To follow up my article for Offensive Rookie of Year, let’s take a look at some of the top candidates for Defensive Rookie of the Year. There are multiple organizations that present similar awards to rookies, although the NFL considers the awards by the Associated Press to be its official honor. Their list of award winners is what I am referencing in this article.
For the sake of consistency, again I looked at the past 27 years which is when the NFL Draft was finally reduced to the 7 rounds that we are most familiar with today. There has never been an AP Rookie of the Year winner (neither offense nor defense) that was undrafted. That isn’t to say it can’t happen because there’s always a first for everything. Curiously enough, while checking out rosters across the league I was able to find an undrafted player that is currently listed as a starter. Per Ourlads.com, the Seattle Seahawks have former Army linebacker Jon Rhattigan labeled as their starter at right outside linebacker. So, there’s hope out of the gate this year.
In comparison to offensive players, defensive award winners have been much more consistent over the years. The money draft pick for the top defensive player seems to be #2 overall with players like Chase Young, Nick Bosa, Von Miller, Ndamukong Suh, and Julius Peppers immediately making a splash in the NFL as Rookie of the Year. In each case for these players, the #1 overall pick was a QB and most of them were awarded the Offensive Rookie of the Year. In the past 27 years, both offensive and defensive honors went #1 and #2 overall in the draft 3 times (2010, 2011 and 2019).
The average draft position for the players who won the award is approximately 12th overall. Cowboys LB Micah Parsons was recently drafted at that spot and is one of the top players on my list. Parsons was one of my favorite players in this year’s draft, but let’s allow him to play a full season before crowning him with the award. The player that was selected last in our sample time frame was LB Kendrell Bell at 39th overall of the Steelers in 2001. He was an amazing athlete out of Georgia whose career was sadly cut short due to a knee injury.
The position that earned the award the most during our sample time frame was a linebacker at 48%. Defensive End followed second with 30%. Both cornerback and defensive tackle each tied in third place with 11%. Had we gone back to 1988 with our time frame, there would be 2 safeties that would be accounted for as well in Mark Carrier of the Chicago Bears (1990) and Erik McMillan of the New York Jets (1988). It is possible that every defensive position can win the award. Although, the linebacker position certainly has the advantage. Indeed, there was a 7 year stretch from 2003 to 2009 where a linebacker was Rookie of the Year. I suppose their high involvement in the defense with the number of tackles that they accrued held a lot of value to voters. Of the 13 linebackers drafted from 1994-2021, 9 of them were interior linebackers who tallied an average of 137 total tackles as a rookie.
*Again, I must note that I am only considering players who have officially been named starters. There are several players who I like that have been omitted. I confirmed starters using Ourlads*
- Micah Parsons, LB, Dallas Cowboys
Parsons was my favorite linebacker from this year’s draft class. His versatility and elite athleticism set him up to succeed in the NFL. At his Pro Day, he was able to run a 4.39 in the 40, and he also displayed fantastic jumps in the vertical (39.5”) and broad jump (11’2”). While at Penn State, Parsons played on the interior as well as on the outside as a pass rusher. He’s now listed as the Sam Linebacker in the Cowboys’ 4-3 base scheme. I’m not sure if he’s going to rack up a lot of tackles this year given that Jaylon Davis was the Cowboys’ leading tackler last season at the Mike position.
Parsons opted out of the 2020 season due to the pandemic and might take some time to get going this season. He hasn’t made too much of an impact during the preseason although I believe that his tenacity and explosiveness put him as the frontrunner for Rookie of the Year. I can see him having the same sort of impact that Von Miller had as a rookie, making plays all over the field whether it be in the backfield or dropping back in coverage.
- Jamin Davis, LB, Washington Football Team
I might be a little biased here (Yes, I’m a Washington fan, but hear me out). Davis just might be the missing piece of a defense that could take the team to the next level. Washington already has Chase Young and Montez Sweat on the edge and a good rotation of players on the interior with Jonathan Allen, DaRon Payne, Matt Ioannidis, and Tim Settle. Davis comes in at the MLB role in a 4-3 base scheme. That means that he’s in the position to be the quarterback of the defense.
I’m not trying to put the cart before the horse so to speak, but Ron Rivera is a defensive-minded coach, being a great former linebacker himself, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio was as well. I’m certain that they will position Davis in the defense in order for him to succeed. He’s a big linebacker and excellent run defender that also drops back into coverage well. He may only have had one breakout year in college, but I truly believe that he may just have scratched the surface of his potential. Dare I say that Jamin Davis could be the next Luke Kuechly.
- Zaven Collins, LB, Arizona Cardinals
There was some speculation before the draft about Collins and his potential because he had gained some weight. Yet, that didn’t stop the Cardinals from taking him 16th overall. He had one of the best seasons as a linebacker in 2020 for Tulsa being named an All-American and also winning the Bronko Nagurski Trophy as well as the Chuck Bednarik Award. Collins has been situated in Arizona as an interior linebacker in a 3-4 base scheme, and his role is mainly going to be stopping the run. Tulsa was one of the best run defenses in college last year allowing opposing teams to rush only 3.61 yards per carry. Collins is an impact player that helped Tulsa go on a 6-game win streak last season, and the games they lost were only by an average of 4 points. As the Cardinals complete their rebuild, look for Collins to play a key role in their success.
- Kwity Paye, DE, Indianapolis Colts
There seems to be a rookie edge rusher that makes an impact every year, and the Colts landed one of the best ones in Paye. He’s very physical with violent hands and often disrupted offenses while at Michigan despite being double-teamed. Paye has already shown his talent as an edge rusher this preseason by getting a sack against the Vikings. If he collects at least 8-10 sacks this season, he would be primed to win the Rookie of the Year Award.
- Jaycee Horn, CB, Carolina Panthers
The apple didn’t fall far from the tree with this one. Jaycee Horn is the son of NFL great WR Joe Horn and one of the best rookie athletes this season. After bringing in Sam Darnold to address the need at QB, the Panthers shifted to the defensive side of the ball with the 8th pick in the first round. Most evaluators had Patrick Surtain Jr. and Horn neck-and-neck as the top cornerback in the draft. Both were big, physical corners with elite athleticism. Horn had a bit longer arms (33”) and destroyed his Pro Day with a 4.39 in the 40. He certainly has great closing speed and an eye for the ball which he’s displayed during training camp intercepting passes. He also has a great mindset for the position and the tenacity to be matched up with any receiver in the league. Horn was the first defensive player to be taken in this year’s draft. I don’t think he will fold under that spotlight. He’s born for this.
- *Sleeper* Hamsah Nasirildeen, LB, New York Jets
I remember my pre-draft rankings this year and having Nasirildeen in the 2nd-3rd round range. At the time, I had him listed as a safety at about 6’3” 215 lbs. The Jets got a great steal, selecting Nasirildeen in the 6th round, and now they have him listed as one of their starting linebackers. The Jets also selected Jamien Sherwood from Auburn which you just knew that they were going to convert one, if not, both of them into a linebacker. Nasirildeen could shock a lot of people as the Will linebacker and tally up a good handful of tackles this year. The Jets leading tackler from last year, Neville Hewitt, is now with the Texans, and even though they brought in Jarrad Davis to play the middle we really don’t know how this year is going to pan out. Additionally, there are great tight-ends in the AFC East who the Jets are going to have to cover, and Nasirildeen has to play a huge factor in that. If he can hold those tight-ends to a few fewer plays, and rack up tackles in the run game, he has the potential to be a legitimate sleeper as the Defensive Rookie of the Year.