Defensive Rookie of the Year
And the nominees are…
Derwin James, S, Los Angeles Chargers
105 tackles, 75 solo, 3.5 sacks, 3 interceptions, 13 passes defensed
If someone told me today that Derwin James would be a Hall of Famer, I could buy that. It’s been one year and I’ve never been one to anoint someone after a year of production and I’m not gonna start now, but man, Derwin James was good this year. He earned an All-Pro honor and was a certified ball hawk all year. I haven’t gotten to watch nearly as much of James’ tape as I would like, but in the Sunday night game against the Steelers, James was everywhere and was by far the best player on the field.
James is a lethal hit stick waiting to happen in the open field and regularly lines up in the box. A sure tackler and solid coverage man, James is an all-around nightmare. He personifies the definition of playmaker. He’s got incredible range, the acceleration to close a gap in a hurry and seems to be everywhere and anywhere. That versatility is a highly rated commodity in today’s NFL.
Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Dallas Cowboys
140 tackles, 102 solo, 2 interceptions, 7 passes defensed
Leighton Vander Esch is a large man. At 6’4″, 256 lbs, Vander Esch is a presence in the middle to say the least. Pro Football Focus loved his play all year and regularly had him rated as the league’s top defensive rookie. Vander Esch’s appearance is extra notable because the Dallas defense is no longer a torn bed sheet. It’s formidable now. Only a few years ago it was setting records as the worst defense of all-time. Now, DeMarcus Lawrence is a constant torturer on the edge, Byron Jones is a CB1 and Jaylon Smith and Vander Esch look to be one of the brightest young linebacker duos in the league. It could be a pairing that lasts for half a decade if not longer.
Vander Esch is confident in the open field and ran a 4.65 in the combine. His arms measured near 34 inches, which will give him a reach advantage against some of today’s offensive linemen, which will aid him when he’s sent on the blitz or has to get off blocks in run defense or screen coverage. There are a few times when Vander Esch seems just a tad slow picking up on things but for a first year sample, he is very promising. I think Darius Leonard had the better year but Vander Esch certainly deserves a nod on this list and let the record show, with his measurements, I think Vander Esch might have the higher ceiling.
Bradley Chubb, DE, Denver Broncos
60 tackles, 41 solo, 12 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, fumble recovery, pass defensed
The Denver Broncos have identified themselves as a defensive stronghold for a little bit now, calling themselves the “No Fly Zone”, and their pressure up front is why they are able to bestow that name upon themselves. Von Miller, who I still feel is slightly overrated, is one of the league’s best edge rushers and the addition of one Bradley Chubb won’t make life any easier for opposing offenses if his career runs parallel to this year’s performance. Chubb finished with 12 sacks, only 2.5 behind the rookie record set by Jevon Kearse of Tennessee back in 1999. The edge duo of Chubb and Von could wreak havoc on opponents for the next four years. Chubb already has refined technique and compares to Joey Bosa but stronger.
Darius Leonard, LB, Indianapolis Colts
Led NFL with 163 tackles, 111 solo, 7 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries, 8 passes defensed
If you didn’t watch any Colts games this season and didn’t look at any tape or deep into the stats, you would assume that Leonard’s only talent is tackling and that his only skill set might be as a run stuffer. You would be wrong.
What really impresses me about Leonard’s tape is not that he’s a surefire tackler. His tackling technique is excellent and he always seems to be going for strips, providing him some of that game changing ability. No, what really impresses me about Leonard is his intelligence. He’s got a strong understanding of the game, great gap discipline and knows his role. That intelligence means Leonard is unlikely to be a one-hit wonder. As long as he reads the plays as fast as he did in 2018, any deficiency he may have physically can be overcome. A 4.7 40 is nothing to go crazy over but he’s not susceptible to being beat on the edge because of that awareness. He stays alert in his zones and has a technically refined blitz package. He’s a developed product already and a gem of the 2019 draft the Colts organization is lucky to have.
Da’Ron Payne, DT, Washington Redskins
56 tackles, 35 solo, 5 sacks, forced fumble, fumble recovery, 3 passes defensed
The Washington Redskins did what they seem to do just about every year now: go 7-9 but had it not been for their own stubbornness in refusing to sign Colin Kaepernick and fill their quarterback spot with someone with a remote sense of athletic ability, they likely would have won the division. The Redskins defense made the Redskins the kings of the NFC East for a time with a 6-3 record. Then Jay Gruden went full Jeff Fisher, again, and took his team to a 1-6 finish. That should be enough to get someone new at the head coach position but the Redskins are a malignant tumor of an organization. What I do want to focus on is what made this defense so stout at the beginning of the year. That squad was bound to fall apart when the team began sending an offense out onto the field to die each possession but was one of the best in the league for the first half of the season. The reason for that change? Da’Ron Payne.
Payne demonstrated why the defensive tackle position, while generally overlooked by football fans, can be extremely valuable. In most cases, defensive tackles are meant to take up blocks and let others make plays but a strong defensive tackle can do a lot more than that and Payne put that on full display. The final season stats don’t show it but the stats halfway showed a complete flip from the previous year.
Last year, Washington was dead last in rush defense. At one point this season? They were second and that was with the same starting 11, minus Payne, and the same defensive coordinator. They ended the season 17th. It’s hard to know which half of the Redskins season was more indicative of their identity but it seems likely it is the former half and if that’s the case, it’s hard not to put some of the rewards on Payne’s doorstep.
Denzel Ward, CB, Cleveland Browns
53 tackles, 41 solo, 3 interceptions, forced fumble, fumble recovery, 11 passes defensed
Denzel Ward began his NFL career opposite Antonio Brown. This, especially considering Denzel Ward plays for Cleveland, could have been the worst day of his life. This was an episode of laugh factory waiting to happen.
He ended the day with two interceptions.
And I think from that point, no one questioned Mr. Ward. Ward ran a 4.32 40, so he’s unlikely to get beat by pure athleticism. He’s got excellent hip fluidity, preventing receivers from crossing his face. Those two attributes are musts if you’re going to give a player 1-on-1 responsibilities and Ward has shown he can do that. At just under 5’11”, Ward’s size will likely cause the usual hurdles. Bigger receivers may be able to go over top of him on jump balls but Ward is likely to always be in the play because of the hip fluidity.
Another common blockade may be physical receivers. That was one of the criticisms on his college tape but that is something that can be overcome with time in the gym and technique/biomechanics. Ward was the highest drafted cornerback and one year in, seems to be the best of the class. He earned a Pro Bowl nod, too. Bravo, sir.
And the Oscar goes to…
Derwin James, S, Los Angeles Chargers
I looked at a lot of tape this year. If you told me I could pick one defensive player from this draft to build my team around, it would be Derwin James. As we’ve seen with the Eagles system, the safety position is becoming far more important than good cornerbacks. A great safety, especially one with range, can be the difference maker in a defense, especially one that runs predominantly Cover 3. Eddie Jackson is so quick and so aware he can cover nearly the entire field in the Bears backfield. Derwin James is as sure a tackler as you can get at the position, can battle with tight ends and seems to love run support. Darius Leonard was really close to getting my vote but James was just phenomenal this year.
See more from my 2018 NFL Awards: