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Ranking the NFL's Best Rookie Defenders as Season Enters Week 11

Bryant WestCorrespondent INovember 17, 2011

Ranking the NFL's Best Rookie Defenders as Season Enters Week 11

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    With the NFL season entering Week 11, a lot of attention is going to an excellent rookie class. But not enough of that attention is going to the defensive side of the ball.

    The NFL has plenty of young guns to get excited about, with quarterbacks like Cam Newton and Andy Dalton lighting up the scoreboards.

    But with all of the attention focused on the offensive rookies, a collection of defensive rookies have been putting up fairly solid numbers.

    A collection of defenders, ranging from those selected at the top of the 2011 draft all the way down to an undrafted prospect, are battling it out in what will certainly be a tough year to decide who to crown Defensive Rookie of the Year.

    Which rookie defenders rank amongst the top 10 so far this season? Let's take a look.

Honorable Mentions

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    Name: Jabaal Sheard

    Team: Cleveland Browns

    Drafted: Round 2, Pick 37

    Position: Linebacker

    2011 Stats: 29 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 2 fumble recoveries

    Sheard has the 11th most tackles on the season with 29 and is tied for second in forced fumbles with two. His best game of the season came against Oakland in Week 6, when he had four tackles, one sack and a forced fumble.

     

    Name: J.J. Watt

    Team: Houston Texans

    Drafted: Round 1, Pick 11

    Position: Linebacker

    2011 Stats: 32 tackles, 2.5 sacks

    Watt, a 6'5" linebacker from Wisconsin, currently ranks eighth amongst rookies with 32 tackles on the season.

     

    Name: Marcus Gilchrist

    Team: San Diego Chargers

    Drafted: Round 2, Pick 50

    Position: Cornerback

    2011 Stats: 25 tackles, 1 interception

    Gilchrist ranks second amongst cornerbacks for tackles on the season with 25 tackles and has been a solid addition to San Diego's secondary. While his performance and playing time have been slightly inconsistent, he had a six tackle, one interception performance against Miami in Week 4.

     

    Name: Chris Conte

    Team: Chicago Bears

    Drafted: Round 3, Pick 93

    Position: Strong safety

    2011 Stats: 15 tackles, 1 interception

    Conte's numbers do not leap out at you—his 15 tackles rank just 30th in the league amongst rookies—but what does give Conte a boost is the trust his team has in the young strong safety.

    Chicago released former Pro Bowl-safety Chris Harris earlier this season, and even with Brandon Meriweather still onboard for the Bears, Conte is getting the starting nod. His best performance so far this season was a Week 6 outing against the Vikings where he had six tackles.

10. Akeem Ayers

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    Team: Tennessee Titans

    Drafted: Round 2, Pick 39

    Position: Linebacker

    2011 Stats: 38 tackles, 2.0 sacks, 1 fumble recovery

    The former UCLA standout has been excellent in Tennessee, where he's ranked up the fourth most tackles of any rookie on the season, with 38.

    His best performance of the season so far was in Week 10, when he had seven tackles and one sack against Cam Newton and the Panthers.

9. Jacquian Williams

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    Team: New York Giants

    Drafted: Round 6, Pick 202

    Position: Linebacker

    2011 Stats: 40 tackles, two forced fumbles

    The biggest surprise amongst the rookies this season has to be Jacquian Williams, who was taken in the sixth round and now ranks third in tackles with 40 on the season.

    It was an amazing breakthrough for the 22-year-old out of South Florida, who worked his way up from playing with the third team in training camp all the way up to his now prominence amongst the Giants defense.

8. Phillip Taylor

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    Team: Cleveland Browns

    Drafted: Round 1, Pick 21

    Position: Defensive Tackle

    2011 Stats: 31 tackles, 4.0 sacks, 1 fumble recovery

    Despite Cleveland's mediocre defense, rookie defensive tackle Phillip Taylor has quietly been putting together a nice season.

    He has the ninth most tackles on the season with 31 and the fifth most sacks with four. His best game so far was a Week 10 loss to St. Louis, where he had five tackles and a sack.

    Cleveland obviously needs to continue to bolster their defensive line, but Taylor is an excellent young piece for the Browns to build with.

7. Chris Harris

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    Team: Denver Broncos

    Drafted: Undrafted

    Position: Cornerback

    2011 Stats: 38 tackles, 1 interception

    The Broncos got a steal when they signed Harris, an undrafted rookie out of Kansas, in training camp. Harris ranks fourth in tackles with 38, and he had a killer game in Denver's Week 9 victory over Oakland when he finished with 11 tackles and an interception.

    Harris deserves a ton of praise for his performances and looks to be a huge part of Denver's defensive future.

6. Mason Foster

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    Team: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    Drafted: Round 3, Pick 84

    Position: Linebacker

    2011 Stats: 46 tackles, 2.0 sacks, 1 forced fumble

    Foster has already exceeded all expectations so far this season, leading the rookies in tackles with 46 combined on the season. His best performance on the season was a nine-tackle effort against the Saints in Week 9.

    Tampa Bay will need him and the rest of the defense to step up this weekend when they travel to Green Bay to take on the undefeated Packers.

5. Marcell Dareus

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    Team: Buffalo Bills

    Drafted: Round 1, Pick 3

    Position: Defensive Tackle

    2011 Stats: 26 tackles, 3.5 sacks

    The 340-pound defensive tackle from Alabama has had an impressive season so far this year for the Bills, racking up 26 tackles and 3.5 sacks for the Bills.

    While Dareus and the entirety of the Bills defense needs to step it up (71 points combined in their last two contests, both losses), it's obvious that the big man has potential to be an strong defender for years to come.

4. Aldon Smith

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    Team: San Francisco 49ers

    Drafted: Round 1, Pick 7

    Position: Linebacker

    2011 Stats: 15 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 1 safety, 1 forced fumble

    Smith hasn't started a game this season, but his numbers are incredibly impressive considering when he was drafted he was expected to be a long-term project.

    The 22-year-old linebacker from Missouri is second amongst rookies with 6.5 sacks, with all 6.5 coming in a four week span between Week 4 and Week 7. He was named the NFL's rookie defensive player of the month for October.

    With San Francisco's defense already at the top of the league, the prospect of having a young pass rusher with such potential is very exciting for the 49ers fans.

3. Patrick Peterson

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    Team: Arizona Cardinals

    Drafted: Round 1, Pick 5

    Position: Cornerback

    2011 Stats: 38 tackles, 2 interceptions

    Experts had huge expectations of Peterson, the corner back out of LSU that many had hailed as the draft's most talented prospect.

    And while Peterson and the Arizona secondary started off slowly, they've picked it up over the past few weeks. The Cardinals haven't allowed a passing touchdown since Week 7 against the Steelers.

    Individually, Peterson is having a great year. His 38 tackles is tied for fourth amongst rookies, and he is the only player in his class with more than one interception.

    He also is the leading punt returner for the Cardinals with three returns for touchdowns on the season.

2. Von Miller

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    Drafted: Round 1, Pick 2

    Team: Denver Broncos

    Position: Linebacker

    2011 Stats: 38 tackles, 8 sacks, 2 forced fumbles

    Miller, the bruising linebacker out of Texas A&M, deserves the top honors so far this season for NFL rookies. He is tied for fourth in tackles and is first in sacks and is one of the brightest young players at the linebacker position.

    Arguably his best game of the season was against the Green Bay Packers, when he had four tackles and sacked Aaron Rodgers twice.

    He's also leading the NFL rookies in fines on the season, when he was docked $15,000 for a hit on Oakland quarterback Carson Palmer.

1. Ryan Kerrigan

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    Team: Washington Redskins

    Drafted: Round 1, Pick 16

    Position: Linebacker

    2011 Stats: 41 tackles, 5.0 sacks, 1 interception, 2 forced fumbles, 1 defensive touchdown

    All across the board, Kerrigan has been stellar for the Redskins. The 6'4" linebacker out of Purdue is second in tackles, third in sacks and is one of only two players (Philadelphia's Brian Rolle being the other) to have a defensive touchdown on the season.

    Kerrigan was named the NFL's defensive rookie of the month for September, when he had 11 tackles, one sack, one interception and his defensive touchdown.

    While Washington's offense is in shambles, their defense is exceptionally good, and Kerrigan is a big part of that.

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