Tuesday November 8th, 2011

With three punt returns for TDs, including the game-winner against St. Louis Sunday, Patrick Peterson has vaulted into the Defensive Rookie of the Year race. (AP)

While Andy Dalton keeps closing the gap on Cam Newton in the race for Offensive Rookie of the Year, things are tightening up on the other side of the ball as well.

Von Miller may still be the leader in the clubhouse for Defensive Rookie of the Year, but he's not the only first-year player making a major impact.

With eight weeks left in the NFL's regular season, it's time to handicap the DROY contenders:

Von Miller, LB, Broncos: Miller was's unanimous preseason pick for this award, and he has done nothing to disappoint, even on a mediocre Broncos team.

The ex-Texas A&M star has 31 tackles and 6.5 sacks -- including at least a half-sack in six of eight Denver games. He's also forced two fumbles and been a solid player in pass coverage when he's not rushing the QB. Long story short, the Broncos have gotten everything out of Miller they hoped they would when they took him No. 2 in April.

Whether or not Denver would have been better suited taking a quarterback there is another issue.

Odds to win Defensive Rookie of the Year: 2-1

Aldon Smith, LB, 49ers: The Defensive Rookie of the Month for October, Smith has pulled himself almost neck and neck with Miller in the running for DROY. Smith was an absolute beast last month, recording all of his 6.5 sacks over a four-game span -- all 49ers wins -- while forcing a fumble, breaking up a pass and recording a safety on Detroit's Matthew Stafford.

Considering Smith didn't even play linebacker at Missouri (he was a defensive end), his performance has been pretty remarkable.

Holding Smith back in the race is what's happened outside of October. He had no tackles or sacks in the 49ers' first three games, then was shut out again Sunday against Washington. San Francisco's 7-1 record and general defensive domination could help his cause, but it might not be enough to overtake Miller.

Odds to win: 5-1

Patrick Peterson, CB, Cardinals: Peterson, if nothing else, looks well on his way to locking up a Pro Bowl berth ... as a return man. The No. 5 overall pick turned in his third punt-return TD Sunday against St. Louis, a dazzling 99-yarder to give Arizona an overtime victory.

Defensively, Peterson has made his mark, too. He has 35 tackles in eight games, to go along with rookie-best passes defensed (10) and interception (2) totals. He's had some rocky moments in coverage, but few defensive rookies have made the type of overall impact Peterson has.

Odds to win: 12-1

Marcell Dareus, DE, Buffalo: At the heart of the Bills' surprising resurgence this season has been an improved D-line, and the No. 3 overall pick has played a big role.

Somewhat amazingly, 2.5 of Dareus' 3.5 sacks came when he was shifted from his usual end spot to defensive tackle for Week 8 against the Redskins. Dareus has 24 tackles and a fumble recovery as well.

He'd have to close with an off-the-charts stretch run to really get in the race, but Buffalo has to be thrilled with what he's done.

Odds to win: 25-1

Ryan Kerrigan, LB, Washington: Despite the black hole of mediocrity that is once again sucking the Redskins down, Kerrigan has developed quickly into a playmaker on Washington's defense.

His biggest moment of the season came in Week 1, when he picked off an Eli Manning pass and took it to the house as part of a 28-14 Redskins win over the Giants. Since then, Kerrigan has added three sacks, two more pass break-ups and two forced fumbles, along with 35 total tackles -- third among rookies, behind Mason Foster's 41 and Jacquian Williams' 40.

Kerrigan's been a bright spot during another dark Redskins season.

Odds to win: 50-1 • Honorable mentions: Mason Foster, LB, Buccaneers; Akeem Ayers, LB, Titans; Brooks Reed, LB, Titans; Chris Culliver, DB, 49ers

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