Colts linebacker Darius Leonard rose from relative obscurity to win Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2018, making him the first non-first-round selection to take home the award since DeMeco Ryans in 2006.
Counting Leonard, 15 of the last 17 DROYs have been Round 1 picks, and this year my choice for the award is one of the odds-on favorites.
Let's dive into my top 10 Defensive Rookie of the Year candidates.
10. Deandre Baker, CB, Giants
Baker is the Giants' 2019 first-round pick no one's really talking about, and that needs to change. He had a stellar, incredibly consistent career at Georgia, not having allowed a touchdown in his final two seasons for the Bulldogs while intercepting seven passes and defending 23 in his final three years.
Some cornerbacks enter the NFL with a "zone" or "man-to-man" specialty. Not Baker. He's coverage diverse. Baker had the best combination of man and zone skills of any cornerback I watched in the 2019 class, although he's not the fastest (4.52) nor the biggest (5-foot-11, 193).
Importantly, too, he has excellent awareness when the ball is arriving and knows how to aggressively disrupt at the catch point. His click-and-close speed is more impressive than how fast he moves in a straight line. In defensive coordinator James Bettcher's scheme, he's bound to play more man than zone, which will showcase his loose hips, foot quickness, and natural mirroring capabilities. New York's pass rush is below average, which won't exactly help the young secondary members like Baker and classmate Julian Love. But after a steady career in the SEC, the G-Men's third first-round selection should have a strong rookie campaign.
9. Devin White, LB, Buccaneers
White's a modern-day linebacker: Incredible 4.42 speed at over 230 pounds, above-average coverage skills, and the ability to lay the lumber on tackles made outside the numbers. He was the first linebacker off the board at No. 5 overall. You're probably wondering why he's so far down my list.
The presence of Ndamukong Suh -- and massive 2018 first-round selection Vita Vea -- will help to keep White relatively clean from his second-level position. But the problem I envision for him as a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate revolves around the presence of another established veteran teammate, Lavonte David. All David has done is register 100-plus tackles in six of his seven NFL seasons with an impressive 38 career pass breakups, 21.5 sacks, and ridiculous 106 tackles for loss. As a 28-year-old in 2018, David had 120 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 13 tackles for loss, and he defended a pair of passes. Essentially, he's shown zero signs of slowing down as he nears 30.
The Buccaneers defense isn't exactly the 2002-2003 group that won the Super Bowl. So there will be many opportunities to make plays. But until he slows down, David is the play-making linebacker the roster who'll load the stat sheet the most. Together, White and David very well could quickly become an elite linebacker duo, but I can't see White doing enough stat-wise to garner serious Defensive Rookie of the Year consideration.
8. Devin Bush, LB, Steelers
Another linebacker with wide receiver speed and a thumping mentality. Bush isn't quite as comfortable nor effective turning and running in coverage -- 11 pass breakups and one pick in 25 games the past two years at Michigan -- as White, but with elite athleticism for the position, he's certainly capable of being a quality coverage 'backer at some point in his career.
Similar to White, Bush has a tendency to meet blockers with an authoritative pop instead of using his hands efficiently to beat them en route to the ball carrier. His 4.43 speed will lead to plenty of tackles in 2018, and he's essentially the sole, rangy play-maker at the second level of a Steelers defense that desperately needed a dynamic mover of his caliber. Vince Williams is respectable between the tackles, but actually safety Sean Davis led Pittsburgh with 80 tackles -- a relatively low total for a team leader -- last season.
Bush is an awesome blitzer, too, and obviously a handful of sacks would go a long way toward the DROY award. But I'm a bit concerned about his rawness in coverage, which makes me think there won't be enough plays made when the opposition passes for him to win the award.
7. Josh Allen, EDGE, Jaguars
Allen went back to Kentucky for his senior year, packed on some weight, then had 88 tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss, and 17 sacks on one of the best teams in school history. He possesses rare speed around the edge for someone his size and is decently bendy. His motor runs high, too, and he leans on a rather nice swipe move to beat blockers. But his pass-rush move repertoire isn't much more developed than that, and he's not as powerful in true one-on-one situations against tackles who can beat him to the pass-rushing apex or when teams run at him. His situation is in Jacksonville is pretty good though.
The Jaguars defensive line isn't as stout as it was when it was the driving force behind the team advancing to the AFC title game two years ago, but with Calais Campbell, Marcell Dareus, 2018 first-rounder Taven Bryan and Yannick Ngakoue on the edge, it's still a formidable group that should draw serious offensive-line attention from many spots up front. That's tremendous news for Allen, who won't have to be the team's pass-rushing savior instantly.
Dante Fowler was traded after seven games last year, but by season's end, Jacksonville finished third in defensive pressure rate (37.7%), so while the Jaguars technically filled a need by picking Allen at No. 7 overall, they really added to team strength by acquiring his pass-rushing services. Teams will scheme to stop Ngakoue on the other side, and Allen is fast and bendy enough to rack up a fair amount of pressures and sacks as a rookie to sneak in the DROY race.
6. Jerry Tillery, DT, Chargers
Tillery's a unique defensive line prospect, a nearly 6-foot-7, 295-pound interior lineman who just so happens to be a tremendous athlete for the position -- when most defensive tackles his size are relatively stiff -- and plays with a constantly humming motor and an advanced pass-rushing arsenal. His height doesn't hurt him much on the inside because of he knows how to use his long, 34 1/4-inch arms to control blockers so they can't out-leverage him.
Tillery's Defensive Rookie of the Year candidacy was difficult to peg because his situation in Los Angeles kind of represents a conundrum. Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram are going to get theirs. And there's basically only so much quarterback disrupting that can occur on that defense.
However, offensive coordinators are going to spend the majority of their prep time game-planning to stop Bosa and Ingram on the outside. There'll likely be much less attention on the inside of Los Angeles' defensive line, where Tillery will prominently align. And there's not another established, penetrating three-technique on the Chargers' roster ahead of him to start his career Sure, Damion Square has become a reliable depth piece and Justin Jones was picked in the third round last year, but they aren't scaring offensive coordinators this season. Brandon Mebane has the nose tackle spot locked down, but he's a space eater. Tillery should rack up tackles on inside runs and generate a ton of pressure with Bosa and Ingram flying around the edges.
5. Montez Sweat, EDGE, Redskins
While we'll never know for sure, but I firmly believe if the heart condition wasn't reported for Sweat during the pre-draft process, he would've been picked inside the top 15. Instead, the Mississippi State alum landed at No. 26 overall to Washington. For the Bulldogs over two seasons, Sweat accumulated a massive 30 tackles for loss and 22.5 sacks across 26 games.
In terms of size, length, and explosion, Sweat is more impressive than Jadeveon Clowney. Seriously. A tad taller, six-pounds lighter, longer arms, a much faster 40 time, a slightly lower vertical, a farther broad jump, better three cone and short shuttle. That's the type of specimen NFL offensive linemen will battle when Sweat flies around the corner for the Redskins.
He probably doesn't play to the flexibility he showed at the combine -- a solid 7.00 in the three cone -- but I wouldn't say Sweat is stiff around the edge. And he's on a team with an established -- albeit ridiculously underrated -- edge defender in Ryan Kerrigan. He's averaged just over 10 sacks per season in his eight-year career and has amassed 108 tackles for loss and 25 forced fumbles while batting down 23 passes. After a 13-sack year in 2018, the soon-to-be 31-year-old Kerrigan remains the top problem for opposing offensive coordinators to limit while facing the Redskins.
Beyond Kerrigan, Washington has a nasty corps of young defensive linemen, led by two former first-rounders from Alabama, Jonathan Allen and Da'Ron Payne. Sweat is in position to be the unquestioned No. 2 edge rusher opposite a consistent star on a front that has disruptive interior defensive line group to keep entire opposing offensive lines honest.
4. Juan Thornhill, S, Kansas City Chiefs
Why Thornhill wasn't picked until the last selection of Round 2, I'll never know. He checked all the boxes. Size (6-0, 205). Speed and athleticism. He ran 4.42 and had an outrageously freaky broad jump of 141 inches (99th percentile at the position) and a 44-inch vertical, which also placed in the 99th percentile. And the film checked out too. He flew all over the field on seemingly every other play.
As a junior, he had 63 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, four picks, and 12 pass breakups. As a senior, Thornhill was even more active in run support. He finished with 98 tackles, six picks, seven pass deflections, and 4.5 tackles for loss. There was an occasional missed tackle on film but significantly more impressive takedowns and noticeable range/ball skills from center field.
And now he's part of a perfectly complementary safety duo with strong safety/robber Tyrann Mathieu, who was signed by Kansas City in free agency. Thornhill will primarily play as the deep safety -- in single high looks -- and have more opportunities for interceptions on passes down the field. Because of his speed, acceleration, and ability as a tackler, he'll won't be kept away from the line of scrimmage on run plays. And the Chiefs need all the run support they can get. They finished last in Football Outsiders' run defensive DVOA in 2018. Opposing teams are likely to test their run defense early and often this upcoming season, meaning more tackle opportunities for Thornhill. Then again, Kansas City will likely be a part of many high-scoring affairs, which should lead to a lot of opposing passes.
Bosa is essentially a clone of his brother, and I'd even say Nick plays with more power. His pass-rushing moves are that of a five-year veteran. His hips and ankles are tremendously flexible, leading to awesome bend around the corner en route to the quarterback, and he knows how to defeat straight-up blocks in the run game.
The 49ers now have five former first-round picks up front -- Bosa, Dee Ford, DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, and Solomon Thomas -- and Ford and Buckner have emerged as legitimate stars as pass rushers. Ford's monstrous 2018 in Kansas City means he'll draw most of the attention in regards to the opposition's blocking scheme, and Buckner is super disruptive on the inside.
There could be a few too many cooks in the kitchen for Bosa to amass Defensive Rookie of the Year type production, but as my top prospect in the 2019 class, I trust he'll have a big enough season to get some votes for the award.
2. Quinnen Williams, DT, Jets
Williams went from deep depth at Alabama to No. 3 overall selection in the draft in one year. Nick Saban's Crimson Tide teams reload like no other. As a junior, Williams was stupidly disruptive on the inside thanks to array of heavy-handed pass-rushing moves and a quick first step, a combination that basically made him impossible to block.
He ran 4.83 at 6-3 and 303 pounds, which doesn't seem humanly possible and aligns with the burst he showed on film. On the Jets, next to Leonard Williams, Quinnen is in prime position to eat. Leonard, who himself was a polished defensive line prospect in 2015, had 11 tackles for loss and five sacks in 2018 is a steady producer. Henry Anderson, a similar tackle/end hybrid, knows how to use his hands and is powerful too.
Leonard Williams is an unheralded star who played 77.3% of the snaps last year. Quinnen should start next to him. Steve McLendon played 42% of the defensive plays in 2018. Anderson played 59.6%. Neither McLendon nor Anderson are as naturally talented as Quinnen. They don't have his pass-rush ability either. While Quinnen's relative lack of lateral mobility concerns me ever so slightly, I see him as a major DROY candidate in 2019.
After a busy offseason with a ton of free-agent signings, the Bills went into the draft with one need clearly more important than the others. Defensive tackle. More specifically, Buffalo needed a play-making three technique to replace the retired Kyle Williams. Not an easy task.
Then Oliver fell into the Bills' lap at No. 9 overall. At Houston, from the moment he set foot on a college football field, Oliver stood out. As a freshman, he had 22 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, six batted passes, and two forced fumbles. As a sophomore, he had 16.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, and two more forced fumbles while upping his tackle total from 65 to 73.
In Oliver's final year at Houston, he had 14.5 tackles for loss and just three sacks but took a noticeable step forward as a pass rusher, as he showcased better hand work to beat interior blockers on pass plays than he had in his first two seasons, when he mostly dominated as a run defender and won as a pass rusher due to his athleticism.
Oh yeah, his athleticism. At almost precisely the same size, Oliver had a nearly identical combine -- and pro day -- to Aaron Donald, and he looks as amazingly explosive and twitchy on film. His agility is unreal for a defensive tackle, and while his pass-rushing moves aren't as refined as Donald's were when he entered the league out of Pittsburgh in 2014, Oliver's hand work is ascending. He'll be part of a legitimate defensive tackle rotation in Buffalo but one that features three bigger nose tackle types in Star Lotulelei, Harrison Phillips, and Jordan Phillips.
Oliver will flourish attacking the outside shoulder of either guard on a good Bills defense in 2019 en route to winning the Defensive Rookie of the Year award.