Handicapping the NFL's 2015 Defensive Rookie of the Year race
Jadeveon Clowney played in a mere four games last season after being selected No. 1 in the 2014 NFL draft. The No. 3 pick in this year's draft, Dante Fowler Jr., will have less of an opportunity than that—he won't see the field this season after tearing his ACL during a Jaguars minicamp.
Fowler's disheartening setback robs Jacksonville of a player central to its hopes in 2015. On a much less important note, the injury also knocks out a likely Defensive Rookie of the Year frontrunner until next year.
Which players have a chance now? Breaking down the early candidates:
The Long Shots
Each of these players first has to find quality playing time before worrying about producing award-worthy stats. Rowe has the clearest path—he opened rookie minicamp at cornerback (not safety), so consider that step one for the Utah product starting opposite Byron Maxwell. He'll have to produce far more interceptions than the three he had over four years in college.
The remaining five players listed here all are loaded with talent but will start further down the depth chart. Davis may have landed in a sweet spot nonetheless, as part of a Baltimore line that will not need him to play heavy minutes. The 320-pounder might be at his best in the NFL, at least during his rookie season, pushing it to full throttle for a limited number of snaps.
If one really wanted to bet on a "long shot" to emerge, Dawson might be worth the gamble. While he is limited athletically and Cincinnati has three starters penciled in at LB, Dawson also chalked up 136 tackles, 6.0 sacks and four interceptions last year for TCU. That's the type of all-around production it takes to win Rookie of the Year in the NFL.
Arik Armstead, DE, 49ers
Michael Bennett, DT, Jaguars
Mario Edwards Jr., DE, Raiders
Grady Jarrett, DT, Falcons
Eric Kendricks, LB, Vikings
Hau'oli Kikaha, OLB, Saints
Benardrick McKinney, LB, Texans
Owa Odighizuwa, DE, Giants
Quentin Rollins, CB, Packers
Shaq Thompson, LB, Panthers
A wide range of draft spots amongst the "sleepers," from Armstead at No. 17 to Bennett at 180. Let's start at the top ...
Armstead is a physical freak, standing 6'7" and 292 pounds. The thought of what he might one day be able to accomplish with that frame drove the 49ers to draft him in the middle of Round 1. The problem, at least for the purpose of this conversation, is that Armstead is more of a long-term player than an immediate contributor. He needs ample time to allow his game to catch up to his size. If San Francisco gets a big year out of him in 2015, it will be a bonus.
McKinney and Kendricks were taken two picks apart in Round 2 (McKinney at 43, Kendricks at 45). Both fell into potentially high-usage spots—McKinney next to Brian Cushing inside of Houston's 3–4; Kendrick likely manning the middle of the Vikings' 4–3, alongside 2014 first-rounder Anthony Barr. Should the rookies pick things up in a hurry, their tackle numbers could set the pace for first-year players.
Thompson might have something to say about that right, too, but his noted versatility is what gives him a shot at Defensive Rookie of the Year. A healthy number of tackles mixed with a splash play here or there (pick-six, fumble return) and/or a handful of carries would catch the voters' eyes.
Bennett, Edwards, Jarrett, Kikaha and, to a lesser extent, the run-stuffing Odighizuwa will have to state their cases via sacks. Edwards should slot right into Oakland's starting front four, although it remains to be seen if his new coaching staff can unlock his potential. He was one of the most talented players in the 2015 draft, except his Florida State career was marked with a frustrating level of inconsistency.
Jarrett and Bennett somehow fell to Rounds 5 and 6, respectively. Count on them to overplay those draft positions—both can generate issues on passing downs. The Saints will be counting on Kikaha, last year's FBS leader in sacks, to do the same.
Rollins' move to the pros will be worth watching. He played just one year of college ball, in which he was named the MAC Defensive Player of the Year. Can he continue that rapid rise? Or will the NFL expose the raw areas of his game this coming season?
Recent history has taught us that it is darn near impossible for a defensive back to take home the DROY honor. The last cornerback to win was Charles Woodson, in 1998. He was just the second CB in two decades to get there—Kansas City's Dale Carter (1992) was the other.
So, the odds are stacked against the four first-round cornerbacks from this year's class. That said, Peters and Waynes are expected to be starters out of the gate, with Johnson and Jones not far behind. Their Rookie of the Year odds rely almost entirely on how opportunistic they can be picking off passes.
Like Armstead and several others, Dupree's main selling point was upside. He will need some time to round out his game, but Pittsburgh's defense does offer him an ideal scheme from which to attack. Even if he stays stuck in a rotation with James Harrison, Jarvis Jones, Arthur Moats and others, Dupree might get to the quarterback enough to be a real DROY threat.
Brown and Shelton would love to follow in the footsteps of 2014 Defensive Rookie of the Year winner Aaron Donald. The '15 newcomers are of a different mold than Donald (Bennett, Jarrett are closer to Donald's gap-shooting quickness), and yet they could dominate enough at the line to stay in the hunt. Bill Belichick will find various ways to use Brown; Shelton ought to be a centerpiece on a Cleveland defense that's better than it showed in 2014.
All five players were promoted as possible top-10 selections, but just two made it: Williams (No. 6) and Beasley (No. 8). Collins slipped from being the surefire first safety off the board to a Day 2 pick, behind Randall. Gregory's and Ray's draft stocks fell due to their off-field issues, but the OLB out of Nebraska may wind up being the steal of the draft.
The Cowboys rolled the dice with the 60th pick—a team desperate for another pass-rush selecting arguably the top pass-rusher in the draft. When he was healthy for the Cornhuskers last season, Gregory haunted quarterbacks from several different spots on the field. Ray likewise has to prove that he is more boom that bust. Denver traded up for him for a reason, though, and his explosive first step off the edge could turn the DeMarcus Ware-Von Miller rush tandem into a virtually unblockable three-headed attack.
There are still people questioning Collins' overall game. However, he's listed as a favorite here because the Giants will toss him into the fire as a starting safety. Between his aggressiveness against the run and improving ability to pick off passes, the Alabama product can compile a DROY-worthy stat line. Green Bay's Morgan Burnett led all safeties with 130 tackles last season. Collins probably will not touch that number, but he should get closer than any other rookie defensive back.
With Fowler unfortunately out of commission for 2015, Williams and Beasley are the two highest defensive draft picks remaining. They're also the clear early favorites for this award, both because of talent and situation.
Beasley (21.5 tackles for loss, 12.0 sacks last season) immediately upon his selection became Atlanta's go-to edge rusher. The Falcons will do whatever they can to turn Beasley loose against the pass. Williams will have far less of a focus on him, with Sheldon Richardson and Muhammed Wilkerson (assuming the latter is not traded) occupying blockers. He's plenty capable of taking advantage in one-on-one spots.