The Defensive Rookie Of The Year is by far the most intriguing award announced during NFL Honors. Not only does it recognize the best first-year defensive player in the entire league, but the attention the winner receives as well as the expectations for the upcoming season increase significantly as a result. In some years, the voting for the aforementioned award has been really close.
For example, the last two seasons had about 4 or 5 candidates each who could’ve gladly taken the award. 2017’s top candidates were Marshon Lattimore (winner), Tre’Davious White, Myles Garrett, Reuben Foster, and T.J. Watt, who all had extremely compelling cases to take the award. 2018’s defensive rookie class also performed well above expectation, with candidates such as Darius Leonard (winner, First-Team All-Pro), Leighton Vander Esch (Second-Team All-Pro), Derwin James (First-Team All-Pro), Bradley Chubb, Roquan Smith, and Denzel Ward, all of whom had truly spectacular rookie seasons, with some landing into the top five for their position.
In contrast, there have been some seasons where one individual thoroughly dominated the competition, such as former Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters in 2015, leading the league with a whopping 26 pass deflections to go along with 8 interceptions, good enough for 2nd-Team All-Pro that season. Peters had arguably one of the greatest rookie seasons for a corner, only to be overshadowed by Saints cornerback Marshon “Lockdown” Lattimore’s rookie season in 2017. Oh, and Lattimore won the award that same year as well. Funny how that works…
Who’s in The Race This Year?
At mid season, the marathon of 2019 already has 3 runners who are 13 miles ahead of everyone else. However, while these runners have a significant leeway on the rest of their defensive class, they are neck and neck, and it looks like the climax of this race will be at the finish line.
Nick Bosa, #97 DE, San Francisco 49ers
You know what they say: like big brother, like little brother. Like Nick’s brother Joey, the #2 overall draft pick has become every NFL fan’s poster child for this award, and rightfully so. 7 sacks, 1 interception, and 1 forced fumble truly do not give him enough credit for how dominant he has been.
Despite not even starting for San Fran, Bosa has registered a league-leading pressure rate of 25.2%. The former First-Team All-Big Ten Buckeye is also registering 1 pressure roughly every 9 snaps, further proving Bosa’s top-notch ability to disrupt the pocket. He also has the highest pass rush win-rate among all defenders at 26.9%, meaning he beats whichever offensive tackle lines up across from him on almost 27% of the snaps where he rushes the opposing quarterback.
All of these statistics are mindboggling, and the fact that Bosa is a rookie just amplifies the outlook of his rookie season so far. However, they also fully support the narrative that the #2 overall draft pick has had an overwhelming impact on the 49ers defense as a whole. Every aspect of San Francisco’s defense, outside of the defensive line, is average at best; yet the unit has only allowed a league-best average of 150 passing yards per game.
The success of this unit can solely be credited to how dominant this defensive line has truly been. However, the dominance of that defensive line has been in large part due to the addition of Nick Bosa, the development of Arik Armstead, and the acquisition of Dee Ford via trade. Bosa has been nothing short of elite so far this rookie season and, while surface-level stats may lie about how truly dominant he has been against both the pass and the run, the tape sure does not.
Brian Burns, #53 DE/OLB, Carolina Panthers
If there was one player who the media (rather the large majority of the sports community) did not bring up in the pre-draft nor in contention for any rookie awards this season, it’s Burns.
The Falcons must be sick to their stomachs, as he was available when they were on the clock (and in desperate need of pass rushing production) but they went with an offensive lineman instead.
However, their divisional rivals in North Carolina are definitely licking their chops at this point. Over his last 5 games, Burns has 2 TFL (tackles for loss), 4.5 sacks, and 11 quarterback hits. That mark of 15.5 quarterback hits is the highest in the league among all rookies, even above the aforementioned Bosa, and definitely places Burns in that upper echelon of Defensive Rookie Of The Year candidates. Speaking of Bosa, Burns’ impact on that Panthers’ defense has been absolutely tremendous. With a backup quarterback carrying the load, why are the Panthers still winning games? Defense.
Veteran edge rusher Mario Addison has 6.5 sacks along with Burns’ 4.5, and defensive tackles Vernon Butler, Dontari Poe, and Gerald McCoy have a combined 7.5. As a collective group, the Panthers’ defense has the league lead with 27 sacks, and there isn’t a single unit happier with that production than the Panthers’ secondary.
Carolina’s pass defense, which used to be a question mark that cast its shadow on the existence of this franchise, is now 2nd in the NFL with 9 interceptions, and 3rd with 44 passes defended, behind only Minnesota and New England (two very talented and very well-coached defenses).
Everyone has been raving about the daunting 49ers defense, and rightfully so, because they’ve earned every ounce of respect they’re getting. However, this Carolina Panthers’ defense (along with Christian McCaffrey, of course) deserves a lot more credit and recognition compared to what they’re getting. If this team makes the playoffs they will be a very difficult team to beat, due to the rejuvenating impact Burns has brought to the Panthers’ front.
Brian Burns has made his impact felt, and there can be no questions about that. His presence on a formerly struggling Panthers front-7 has been so notable that fans and media members for other teams are complaining about the rookie pass rusher their team drafted, who supposedly looks like a bust.
The name of the game in Carolina is officially defense, and if Burns is on the NFL Honors stage with that award in January, it’ll beg the following question to every single team who drafted before the Panthers: Why on Earth didn’t we pick this kid?
Josh Allen, #41 DE/OLB, Jacksonville Jaguars
Highway robbery. That is what the Jaguars got away with in the first round of 2019. Former Kentucky linebacker Josh Allen was projected to be the 2nd or 3rd defensive player drafted from this class after his stupendous 2018 campaign. 17 quarterback sacks, 21.5 tackles for loss, and 5 forced fumbles all culminated in the Chuck Bednarik Award, solidifying Allen’s reputation as the best defensive player in the nation during the pre-draft process.
Allen has been nothing short of a godsend this season for the Jaguars. By drafting him 7th overall, Sacksonville’s front office committed to their defense once again as the identity of this team. With Pro Bowl edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue due for a massive extension, the Jaguars can afford to lose that production and replace it with Allen’s potential.
7 sacks, 15 hurries, and 29 pressures (2nd in the league) later, Allen is playing like the best defensive player on Jacksonville, which is incredible for a rookie pass rusher on a team full of Pro Bowl pass rushers. What’s more incredible is that Allen produces with a very inconsistent snap share of 68%, which is a little more than 2 thirds of all defensive snaps. His season-low snap share is 46% in Week 8, with a season-high of 92% in Week 2. Why Jacksonville does not start him on every snap is just baffling, because he’s played like the Jaguars’ best pass rusher as a rookie.
While Jacksonville may have traded away the heart and soul of their defense, the presence of a new game-wrecker may end up carrying the unit. While Gardner Minshew has played really well for the Jaguars this season, glorifying him as even the best rookie on his own team becomes unethical because of how dominant Allen has been. Everyone is talking about Nick Bosa as the front-runner for the Defensive Player of The Year award, but Josh Allen may be the 2nd best rookie in this entire class, and quite frankly, the lack of media coverage Allen has received is disappointing for how dominant he has been.
It is insane that an edge rusher so talented could’ve fallen this far in a draft class, but it once again begs the question to teams like the Raiders, Buccaneers, and Giants, who all had the chance to draft this phenom: Why on the Earth did you doom the AFC South?
Devin Bush, #55 MLB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Bush was the unanimous winner for this award prior to the Bosa-pocalypse of the last two weeks. He has played like one of the best linebackers in the entire league this season, let alone a rookie. If the season ended today, Bush would be a First-Team All-Pro linebacker, and it is unfortunate that he may not win the award because of actions outside of his control.
One of Bush’s best skills on display this season has been his pure instinctiveness. He knows exactly where the ball is going, and is usually never lost when reading his keys against the run. This skill becomes really obvious when he’s shedding blocks, and he is reminiscent of All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly in that respect.
In terms of Bush’s overall impact, 59 tackles do not do him full justice. With 4 fumble recoveries, it seems he has been everywhere for Pittsburgh’s defense, making plays on almost every snap. The Steelers as a team may not exactly have anything to play for, but their defense as a unit has been criminally underrated this entire season. The Terrible Towel is 6th in overall defense in terms of yards allowed, 8th in passing defense (same metric), and 12th in rushing defense (same metric), which is above league average. As a unit, this defense has played quite well compared to preseason expectations, and the emergence of Bush is another testament to that success.
The Steelers need to make some changes on their offensive personnel for sure, but the heart and soul of the Terrible Towel, however, is always hiding in plain sight.
What’s The Verdict?
If the season ended today, Nick Bosa would be the winner. The former Buckeye has transformed this now-vaunted 49ers defense to such a significant extent that nominating any other candidate would be sacrilegious. While he may not be as talented as Josh Allen, Bosa’s remarkable production this season despite not starting for the 49ers has been a tremendous asset to their resurgence.