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Rutgers in the Pros: NFL Season Review On Defense

Devin McCourty’s All-Pro nod leads the group.

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New England Patriots v Arizona Cardinals
McCourty celebrates the Patriots first of many wins in 2016.
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The NFL regular season is now complete and we will continue to track Scarlet Knight alums in each round of the playoffs. Since regular season awards don’t factor in the post season, we will hand out some of our own accolades while reviewing the season and future for each Scarlet Knight in the Pros. Finishing up is the defensive players. The offense was covered here.

MVP: Devin McCourty. He had an All-Pro season (second team) and will head to his second Pro Bowl. Leading the top scoring defense looking for one for the thumb in the regular season (only) he registered 78 tackles, 7 passes defended, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble, and 1 fumble recovery. He and his team have been equally good in the playoffs.

Arizona Cardinals v Atlanta Falcons
Cooper takes down former Knight Sanu.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Most improved: Marcus Cooper. After initially being a surprise starter for Kansas City as a rookie, Cooper was let go as the Chiefs believed they had better options. It’s hard to fault the KC brass as their defense was tremendous in 2016 leading to a first round bye. Cooper though took his game to Arizona where the Cardinals looked to win a second consecutive division title. Unfortunately the team, they regressed in virtually every area but not because of Cooper. It was intriguing watching the Cardinals this season and hearing the tone of the announcers talking about him as if he was the guy on the defense who had to clean up the mess. He finished with 69 tackles and 4 interceptions. Two of those interceptions came in the same game and got him a lot of good press. He set career highs in almost every area and scored his first touchdown.

Mr. Consistency: Jason McCourty and his Titans took a major step toward relevance in 2016. McCourty has been a fixture, starting since being drafted by the Titans in 2009. he finished with 69 tackles, 2 interceptions, a fumble recovery, and an impressive 12 passes defended. Had Jason and Mariota not been injured in Week 16 against Jacksonville, then the Titans probably make the playoffs. The team finished 9-7 but lost the tiebreakers to a Houston team that, seemingly as is true every year, is solid everywhere but at quarterback. Tennessee however seems set for the next decade at that position with Marcus Mariota assuming he returns from injury.

Biggest jump expected in 2017: Quentin Gause finally joined the active roster of the Denver Broncos late in the season seeing action exclusively on special teams. Denver may see a shake up after failing to defend their title so it will be interesting to stay if Gause remains there or moves somewhere else. Despite always being in the shadow of Steve Longa at RU, Quentin always showed the compact strength, quickness, and playmaking ability required at the highest level. He has all the makings of a guy who eventually sticks as a contributor in the NFL and can still get a lot better.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v New Orleans Saints
Johnson tackles fellow Scarlet Knight alum Coleman.
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Bounceback in 2017: George Johnson by a hair over Freeny. Johnson had 6 sacks in a breakout 2014 campaign for Detroit before returning to the Buccaneers where he had started his career. He was penciled in as a starter on a Tampa Bay team that ended up surprising many in the NFC, much like McCourty and Tennessee did in the AFC. Tampa Bay was closer to the bottom of the league in yards allowed, but above average in point allowed. The high number of turnovers, specifically 17 interceptions (one behind the league leaders) means that the Bucs will need better performance if they regress to the mean in that category in 2017. Hopefully one of those upgrades is already on their roster, Johnson.

Rest Of the Bunch:

Logan Ryan had a nice season as the Patriots nickel cornerback. He finished the regular season with 92 tackles and 2 interceptions. As a member of the league’s best scoring defense he perhaps had it’s most memorable complete game performance registering 17 tackles in a single game against Buffalo. That may be the most by a Knight in any NFL game other than Tyrone Stowe. If playoffs counted he’d be in line for more official recognition, perhaps even MVP as he has been the Patriots best player in the postseason not named Tom Brady.

Duron Harmon is the safety equivalent of Ryan. The Patriots heavy nickel package including 3 safeties brought Harmon on the field very often against double TE personnel. He finished with 29 tackles, 1 forced fumble, and 1 fumble recovery. The former third round pick has proven himself a capable rotational safety and spot starter, which is pretty good for a guy who as a sophomore was rated only a 62 in NCAA Football!

NFL: Houston Texans at New England Patriots
Freeny is now on injured reserve, but still could win a ring with New England.
Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Jonathan Freeny looks to bounce back from a shoulder injury in 2017 after really making an impact with the Patriots 2016 run to the AFC title game. It took him a few years to understand how to be a linebacker after playing Defensive End and Tackle at Rutgers. Finally a starter, he showed a knack for making plays and being in the right place at the right time. He only made 10 tackles before the injury but did have a key forced fumble. The Patriots traded away Jamie Collins mid-season, so even if they get the win in Super Bowl LI, they will be looking for Freeny to return in 2017.

Steve Longa in his first season, spent it on the practice squad of the Lions after initially being signed by Seattle. Some were surprised by him going undrafted, but after being so banged up in his senior season at RU, he likely needed more time on the mend. I loved Longa from the first plays of his career against Fresno State, but frequently playing injured and being so gifted may have resulted in some bad habits. Detroit may undergo a larger overhaul than any other team in the NFL falling short amid a 3 game losing streak to end the season. A win in any of those games and they claim the division title.

Khaseem Greene signed a futures contract this past week. He was out of the NFL this past year, but the former 4th round pick who started as a rookie for Chicago will have a chance to make the league’s most fundamentally sound defense, Kansas City. Of all the Rutgers defensive players to have reached the NFL in recent years, I truly believed Greene would have the quickest impact. His playmaking ability (the 15 forced fumbles) and coverage skills having been a former safety seemed perfect for today’s style of NFL ball. Perhaps he was a victim of playing for a horrible Chicago defense, but he should have the strength, speed, and instincts to stick. Good luck!

We will have plenty of coverage through Super Bowl LI, as Rutgers has plenty of alums set to take the field on Sunday, February 5th!