Jadeveon Clowney, Khalil Mack leading candidates for Defensive Rookie of Year
The past seven Defensive Rookie of the Year winners have all come from Round 1 of the NFL draft. And not since the Jets' Erik McMillan in 1988 has the player who claimed that award been selected outside of the first two rounds -- McMillan was a third-rounder, though his spot at pick 63 would fall in Round 2 under the current 32-team format.
Based on that information alone, the odds to capture the 2014 DROY honor lie heavily with the 18 defensive prospects, led by Jadeveon Clowney, taken in Round 1 of this year's draft.
A look at the likely candidates ...
• Jadeveon Clowney, DE/OLB, Texans: The guy to beat in this race, at least as things stand in mid-May. Clowney, to the chagrin of many, had just three sacks last season. The year prior, though, he rolled up 13, and chances are that -- mainly thanks to J.J. Watt's presence -- NFL offenses will not be able to pay the level of attention to him that college squads did last year.
How will the Texans employ Clowney, a 4-3 DE, in what has been a 3-4 scheme for the past several seasons? GM Rick Smith said Clowney likely will open as an outside linebacker. Count on defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel to draw up plenty of pass-rushing chances for the No. 1 pick.
• Khalil Mack, OLB, Raiders: Mack finished with eight sacks as a junior and 10.5 as a senior, so the Raiders will be counting on him to push near double-digits in that category. His versatility should help. In Mack, Lamarr Woodley and Justin Tuck, Oakland has a nice stable of pass rushers. Mack may be ticketed for a Von Miller-type role off the edge, with Woodley and Tuck at DE, but the ROY contender will not be limited to one role.
• Aaron Donald, DT, Rams: If Donald can be even a fraction as productive in St. Louis' front as he was at Pittsburgh, he will be in the mix for this award all year. Being flanked by DEs Robert Quinn and Chris Long certainly will not hurt. Their pass-rushing skills may open some gaps for Donald, who showed with 28.5 tackles-for-loss and 11.5 sacks last season that he has no trouble getting into the backfield.
• Ryan Shazier, LB, Steelers and C.J. Mosley, LB, Ravens: These two will be judged against each other for a while, both because they play for rival teams and because Pittsburgh opted for Shazier at No. 15 over Mosley (he went 17th to Baltimore.)
An inside linebacker spot in Pittsburgh's scheme inherently comes with boatloads of chances. Case in point: Lawrence Timmons finished last season with 126 tackles, three sacks, two interceptions and a forced fumble. Shazier should claim the starting spot next to Timmons, and while he may not match those numbers, anything close would put him in the ROY discussion.
• Justin Gilbert, CB, Browns: Cleveland set its sights on Gilbert in the top 10, and now will give him a shot to lock down its No. 2 cornerback job behind Joe Haden. Holding down that job for much of last season, Buster Skrine was thrown at 117 times.
Another obstacle for Gilbert: Just one cornerback (Charles Woodson, 1998) has taken home this award in the past two decades.
• Calvin Pryor, S, Jets: The safety position has received even less love than CB in Rookie of the Year voting. The last safety to win the honor? Chicago's Mark Carrier in 1990 -- two years before Pryor was born. The hard-hitting Pryor has a chance to contend mainly because of Rex Ryan's guidance. Ryan will turn Pryor loose from the defensive backfield, meaning lots of tackles, a few interceptions and a season's worth of highlight-reel hits may be in store.
• Kyle Fuller, CB, Bears and Darqueze Dennard, CB, Bengals: Two extremely talented cornerbacks with All-Pro potential. And yet, the question of where exactly they'll play early looms, driving down their ROY chances.
Fuller joins Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings at cornerback in Chicago. Eventually, he may replace one or the other (likely Tillman), but when will that happen? The Bears already have said they will not move Tillman to safety, and Fuller probably will not make that switch either. Dennard has Terence Newman (albeit a 35-year-old Newman) and Leon Hall (albeit a Hall coming back from an Achilles injury) to deal with, as well as Adam Jones.
Both Fuller and Dennard will be in their respective teams' gameplans from Week 1 on, it's just a matter of how frequently they will appear.
• Demarcus Lawrence, DE, Cowboys: George Selvie surprised with seven sacks at the left DE spot last year for Dallas. Should Lawrence supplant him in the starting lineup, that total will be the baseline for his expectations. Any defensive player with 10-plus sacks will draw ROY consideration.
• Anthony Barr, DE/OLB, Vikings and Dee Ford, OLB, Chiefs: Again, as with Fuller and Dennard, we're talking about high-upside prospects with some uncertainty surrounding their immediate roles. The Vikings have to get Barr on the field for passing downs, even if he struggles in run situations early. Will that be as a rotational DE or as a pass-rushing linebacker? Door No. 2 would keep Barr on the field for more snaps.
Ford, meanwhile, has a lot of ground to cover if he is to be more than a situational rusher. The Chiefs have the luxury of Tamba Hali and Justin Houston at OLB in their 3-4. Ford may push Hali out of town for the 2015 season, but Hali may limit Ford's chances now.
Our wild-card group presents at least two surefire starters in Clinton-Dix and Van Noy, plus a quartet of others who could push for significant time during camp.
The safety drought for DROY puts Clinton-Dix in an uphill battle, though his interception total may top that of Pryor. Green Bay's new defensive anchor may be behind Van Noy on the list of possibilities here, depending on how often the Lions allow Van Noy to get after the quarterback. He should nail down plenty of tackles behind Detroit's charging front.
Ealy's chances would increase greatly if either a) Greg Hardy's recent off-field misstep leads to a suspension; or b) he can work his way into the rotation at both DE and DT. Roby should see more action than Ealy, yet Aqib Talib stands out as the big-play possibility in Denver's CB group.
Keep an eye on both Smith and Barrow, a pair of interesting later-round prospects. Smith might be the missing Leo linebacker in Gus Bradley's scheme -- if so, he will be flying after quarterbacks all season. And Barrow could storm his way past Nate Irving as the Broncos' starting middle linebacker. Denver scored big with its sixth-round selection of Danny Trevethan back in 2012; keeping Barrow behind Irving will be difficult if the LSU product displays matching promise.
Other to Consider
Lamarcus Joyner, CB/S, Rams; Marcus Smith, OLB, Eagles; Jason Verrett, CB, Chargers; Jeremiah Attaochu, OLB, Chargers; Jimmie Ward, S, 49ers; Dominique Easley, DT, Patriots; Deone Bucannon, S, Cardinals; Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Falcons; Christian Kirksey, Browns
Perhaps Verrett has a claim to be bumped up a group or two. His ongoing recovery from offseason shoulder surgery and the fact that he may be limited to slot-corner duties keep him down here. That all may change if Verrett can claim a spot in San Diego's starting 11, because his talent clearly earned him his Round 1 selection.
Joyner presents an interesting case, because he at least should be on the field in nickel situations and may be a starting safety too, a la Tyrann Mathieu in Arizona. (Mathieu finished fourth in DROY voting last season despite missing multiple games; fellow safety Kenny Vaccaro came in third.) The strongest candidate from the remaining names has to be Marcus Smith. The Eagles took a gamble on him earlier than most people expected. But if Smith fits into the 3-4 attack the way the team hopes, double-digit sack production certainly is possible.