When Ndamukong Suh heard people call him the best player available in the draft, he didn’t gloat. He took it as a challenge.
"It was something to live up to," Suh said.
Did he ever.
The Detroit Lions tackle won The Associated Press 2010 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award on Friday.
The only rookie on the All-Pro team, Suh validated Detroit selecting him second overall in last April’s draft. He earned 48 votes from a nationwide panel of media members who regularly cover the league. New England cornerback Devin McCourty drew the other two votes.
Detroit won its final four games to finish 6-10, triple the number of victories the Lions managed in the previous two seasons combined. Suh was a major reason with 10 sacks, the most at the position, veteran or rookie, and 66 tackles.
"We didn’t learn how to finish games and overcome mistakes until the end of the year," Suh said. "But we figured it out and I think our four-game winning streak is definitely something for us to build on going into next season."
Suh is the first Lion to grab the honor since Al Baker in 1978. He’s also the first non-linebacker to win since Julius Peppers in 2002.
Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham has been coaching for four decades, nearly three of them in the NFL. When he’s impressed by a player, it carries some impact – sort of like when Suh bull-rushes offensive linemen and knocks them clear to the ground.
"There are so many plays that he’s made that I just marvel at," Cunningham said. "We were talking about somebody else in the league as a defensive tackle and as we’re watching tape … I stopped the tape. I said, ‘Now, how many guys could do this?’
"He cleaned the right guard’s clock on a pass rush."
Suh cleaned so many clocks that he earned a starting berth in the Pro Bowl, which he skipped after undergoing shoulder surgery. Considering what he achieved despite the injury, imagine what might be ahead for the only defensive player to win the AP’s College Player of the Year award.
"I was fortunate to be able to grasp my role in our scheme and to flourish in it," Suh said. "I’m just going to keep working hard to improve because I’ll never be satisfied."
McCourty, selected 27th overall in April, started from the beginning of the season and was a playmaker all year for the Patriots, who went 14-2 with a rebuilt defense. McCourty had seven interceptions while often handling the opposition’s top receiver.
Sam Bradford, taken first overall last spring, won the top offensive rookie honor Friday. It’s the first time since 1981 that the top two picks won the rookie awards. New Orleans running back George Rogers and New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor did it back then.