by Dan Pompei - SportingNews.com

Our 2004 breakout defensive players (rookies were not considered):

Defensive ends

This should be the season Kalimba Edwards' preposterous athleticism begins to become evident. In his rookie season, the Lions didn't play him enough. As a second-year player, Edwards struggled with a groin injury. As a third-year player, he's out of excuses and ready to turn the corner in his career and in his pass rush.

After putting on about 20 pounds of muscle since last season and not losing any quickness, second-year man Jerome McDougle could be ready to show the pass-rush ability that made him so effective at the University of Miami. McDougle should benefit from the Eagles' acquisition of Jevon Kearse, who will attract most of the double-team attention. Kearse's presence at left end means McDougle should be taking most of his snaps at right end, a new position for him. A rotation with N.D. Kalu and Derrick Burgess should help keep McDougle fresh.

Defensive tackles

Ryan Sims took a big step last season for the Chiefs, and he's capable of taking a jump this year. With increased dedication, Sims has improved his strength and is bench-pressing 465 pounds. His pass rush will be enhanced in new coordinator Gunther Cunningham's defense. "You can just see it in him," Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil says. "He's growing up a lot. I expect him to be a Pro Bowler one day."

The goal in Long Island is for Dewayne Robertson to play 20 pounds lighter than he did as a rookie, and Robertson has been progressing nicely toward that goal. Robertson has too much ability to continue to be the nonfactor he was last season, and Jets coaches are convinced Robertson will make an impact this year.

Outside linebackers

With instincts, toughness, explosiveness, athleticism and ball skills, Lance Briggs should become an excellent linebacker in his second season with the Bears. Briggs will be helped by a new system and a switch to weakside linebacker after starting the last 13 games of last season on the strong side. It also doesn't hurt to be playing next to Brian Urlacher.

Another second-year linebacker who could improve after an impressive rookie season is Pisa Tinoisamoa of the Rams. Tinoisamoa continues to improve his coverage skills and learn angles and drops, which is critical because he's a bit undersized. He displays great intensity, instincts and the ability to play three downs. Last year, Tinoisamoa started 14 games and played 87 percent of the snaps.

Middle linebackers

There are two good candidates at this position, and the strongest is Robert Thomas of the Rams. At times last season, Thomas was dominant after being switched to the middle from the outside, where he played as a rookie. But he struggled with injuries for much of the season and missed four games. Now he is comfortable at middle linebacker, the position he played at UCLA, and familiar with his assignments.

The other middle linebacker who could come on is the Bengals' Nate Webster, who showed intensity, athleticism, toughness and explosiveness as a sub for the Bucs the past four years.

Safeties

John Lynch's replacement at strong safety in Tampa Bay is a lot like Lynch himself. Jermaine Phillips is tough, smart and dependable and has ball skills. What's more, the third-year player learned from Lynch as his understudy the past two seasons. Phillips has shown consistent improvement and is ready to become an above-average starter.

In his first year as a starter, Michael Lewis was a solid strong safety for the Eagles. He has a chance to be outstanding this year. Because of a rash of injuries in the Eagles' secondary last year, the burden of making the coverage calls fell to Lewis. With free safety Brian Dawkins back, Lewis will be able to concentrate more on where he's supposed to be and less on where his teammates are supposed to line up. At 225 pounds, Lewis could be considered in the class of Roy Williams of the Cowboys -- if he takes the next step.

Cornerbacks

The Chargers' Quentin Jammer finally started playing like a high first-round pick late last year after more than a season and a half of inconsistent play. If Jammer can continue to be consistent with his techniques, he has the potential to be one of the league's best all-around corners. As he develops confidence, he'll show more of the aggressiveness that made him an outstanding college player.

After arriving as a legitimate NFL corner last season, fourth-year man Andre Dyson of the Titans should take his game to the next level. Dyson proved himself against the opponents' best receivers during a four-game stretch when Samari Rolle was injured. Since then, he has added strength and showed greater understanding of his team's schemes and the techniques he is required to play. Dyson has plenty of motivation; this is the last year of his contract, and if he plays well, he will be a highly pursued free agent.

Senior writer Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Sporting News. Email him at pompei@sportingnews.com.