Top 10 candidates for 2021 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year
By Rob Rang
FOX Sports NFL Draft Analyst
One of the greatest illustrations as to how the NFL has changed over the past 20 years is the fact that after nine of the first ten AP Defensive Rookies of the Year this century played some version of linebacker, only three have earned the top spot since.
The latest LBs to win were the Indianapolis Colts’ Darius Leonard in 2018, since-retired Carolina Panthers star Luke Kuechly in 2012 and the Denver Broncos’ Von Miller (2011), who is listed as a linebacker but has become one of the most feared defenders in the league largely based on his pass rush.
Whether it be via the rush, like Miller or the past two winners — Chase Young (Washington) and Nick Bosa (San Francisco) — or in coverage, the primary goal on defense in today’s game is affecting the quarterback.
Will this year see another pass rusher or perhaps defensive back win the award, or will we see a return to glory for the linebacker position?
On Tuesday, we highlighted the projected top rookies on offense.
Here are my 10 best bets in descending order, ranked by their likelihood to be named the Associated Press as the 2021 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Like the aforementioned Peters, Joseph comes with more character red flags than questions about his ability on the field. Long-armed, loose-hipped and supremely confident, Joseph is a Pro Bowl-caliber talent who could not only prove a quality running mate to the Cowboys’ current law dog, Trevon Diggs, he might just overtake him by year’s end as the top cover corner in Dallas. Opponents are going to have to pass the ball often in an attempt to keep up with Dallas’ offense and that will mean opportunities. Further, with the exception of Dak Prescott, the quarterbacks in the NFC East are not exactly an intimidating bunch, meaning Joseph should have plenty of opportunities for the kind of splashy plays that can sway voters and help Dallas return to the playoffs.
Projected to start opposite Marshon Lattimore — the last cornerback to earn Defensive Rookie of the Year honors — Adebo is going to be targeted. That typically means trouble for a rookie cornerback. With all due respect to top 10 picks Jaycee Horn (Carolina) and Patrick Surtain II (Denver), it is Adebo who possesses the best ball skills of any cornerback in this class. With much better quarterback play in the NFC South than the NFC East, Adebo may not have the easy "pickings" of some of the others on this list, but he has the long arms, awareness and target on his back to suggest that his days of being a leader in passes broken up didn’t end in the Pac-12.
The Colts boast one of the league’s truly dominant interior defenders in DeForest Buckner, who registered 9.5 sacks a year ago along with 26 quarterback hits. With opponents focusing on Buckner, Paye has an exciting opportunity to see a lot of one-on-one blocks — which helped Denico Autry and Justin Houston combine for 15.5 sacks of their own for the Colts a year ago. With those veterans no longer on the roster, Paye — my top-rated pass rusher in this class — has a chance to pop as a rookie. Paye was moved all over the defensive line at Michigan but could prove a much more disruptive player in the NFL now that he will be allowed to focus on one role.
Like Joseph and Adebo above, Newsome has a chance to put up impressive numbers as a rookie for several reasons, not the least of which is his own talent. What's more, by potentially operating opposite a star in Denzel Ward, Newsome is going to get targeted — at least early on — by rival quarterbacks. That could be a recipe for disaster for opponents, as Newsome has terrific agility and awareness to shadow receivers and he will be playing behind one of the league’s better pass rushes. Further, the Browns are among this year’s offseason darlings. If Cleveland does, in fact, emerge this season as a legitimate Super Bowl contender, Newsome will have plenty of eyes on him to help generate the buzz needed to win post-season accolades.
6. Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah, OLB, Cleveland Browns
While his new teammate, Newsome, may have more interception opportunities, the AFC North remains a division that believes in running the football, which could put Owusu-Koromoah in position to post similar numbers as the last linebacker to be named Defensive Rookie of the Year, Indianapolis’ Leonard. Similarly built, aware and athletic as the Colts’ star, JOK is going to prove that his falling to the second round was not a joke at all, and, in fact, a steal for Cleveland.
5. Jamin Davis, ILB, Washington Football Team
Few know linebacker play better than Washington’s Ron Rivera, who previous to his coaching career played 137 games at the position for the Chicago Bears over nine seasons. Rivera later played important roles in the drafting and/or development of Jeremiah Trotter (Philadelphia), Brian Urlacher (Chicago) and Kuechly (Carolina) and his grit helped turn a Washington team that was light on talent into the NFC East’s division champ last year. Davis is just scratching the surface of his potential, but his upside and fit in a division built around splashy running backs could lead to eye-popping numbers.
With the Dolphins moving on from both Kyle Van Noy and Shaq Lawson — two of their more productive edge rushers a year ago — adding another dynamic presence to complement breakout stars Emmanuel Ogbah (nine sacks) and Jerome Baker (seven) was a top offseason priority. But after a breakout season of his own for the nearby Hurricanes, Phillips could be the perfect storm. Graded by NFL scouts prior to the draft as this year’s top pure pass rusher, Phillips has the burst, bend and potential platform for an ascending AFC East power that could help the former No. 1 overall college recruit prove even better in the NFL than he ever was at "The U" or his initial college of choice, UCLA.
When talking about home-grown talent and playoff platforms, this heat-seeking missile at linebacker certainly stands out, as few landed in with better NFL fits. The recipe for defeating Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs is to keep the ball away from him — and that often means trying to run the football and bleed the clock. Bolton has the awareness, grit and open-field tackling skills to help erase opposing running games and he joins a Kansas City squad both needing help at linebacker and boasting the defensive line necessary to protect a relatively undersized talent at the position. Don’t be surprised if Bolton leads all first-year players in tackles.
After leading all first-year players in sacks the past two seasons, Washington’s Young (7.5) and San Francisco’s Bosa (nine) were runaway Defensive Rookies of the Year. Given his burst, length (34 ½" arms) and success in the SEC (14.0 sacks led Georgia the last two years), Ojulari should rank among the favorites by everyone this year to do the same. He ranks as my favorite edge rusher to continue the recent trend, however, due to the presence of a dominating duo of defensive tackles in Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence, who will all but guarantee one-on-one opportunities on the outside for Ojulari and the fact that the one-time first-round "lock" slipped to the second round due to medical and performance concerns. I don’t know that Ojulari needed extra motivation to excel as a rookie, but now he certainly has it — and that could translate into immediate success.
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1. Micah Parsons, ILB, Dallas Cowboys
Like his new teammate, Joseph (ranked 10th on this list), Parsons is a true gamble on greatness, especially considering he sat out last season. However, Parsons’ 2019 tape from Penn State was better than the 2020 tape for any defender this season. Further, with the Cowboys already boasting legitimate star power at linebacker in Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch (when healthy), Parsons has the supporting cast necessary to live up to the "star" on his helmet. The NFC East is full of stud running backs and tight ends. Parsons has the instincts, physicality and athleticism to mitigate all of them. If the Cowboys bounce back in 2021 as expected, Parsons will be a huge part of that resurrection and that should be more than enough to make him every bit the slam-dunk Defensive Rookie of the Year recent winners Young and Leonard were for their respective clubs.
One of the most recognized names in the industry, Rob Rang has been covering the NFL draft for over 20 years with his work found at FOX, Sports Illustrated, CBSSports.com, USA Today, Yahoo, NFL.com and NFLDraftScout.com, among others.