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Breaking Down the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Candidates by Position

Curt PopejoyContributor IJanuary 18, 2017

Breaking Down the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Candidates by Position

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    In our previous installment, we broke down some of the players who are sure to be in the spotlight for Offensive Rookie of the Year. This time, we turn our attention to the defensive side of the football.

    This is where things get a little more complicated. A huge number of rookies are poised to start and contribute right out of the box. This is a testament to just how better prepared college defensive players are coming out of school.

    Of course, when it comes to rookies and playing time, it is all about opportunities. It is rare for a team to pencil in a rookie starter prior to training camp, but it does happen. In most cases, training camp and preseason are when rookies climb up the depth chart and earn those spots.

    In other cases, it’s about being opportunistic. If a veteran goes down with an injury, a rookie can find be thrust into a starting role in a hurry. Either way, look for a dozen or more rookies to play huge minutes in 2014.

    Who is your favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year? Let’s break them down by position and see who the contenders are, along with a few sleeper picks.

Safety

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    USA TODAY Sports

    This safety class as a whole is something of a mixed bag. There are no truly elite prospects, but this group is deep with talent. Many of these players are also fortunate that they landed on rosters where they will be getting on the field in a hurry.

     

    The Favorite: Deone Bucannon, Arizona Cardinals

    Washington State safety Deone Bucannon is a blunt instrument at the safety position. The Arizona Cardinals needed a starting strong safety, and they got the best pure one in the draft. He is dropping into very talented secondary, and despite all that talent, he should get plenty of opportunities.

    His mixture of speed and strength is as good as any in this draft. Look for Bucannon to rack up some serious tackle numbers, and don’t rule out a couple of sacks and interceptions for good measure.

     

    The Sleeper: Brock Vereen, Chicago Bears

    The Chicago Bears think they got a real steal with Minnesota safety Brock Vereen. And they might just be right. He is a pure free safety prospect with top-flight athleticism and fluidity in his movements. He is strong in coverage, which will be a great benefit to a Bears defense that needs to generate more turnovers.

    If Vereen can crack the starting lineup, he will have a great shot to get 50-60 tackles and a handful of turnovers as well. One of the best parts of his game is his ability to play man coverage on wide receivers and tight ends. This will keep him on the field in obvious passing situations, which helps his case.

     

    The Long Shots: Calvin Pryor, New York Jets and Jimmie Ward, San Francisco 49ers

    Both Calvin Pryor of the New York Jets and Jimmie Ward of the San Francisco 49ers are in similar situations. While both are talented, they are in situations that will limit them early. It’s not a bad thing, but the fact that both the Jets and 49ers have some impressive defensive lines and linebackers hurts them.

    Sometimes, the mark of a bad defense is a safety who puts up gaudy stats. With these defenses being so stout up front, the opportunities for Ward and Pryor will be just too limited for serious contention as Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Inside Linebacker

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The role of an inside linebacker in the league has changed. With so many hybrid fronts, it isn't enough that they can stuff the run. In order to be highly regarded, coverage is a key, and that means speed. This group is interesting in that it runs the gamut between old-school thumpers and new-school athletes.

     

    The Favorite: Ryan Shazier, Pittsburgh Steelers

    The Pittsburgh Steelers are firmly committed to getting more speed on their defense. The addition of linebacker Ryan Shazier is an excellent example of that. His speed and athleticism are as good as any linebacker in the NFL. It is only a matter of the coaches finding ways to utilize his gifts properly.

    Look for Shazier to work both inside and outside at linebacker, as a run-stopper and pass-rusher. He has a real chance to put up numbers in his first year that veteran linebacker Lawrence Timmons does now. The rookie will have lots of tackles, with some interceptions and sacks as well. The Steelers are going to use him all over the field, and this is going to really help him. 

     

    The Sleeper: C.J. Mosley, Baltimore Ravens

    If Shazier doesn’t win the award, Baltimore Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley might be the next best option. Mosley is similar to Shazier in that he’s a near lock to start, and with that defensive group around him, Mosley will put up big numbers.

    The only reason he is a notch below Shazier is opportunity. The players around Mosley at linebacker are more talented for the most part over what Shazier has. There will be less pressure on Mosley to contribute early and often, which could reduce his production. 

     

    The Long Shots: Christian Kirksey, Cleveland Browns and Carl Bradford, Green Bay Packers

    There are a half-dozen names that could have been incorporated into this group. However, Cleveland Browns linebacker Christian Kirksey and Green Bay Packers linebacker Carl Bradford are far and away the most interesting.

    Both Kirksey and Bradford are exciting, athletic players who slipped in the draft because of some questions about their overall skill sets. Nevertheless, both players flashed enough in college to warrant serious consideration here. The trick for both will be if they can work their way into meaningful snaps.

    The Browns and Packers could both use an upgrade at inside linebacker. This is excellent news for both players going forward. These are certainly two to keep an eye on.

Cornerback

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    Brian Kersey/Getty Images

    One of the most challenging transitions from college to the NFL for a rookie is at cornerback. Or so it would seem. The speed and size of NFL wide receivers are daunting, so you would think even great cornerbacks in college would struggle early.

    However, it seems as if more and more rookie cornerbacks are coming in and playing well early. Granted, that doesn’t always mean having a great rookie season, but it’s possible. With offenses wanting to throw the ball more and more, there are always plenty of spots for rookie cornerbacks to come in and have a major impact, even in sub-packages. 

     

    The Favorite: Kyle Fuller, Chicago Bears

    Watch out for Chicago Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller. The former Virginia Tech Hokie might be the most complete rookie cornerback in the league. Add in the fact that current starters Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings are both over 30 years old, and the situation is prime for Fuller.

    Depending on who you ask, the Bears defense is either old or veteran. Either way, Fuller is a welcome addition of youthful playmaking ability. Even if he only works out of the nickel corner spot, he is going to make tons of plays. 

     

    The Sleeper: Bradley Roby, Denver Broncos

    Bradley Roby makes the list as a sleeper here because there’s little doubt he’s going to start. And there’s little doubt he can play. However, the kicker in Roby’s season will depend on the Denver Broncos offense.

    When Denver starts racking up points, opposing offenses have no choice but to start chucking it down the field. This plays right into the strength of Roby’s game. In press-man coverage, he can mirror wide receivers and should be able to put up some really impressive numbers. 

     

    The Long Shots: Darqueze Dennard, Cincinnati Bengals and Justin Gilbert, Cleveland Browns

    The fact that Darqueze Dennard and Justin Gilbert are this low on the list illustrates the depth of this group. The Cincinnati Bengals drafted Dennard to add a physical element to the secondary, which he should. And the Cleveland Browns took Justin Gilbert early because he can shut down one side of the field.

    Either one of these players could have a Desmond Trufant-esque year and find himself in the mix for Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Defensive End

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    USA TODAY Sports

    What exactly is a defensive end nowadays? With so many exotic defenses and hybrid fronts, the term becomes a little murky. That also makes the rookie impact of these young men a challenge to predict.

    So when it comes to breaking these guys down, you just have to consider that many of them will have limited opportunities and will need to make the most of them. Along those same lines, finding a defensive end in this group who is going to be an every-down player is not going to be easy. 

     

    The Favorite: Demarcus Lawrence, Dallas Cowboys

    Call it a hunch, but the Dallas Cowboys didn’t draft Boise State defensive end Demarcus Lawrence in the second round not to play him early. He is a long, athlete end who can bend and turn the corner. This is exactly the type of pass-rush end that this team needs.

    Assuming Lawrence can beat out Jeremy Mincey for the starting spot, he has a real shot at double-digit sacks. The Cowboys added some beef inside with Henry Melton, which should afford Lawrence more one-on-one opportunities on the outside. 

     

    The Sleeper: Chris Smith, Jacksonville Jaguars

    Where to put Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Chris Smith is a little bit tricky. His best fit is at right defensive end. If he can win that job over Jason Babin, he has a real shot as a fifth-round pick to make some noise for the Jaguars. He has a squat, powerful build and surprising athletic ability.

    If the Jaguars project him to be an outside linebacker, he’s likely off the Rookie of the Year radar mainly due to the transition period he’ll have to undergo. That’s not to say he can’t be an exceptional outside linebacker, but he’s not going to be one in 2014. 

     

    The Long Shots: Scott Crichton, Minnesota Vikings and Kony Ealy, Carolina Panthers

    Both Kony Ealy and Scott Crichton have an opportunity to be the top defensive end out of this class when we look at this group five years from now. However, right now, both players are on the outside looking in for reps (although things are better for Ealy) and could need a bit more time before they can establish themselves.

    That’s not to say both the Minnesota Vikings and the Carolina Panthers couldn’t use both players' skills as rookies. They almost certainly do and will. It is simply that the size of their roles is still up for some debate.

Defensive Tackle

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    It is hard to think about a rookie defensive tackle as the best defensive rookie in the league. Opportunities for them to put up huge numbers are limited. And we all understand that in the final analysis, the guys who light up the box score get all the looks.

     

    The Favorite: Aaron Donald, St. Louis Rams

    If there is a rookie defensive tackle among this group who could come in and have a huge statistical season, it’s St. Louis Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald. It’s not because he is some sort of transcendent player at this point.

    However, he is getting plugged into what might be the most talented defensive line grouping in the league. Playing alongside Robert Quinn, Chris Long and Michael Brockers will mean lots of free runs and one-on-one situations for Donald. With his quickness and first step, he’s going to eat those up. He and Quinn could be the top inside/outside tandem in the league very soon.

     

    The Sleeper: Ryan Carrethers, San Diego Chargers

    As hard as it is for a traditional defensive tackle to be considered a top rookie, a nose tackle has it just has hard. And being a fifth-round nose tackle just compounds things. Nevertheless, San Diego Chargers defensive tackle Ryan Carrethers is going to play well. At 6'1" and 337 pounds, he’s a massive young man who operates with tremendous leverage and power.

    He is going to be the anchor for the Chargers 3-4 defense. How he plays will dictate the flow of that defense. It might not always show up in the stats, but if you see a marked improvement in the defense, Carrethers might just be the reason.

     

    The Long Shots: Louis Nix III, Houston Texans and Ra’Shede Hageman, Atlanta Falcons

    If Ra’Shede Hageman had been drafted just about anywhere else, he’d have been at the top of the list. However, being projected at the nose tackle for the new 3-4 defense with the Atlanta Falcons is disappointing. Until they find a good fit for him, hopefully on the outside, his ability to impact the defense is going to be limited.

    Houston Texans defensive tackle Louis Nix III is in a different spot. In fact, he’s in the exact opposite spot. If Nix can win the nose tackle job in Houston, he’s going to be in a perfect fit. Playing nose tackle with gobs of talent around him should be a dream, right?

    Perhaps, but not for individual recognition. With J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney on the roster, getting noticed is going to be tricky, even for a 331-pound nose tackle.

Outside Linebacker

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    USA TODAY Sports

    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.

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