Nothing gives NFL fans more hope than a fresh crop of rookies. In 2021 general manager Scott Fitterer, himself a rookie in his new role, drafted 11 players who have now survived their first professional seasons. Here’s how the year played out for each of the new faces on the defensive side of the ball.
Note: My grades reflect players’ production relative to where they were drafted with a “C” meaning they met expectations. Anything above a “C” means they exceeded expectations for a rookie drafted where they were, and anything below means they fell short. I’m not one for grade inflation.
Jaycee Horn, CB
Drafted: First round (No. 8)
Stats: 3 games, 5 tackles, 1 interception, 1 pass defended
Horn has all the makings of a shutdown corner and flashed Pro Bowl potential in his very small three-game sample size. Through three games Jaycee allowed just two completions on seven targets and opposing quarterbacks had a meager 39.6 passer rating when throwing his direction, per Football Reference. But just as the hype train was starting to speed down the tracks, Jaycee broke multiple bones in his foot and required season-ending surgery. What a bummer.
Daviyon Nixon, DT
Drafted: Fifth round (No. 158)
Stats: 7 games, 82 defensive snaps, 9 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 3 pressures
Nixon’s season got off to a great start after appearing in each of the Panthers first seven games but he landed on injured reserve with a knee injury going into Week 8, prematurely ending his season. He played just 38 total defensive snaps through his first five games but then he earned 22 snaps in both Week 6 and Week 7, meaning he was becoming a rotational player just before his injury. Few fifth round rookies carve out meaningful roles like Nixon was beginning to do in the weeks leading up to his season-ending injury, so his first year was a success.
Keith Taylor, CB
Drafted: Fifth round (No. 166)
Stats: 17 games, 450 defensive snaps, 38 tackles, 3 passes defended, 1 forced fumble
Kudos to Keith Taylor for getting drafted this late, making the roster, and playing in all 17 games. Just getting that much playing time as the No. 166 overall pick makes for a successful rookie campaign. The bad news is he definitely took some lumps during his on-the-job training. He surrendered 36 receptions on 51 attempts (70.6 percent) and gave up a quarterback rating of 112.5 when targeted. By way of comparison, Donte Jackson gave up a 63.2 percent completion rate and an 86.5 QBR while AJ Bouye gave up a 71.1 percent completion rate and an 88.9 QBR. A total of 40 players were drafted in the fifth round in 2021 and only four of them played in all 17 games, including Taylor. Any fifth rounder who becomes a Day 1 contributor and maintains that status throughout the season had a successful year, even when they get burned every once in a while.
Phil Hoskins, DT
Drafted: Seventh round (No. 232)
Stats: 3 games, 28 defensive snaps, 4 tackles, 1 sack, 1 tackle for loss
Hoskins saw the field in very limited action in Weeks 12, 14, and 15. Despite playing just 28 defensive snaps on the year he somehow managed four tackles (including one for a loss) and a sack. Talk about per-play production! If Phil had played 560 snaps, he would’ve had like 80 tackles and 20 sacks! (That’s how things in the NFL work, right?). On a more serious note, it’s perfectly fine for a seventh rounder to spend most of the season on the sidelines then get some reps late in the season. Hoskins is right on schedule.
After one season it looks like Scott Fitterer and Matt Rhule may have nailed their four defensive selections. Jaycee Horn flashed Pro Bowl potential in very limited action. Despite being fifth round selections, both Daviyon Nixon and Keith Taylor carved out meaningful roles on a good defense. Neither one of them was an impact player, but there’s reason to hope they improve in Year 2, then reach the “capable contributor” threshold for Years 3-4 of their rookie contracts.
The Panthers strength in 2021 was their defense. These young guys showed enough potential this year to bolster it in 2022.
What do you think of Keith Taylor’s B+ grade?
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