2011 NFL Predictions: Top 10 Favorites for Defensive Rookie of the Year

Adam LazarusSenior Analyst IAugust 5, 2011

2011 NFL Predictions: Top 10 Favorites for Defensive Rookie of the Year

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    Last year, Ndamukong Suh was the second overall player (first defensive player) selected in the NFL draft, and he certainly lived up to the hype, winning the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award in a landslide.

    So with Von Miller being taken in the same exact slot, that would make him the clear cut favorite this year, right? Maybe.

    Miller is a physical freak and playing in a John Fox scheme (remember another second overall pick at defensive end who Fox coached right out of the gate, Julius Peppers?), but there are a few players who landed in better setups, setups loaded with great talent in place. 

    Suh's new teammate Nick Fairley comes to mind, but there are a bunch more. Here's a top 10. 

No. 10: Jimmy Smith, CB, Baltimore Ravens

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    College: Colorado

    Selected: First round, 26th overall

    Smith's physical skills were never a question during the draft process. He's got great size (6'2", 215), is strong and runs a 4.4, so all he has to do is get on the field, and he will make plays.

    The problem has been discipline issues, but in that Baltimore locker room with Ray Lewis,  Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs, that shouldn't be too much of a concern.  And since the Ravens already have a ton of talent on defense, he really landed in the best setup possible.

    With the Ravens losing Josh Wilson to free agency, Smith will have an opportunity to start. 

No. 9: Ras-I Dowling, CB, New England Patriots

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    College: Virginia

    Selected: Second round, 33rd overall

    Dowling is a tough sell here because 24-year-old Kyle Arrington was just locked up with an extension and Devin McCourtey had an awesome seven-interception rookie season last year. 

    But with Bill Belichick scheming, there's no reason to believe he won't put three corners on the field regularly, thus giving Dowling a chance to make plays and collect a few picks here and there. 

    There's a reason the Patriots took him as the first pick in the second round. For all their great stats on offense and earning the top-seed in the AFC, they had the 30th ranked pass defense in the NFL last year. 

No. 8: Muhammad Wilkerson, DE, New York Jets

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    College: Temple

    Selected: First round, 30th overall

    Jets head coach Rex Ryan recently told the Associated Press, "He belongs...He's the starting defensive end right now, the day he walked in here. That's why we drafted him, not to be a backup. We need him to be a player."

    Coming from Ryan, that's huge praise. And huge expectations.

    With Kris Jenkins gone and Shaun Ellis' return still in question, Wilkerson should have plenty of chances to retain that spot. Now, playing at a dominant level—coming straight out of the MAC Conference—remains to be seen. Ndamukong Suh might have done it, but he came from the Big 12.

    Still, Wilkerson has tons of potential, and since the Jets defense is stacked and has a pair of great corners, he should have plenty of chances to rush the passer. 

No. 7: Corey Liuget, DE, San Diego Chargers

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    College: Illinois 

    Selected: First round, 18th overall

    The Chargers have defensive ends Jacques Cesaire and Luis Castillo (who is coming off a knee injury) but Liuget can still make a huge impact against both the run and the pass, either as a rotator or starter.

    His candidacy as a Rookie of the Year will probably depend a great deal on how the Chargers defense adapts to new schemes put in by Greg Manusky, but if another one of those young, former first-round selections finally steps up (Larry English), it will greatly benefit Liuget.

    And it's worth noting that, even though they missed out on the playoffs last year, San Diego was tops against the pass last year, fourth against the run and first in total yards allowed. Liuget landed on a team that has talent which he can benefit from. 

No. 6: Patrick Peterson, CB, Arizona Cardinals

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    College: LSU

    Selected: First round, fifth overall

    Corners don't have a great track record when it comes to winning the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award. In fact, the last one to do so was Charles Woodson, all the way back in 1998.

    So while Ras-I Dowling and Jimmy Smith each have a chance because they landed in great situations on great defenses, it's still a long shot. 

    But Peterson is a special case, one not that dissimilar from Woodson 13 years ago. He was arguably the best athlete in the draft and now that the Cardinals sent Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to the Eagles, he'll have an opportunity to start on day one, in addition to special teams contributions. 

    Sure there will be growing pains, and he'll be picked on a ton. But he'll make plenty of great plays as well, especially in an NFC West that does not have an elite passing game in St. Louis, Seattle or San Francisco. 

No. 5: Nick Fairley, DT, Detroit Lions

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    College: Auburn

    Selected: First round, 13th overall

    Yes, I know he's already hurt and is going to miss "significant" time, a problem  that will both halt his development and could be a recurring issue during the remainder of the season, whenever he returns. 

    But playing next to Ndamukong Suh is such a benefit, and since he was widely considered the best pass-rushing interior defensive lineman in this year's draft, he should be able to grab sacks if he plays a full season.

No. 4: Cameron Jordan, DE, New Orleans Saints

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    College: Cal

    Selected: First round, 24th overall

    Although most talk this offseason has been about the Saints other first-round selection, Mark Ingram Jr., Jordan was a more important pickup for the 2011 season.

    The Saints defense really took a step backwards following their Super Bowl triumph and Jordan can help them get back to top form. He was the most complete defensive end in the draft, and although he certainly can rush the passer, it's what he can add to the Saints run defense that is most important.

    And since 32-year-old Alex Brown is a free agent after next season and Sean Payton expect Will Smith to be dealt a lengthy suspension this year, Jordan will be on the field plenty.  

No. 3: Von Miller, DE/LB, Denver Broncos

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    College: Texas A&M 

    Selected: First round, second overall

    Miller is a tweener, so it might take some time to determine where he'll play in John Fox's new defense.

    He'll probably stay as an outside linebacker which could decrease the number of sacks he collects, ultimately hurting his chances to win this award, even if he soon becomes the best defensive player in the entire 2011 draft class.   

    The Broncos defense was horrible last year they have a long climb in addition to learning how to switch from the 3-4 to the 4-3. 

    But they are getting several quality players back from injury and the selections of Rahim  Moore and also Jeremy Beal will improve the depth. 

No. 2: Ryan Kerrrigan, DE, Washington Redskins

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    College: Purdue

    Selected: First round, 16th overall

    Statistically, the Redskins had the worst defense in the NFC last year, allowing almost 400 yards per game. But they added Barry Cofield, Josh Wilson, Phillip Buchanon and Stephen Bowens will make a big difference, and they will be much improved this season in year two under Jim Haslett.

    And although Kerrigan will probably start the preseason behind veterans, with his size, speed and strength (three years as a starter in the Big Ten also helps) he should have a chance to start.

    Washington dealt Vonnie Holliday to Arizona and not one defensive lineman on the roster collected even three total sacks last year. 

    Kerrigan could wind up with as much as three times that many. 

No. 1: J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans

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    College: Wisconsin 

    Selected: First round, 11th overall

    Wade Phillips performing some sort of overnight, quick-fix in his first year on the job doesn't seem likely, but with his scheme, a full season from Brian Cushing, the additions of Johnathan Joseph and Daniel Manning and fingers crossed that Mario Williams as a 3-4 linebacker works, they will be much better.

    After all, in terms of pass defense, they really don't have anywhere to go but up. Their 267.5 passing yards per game was the worst in the NFL last season. 

    A revamped secondary with Manning and Joseph and Williams coming off one edge as a backer, it will open the door for Watt to use his awesome strength and very good agility to get to the quarterback and force turnovers.

    With their offense, that should be enough to earn their first ever playoff spot, something that will be a factor when Rookie of the Year votes are cast.