Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Winners: Hau'oli Kikaha, New Orleans Saints (7 votes); Shaq Thompson, Carolina Panthers (4 votes); Preston Smith, Washington Redskins (4 votes)
A situation can dictate how well or poorly a rookie plays early in his career. And this year's All-Rookie outside linebackers come from very different situations.
Hau'oli Kikaha starts on the league's second-worst defense. However, his contributions to the New Orleans Saints haven't been overlooked.
The Washington product is fifth on the Saints with 51 total tackles and third with four sacks. He's also second in the league with four forced fumbles.
However, his role diminished when the team fired defensive coordinator Rob Ryan in mid-November, and his replacement, Dennis Allen, decided to employ a more traditional 4-3 base defense. As a result, Allen placed Kikaha in a "Sam" linebacker role instead of having him rush the passer, which is where he excels.
"I think he’s developed," Allen said, per the Times-Picayune (h/t BigEasyBeliever.com's Barry Hirstius). "I think, not unlike a lot of rookies, he was playing at a really good level and then he had the injury, and he’s fighting through the injury, as well as fighting through the fact that he is coming to the end of a long 16-game season, which is more football than he’s played in his lifetime."
Kikaha's contributions, particularly early in the season, weren't overlooked by Bleacher Report's NFL analysts.
As Kikaha's role changed, his former collegiate teammate, Shaq Thompson, grew into his for the Carolina Panthers.
Thompson, a first-round pick, moved in and out of the starting lineup and dealt with a knee injury. He's since become a regular starter over the final quarter of the season.
The rookie plays a valuable role as the team's Sam linebacker and uses his ability to cover the slot. His numbers aren't impressive with only 13 total tackles in his last three starts, but his athleticism and versatility bring an added dimension to the Panthers defense alongside Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis.
Preston Smith also added a valuable presence in the Washington Redskins' outside linebacker rotation.
Smith is a more explosive edge-rusher than teammate Trent Murphy, while Murphy is a more consistent run defender. This year's second-round pick really settled into his role.
The Mississippi State product leads all rookies with seven sacks. Against the Philadelphia Eagles on Saturday, Smith dominated and registered three sacks. He only trails Ryan Kerrigan by 1.5 sacks for the team lead.
Others receiving votes: Markus Golden, Arizona Cardinals (1 vote)
Midseason picks: Hau'oli Kikaha, New Orleans Saints; Markus Golden, Arizona Cardinals
Preseason picks: Hau'oli Kikaha, New Orleans Saints; Kyle Emanuel, San Diego Chargers