NFL Rookie Watch: Panthers’ Star Lotulelei Dominant on Defense

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The old adage ‘Defense Wins Championships’ might not hold as much weight as it used to, but having smart defenders is always a commodity. Here are six of the newest to join the National Football League and how they’ve helped–or hurt–their team through two weeks of play.

The Good
Star Lotulelei- DT, Carolina Panthers (1st round, 14th pick)
Lotulelei has been a monster against the run. In 83 snaps, he’s managed four stops and has six total tackles. He was instrumental in preventing two of football’s best running backs–Marshawn Lynch and C.J. Spiller–from running up the middle, forcing runs to the outside (Lynch finished with 43 yards, Spiller gained 103). In addition to controlling runs up the middle, Lotulelei clogged the middle lanes which prevented quarterbacks E.J. Manuel and Russell Wilson from breaching the center of the pocket.

Ezekiel Ansah- DE, Detroit Lions (1st round, 5th pick)
Ansah has been a great addition to an already fearsome defensive line in 2013. Through 80 downs, Ansah has seven total pressures (four hurries), four tackles and two run stops. In week one, he helped shut down carries by Adrian Peterson off the left tackle/tight end for 1.5 yards per carry–though one run from Peterson was a 78-yard touchdown run occured when he wasn’t on the field. In week two, rushes were focused on the opposite side of the field, with teams respecting Ansah’s run-stuffing ability.

T.J. McDonald- S, St. Louis Rams (3rd round, 71st pick)
A gem in a group of underwhelming rookie safeties (which we’ll get to in a moment), McDonald has been stout in the Rams secondary. He’s got 10 total tackles (one missed) and two run stops. He’s been targeted in coverage four times, yeilding three receptions for 25 yards (6 yards after the catch). McDonald isn’t the quitessential pass rushing saftey as his strength is in coverage. The Rams’ secondary can definately use that skill as that might be the weakest aspect of their defense.

The Bad
Bacarri Rambo- S, Washington Redskins (6th round, 191st pick)
Though Rambo was selected late in the 2013 draft, he’s been a mess for the awful Redskins’ defense. Despite the fact Rambo leads all Washington defenders in tackles (18 total) he also has four missed tackles; some of which ended up developing into big plays. It seems as though whenever Rambo does something good, his bad plays tend to wipe them out almost tenfold. He’s been out of position several times and can’t seem to cover his assignments consistently.

John Cyprien- S, Jacksonville Jaguars (2nd round, 33rd pick)
For every four solo tackles Cyprien makes, he’ll miss one based upon his tackle/missed tackle rate. That’s not horrible but definitely not good for a guy who protects the back end of your defense. Cyprien may be more of a product of a bad defense but he at times looks lost in his assignments. He needs to be more effective in coming up to defend the run but his coverage lacks shutdown quality when dealing with opposing tight ends. Luck for him, the rest of Jacksonville’s corners have been able to pick up the slack in coverage thus far.

Kenny Vaccaro- S, New Orleans Saints (1st round, 15th pick)
Vaccaro might be the biggest rookie disappointment in relation to his draft position. He’s managed 12 total tackles and holds opposing quarterbacks to a 77.1 QBR but–like Cyprien–he needs to be more effective against the run. While in coverage, he’s given up 30 reception yards, half of which came after the catch–its fine if safties allow receptions from time to time, but they can’t give up YAC at that rate. Additonally, he’s been involved in seven pass-rushing downs and has produced no pressure. With the effectiveness of the Saints defense overall, Vaccaro hasn’t caused many bad situations but a player with his skills needs to make more of an impact.

BY MICHAEL AUGUSTINE ON SEPTEMBER 18, 2013

Follow Michael @AugieSports on Twitter.

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