When it comes to Rookie of the Year consideration, outside linebacker is as high-profile as it gets. The principal players in this draft play the position, and no position can rack up stats like outside linebacker. If I were handicapping the positions, outside linebacker would be the odds-on favorite to represent the defensive side of the ball.
Favorites: Khalil Mack, Oakland Raiders and Jadeveon Clowney, Houston Texans
We just have to switch things up a bit for this position. Whether it is Khalil Mack or Jadeveon Clowney, no one should be shocked if one of them wins Defensive Rookie of the Year. Both players are tremendous, albeit very different.
For the Oakland Raiders, Mack is going to be asked to play a more traditional 4-3 outside linebacker. His job will be to fly all over the field, ringing the register on tons of tackles. It is hard to say how many additional stats he will get in terms of sacks or interceptions, but with his talent, look for some of both.
On the other hand, Clowney is moving from a 4-3 defensive end to a 3-4 pass-rushing outside linebacker with the Houston Texans. Nevertheless, let’s be honest: He will put his fist in the dirt and rush off the edge opposite J.J. Watt. That alone should be terrifying to opposing quarterbacks.
It will be a shock if Clowney doesn’t find his way to 40 or 50 tackles and double-digit sacks in his rookie year. If he doesn’t, it means Watt ended up with 25 sacks.
Pick your poison, because both of these rookies are going to be fantastic.
The Sleepers: Jordan Tripp, Miami Dolphins and Dee Ford, Kansas City Chiefs
Once again we have to go with two candidates here. Both Jordan Tripp in Miami and Dee Ford in Kansas City have the opportunity to be special players in this league. However, it is difficult to say just how integrated into the defense these players will be in their rookie year.
With the Dolphins, Tripp has the opportunity to get snaps at multiple linebacker spots, which will help him. He is a tackling machine who will put up numbers every time he is on the field. The key will be to identify ways to get him there.
Ford is in a different situation with the Chiefs. He is going to be part of a rotation at outside linebacker. His role will primarily be to get after the quarterback. And he can do that. Ford will most likely be a full-time starter in 2015 once Tamba Hali is gone. But he could put up shocking sack numbers in a rotational role this year.
The Long Shot: Kyle Van Noy, Detroit Lions
Before the draft, linebacker Kyle Van Noy was one of the more fascinating prospects. In terms of overall skill, he was considered one of the most complete players in the draft but didn’t get the recognition he deserved.
He can play either outside linebacker position and will fit great with the attacking Lions defense. This entire Rookie of the Year discussion is going to get interesting if Van Noy can win a starting linebacker spot.
All draft data courtesy of the NFL.com draft pages.