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Young NFL defensive players who deserve early extensions: Antoine Winfield, L'Jarius Sneed, Alex Highsmith and more

Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs cornerback L'Jarius Sneed (38) takes the field prior to a game against the Denver Broncos at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

  • The importance of locking up Antoine Winfield: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety has generated more WAR than any other player at his position since entering the league.
  • The key to the Kansas City Chiefs‘ defensive success: L’Jarius Sneed took over the team’s top cornerback role and continues to produce plenty of big plays that can turn a game.
  • Rare versatility should be rewarded: Kyle Dugger and Kamren Curl exemplify what it means to be a modern-day safety in the NFL. 
Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

Early extension candidates from the 2020 NFL Draft would technically be signing new contracts that begin in 2024, but this offseason is where negotiations will begin for teams that are serious about keeping those young studs around for the long-term future. 

Absent from this list are 2020 first-round picks such as Chase Young, Derrick Brown and A.J. Terrell, who will have a fifth-year option in play, potentially pushing their extension another year forward.

Safety Antoine Winfield Jr., Tampa Bay Buccaneers

  • Defensive grade since 2020: 84.8 (third)
  • Coverage grade since 2020: 78.2 (28th)
  • Defensive grade in 2022: 77.8 (11th)
  • WAR since 2020: 1.21 (first)
  • WAR in 2022: 0.31 (ninth) 

After Derwin James became the highest-paid safety in the NFL last offseason, Winfield is likely to push for a similar deal given his success and versatility since entering the league. No safety has generated more WAR (wins above replacement) than the former Golden Gopher since 2020 (1.21), making him the second-most valuable defensive player on the Bucs’ roster by that metric — behind only pending UFA cornerback Jamel Dean.

Winfield’s versatility makes him arguably the most important piece on Tampa Bay’s defense, as he can not only excel in his typical deep safety role but also continues to add value as a run defender, earning a 91.0 run defense grade since 2020 that ranks third among all safeties. His ability to rush the passer has also been a significant asset, as his 90.5 pass-rush grade ranks third among safeties since 2020, tallying nine sacks (second) and 22 total pressures (11th) on just over 100 pass-rush attempts. 

Winfield’s role continued to evolve this past season as the team utilized him as its primary slot defender on 54% of his regular season defensive snaps. The former second-round pick faced 34 targets when lining up as a slot defender and allowed an open target on just 47.1% of those plays, which ranked inside the top-20 defensive backs with at least 75 snaps in that role. 

With key defensive players such as Dean and Lavonte David pending free agents this offseason, Tampa Bay may have to turn its focus to Winfield for the future. David, specifically, has been a captain of the Buccaneers’ defense every year since 2014, but with a potential changing of the guard in Tampa, there is no better suitor to carry on that role for the foreseeable future than Winfield.

Cornerback L’Jarius Sneed, Kansas City Chiefs

  • Defensive grade since 2020: 76.1 (19th)
  • Coverage grade since 2020: 75.1 (tied for 28th)
  • Defensive grade in 2022: 76.8 (14th)
  • WAR since 2020: 1.06 (11th)
  • WAR in 2022: 0.48 (seventh)

According to PFF WAR, Sneed has been the Chiefs defense's most valuable piece this past season, just slightly more so than Chris Jones and his 15.5 sacks. Sneed has stepped up with a career year after former top corner Charvarius Ward left in free agency this past offseason. The reliance on Sneed as the team’s new top corner enabled him to step up to the plate and set a career-high in snaps played (1,106), defensive grade (76.8) and coverage grade (74.8). 

Furthering his worth this past season, he ranked sixth among corners in total coverage snaps (670) and allowed just 9.0 yards per reception, which ranks tied for eighth at the position. This makes him the only corner among the top 10 in coverage snaps played who also ranked inside the top 10 in yards allowed per reception. He did this while playing both a slot and outside corner role throughout the season, excelling at both. He was one of just 10 cornerbacks (min. 200 snaps) who spent at least 30% of his defensive snaps split among the slot and outside corner spots. His 74.8 coverage grade and 76.8 overall grade were higher than anyone else asked to split those duties.

Adding to his game is his ability to make big plays, as his 6.5 sacks and 30 total pressures are the most among all cornerbacks since 2020. He also ranks top 10 at his position in forced fumbles (four), tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage (18) and interceptions (eight) over that span. Locking up Sneed is likely to be an expensive maneuver for the Chiefs, but considering the impact he has on defense while still emerging as a star in the league, he should be in the conversation as one of Kansas City’s most important players moving forward.

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