Best bets for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year

Apr 27, 2023; Kansas City, MO, USA; Alabama linebacker Will Anderson Jr. with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell after being selected by the Houston Texans third overall in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft at Union Station. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 27, 2023; Kansas City, MO, USA; Alabama linebacker Will Anderson Jr. with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell after being selected by the Houston Texans third overall in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft at Union Station. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports /

The 2023 NFL Draft was all about the quarterbacks at the top, and that will carry over to the Offensive Rookie of the Year discussion, but the defensive depth throughout the class was a major talking point and will continue to be as these players begin their rookie campaigns. With the quarterbacks dominating Offensive Rookie of the Year, the Defensive Rookie of the Year battle is a little more wide open each season. It will be led by the talented defensive linemen and cornerbacks who found their way into the first-round, an important piece to competing for the award.

With NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, history is strict when it comes to who is really going to be able to contend. Maybe it’s because defensive rookies get less pop, so the brand names have a leg up on the competition. That’s backed by the previous 15 winners with 14 being first-round picks and one being a second-round pick (Shaquille Leonard, an off-ball linebacker). (There were no off-ball linebackers selected in the second-round of the 2023 NFL Draft.)

It’s even more stark when you consider that the average draft position of the award winners is 10th overall. Eight of the winners were top-10 picks, six were top-five picks, and five were top-three picks. A third of the time if there’s a defensive prospect selected in the first three picks they’re probably going to win Defensive Rookie of the Year, or at least be a legitimate contender.

Unlike with Offensive Rookie of the Year, there’s not a clear favorite position with Defensive Rookie of the Year winners. Edge rushers have the most wins, taking five home in the last 15 seasons, but off-ball linebackers have four, and cornerbacks and interior defensive linemen both have three.

Of those pass rushers, only Micah Parsons of the Dallas Cowboys was selected outside of the top-three (he was taken 12th). And with Parsons, he was an off-ball linebacker at Penn State and opted-out of his junior season. It’s fair to assume he would have been selected higher if he was used primarily as a pass rusher for the Nittany Lions. Basically, you aren’t winning this award as an edge rusher if you weren’t taken top-10, if not top-three.

Sack production is a big boost for an edge rusher, but it’s not everything. Both Nick Bosa and Chase Young won the award with under 10 sacks because of the way they impacted games. It’s also the one position less affected by missing games, Joey Bosa missed four and still won. Being a top-tier pick and applying pressure consistently when on the field can put you square in contention for this award; Detroit Lions second overall pick Aidan Hutchinson did just that and was the runner-up this past season.

Off-ball linebacker tends to be a position that the award is moving away from with only Leonard winning in the previous 10 seasons; another rule with them is all four were top-10 in the league in tackles as rookies (Leonard and Luke Kuechly both led the league).

The three interior defensive linemen to win the award (Ndamukong Suh, Sheldon Richardson, and Aaron Donald) were each taken top-14 and started double digit games. They also finished their rookie seasons with at least 12 TFLs. Richardson was the only one below 9 sacks (3.5) but had a whopping 78 tackles. Like off-ball linebacker, production is everything for an interior defensive lineman to win. It also helped Richardson that most of the defensive players taken above him were busts (Dion Jordan, Barkevious Mingo, Dee Milliner, DJ Hayden), Ezekiel Ansah was the lone consistent starter.

Finally, there’s the cornerbacks (safeties do not win this award, only two have won it since 1967, and none since 1990). All three cornerbacks who have won it since 2008 were taken in the top-18 (Sauce Gardner, Marshon Lattimore, and Marcus Peters). The thing all three have in common is ball production. They averaged 21.3 passes defensed as rookies with five interceptions. Without dominant ball production, the voters will struggle to give you this award over another rookie (Patrick Peterson, Jalen Ramsey, Denzel Ward).

Keeping all of that in mind, which of these premier prospects will garner enough national media attention to be named Defensive Rookie of the Year?

*All odds from FanDuel Sportsbook

The top-10 edge rushers for NFL DRoY?

Will Anderson, EDGE, Houston Texans (+340)

Smart money says that Will Anderson is going to win Defensive Rookie of the Year. Since 2008, there’s been 11 true edge rushers taken in the top-3, 36 percent of the time those players win the award. But recent history gives the odds an even better bump with three of the six edge rushers taken top-3 since 2016 winning the award. The three that didn’t win were four-time Pro Bowler Myles Garrett, last seasons Defensive Rookie of the Year runner-up Aidan Hutchinson, and last years No. 1 pick Travon Walker

No edge rusher taken in the top-3 over the last seven drafts has been a bust. That bodes well for Houston Texans fans — who might be questioning the price GM Nick Caserio had to pay to jump back up for Anderson — and for those looking for a safe bet for Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Something else that helps Anderson’s case is the man taking over as head coach in Houston, DeMeco Ryans. Ryans is known for getting pass rush production out of his defensive linemen; he was on staff when Nick Bosa won Defensive Rookie of the Year and was defensive coordinator this past season when he won Defensive Player of the Year. So, for as bad as the Texans roster is, Ryans and defensive coordinator Matt Burke understand how to get run games and isolate their top pass rushers.

Anderson will also benefit from playing with veterans like Jerry Hughes, Maliek Collins, Jonathan Greenard, and Sheldon Rankins, as well as fellow rookie Dylan Horton on the defensive line. Overall it comes down to the fact that the former Alabama star has the explosive first step, length, ability to generate power, enough bend and wiggle, and a non-stop motor to consistently take advantage of his developed pass rush plan. It also helps that he has elite football character and can be a dominant run defender. A Khalil Mack-like rookie season could be coming.

Looking at the six edge rushers taken top-3 over the last seven NFL Draft classes, they’ve averaged 44 tackles, 11 TFLs, 8 sacks, and 17 QB hits as rookies. Those are impressive numbers, but given how much the Texans will be relying on Anderson, they’re realistic for him to hit. However, to lock up Defensive Rookie of the Year, he’ll likely need to surpass them because he has some stiff competition.

Tyree Wilson, EDGE, Las Vegas Raiders (+750)

Given the importance of having a star pass rusher, and the position naturally lending to freaky athletes with ridiculous frames gravitating towards it, edge rushers always go in the top-10. Over the last 15 NFL Draft classes, there’s been a whopping 23 true edge rushers taken in the top-10.

Tyree Wilson, the consensus second best edge rusher after Will Anderson, is joining a group with mixed results. While the edge rushers taken top-3 almost always hit, especially since 2016, play has been inconsistent from those taken outside of it. It ranges from elite (Khalil Mack, Aldon Smith at his peak) to flashy (Josh Allen, Bradley Chubb) to horrific (Vernon Gholston, Clelin Ferrell). Since 2008, none of the edge rushers taken inside the top-10, but outside the top-3 have won Defensive Rookie of the Year.

With that being said, Wilson is being dropped into a perfect situation for him to succeed. Maxx Crosby is coming on another Pro Bowl season and Chandler Jones has a history of bouncing back in a big way after subpar sack production. Wilson will benefit from offensive lines being hyper focussed on Crosby and Jones and it could help in his adjustment to the NFL game.

Another benefit for Wilson is that he’s going to a team led by head coach Josh McDaniels and GM Dave Ziegler, both New England Patriots disciples. In New England, the Patriots covet long and powerful pass rushers like Wilson because they have the ability to move around the defensive line and exploit mismatches. At Texas Tech, Wilson saw time at 3-tech and 4i, it’s likely defensive coordinator Patrick Graham (who coached under Bill Belichick for seven seasons) will move him up and down the line to put him in advantageous situations.

Unlike Anderson, Wilson is a little rougher around the edges. He doesn’t have a deep pass rush repertoire and needs to work on his plan. Right now, he’s got about two moves, but they work really well because he’s athletic, long, and strong. His go-to is using his first step to generate speed-to-power to walk offensive linemen back, his other is using a long arm move and working either a swim or chop off it. Wilson is a true power rusher, but it might take time for him to produce sacks, which will hurt his Defensive Rookie of the Year case.

Gauging what to expect out of him as a rookie, the 12 true edge rushers taken between picks No. 4 and 10 since 2008 have averaged 39 tackles, 8 TFLs, 6.5 sacks, and 12 QB hits as rookies. Those seem attainable for Wilson if he’s healthy, but he may need double digit sacks to beat out this strong defensive class led by Anderson.

The blue chip interior defensive lineman

Jalen Carter, IDL, Philadelphia Eagles (+600)

The most talented defensive prospects in the vast majority of NFL Draft classes tend to win Defensive Rookie of the Year, especially when they’re on the defensive line. Jalen Carter checks those boxes, but unlike Will Anderson, he won’t be relied upon nearly as much as a rookie.

The Philadelphia Eagles have the deepest defensive line rotation in the NFL, and despite losing Javon Hargrave in free agency, Carter won’t have the pressure to immediately start impacting games. It’s fair to assume Carter will be deployed a little more than former Georgia teammate and Eagles 2022 first-round pick Jordan Davis, however he’ll still be rotating at 3-tech with stalwart Fletcher Cox, up and comer Milton Williams, and free agent signee Kentavius Street.

Before suffering a high ankle sprain in Week 8 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Davis was averaging 22.5 snaps per game, so Carter will likely see between 25 and 35 snaps per game as a rookie. That should alleviate some of the concern over his motor/effort (which wasn’t actually something that showed up on tape much), if he’s fresh for the majority of the game then he’s going to eat some offensive linemen alive.

Carter is a rare interior defensive linemen in that he’s able to be a dominant pass rusher on top of his ability to blow up run plays. With his rare explosiveness off the line of scrimmage and even rarer fluidity and wiggle, Carter is able to supplement his athleticism with violent hands and pass rush plan to consistently wreak havoc. With the flexibility to maintain leverage and the power to hold the point, he’s also capable of relying on his strength to anchor down as a run defender while offering the movement skills to shoot gaps.

With lofty expectations for Carter, historically rookies at his position can be boom or bust. Since 2008, 14 interior defensive linemen have been selected in the top-10 of the NFL Draft. There’s been stars (Ndamukong Suh, Gerald McCoy), studs (DeForest Buckner, Quinnen Williams), and stinkers (Solomon Thomas, Tyson Jackson). The group has averaged 43 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, 3.5 sacks, and 10 QB hits, Carter pass rush upside should help him surpass that sack number if he sees enough playing time.

A complete package at 3-tech, with the ability to moonlight at nose tackle, 1T, 4i, and 5T, Carter should see consistent playing time as a rookie despite joining the deepest defensive line room in the league. Likely playing less than 50 percent of snaps each week, will Carter be able to do enough to win Defensive Rookie of the Year?

The top-18 cornerbacks for NFL DRoY?

Devon Witherspoon, CB, Seattle Seahawks (+1100)

It is not easy to win Defensive Rookie of the Year as a cornerback. This century only three cornerbacks have done it, but all three have come in the last eight seasons. Prior to Marcus Peters winning it in 2015, Charles Woodson was the last corner to win in 1998. With that being said, Devon Witherspoon has a real chance.

We saw what the media attention a dominant rookie corner can generate with Sauce Gardner in the Big Apple and was able to do it without eye-popping interception numbers. His ability to lock down receivers, make plenty of plays on the football, and talk trash with the best of them helped him beat a pass rusher that went top-3, that’s no easy feat. (Aidan Hutchinson even perplexingly had more interceptions than Gardner.)

The blueprint is there for Witherspoon. Heck, the corner lining up opposite him finished third in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting — Tariq Woolen led the league in interceptions as a rookie with six but managed just one first place vote — so we know the media will have its eyes on the Seahawks secondary.

There’s also something else that’s going to help Witherspoon’s case plenty… his playing style. The fifth overall pick out of Illinois is one of the feistiest, if not the feistiest, cornerback prospects in recent memory. He plays like a man 30 pounds heavier with the way he throws his body around to blow up receivers over the middle or take on running backs in the flats. Witherspoon should provide plenty of highlight hits as a rookie and could quickly become known as one of the best run defending cornerbacks in the league.

When it comes to coverage, he’s sticky as they come and can play outside or inside as a nickel; think Jaire Alexander. With aggressive press technique, phenomenal instincts, and the ball skills to locate in phase, Witherspoon should be all over receivers. He’s also scheme versatile looking just as good mirroring in press-man as he does reading quarterbacks in off-zone. He’s also a Hall of Fame level trash talker.

Joining a revamped Seahawks defense that will lean heavily on a secondary that returns Pro Bowlers Woolen and Quandre Diggs as well as a healthy Jamal Adams, Witherspoon will have sky high expectations in year one. But what should be realistically expected? The six  cornerbacks taken top-5 since 2008 have averaged 58 tackles, 11 passes defensed, and 2 interceptions.

It’s a strong group with only Jeff Okudah earning the bust label and Derek Stingley, who missed half the season as a rookie, being the only other corner taken top-5 to not make a Pro Bowl. But Gardner is the only one of the six to win Defensive Rookie of the Year despite Patrick Peterson, Jalen Ramsey, and Denzel Ward all having multiple Pro Bowls. So, history says Witherspoon should be a great player, but it will be a difficult road to the Defensive Rookie of the Year crown.

Christian Gonzalez, CB, New England Patriots (+1100)

It wasn’t a shock to see the NFL prefer Devon Witherspoon to Christian Gonzalez, but it was head scratching to see the Oregon corner fall all the way to the 17th pick… right into Bill Belichick’s lap. Gonzalez was one of the biggest steals of the first-round and should give the New England Patriots exactly what their secondary was lacking, a long and smooth No. 1 cornerback.

The odds are stacked against Gonzalez in the Defensive Rookie of the Year race, but twice there have been corners selected outside of the top-10 to win the award; Marcus Peters was the 18th pick in 2015 and Marshon Lattimore the 11th pick in 2017. He’s also joining a team that will have the national spotlight on it and has loaded up on defense.

Through free agency and the NFL Draft, Belichick has built a versatile, explosive, and long defense that just needed to find a star cornerback in a division with Stefon Diggs, Tyreek Hill, Jaylen Waddle, and Garrett Wilson; Gonzalez can fill that void. Matthew Judon, Josh Uche, and Co. will be applying plenty of pressure up front to make Gonzalez transition to the NFL game smoother.

He’s also joining a secondary that has a proven star in Kyle Dugger, one of the league’s best nickels in Jonathan Jones, a savvy veteran in Adrian Phillips, and rookie sensations Jack and Marcus Jones. While Gonzalez will be expected to step into that top corner role sooner rather than later, there won’t be a heap of pressure thrown on his shoulders from the jump.

Gonzalez’s ability to play press-man coverage is exactly what the Patriots need and given the receivers he’ll likely be dealing with, all eyes will be on him every week. While it’s not an easy task to step in as the top outside corner for a Belichick defense and playoff contender, Gonzalez movement ability and athleticism will surely help. With fluid hips, light feet, and smooth transition skills, Gonzalez is built to mirror receivers. While he’s not the most physical corner, his patient feet and confidence at the line of scrimmage make him a natural in press coverage and he’s become far more consistent finding the ball in phase this past season.

With his athletic upside, the team he’s joining, and the defense already in place around him, Gonzalez is in one of the best situations among rookie defenders. But will he really be able to compete for Defensive Rookie of the Year?

Well, the results of the 19 corners taken between picks 11 and 20 since 2008 have been mixed; high highs (Marlon Humphrey, Jaire Alexander) and low lows (Kevin Johnson, Vernon Hargreaves III). The group averaged 46 tackles, 9 passes defensed, and 2 interceptions. Gonzalez will need to own the top corner spot in New England and top those counting stats to capture the national media’s attention for Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Emmanuel Forbes, CB, Washington Commanders (+1700)

A bigger surprise than Christian Gonzalez falling to the 17th pick was Emmanuel Forbes being the second cornerback selected in the 2023 NFL Draft. It wasn’t that the Washington Commanders didn’t absolutely need a cornerback, it was that they passed on surer prospects for the all-time FBS leader in career interceptions returned for touchdowns.

The playmaking ability of Forbes is certainly tantalizing but it comes with the caveat that there’s never really been a cornerback built like him to find NFL success in the modern game. Forbes is literally the lightest cornerback (166 pounds) to be drafted in the last two decades, and it’s not like he’s short (6-1 with over 32-inch arms). He’s long and wiry, almost like the DeVonta Smith of cornerbacks; good thing he’ll be covering the Philadelphia Eagles star twice a year.

How Forbes performs is one of the most interesting rookie storylines because he’s such an outlier, yet was such a productive prospect in the SEC. He’s also joining a Commanders franchise that’s been stuck in purgatory for decades — hopefully that will be over soon with Dan Snyder selling the team — and its current leadership has a spotty track record of developing first-round talent, particularly on defense.

That’s not to say Washington is lacking talent on that side of the ball, quite the opposite, the franchise has invested there and Forbes is joining a team with plenty of defensive potential. With Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne, Montez Sweat, and a healthy Chase Young getting after it, there should be plenty of opportunity for Forbes to take advantage of tipped passes and poor decisions from quarterbacks.

His awareness in zone coverage, ball skills, and closing speed are a huge part of the reason he picked off 14 passes in just three years at Mississippi State. He’s a gambler, but he’s a damn good one that cashes in more often than he busts. That type of playing style could help his case for Defensive Rookie of the Year with interceptions being king for cornerbacks in the national media’s eyes (Marcus Peters picked off 8 passes the year he won DROY).

Concerns over his lack of reps in press, his struggles in man coverage against bigger bodies, his play strength, and how he’ll hold up in run support all come back to his lack of size and the unprecedented nature of a corner so long and light going so early in the NFL Draft. Since 2008, there haven’t been any cornerbacks selected in the first-round who were sub-180 pounds. The odds are stacked against Forbes, but his knack for pick sixes and his path to plenty of playing time will give him a chance to be a dark horse in the Defensive Rookie of the Year race.

The first-round linebacker for NFL DRoY?

Jack Campbell, LB, Detroit Lions (+1800)

It’s clear that the Dan Campbell and Brad Holmes led Detroit Lions march to the beat of their own drum and don’t really care what anybody else thinks about the way they’re building their franchise. The instant reaction to the Lions first-round of the 2023 NFL Draft was a lot of questioning their process, ultimately they came away with an interesting haul that should help them compete for the NFC North title.

Taking a running back in the top-12 is always risky business, but doubling down with another devalued position in the top-20 is ludicrous; especially when that player isn’t a prospect anybody saw going that early. For as chaotic as it was that the Lions took Jack Campbell 18th overall, he was still the best player at a position of need for Detroit.

Regardless of whether it made sense or not, Campbell is poised to produce as a rookie for a playoff contender and that alone will put him staunchly in Defensive Rookie of the Year positioning. On top of that, he’s a long and agile off-ball linebacker with the instincts and range to be a sideline-to-sideline run defender and the fluidity and awareness to stay on the field on passing downs and make plays in zone coverage.

The Lions have committed resources to their defense in both free agency and the NFL Draft since Dan Campbell and Holmes got to town and there was a glaring hole at linebacker that Jack Campbell has the tools to fill, even if he doesn’t necessarily have an All-Pro ceiling. He’s stepping into a defense with players up front (Aidan Hutchinson, Alim McNeill) and on the backend (Kerby Joseph, CJ Gardner-Johnson, Cam Sutton).

This is a perfect spot for Campbell to rack up tons of tackles, which is paramount for an off-ball linebacker to win Defensive Rookie of the Year. Since 2008, the 31 off-ball linebackers selected in the first-round have averaged 89 tackles, 5 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, and just under 1 interception during their rookie seasons. Campbell is going to have to nearly double all of those numbers to keep up with what’s expected out of the other Defensive Rookie of the Year contenders.