Ranking the 2020 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year candidates: Sleeper prospect edges Chase Young for No. 1
Who will stand out as the best rookie defensive player in 2020? Let's take a look
After Colts linebacker Darius Leonard rose from relative obscurity to win Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2018, San Francisco 49ers edge rusher Nick Bosa went from No. 2 overall selection to DROY last season in the NFL. Here are some DROY trends: 16 of the last 18 DROYs have been Round 1 picks, and recent history tells us in picking a DROY, be sure to select a player on a team you expect to have a high-caliber defensive unit. In the past six years, the Defensive Rookie of the Year came from a top 10 team in Football Outsiders' defensive DVOA. In 2013, Sheldon Richardson won the award when the Jets finished 13th. Luke Kuechly was the DROY in 2012, and the Panthers came in 11th.
Next to each player is his DROY odds, set by William Hill Sports Book. Although Chase Young was the first defensive player selected in the 2020 NFL Draft, we feel another first-round pick has a better chance to bring home the honor, thus making him the best value play on the board.
Without further ado, let's dive into that and the rest of my top 10 Defensive Rookie of the Year candidates.
10. Jaylon Johnson, CB, Bears (+3300)
Johnson was my No. 51 prospect overall in this class and it wasn't easy to find a clear flaw in his game. He has the size, physical nature in press, twitchiness, and natural ball skills to seemingly always be around the football. He had 15 pass breakups and six picks in his final two seasons at Utah, and his 2019 was much less overly grabby than the prior season.
He lands in a cozy situation in the Windy City opposite No. 1 cornerback Kyle Fuller on a defense with a ferocious pass rush ready to rebound from a somewhat down season. In 2018, en route to a 12-4 record and an NFC North crown, the Bears led the league with 36 turnovers forced. With Akiem Hicks missing 11 games due to injury and Leonard Floyd never emerging as a truly threatening complement to Khalil Mack, Chicago only forced 19 turnovers in 2019, the 11th-lowest figure in the NFL. But with Hicks returning and the dynamic and bendy Robert Quinn added in free agency, the Bears should easily crank up the pressure once again up front, leading to more golden opportunities for defensive backs to make plays, which plays into Johnson's no-hesitation, aggressive style.
Per Sports Info Solutions, the Bears only created pressure on 34% of opponents' dropbacks last year, the 21st-best rate in the league. In 2018 -- 37.3%, the fifth-highest percentage in football. While a long-shot, I like Johnson making some noise as a DROY candidate, as he mostly aligns with team's No. 2 wideouts on a defense with a superstar pass rusher in Khalil Mack and two horses next to him in Hicks and Quinn.
9. Michael Ojemudia, CB, Broncos (N/A)
The last time a third-round pick won DROY was 1988, so I'm going out on a limb historically. But hear me out. Ojemudia was an underrated, squeaky clean off-coverage/zone prospect. His instincts are fantastic, he has serious length -- 6-foot-1 and 32 1/4-inch arms -- and he was productive in his last two years at Iowa with 15 pass breakups and six interceptions.
Most "zone" cornerbacks get a non-athletic label, yet Ojemudia ran 4.45 with a 36-inch vertical and a lightning-quick 6.87 three cone at the combine. He really checks all the boxes.
And Ojemudia joins a team that traded for a No. 1 cornerback this offseason -- A.J. Bouye -- so he won't be thrown to the No. 1 receiver fire instantly. Also, the Broncos return Bradley Chubb to their pass rush and acquired Jurrell Casey, one of the better veteran interior disruptors in the game. For a corner dedicated to reading route concepts and attacking, Ojemudia will be in a fantastic situation in Denver as a rookie. Sleeper DROY candidate.
8. Kyle Dugger, S/LB, Patriots (+4000)
Dugger was a top 40 prospect on my Big Board, a new-age second/third level defender with freakish explosion for the safety spot who flies across the field against the run and in coverage. And given Bill Belichick's adoration for legitimately versatile defenders, it's no surprise the Patriots picked Dugger early in Round 2.
I think Belichick's ready to play ground-game controlled offense and really lean on the defense -- again -- to win games in 2020. There are a myriad of ultra-reliable veteran safeties ahead of Dugger on New England's depth chart, Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung chief among them, but I wouldn't be shocked if Bill primarily uses Dugger as a linebacker to start, given the team's need for more range at that position.
Playing next to the hammering Dont'a Hightower would be super beneficial for Dugger because he's not especially adept at defeating blockers at the second level. I could see Dugger having a Chung-like stat sheet-stuffing rookie year with a handful of splash plays as a blitzer, against the run, and at the intermediate level in coverage. That'd get him some DROY consideration.
7. K'Lavon Chaisson, EDGE, Jaguars (+2500)
Chaisson is the exception to the "pick a DROY candidate who'll play on a good defense" idea because I think the Jaguars are at least a year away from fielding a strong defensive unit.
However, Chaisson was my No. 2 edge rusher on a top-20 prospect overall in the 2020 class because of his outstanding combination of burst, bend, speed-to-power, and pass-rushing moves as a 20-year-old prospect. Lots of 20s there. He wasn't extremely consistent as LSU in 2019. But he was coming off an ACL tear in his sophomore campaign and "only" weighed 254 pounds at 6-3. He could add another 10 to his frame and really be an intimidating presence across from Josh Allen. By the way, Chaisson did have 6.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss in 13 games. He produced.
Back to Allen, Jacksonville's 2019 first-round pick who quietly recorded 10.5 sacks last season. Offensive coordinators will scheme to stop him initially, which should leave Chaisson in a fair amount of advantageous, true one-on-one situations on the outside.
With low expectations, if the Jaguars surprise -- particularly on defense -- and Chaisson reaps the benefits of playing on the same defensive front as Allen, he could be a sneaky DROY candidate late in the season.
6. Antoine Winfield, S, Buccaneers (+5000)
Winfield was seriously injured in multiple seasons at Minnesota, then, with a clean bill of health in 2019, intercepted seven passes for the Fighting P.J. Flecks while making 83 total tackles. He was all over the field. Every game.
Like his dad, Winfield is ultra-authoritative against the run and stellar instincts when it comes to reading route concepts allows him to super fast on the field. But he's not just a cerebral safety. He ran 4.45 with a 36-inch vertical at the combine.
Without much fanfare, the Buccaneers fielded a quality (elite?) defense under Todd Bowles last season, a unit that finished fifth in Football Outsiders' defensive DVOA, and they're basically returning everybody worthwhile.
Safety was the one clear need on defense, and Winfield walks into a starting role as a rookie. With Shaq Barrett leading a pass rush that created pressure on 37% of opponent's dropbacks in 2019, the ninth-best rate in the league, Winfield will have ample opportunity to makes plays on the football in coverage. And of course, a high interception total is often the driving force behind a defensive back winning DROY.
5. Javon Kinlaw, DT, 49ers (+2500)
Kinlaw was my top interior defensive line prospect in this class, yes, ahead of Derrick Brown. The main reason for that? Pass-rush capability. Kinlaw and Brown are almost identically sized, but Kinlaw was simply a much more effective pass rusher in college. Per PFF, in 2019, the South Carolina star had a 18.1% pass-rush win rate, second in the 2020 class among interior defensive linemen. Brown's was 13.7%.
From his overwhelming bull rush to the small but hyper-effective collection of pass-rushing moves in his arsenal, Kinlaw can win in a variety of ways from any position on the defensive line. And he steps in for the departed DeForest Buckner, another tall, versatile trench player who emerged as one of the better pass-rushing inside defensive linemen in football early in his career.
Playing alongside four other first-round picks on the defensive line, Kinlaw is in a fantastic position to eat as a rookie.
4. Jeffrey Okudah, CB, Lions (+2000)
Okudah was the premier press man cornerback in this class and easily my top cornerback overall. He smothered Big 10 receivers -- and did one heck of a job against the Clemson wideouts -- with a rare blend of size (6-1, 205 with 32 5/8-inch arms) and athleticism to stick to any type of receiver during his route.
Okudah ran a 4.48 40 time, had a 41-inch vertical jump and a 135-inch broad jump -- he's freaky explosive.
And he landed in an incredibly man-coverage happy defense in Detroit. According to SIS, the Lions used straight man coverage 54% of the time last season, the highest-rate in the league. If he shadows (big if), Okudah is in line to see Davante Adams, Allen Robinson, Adam Thielen, Michael Thomas, Julio Jones, and Mike Evans. Murderer's row right there.
But if he holds his own as a rookie, has high pass-breakup figures, and a few interceptions as a high pick, Okudah will be a major DROY contender.
3. Isaiah Simmons, S/LB, Cardinals (+800)
Simmons is the future. He's not as fluid in coverage as Derwin James but is much bigger with a larger tackling radius and isn't lost on pass plays. A top 5 prospect for me -- and just about everyone evaluating draft prospects this year -- Simmons is a menace against the run, will glide with any tight end down the field, and is a phenomenal, finishing blitzer. He's the ultimate quarterback spy too.
His extraordinary versatility will put him in a position to make different types of plays throughout the season. One week, the game plan could call for him to primarily be a slot defender. The next week, a between-the-tackles inside linebacker. The next, he could rush the passer 20 times. Then, he could range from the deep middle as a free safety.
At times, his twitchiness will be stretched to the limit. But his instincts and linear speed/range will drop jaws often in 2020.
2. Chase Young, EDGE, Redskins (+350)
Young was an elite prospect any way you looked at him. His production was through the roof in his final two seasons at Ohio State. Registering 181 pressures on 790 pass-rush snaps (per PFF) is absurd, especially in a Power 5 conference. And doing it at 6-4 and 265 pounds with a plethora of ways to the quarterback made him the consensus top defender in this class. First step. Speed around the corner. Power through the tackle. Array of pass-rushing counters. He's incredibly advanced.
And Young joins a defensive line featuring four other first-round picks on it. While the Redskins defense probably won't be outstanding, Young will generate pressure, get sacks, and find himself in the DROY conversation at season's end.
1. Patrick Queen, LB, Ravens (+1100)
Queen's my DROY pick because of the perfect marriage between his talent and situation in Baltimore. Queen was actually an early second-round pick on my Big Board, but it's not as if I didn't like him as a prospect. He's ultra-twitchy, plays bigger than his size between the tackles when blockers get to the second level, and is smooth albeit not super productive in coverage.
And Queen is in a playmaking linebacker's dream environment behind a defensive line featuring Calais Campbell, Derek Wolfe, Brandon Williams, and Justin Madubuike. He'll likely be situated next to gigantic, downhill fellow rookie linebacker Malik Harrison too. My goodness. Queen will be able to roam free more than most linebackers in the league. And his short-area quickness will work wonders against backs in coverage.
Expect huge tackling numbers, and some splash plays in coverage and as a blitzer -- no team blitzed more than Baltimore in 2019 -- for Queen en route to winning Defensive Rookie of the Year.
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