2018 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year picture: Top 12 candidates, with a safety at the top
Four linebackers make the list while the Chargers boast the top selection
Marshon Lattimore intercepted his way to last season's Defensive Rookie of the Year award, which marked the first time since 1967 that the same team had both the Offensive Rookie of the Year and the DROY.
So, who will it be this season? Let's rank the likely Defensive Rookie of the Year candidates in 2018.
12. Minkah Fitzpatrick, CB, Dolphins
Fitzpatrick can do a whole heck of a lot on a football field. He can cover tight ends, blitz effectively, run with wideouts down the field and make his presence felt against the run. While the former Alabama star has top-flight speed, he's not a magnificent overall athlete and has a handful of established veterans in front of him in Miami's secondary -- Xavien Howard, Reshad Jones and T.J. McDonald. One would think Cordrea Tankersley will have a leg up on the No. 2 cornerback spot to begin the season, and after his vast experienced in the slot in college, it'd probably make sense for Fitzpatrick to man that position in the pros. He should have a fine debut season in the NFL, because he's long, fast, and comes into the league very well coached. I just don't know if Fitzpatrick will accumulate enough big plays to garner serious Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
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11. Rasheem Green, DL, Seahawks
Sleeper alert. Yes, I love Green's fit with the Seahawks, a team in dire need of pass-rushing impact on its defensive line. Green is in the mold of Michael Bennett, a front player with end size who can thrive as a tackle in nickel formations and devour guards with his length, quickness, and hand use. Green needs more sand in his pants against the run. But in obvious passing scenarios, he's a refined defender, often utilizing a rapid swim move to get skinny through the line of scrimmage. Green had 12.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks in 11 games last season at USC. With Bennett -- and Cliff Avril -- gone, he's in a prime position to receive a heavy workload as a rookie and produce at a relatively high rate next to Frank Clark.
10. Lorenzo Carter, LB, Giants
Carter's going to be a versatile play-maker in the NFL, and he has the spring-loaded athleticism needed to do everything at his outside linebacker position in New York. For example, last season at Georgia, the tall, fast defender racked up 62 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and forced three fumbles. He very well could have a similar impact on the Giants as a rookie, and don't be surprised if he creates some big plays in coverage too. He can look somewhat awkward when changing directions as he drops in zone, but at nearly 6-foot-5 with 34-inch arms and 4.50 speed, Carter should get his hands on some passes in man coverage as a SAM linebacker, and he should start at that position right away.
9. Rashaan Evans, LB, Titans
Evans is your classic Alabama linebacker, even if he's more athletically capable than some of his counterparts from Nick Saban's defense. Despite those athletic gifts, Evans' diagnosing skills aren't as quick as they need to be, but in front of a decent defensive interior anchored by Jurrell Casey and free-agent acquisition Bennie Logan, Evans is in line to fill up the stat sheet with a boatload of tackles in his first NFL season. I'm just not sure he'll make enough of an impact in coverage to be in DROY contention at season's end. Evans should be a fine replacement for Avery Williamson as Tennessee's run-stopping specialist.
8. Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, EDGE, Rams
For reasons unbeknownst to me, Okoronkwo wasn't picked until the fifth round in the 2018 draft after an illustrious career at Oklahoma in which he repeatedly displayed the ability to win with speed, bend, and hand use on the edge. (Side note: he has slightly longer arms than the guy at No. 7 on this list.) Okoronkwo landed in an exquisite situation with Wade Phillips in Los Angeles on a team with an underrated need on the outside of its defensive front. With Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh attracting a huge amount of attention on the inside, Okoronkwo will be freed up on the edge and is sturdy against the run, so he should see the field often as as rookie. He'll generate consistent pressure for the Rams in his debut campaign. Somewhere in the 7-9 sack range wouldn't shock me.
7. Marcus Davenport, EDGE, Saints
Davenport may have somewhat of a steep learning curve, not because he's unrefined, but more due to the time it'll take to acclimate to the speed and strength of NFL offensive tackles compared to what he faced in college. The former UTSA star tossed blockers around like rag dolls and often converted speed to immense power. Beyond that, he showcased decent bend and powerful, active hands to fend off any tackles who did match his quickness to the pass-rushing apex. Davenport's a high-motor guy too. There's so much like to like about his game ... and he'll be the bookend to Cam Jordan, an established producer who had a Defensive Player of the Year type of season in 2017.
6. Jaire Alexander, CB, Packers
As an athlete, Alexander is almost identical to ... Odell Beckham Jr., and the former Louisville cornerback ran a faster 40 than the Giants' superstar wideout at the combine. In Mike Pettine's man-heavy, blitz-predicated scheme, Alexander's physical gifts and tenacity will be on full display as a rookie. While they aren't loaded with household names up front beyond Clay Matthews, the Packers have quietly constructed an above-average pass-rush with names like Mike Daniels, Kenny Clark and Nick Perry. Also, Muhammad Wilkerson was added in free agency. Green Bay's first-round pick should get his hands on plenty of passes but will have games in which he shuts down opposing wideouts too.
5. Maurice Hurst, DT, Raiders
Hurst was a top-10 talent who fell in the draft due to concerns over his heart ailment. On the field, the former Michigan stud wins with Geno Atkins-esque burst off the snap and understands how to utilize his hands to shed blockers and win the leverage battle. With Khalil Mack, and to a lesser degree Bruce Irvin, on the edge, Hurst should be relatively free inside. In Jon Gruden's defense, he'll assume a pure one-gap role, perfect to accentuate his strengths. Hurst should make a sizable impact against the run and create repeated pressure on quarterbacks en route to legit DROY consideration in 2018.
4. Bradley Chubb, EDGE, Broncos
Von Miller has needed a productive edge-rushing teammate since DeMarcus Ware retired, and the Broncos got him one in Chubb, the No. 1 prospect on my Big Board for the 2018 draft. Chubb and Miller have different styles. Chubb wins with an impressive variety of speed-to-power reps and fundamentally sound hand work, while Miller is an electric speed rusher with ridiculous bend and powerful hands. Chubb's size -- 6-4 and 269 pounds -- and sturdiness on the outside should keep him on the field on run downs, and he'll be able to pin his ears back as the "secondary rusher" in passing situations. Chubb should load the entire stat sheet as a rookie.
3. Roquan Smith, LB, Bears
Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has coached the following linebackers in his illustrious career: Sam Mills, Ray Lewis, NaVorro Bowman, and Patrick Willis. Smith has natural talent and polished skill in the same territory as those four, and he'll make an immediate impact on Chicago's defense. He has 4.51 speed, lightning-quick play-deciphering ability and, at times, covers like a safety. The presence of Danny Trevathan, who led Chicago with 89 tackles in 2017, is the only thing that should hold back Smith's overall production.
2. Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Bills
Edmunds is a freak athlete at 6-4 and 253 pounds with blazing speed and outstanding twitchiness to explode toward the football. In Sean McDermott's defense, he'll be in a true play-maker role, and the Bills added some beef to their defensive line this offseason with the block-eating Star Lotulelei, and run-stopping specialist Harrison Phillips in the third round of the 2018 draft, two players who, along with Kyle Williams, will allow Edmunds to roam relatively freely at the second level. Last year as Buffalo's middle linebacker, Preston Brown tied for the NFL lead in tackles with 144. Expect Edmunds, a former Virginia Tech star, to accumulate somewhere near that amount of tackles, and his length and athleticism should lead to some game-altering plays in coverage. He'll be on the DROY radar all season.
1. Derwin James, S, Chargers
Last year, Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram cemented themselves as the best outside pass-rushing duo in the AFC, if not the entire NFL. In the secondary, James will join a talented group headlined by cornerback Casey Hayward. Having Bosa and Ingram relentlessly pressuring quarterbacks is a safety's dream, and Los Angeles' first-round pick is . James will rack up a plethora of tackles as a quasi linebacker and will be in line to make an assortment of plays on the football with opposing signal-callers often making hurried decisions.
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