Jamoris Slaughter. Gipson, who was undrafted out of Wyoming in 2012, went on to start all 16 games during the regular season and finished with 5 interceptions and 143 interception return yards for 1 TD. He also finished third on the team with 94 tackles and had 11 passes defended. In addition, Gipson earned a reputation for being a heavy hitter by causing significant injuries to Jermicheal Finley and EJ Manuel. Gipson’s performance was certainly unexpected, and before the season began it would have been hard to find anyone who thought he would lead the team in INTs. Cleveland’s defense did not perform as anticipated this season, largely due to injuries and bad defensive schemes, but there is still much to be expected from this young defense in 2014. Cleveland has a strong cast of players on the defensive line and in the linebacking group. And, if the Browns can resign TJ Ward, they will have one of the best young secondaries in the NFL with Joe Haden, Ward, and the much improved Tashaun Gipson. Of course they will have to hire a coach first. 😉
One of my favorite parts of the NFL season is to watch unknown players have breakout seasons and to see veterans outperform their perceived monetary worth. The 2013 season featured many of these performances from unexpected players in the AFC North. Here is a recap of the AFC North’s top unexpected contributors on offense and defense:
Cincinnati – Marvin Jones and George Iloka
Pittsburgh – Jerricho Cotchery and Cameron Heyward
Baltimore – Marlon Brown and Daryl Smith
Cleveland – Josh Gordon/Jordan Cameron and Tashaun Gipson