Analysis

Top 10 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year candidates: Micah Parsons among 4 linebackers 

Last year, Chase Young had all the hype; he ended up wearing the "generational talent" tag from pre-draft all the way through the season. His final tallies in sacks (7.5) and tackles for loss (10) were more solid than spectacular, but it was more than enough to help him capture a huge chunk of the Defensive Rookie of the Year votes in what ended up being a down season in terms of overall competition.

This season, there is a much deeper cast of competitors for the award, with several first-year players in favorable spots to produce immediately on quality defenses.

As has become commonplace with this award, pass rushers need sacks, linebackers need a high number of tackles and defensive backs need interceptions to take home this trophy. It's not enough for rookie defenders to play well; their production needs to show up in the stat columns.

Let's take a glance at some historical notes and trends that could help us piece the Defensive Rookie of the Year puzzle together:

  • No safety has won this award since Mark Carrier did it for the Chicago Bears in 1990.
  • Since 2009, Missouri's Sheldon Richardson (2013) is the lone winner of the award to come from the SEC.
  • Ohio State Buckeyes have won this award in four of the last five seasons (Chase Young, 2020; Nick Bosa, 2019; Marshon Lattimore, 2017; Joey Bosa, 2016).
  • Marcus Peters (2015) and Lattimore (2017) are the only two cornerbacks to win this award since 1999, with both recording 5-plus interceptions as rookies.

Now, looking ahead to this season, here are my top 10 candidates to take home the 2021 Defensive Rookie of the Year award:

Rank
10
Christian Barmore
Alabama · DT
New England Patriots
New England Patriots

Barmore was the most talented interior defender in this class -- and I didn't think it was all that close. Maturity and consistency are two areas where he needs to improve to make a splash on the NFL level, but I see no reason that Barmore can't compete for early snaps if he takes to the coaching in New England. He can be disruptive as a run defender, but it is his ability to get after the quarterback from the interior that puts him inside my top 10 on this list.

Rank
9
Azeez Ojulari
Georgia · Edge
New York Giants
New York Giants

The Giants had way too much rush production come from their big men up front -- defensive tackle Leonard Williams, who had 11.5 sacks, was the only player to post more than four last season -- so they're hoping Ojulari can give their attack more life off the edge. The tape can be a little uneven at times, but his flashes are really eye-catching. Georgia did so much rotating along their defensive front that I didn't always feel like he was able to get into a groove. He'll be on the field full-time for the Giants, and if the coaches can cultivate those flashes into a skilled rush, Ojulari will be a legitimate contender out of this group.

Rank
8
Jaycee Horn
South Carolina · CB
Carolina Panthers
Carolina Panthers

Receivers around the SEC had to endure Horn's physical, press-man coverage over the last three years. He's athletic and fast for being such a big outside cornerback (6-foot-1, 205 pounds), and he should start immediately for a defense featuring rising talents up front like Brian Burns, Haason Reddick and Derrick Brown. For all of the hassle he gave SEC wideouts, he managed just two interceptions over 30 career games, so that number will need to come up if he is to compete for this award.

Rank
7
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah
Notre Dame · LB
Cleveland Browns
Cleveland Browns

To say I'm high on Owusu-Koramoah's potential would be an understatement. Getting him with the 52nd overall pick was an absolute steal. Owusu-Koramoah's playing style is fast and furious, but he also offers man-cover ability and can get after quarterbacks as a blitzer. Despite being undersized (6-foot-1, 221 pounds), he's a hybrid talent who can be deployed around the field. I would love to have him a little higher on the list, but I do think there is a chance it takes Cleveland a year to find the right fit for him on the field. 

Rank
6
Patrick Surtain II
Alabama · CB
Denver Broncos
Denver Broncos

In my estimation, Surtain is up there with Parsons in terms of overall talent and potential from this class of defenders. He will be an early starter in a pass-happy division, which should give him plenty of opportunities to show what he can do. But it's worth noting that he had just four interceptions over 40 games at Alabama. He's an absolute technician who grew up around the game and the position. If he can stack up some takeaways, he could be the third cornerback to win this award since 1999.

Rank
5
Zaven Collins
Tulsa · LB
Arizona Cardinals
Arizona Cardinals

Collins has throwback size with good athletic ability and a mantel full of awards from last season alone. The Cardinals saw 2019 first-rounder Isaiah Simmons struggle with his transition to linebacker last year, so the addition of Collins should help with Simmons' continued growth at the position while creating plenty of playmaking opportunities for Collins.

Rank
4
Kwity Paye
Michigan · Edge
Indianapolis Colts
Indianapolis Colts

Big and explosive. These are the two best adjectives to describe Paye from a physical standpoint. He's not the most polished or instinctive rusher, but he has strengths and foot quickness to take over the second half of a block engagement as a rusher or against the run. With the departures of Justin Houston and Denico Autry from the Colts' defensive front, Paye is a likely to see plenty of time as a three-down talent. He has the physical tools to rush inside or outside on passing downs, which could help the Colts find the best matchups for him.

Rank
3
Jaelan Phillips
Miami · Edge
Miami Dolphins
Miami Dolphins

While injuries have played a part in the up-and-down nature of Phillips' draft value over the years, his outstanding physical traits and rush potential were on full display during the 2020 season, making him one of the more buzzed-about rushers in the draft. Phillips has the rare blend of size and athleticism that makes him a perfect fit for Brian Flores' hybrid odd/even fronts. He'll have a chance to attack blockers with length or quickness, depending on the matchup.

Rank
2
Jamin Davis
Kentucky · LB
Washington Football Team
Washington Football Team

With just 11 career college starts under his belt, Davis still has some polish to add to his game. However, he’s athletic, instinctive and very talented when asked to drop in space and cover on passing downs. Washington has the makings of a dominant defensive line that will disrupt blocking schemes on a regular basis, which should make Davis' job that much easier in getting to the football and finishing plays. Productive linebackers are made for this award, and Davis fits the mold in Washington.

Rank
1
Micah Parsons
Penn State · LB
Dallas Cowboys
Dallas Cowboys

A 2020 college football opt-out, Parsons is an absolute freak-daddy when it comes to his athletic profile and his ability to make a multitude of plays. He has the speed and agility of a running back, which allows him to range from sideline to sideline while also tracking any change of direction he sees from ball-carriers. He has three-down talent and an alpha demeanor that Dallas obviously covets on the second level. He hasn’t played since 2019, but he'll get an immediate profile push from being on Hard Knocks. His talent should help him do the rest.

Top dark-horse candidate

Jevon Holland
Oregon · S
Miami Dolphins
Miami Dolphins

As I stated at the start, ball-production is key in this category, so don’t sleep on the 36th overall pick of the draft. Holland has outstanding instincts and ball skills, with experience playing safety and in the slot. His versatility is reminiscent of what the Dolphins were looking for when they selected Minkah Fitzpatrick 11th overall in 2018. If Holland can take the ball away and start for an ascending defensive unit in Miami, he could creep into the conversation like we saw with Antoine Winfield Jr. last season.

Follow Lance Zierlein on Twitter.

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