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The Anti-Cam Newton: Who Has Been the NFL's Best Defensive Rookie?

Cody MeadowsCorrespondent INovember 16, 2011

The Anti-Cam Newton: Who Has Been the NFL's Best Defensive Rookie?

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    When you are thinking of candidates for Rookie of the Year, names like A.J. Green, Cam Newton, Julio Jones and Andy Dalton come to mind. Everybody focuses on the offensive side of the ball because of the fantasy football side of the game these days. Newton is putting up huge numbers, and Dalton wins games. Green and Jones are phenomenally talented wide receivers. 

    My favorite side of the ball is defense, so I have been going back and forth on who is looking good for the Defensive Rookie of the Year. While there have been a few players who have earned consideration for this award, two guys have jumped to the front of the line.

    Arizona Cardinals defensive back Patrick Peterson and San Francisco 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith are these players.

    After these two, guys like Von Miller, Brooks Reed, Ryan Kerrigan, J.J. Watt, Jabaal Sheard, Mason Foster, Adrian Clayborn and Phil Taylor come to mind.

    I'm still having trouble deciding, so I will break these players down in this slideshow, think about it and comment.

    You decide!

Patrick Peterson: Defensive Back, Arizona Cardinals

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    While the Arizona Cardinals aren't having a great year, rookie defensive back Patrick Peterson has been unbelievable.

    He is a great athlete, and proved that at the 2011 NFL combine. Peterson ran the second fastest 40-yard dash time at the combine, a blazing fast 4.34 seconds. He tied for the third best vertical jump among DBs with 38 inches. Also take into consideration that he was one of the biggest DBs at the combine, 6'0" tall and 219 pounds.

    He got off to a great start with his first NFL play. In a preseason game on Aug. 27, Peterson intercepted San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers and returned it for a touchdown (I guess that isn't special this year, but still).

    He has played like a veteran at only 21 years of age. If he keeps up his current production he may win Defensive Rookie of the Year. 

    Peterson puts his elite athleticism to use every time he takes the field. He isn't one of those players who plays half speed or takes plays off on occasion. This kid plays a full game like a train off its tracks. He plays with an intensity not many players have, a more productive Taylor Mays type of player (safety out of USC, currently a Cincinnati Bengal).

    So far this season through Week 9, Peterson has 38 tackles, 34 of which are solo tackles. He also has two interceptions thus far.

    He will undoubtedly have success in the second half of the season, especially if the Cardinals offense sputters often and forces the defense to spend a lot of time on the field. 

    Peterson didn't wait long to show the world he was more than a threat on defense.

    Peterson scored his first touchdown as a pro on a Cardinals-record 89-yard punt return in Week 1 of the NFL season. It was also in a big spot, late in the fourth quarter to put Arizona ahead for good as it beat Cam Newton's Carolina Panthers, 28-21. 

    Peterson scored his second touchdown on an explosive 82-yard punt return late in the second quarter against the Baltimore Ravens on Oct. 30. He didn't wait long to show off again, returning a punt for a touchdown on Nov. 6 against the St Louis Rams. Peterson fielded the punt at the 1-yard line and scored on a 99-yard return to win the game.

    I wonder if Deion Sanders copyrighted his nickname "Prime Time?"

Aldon Smith: Linebacker, San Francisco 49ers

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    Rookie linebacker Aldon Smith has had a huge impact on a San Francisco 49ers defense that was already good. While there isn't as much to say about him because he is strictly a defensive player, Smith has had as big of an impact on his team as Patrick Peterson has. The pressure he puts on opposing quarterbacks is as good as it gets.

    The stout defense is the main reason for the 49ers' surprising success. A large part of this success is on the shoulders of Aldon Smith. 

    Through Week 9 Smith has 15 tackles, six-and-a-half sacks including a safety, a forced fumble and three passes defended.

    The best part of this success for Smith and the 49ers is that they will be going to the NFL playoffs and Patrick Peterson won't! His season has been a surprise, but not as much as the 49ers competing for the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs.

Von Miller: Linebacker, Denver Broncos

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    Tim Tebow gets all the press for the Denver Broncos, but rookie linebacker Von Miller deserves it.

    Drafted second overall by the Broncos in the 2011 NFL Draft, he has lived up to expectations so far. He's another player who is a freakish athlete despite being 6'3" 245 pounds. Compared to the other linebackers at the 2011 NFL Combine, he ranked second in the 40-yard dash, third in the vertical jump, first in the broad jump, third in the 20-yard shuttle, tied for first in the 3-cone drill, and first in the 60-yard shuttle. His 11.15-second 60-yard shuttle broke the combine record for linebackers. At the Texas A&M Pro Day in March 2011, Miller ran a 4.49 40-yard dash.

    On September 12, 2011, in his first career play from scrimmage, Von forced a fumble. He also sacked Aaron Rodgers twice during the Broncos loss to the Green Bay Packers.

    Miller has 38 tackles, eight sacks, and two forced fumbles this season.

Brooks Reed, Linebacker, Houston Texans

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    The Houston Texans selected Reed in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft.

    He wasn't expected to contribute much right away, but an injury to starter Mario Williams launched him into the starting role week six of the NFL season. Surprisingly he looked like he belonged on the field, collecting six tackles in his first start. Because of this his numbers aren't great, but you have to remember he has only played a significant amount of time for a few weeks.

    In his short season, he already has 27 tackles and five sacks, one each four games in a row.

    If he continues at this pace he deserves strong consideration, what he has done is very impressive. The defense will have to play a larger role from here on out as well, with quarterback Matt Schaub expected to miss the rest of the season.

Ryan Kerrigan: Linebacker, Washington Redskins

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    Ryan Kerrigan was selected by the Washington Redskins with the 16th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. While he was expected to be good, the young linebacker has been great!

    During his pro first game as a Redskin on September 11, 2011, Kerrigan tipped up and intercepted a pass from Giants QB Eli Manning, scoring on a 9-yard run into the end-zone. He has proven to be a leader for a Redskins team who desperately needed somebody to step up.

    So far, he has 41 tackles, five sacks, four forced fumbles, and the interception I mentioned. The only reason I don't have him higher is that he tends to jump in on tackles. For instance, 13 of his 41 tackles are assists.

    Even so, don't be surprised if he wins the award when the season comes to a close. If he can come up with a few more defensive touchdowns it will help his case tremendously. 

J.J. Watt, Defensive End, Houston Texans

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    Rookie defensive end J.J. Watt is another young superstar on an improved Houston Texans defense. When you think about why the Texans haven't been able to get to the next level a poor defense should come to mind. This season will be misleading because of the loss of quarterback Matt Schaub, but the Texans are now a legitimate playoff team.

    He was drafted 11th overall by the Texans in the 2011 NFL Draft. Watt had an odd college career, playing tight end at Central Michigan before transferring to Wisconsin. As a Wisconsin Badger, Watt was red-shirted in 2008 before playing two seasons at defensive end. He left after his junior year and has proven to have made the correct choice.

    He's had a nice 2011 season so far, compiling 32 tackles, two and a half sacks, and two fumble recoveries. He also blocked a field goal against the Miami Dolphins. 

Jabaal Sheard, Defensive End, Cleveland Browns

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    Rookie defensive end Jabaal Sheard is a bright spot on an underachieving Cleveland Browns squad. The Browns defense is actually very good, they are a playoff caliber defense. If the offense can get on the right track this is a team who can do some damage.

    Sheard was drafted in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft out of Pittsburgh. If he hadn't gotten into trouble following a fight in Pittsburgh he would have been drafted higher. The Browns lucked out in drafting this guy, a true defensive end that they needed badly.

    Sheard is having a nice season so far, with 29 tackles, two and a half sacks, two forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery. He will need to continue this success to keep his team in football games as poorly as the offense is playing.

Mason Foster, Linebacker, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Rookie linebacker Mason Foster is having a great season for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

    While the Buccaneers have been struggling as of late, Foster continues to shine every time he's on the field. Even more impressive is the fact that he was drafted by the Buccaneers in the third round. If they had expected him to play this well they would have drafted him a lot sooner, or he may have been off the draft board!

    Foster is another guy with a lot of tackles who has a lot of assists. It has worked for Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis for many years, so why not, I guess! I just don't have him quite as high because of the assists. So far this season he has 46 tackles (32 solo), two sacks, one forced fumble and a fumble recovery.

    My favorite part of his game is that he knows where the ball is all the time. He is like a ball-seeking missile or a magnet!

    He's been impressive so far, and is sure to have a nice second half of the season.

Adrian Clayborn, Defensive End, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    I have been a fan of Adrian Clayborn since his college days at Iowa. He seems like a genuinely nice guy in interviews and has battled through physical limitations his whole life. He has a condition known as Erb's Palsy, which is caused during birth by an injury to the nerves surrounding a child's shoulder.

    Adrian suffered nerve damage, resulting in the loss of some movement and weakness in his right arm. Because of this, he underwent physical therapy throughout his young life and eventually overcame the limitations caused by the disorder. I remember at the draft he said it still effects him a bit but he learned how to play with it.

    Clayborn was taken in the first round of the draft, chosen 20th overall. His statistics aren't much to look at but his game is bigger than that. His being on the field makes it easier for his teammates, as he often pushes offensive linemen all over the place. Regardless if he gets a sack or not, he affects many plays a game.

    He has 19 tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble so far this season.

Phillip Taylor, Nose Tackle, Cleveland Browns

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    Phillip Taylor is the best defensive tackle I have seen since Casey Hampton of the Pittsburgh Steelers came out of Texas in 2001. They were drafted in very similar spots too. Taylor was drafted 21st overall by the Cleveland Browns and Hampton was taken 19th overall by the Steelers.

    Despite being 6'3", 335 pounds, this man can move! He gets after the quarterback with the reckless abandon of Adam Sandler as Bobby Boucher in "The Waterboy". Taylor is a one-man wrecking crew, nearly impossible to block with a single lineman.

    So far this season, Taylor has 31 tackles, four sacks, a forced fumble and one pass deflection.

    I expect him to be a staple of the Browns defense for a very long time. As the Browns continue to add youth both offensively and defensively, there is no reason this team shouldn't start to compete for a playoff spot in the next couple of seasons.

Closing Thoughts

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    So, who do you think will take the crown from 2010 Defensive Rookie of the Year, Detroit Lions defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh?

    All of the players mentioned have been awesome additions to each of their respective NFL teams. Some are tackling machines, others can beat you with a punt return taken the distance. A few of these guys have been forced into starting roles due to injuries, and have done admirably so far.

    I give a slight nod to Patrick Peterson because of his versatility and his three touchdown returns already this season. He makes mistakes at times too, though, going for interceptions when it's a bad idea. They all have flaws, but these are far outweighed by their respective strengths.

    Only one can be named as the best of the best, so what do you think? Comment below and feel free to add other candidates to the discussion too.

    Thanks for reading.

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