The Top NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Candidates

By Patrick Hayes   December 27, 2020 

The Top NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Candidates

The Washington defense is third in the NFC in points allowed, a big reason they’re currently leading the NFC East despite a sub-.500 record and often pedestrian play from the offense. And a big part of the reason that defense is so dynamic is the play of defensive end Chase Young, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

Young’s stats aren’t eye-popping – his 5.5 sacks are 34th in the league. But he gets consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and he creates havoc on the field. He is tied for sixth in the league with three forced fumbles, and he should quickly join the conversation with some of the league’s elite pass rushers.

He’d also be the third defensive end to win Defensive Rookie of the Year in the last five years, after Joey Bosa won it in 2016 and Nick Bosa won it last season. But there are several other impact players who have a shot at this year’s award, at positions all over the field.

Linebacker Patrick Queen of the Baltimore Ravens and safety Jeremy Chinn of the Carolina Panthers, are strong contenders. Both are seemingly all over the field for their respective teams.

Chinn has won Defensive Rookie of the Month for two consecutive months. Earlier this month, he recovered and returned two straight fumbles for touchdowns against the Minnesota Vikings. The second-round pick has 95 tackles, a sack, and an interception this season to go with his two touchdowns. 

Jeremy Chinn #21 of the Carolina Panthers celebrates with teammates after recovering a fumble by Kirk Cousins #8 of the Minnesota Vikings (not pictured) and returning it for a touchdown during the third quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium on November 29, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Queen, a first-round pick, has fit in seamlessly on one of the NFL’s best defensive teams. He’s played in 12 games, has 84 tackles, and has two sacks, an interception, and two forced fumbles.

Two other rookie linebackers are in the discussion. Isaiah Simmons, the eighth overall pick in the draft, has had a strong season for the Arizona Cardinals (and would give the team two straight Rookie of the Year winners, one on each side of the ball). 

Kenneth Murray Jr. of the Chargers, who has 88 tackles, could give the LA Chargers rookies of the year on both sides of the ball if Justin Herbert wins the offensive award.

Two cover cornerbacks are also in the discussion – an impressive feat considering how difficult the position is to learn, and the fact that many first-year cornerbacks struggle in their rookie season. Jeff Okudah, for example, was selected third overall in the draft but has struggled in his rookie season and been one of the worst players at his position in coverage. There’s a good chance he’ll bounce back and improve significantly next season, but the point is, struggling at the position as a rookie is pretty common. 

Jaylon Johnson, a second-round pick by the Chicago Bears, doesn’t have any interceptions, but he’s been exceptional in coverage this season. He has 15 passes defensed, which is tied for fourth in the league, and has been a big part of a Bears defense that is one of the best in the league.

Antoine Winfield Jr., a second-round pick by Tampa Bay, has been a big part of the Bucs’ defense this season. Winfield, the son of former All-Pro cornerback Antoine Winfield, has 54 tackles, a forced fumble, an interception, and four passes defensed. 

Of the last eighteen Defensive Rookies of the Year, sixteen have been first round picks, so Chinn, Johnson, or Winfield Jr. winning would be mild upsets over their first-round brethren. 

Johnson or Winfield winning would also be upsets because so few cornerbacks have won the award in recent years. Since 2005, only Marshon Lattimore in 2017 and Marcus Peters have won the award from that position. And since 2000, only three cornerbacks have won the award.

Inside linebacker Patrick Queen #48 of the Baltimore Ravens celebrates with teammate linebacker Malik Harrison #40 after returning a fumble for a fourth quarter touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals at M&T Bank Stadium on October 11, 2020 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

The most common position to win Defensive Rookie of the Year bodes well for Queen, though. Linebackers have won Defensive Rookie of the Year 12 times in the last 20 years, including a run of five straight years from 2005 to 2009.

Four defensive linemen have won the award in the last 20 years. Along with the Bosa brothers, Ndamukong Suh won in 2010 and Aaron Donald won in 2014.

Young currently has the best odds of winning the award. Here are the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year winners from the last 10 years:

  • 2010, Ndamukong Suh, Detroit Lions, Defensive tackle
  • 2011, Aldon Smith, San Francisco 49ers, Outside linebacker
  • 2012, Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers, Linebacker
  • 2013, Kiko Alonso, Buffalo Bills, Linebacker
  • 2014, Aaron Donald, St. Louis Rams, Defensive tackle
  • 2015, Marcus Peters, Kansas City Chiefs, Cornerback
  • 2016, Joey Bosa, San Diego Chargers, Defensive end
  • 2017, Marshon Lattimore, New Orleans Saints, Cornerback
  • 2018, Darius Leonard, Indianapolis Colts, Linebacker
  • 2019, Nick Bosa, San Francisco 49ers, Defensive end

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