Green Bay Packers linebacker Edgerrin Cooper Stacy Revere/Getty Images

8 Under-the-Radar Rookie NFL Defenders Who Could Contend for Honors Right Away

Brent Sobleski

Defensive prospects took a backseat to their offensive counterparts during the 2024 NFL draft, with the first not being selected until the 15th overall pick. How the board fell isn't an indication of the type of impact defenders can make during their rookie seasons, though.

The setup does open up the possibilities of which names should draw the most attention.

Ultimately, nine defenders heard their names called in the first round. Unsurprisingly, eight of those fall among the top 10 betting favorites for the upcoming season's NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, according to DraftKings' sportsbook.

Let's set those names aside for a moment and concentrate on those prospects taken a little later in the process with the capability of becoming impact players from Day 1.

Eight talents have been placed in a position where they can immediately contribute and, more importantly, shine with their new squads.

DT Braden Fiske, Los Angeles Rams

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Aaron Donald isn't walking back through that door to rejoin the Los Angeles Rams (at least we don't think so).

An argument can be made in Donald's favor as the greatest defensive player of all time. Rookie defensive tackle Braden Fiske is walking into an impossible situation.

But this year's 39th overall draft pick will be critical to any success the Rams experience on defense. The team was desperate to trade up for his services and surrendered a 2025 second-round pick to ensure it landed him.

"Fiske was the guy that we identified. 'Hey, let's do whatever we can to get up and go get this guy,'" head coach Sean McVay told reporters after the draft.

The reason behind the urgency stems from a specific skill set that can slot into the spot vacated by Donald.

Again, Fiske should never be directly compared to the all-time great. However, the incoming rookie does have the athleticism and disruptive capabilities to keep the unit on track. Over the last three seasons, the 6'4", 292-pound defender generated 109 quarterback pressures, according to Pro Football Focus.

With an added emphasis on the squad's edge rush after the first-round addition of Jared Verse, Fiske can benefit greatly as he collapses the pocket.

Edge Bralen Trice, Atlanta Falcons

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Upon being selected in the third round with the 74th overall pick, Bralen Trice was already the best edge-rusher on the Atlanta Falcons roster.

Trice's athletic profile held him back to degree. But he knows how to rush opposing quarterbacks, with the type of motor that allows him to be a constant headache for opposition.

Arnold Ebiketie is the franchise's top returning sack-artist, and he managed all of six last season. To understand exactly where that number sits among the NFL's hierarchy, Ebiketie tied for 65th in the category. Not good enough.

Over the last two seasons, no collegiate defender generated more pressure than Trice. According to Pro Football Focus, the two-time first-team All-Pac-12 performer led college football with 149 total pressures.

Trice is an every-down defender who sets the edge while always having a pass-rush plan. His get-off may not be on the same level of others in the class, but his hand usage and relentlessness make him a handful for any offensive tackle.

With the Falcons' expected improvement after acquiring a pair of quality quarterback options, Trice should be spotlighted, particularly on pass-rushing downs, on a team that could easily elevate to a division winner and contender.

LB Edgerrin Cooper, Green Bay Packers

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Edgerrin Cooper had the pleasure of being the first linebacker drafted in the 2024 class. Because of the position's devaluation, the moment didn't occur until the 45th overall pick. The Green Bay Packers even traded back before pulling the trigger on their newest off-ball backer.

A situation like that just shows general manager Brian Gutekunst is doing his job, manipulating the board and maximizing value. He did so knowing his defense was undergoing changes after head coach Matt LaFleur hired Jeff Hafley to take over the unit.

"As we move into this kind of new defense where maybe we have a few more linebacker body types, these are exactly the kind of guys that we're looking for—the guys that can run and hit," Gutekunst told reporters.

Hafley echoed the general manager's point, "We need guys who can run and shrink the field."

Cooper's game is predicated on his ability to work in space, which should fit in nicely with the Packers' adjusted defense and allow him to chase and make a significant number of tackles.

"Schematically, he'd be best as a 'Will' linebacker in even fronts for a team that uses a lot of man coverage and fire zone blitzes," B/R scout Matt Holder wrote. "That will allow play-callers to take advantage of his ability to impact the passing game, as he's a good coverage 'backer and blitzer."

LB Junior Colson, Los Angeles Chargers

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Junior Colson has an advantage other rookies don't: He's playing in the same defensive scheme under the same coordinator and head coach as he did in college.

When the Los Angeles Chargers hired Jim Harbaugh as head coach, the former Michigan coach brought defensive assistants Jesse Minter, Rick Minter, Mike Elston and Steve Clinkscale with him. Jesse Minter was the defensive play-caller and will continue to be.

Thus, Colson has an edge by intimately understanding the scheme, which has already showed up during the Chargers' rookie minicamp.

"Junior [Colson], he knows the defense so well. It's such an incredible thing. I'm not saying he's going to be wearing any dots or anything anytime soon—probably not the first year. He's literally making all of the calls," Harbaugh said. "He's making all the linebacker calls. He's making the DB calls right now."

A little lead off first base should allow this year's 69th overall pick to seamlessly fit into the lineup. Colson's fluidity, length and comfort level when working in space will fit nicely next to veteran Denzel Perryman, who's also been more effective as an explosive downhill tackler.

LB Payton Wilson, Pittsburgh Steelers

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Payton Wilson proved himself as college football's best linebacker. But he tumbled all the way to the 98th overall pick before the Pittsburgh Steelers selected the reigning Butkus Award winner.

Wilson does have an extensive injury history, including reports of an issue that came up at this year's NFL Scouting Combine—specifically questions about an ACL, or lack thereof, in one knee. Thus, he was still available near the end of the third round.

"I've been blowing and going for a long time now with what they call a bum knee," Wilson said. "I've been playing like this for so long, it doesn't bother me. My knees don't bother me. I'm not going to have problems."

The Steelers are known for drafting and developing good linebackers. It's in the organization's DNA. As long as Wilson stays on the field, he can be a dynamite second-line defender playing behind defensive linemen Cameron Heyward, Larry Ogunjobi and Keeanu Benton.

Wilson could easily develop a role in a rotation alongside Patrick Queen and Cole Holcomb, if not eventually overtake the latter. The 6'4" rookie, with 4.43-second 40-yard-dash speed, has that potential after amassing a staggering 220 total tackles, 30 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, nine pass breakups and four interceptions over the last two seasons.

CB Mike Sainristil, Washington Commanders

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Does anyone else remember when boxing was still considered a top sport and the title of the best pound-for-pound fighter really meant something?

The status, while subjective, served as a point of pride. It was an acknowledgement of the best when everything else is stripped away and it came down to pure skill.

Nick Saban may not have been a Don King-level promoter, but very few in the sport of football know the game better than the seven-time national championship-winning head coach. His appreciation for new Washington Commanders cornerback Mike Sainristil appears to fall somewhere on the Russell Wilson scale of unlimited.

"There's a difference between 'love' and 'loves'—I loves this guy," Saban said during ESPN's College GameDay's coverage of April's NFL draft. "I mean, this guy may be the best football player, pound-for-pound, in the draft."

Yes, the 5'9", 182-pound defensive back is small and he'll primarily serve as the Commanders' nickel corner. Don't let either fact dissuade from the fact this year's 50th overall draft pick is a premium playmaker.

"I mean, he's instinctive, he's physical and I know he's not very big, alright, but I'm going to tell you what, this guy makes plays," Saban said. "He can cover, he can tackle, he's tough, a fast reactor. I just love the way this guy plays. I mean I just love it."

S Tyler Nubin, New York Giants

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The New York Giants got a leader, the incoming draft class' top safety prospect and a turnover machine all with one selection in this year's second round.

With the 47th overall pick, Big Blue landed Minnesota's Tyler Nubin. No safety prospect among the latest batch offered the same caliber of ball skills coming into the league. The first-team All-American snatched 12 interceptions over the last three seasons. He understands his value to a defense.

"I think all my interceptions come from my preparation and how I approach the game, study, and work throughout the week. So, it's hard work," Nubin told reporters. "It's a lot that goes into making plays on Saturdays and Sundays. I'm still learning, and I can't wait to keep learning."

As the safety does so, he's helping his teammates.

"He's good. He's vocal," third-round rookie cornerback Dru Phillips said. "I know I took my time in the playbook, but you hear him a lot of times in the back end he's yelling it. Sometimes you almost can't hear yourself calling out the plays. I can tell he's going to be a great player because of his knowledge and how he communicates on the field."

Nubin should help offset the loss of Xavier McKinney as an eventual starter in New York's defensive backfield.

S Kamren Kinchens, Los Angeles Rams

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A woeful predraft workout tanked Kamren Kinchens' stock. Once viewed as the 2024 class' best safety prospect, Kinchens slid to the 99th overall pick, where the Los Angeles Rams snagged him.

Fortunately for Kinchens, the Rams have a recent history of finding gems through non-first-round selections. Starters Kyren Williams, Cooper Kupp, Puka Nacua, Tyler Higbee, Steve Avila, Rob Havenstein, Bobby Brown III, Kobie Turner, Byron Young and Ernest Jones IV were all selected by general manager Les Snead outside of the opening frame (mainly because the Rams have only had one first-round pick since 2016).

Kinchens also fills a specific need area at safety, where the Rams lost Jordan Fuller to free agency this offseason.

The testing numbers aside, the two-time first-team All-ACC honoree is smooth and instinctive when the pads are on. His 11 interceptions over the last two seasons ranked first among safeties. His coverage grade finished sixth among Power Five safeties since the start of the 2022 campaign, per Pro Football Focus.

Kinchens can immediately fill in as the Rams' starting free safety and likely thrive. Sometimes just being a good football player is enough.

   

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