It’s not a surprise when offensive players steal the spotlight from their counterparts on the other side of the ball. And between Minshew Mania and the excitement surrounding this year’s class of precocious rookie pass catchers, breakout performances by first-year pass rushers Nick Bosa, Josh Allen, and Brian Burns over the season’s first few weeks had flown relatively under the radar. Bosa put an end to that nonsense on Monday night, though, with an absolutely dominant performance against the Browns, pulling the focus squarely back onto the defensive side of this year’s rookie class.
The second pick in April’s draft, who planted Baker Mayfield on his backside before planting an invisible flag into the Levi’s Stadium turf, is off to a torrid start in San Francisco, but he’s not the only rookie edge rusher who’s gotten the chance to do a sack dance in the first five weeks of the year. Bosa’s been joined by Jaguars edge rusher Josh Allen (the seventh pick) and Panthers playmaker Brian Burns (16th), who each have made massive contributions to their respective defensive units. Let’s break down the tape and numbers to see where Bosa, Allen, and Burns have each stood out this year.
DE Nick Bosa, 49ers
There was speculation prior to the draft that Bosa would end up being better than his Pro-Bowl brother, Joey. Through five games, the younger Bosa has made a pretty strong argument for himself: The rookie currently leads all NFL edge defenders with a 16.1 mark in PFF’s pass rush productivity rating (a metric that measures pressure created on a per-snap basis with weighting toward sacks); he’s already notched three sacks and leads all rookie edge defenders with 26 pressures (10th most among all players), including 15 hurries and seven hits. In short, Bosa has dominated; in that win over the Browns alone, the 21-year-old notched nine pressures, tallying two sacks, three quarterback hits, four hurries, two tackles, three stops, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery (those fumbles were separate plays). He was everywhere.
Playing on the national stage for the first time as a pro, Bosa showed off all the traits that made him such a highly-sought draft prospect: He displayed incredible power, explosive speed, and sharp, cutting hands to beat blocks. Even when he was stonewalled on his first few steps, he kept fighting to get past his opponent. At the slightest hint of daylight, Bosa showed he’s capable of hitting the afterburners to make up ground and tackle opposing quarterbacks; his elite closing speed showed up twice against the Niners:
San Francisco experimented with lining Bosa up in multiple spots on the line of scrimmage. On this play, both he and veteran edge rusher Dee Ford were deployed on the right side, with Bosa rushing from the inside. His power was too much for All-Pro guard Joel Bitonio to handle:
Bosa’s play has been all the more impressive considering the players he’s been lined up against. Not only did he beat Bitonio on that rep, but the first-year pro showed out in Week 3 against Steelers Pro Bowl tackle Alejandro Villanueva, too. Bosa beat Villanueva with both speed and power, even knocking the veteran onto his back on a few rushes.
And while Bosa’s numbers have been elite, he’s made plenty of plays that don’t even show up on the stat sheet, too. Against the Niners, he forced Mayfield into a hurried, errant pass that ended up as an interception; and against the Steelers, he nearly got a safety, beating Villanueva to the inside before forcing quarterback Mason Rudolph to scramble forward for a short gain.
Through just four games, Bosa’s been the linchpin for the 49ers’ shocking defensive turnaround. Along with fellow newcomer Dee Ford, Bosa’s teamed up with interior linemen DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, and a handful of others to make San Francisco’s defensive front one of the most fearsome in football. A defense that finished 23rd in Football Outsiders’ DVOA last year ranks second this year.
Rams head coach Sean McVay summed Bosa’s play up well this week, noting that the Niners star is, “Relentless; mature player for a rookie; great feel, great motor.” As McVay added, that energy has translated to pretty much the entire defensive line. “You hear them say ‘All gas, no brakes,’” McVay said. This play from the Niners’ win over the Browns is a good visual representation of that comment.
It’s pretty clear that Bosa’s on his way to superstardom.
DE Brian Burns, Panthers
Burns brings a very different style than Bosa to the fold. The former Florida State star doesn’t yet pack much power―he had to add about 15 pounds over the offseason to get to his listed weight of 250, in fact―but it’s already clear that the elite speed and bendy athleticism he showed in college translates to the NFL.
Burns is absolutely relentless as a pass rusher, and his ability to start and stop on a dime has served him well on numerous occasions this season. In my predraft scouting report, I noted that Burns has “gumby-like flexibility,” and that talent for bending and twisting his way past blockers while staying upright has shown up regularly for the Panthers:
Burns may need to rein in his enthusiasm for hunting quarterbacks a bit―he’s gotten two roughing the passer penalties and another offsides infraction this season―but his closing speed and length have both come in handy. The rookie has tallied 18 pressures in five games, per PFF—second among rookies and tied for 20th among edge rushers, along with big names like Justin Houston, Demarcus Lawrence, Ryan Kerrigan, and Kyle Van Noy. He’s added six quarterback hits (tied for fifth) and 3.5 sacks (19th)—just a half-sack off the rookie lead behind New England’s Chase Winovich. Burns has partially blocked a pair of punts, too, and he’s also the only rookie pass rusher with a touchdown this year.
What’s most exciting about the 21-year-old’s early-season performance is that he has the potential to get so much better. Right now he’s still a bit raw, needing to add a little more girth (so he can rush with more power) and refine his repertoire of pass-rush moves. But in the meantime, he’s still got the electric first-step burst and explosive closing speed to do stuff like this:
The Panthers found themselves a good one. Burns will likely have to string together some massive performances if he hopes to hang with Bosa for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, but the 16th overall pick already looks like a steal for Carolina.
DE Josh Allen, Jaguars
The defining feature of Allen’s game at Kentucky was his versatility. The Wildcats asked him to do a little of everything for their defense, whether that meant rushing the passer from both two- and three-point stances or dropping back into pass coverage. The swiss-army knife has carried that versatility to the pros, and he impressed the Jaguars’ coaching staff so much in the preseason that they’ve tweaked their scheme a bit to get the hybrid player―who falls somewhere between a 3-4 linebacker and 4-3 defensive end―onto the field as much as possible.
Allen started the team’s first three games and has taken on a rotational role alongside Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue in the last two, with the 22-year-old rookie notching 17 tackles, three sacks, and a forced fumble in five outings. He’s third among rookie edge rushers in pressures (17, just behind Bosa and Burns), with nine hurries (second), and four hits (third). He’s contributed against both the run and pass; he’s flashed as an edge setter in the ground game, like on this play when he ducked around a couple of blocks to tackle running back Derrick Henry in the backfield.
And he’s used his elite athleticism as a pass rusher. Allen boasts a springy first step and good length to shed blocks, a combination that showed up in Week 5 against the Panthers, when he sliced inside, stiff-armed right guard Daryl Williams, and bullied his way into the pocket for a sack.
Like Burns, Allen’s game is oriented around his speed and athleticism, not raw power. But he has shown an ability to convert that quickness into strength off the edge. Against the Titans in Week 3, he threw a little head fake to get former All-Pro right tackle Jack Conklin to think he was going outside, but then just went straight into Conklin, bull rushing the offensive lineman into the pocket. Watch how he uses his right arm to get under Conklin and lift him off balance.
Allen knocked Conklin on his heels a second time in that game, administering a long-arm stab with his right arm to keep Conklin at bay before slicing back inside to somehow get his hands on the football, causing a fumble.
Allen is still just scratching the surface of his potential. He has top-tier speed and has shown signs of developing a few power-based moves. The arrow is pointing up for the rookie playmaker. For now, the Bills’ quarterback of the same name is getting far more attention, but don’t be surprised when you start hearing about the Jaguars’ Josh Allen a whole lot more.