7 Top Contenders for Defensive Rookie of the Year
NFL's 2012 draft class was extremely top-heavy in terms of play-making defenders who could make an instant impact on their respective teams this season—guys with outstanding college pedigrees, unlimited athletic range and size to make an easy transition to the professional game.
Though history won't necessarily repeat itself, it's always worth noting when it comes to awards like this: A linebacker (both inside at outside) has won the Defensive Rookie of the Year award 10 of the last 12 years. Ndamukong Suh won in 2010 as a defensive tackle, and 2002 winner Julius Peppers took home the award from his defensive end spot in the Carolina Panthers' defense.
The last player to win the award who was not drafted in the first round was the Houston Texans' DeMeco Ryans in 2006. Ryans is only one of two players to be named Defensive Rookie of the Year in the 2000s not drafted in Round 1.
Let's break down the top contenders for this year's DROY.
Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
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Lavonte David is the epitome of a preseason sleeper for the DROY award playing on a Buccaneers squad that finished 4-12 last year.
He was a jack of all trades during his collegiate career at Nebraska, totaling over 280 total tackles and 11.5 sacks in 2010 and 2011 combined.
At 6'1'' and 233 pounds, he's not a menacing linebacker. But as the weak-side linebacker in Tampa Bay's 4-3 defense, it's actually advantageous for him to be smaller and speedier from sideline to sideline.
His football IQ is through the roof. And if the Buccaneers defense improves under Greg Schiano in 2012 after allowing the 30th-most yards and most points per drive last season, David will likely be at the center of it all, along with fellow rookie Mark Barron.
It won't be easy for the Bucs to crawl from the cellar of an exceptionally deep NFC South, but remember, no NFC South team has repeated as division champion since league-wide divisional realignment in 2002.
Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers
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Kuechly's prowess as a swarming tackler in college is well-documented.
He demonstrated better-than-advertised athleticism at the NFL Combine, running a respectable 4.58 in the 40-yard dash and leaping 38 inches in the vertical jump test.
At 6'3'' and 242 pounds, he has prototypical NFL size to play any of the three linebacker positions. Kuechly is manning the Panthers' weak-side linebacker spot and will be asked to make tackles close to the line of scrimmage on inside runs, track outside pitches and drop into coverage on occasion.
As Bleacher Report featured columnist Michael Schottey pointed out in a recent column—with illustrations as a guide—Kuechly has some work to do to fully acclimate himself to the professional game and become a legitimate impact player.
But if he eclipses the 100-tackle total, reels in a few interceptions and is a vital piece to a Carolina team that surprises the masses and contends for an NFC South crown in 2012, Kuechly could be in the DROY race at season's end.
Nick Perry, Green Bay Packers
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To some, Perry was a steal when the Packers selected him with the No. 28 overall pick in April. He was a steady contributor throughout his USC career and has the size at 6'3'' and 272 pounds to be a formidable bull-rusher off the edge.
His power exceeds his initial burst off the snap, but his "get-off" is hardly considered slow.
The Packers had a disappointing 29 sacks in 2011 after finishing second in the league with 48 sacks in 2010.
Clay Matthews will still draw the majority of attention from opposing offensive lines, so Perry, who's playing in a slightly uncomfortable 3-4 outside linebacker spot, should have ample opportunity to make a name for himself in his rookie season.
A 10-plus sack campaign for Perry on a Super Bowl-contending team will draw the eyes of many DROY voters.
Chandler Jones, New England Patriots
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While those comparisons must be tempered until he plays and produces in a meaningful game, Jones's size and raw physical talents are undoubtedly impressive.
Bill Belichick got the most out of Andre Carter and Mark Anderson, two journeymen who each totaled over 10 sacks in 2011.
Jones will play a more prominent role, someone counted on to be a sound run-stuffer as well as a terrorizing pass-rusher.
Team success probably unfairly plays a factor in all the individual awards. If the Patriots are once again among the league's elite and Jones totals more than 10 sacks while making a handful of impact plays tackling running backs behind the line of scrimmage, he'll certainly be in the DROY conversation.
Mychal Kendricks, Philadelphia Eagles
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Mychal Kendricks, the reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, excelled as a linebacker in college because of his extensive range and attacking nature.
He'll play as the Eagles' strong-side linebacker in 2012—a position typically utilized to blitz on passing downs, which ideally suits the innate quickness and power he possesses.
Philadelphia's front seven is absolutely loaded and is anchored by the vastly underrated defensive end Trent Cole—a player who's totaled at least 10 sacks in each of the last three seasons.
If quarterback Michael Vick stays relatively healthy, the Eagles should contend in the ultra-hyped NFC East.
With offensive lines dealing with Cole, Jason Babin, Fletcher Cox (another darkhorse DROY candidate) and Cullen Jenkins, Kendricks has a fabulous opportunity to experience quite the productive rookie season in both the tackle and sack department.
Whitney Mercilus, Houston Texans
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The Houston Texans made drastic strides as a defense last year under Wade Phillips. Although Mario Williams departed in free agency, they still have one of the most formidable front sevens in football.
Rookies Brooks Reed and J.J. Watt combined for 11.5 sacks last season. Connor Barwin is on the verge of truly breaking out after an 11.5-sack campaign in 2011. And one can't forget about wily veteran Antonio Smith, either.
Whitney Mercilus, the nation's sack leader at Illinois last year, adds yet another spirited pass-rusher to this already formidable group.
A la Aldon Smith in 2011, Mercilus could be the beneficiary of opposing teams focusing game plans on stopping the talent lined across Houston's defensive line.
The Texans are a legitimate Super Bowl contender in 2012. If Mercilus explodes with more than 10 sacks, the votes will assuredly accumulate.
Melvin Ingram, San Diego Chargers
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Melvin Ingram is a 6'1'', 265-pound hybrid front-seven defender with the power of a defensive end and the nimble footwork of a running back.
Due to his lack of conventional size, Ingram slipped to No. 18 overall, but the San Diego Chargers couldn't pass up the tremendously athletic physical specimen.
His versatility makes him one of the most intriguing players in the entire class. He can play defensive end, put his hand on the ground and beat offensive tackles with an assortment of edge-rushing moves. If need be, Ingram has the ability to make plays against the run or comfortably drop into coverage and match up with tight ends.
Bleacher Report's schematic football genius, Alen Dumonjic, praised Ingram's multi-dimensional capabilities in a recent conversation on Twitter:
Yup. Re: Melvin Ingram. RT @dumonjic_alen: What's impressive is how he can slide to 3-technique on pass downs and raise hell.— Chris Trapasso (@ChrisTrapasso) August 19, 2012
Perennially, the Chargers are NFL's toughest team to figure out. If they finally piece everything together for an entire season and emerge as one of the AFC's elite teams, Ingram is likely to have played a profound role and should garner major DROY consideration.