The NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year award is all about stats—tackles and sacks are chief among them. It’s far from a perfect system, but somehow the Associated Press still manages to identify great players more often than not. The last five winners have been Ndamukong Suh, Von Miller, Luke Kuechly, Sheldon Richardson and Aaron Donald.
There are only about a dozen players that can win this award in any given year barring some strange outlier. To understand this, we need to understand the formula for picking these winners.
For starters, no player drafted later than 39th overall has won in 26 years and only two of those players were even in the second round. No cornerback has won since Charles Woodson in 1998 and no safety has won since Mark Carrier in 1990. That limits the pool to linebackers, defensive ends and defensive tackles drafted in the first 40 or so picks.
Marcus Peters is out. So is Landon Collins. Any third-round pick is going to have to be clearly better than all the other candidates, but chances are one of the players drafted in the first round will have similar production and therefore win the award. Even Randy Gregory and Frank Clark could struggle to become candidates simply based on draft position unless they are far and away better than all the players drafted ahead of them.
Also, unless the defensive tackle is a great pass-rusher, the odds of them winning the award are slim. Only one run-stuffer has won the award in the last 30 years. Danny Shelton and Malcolm Brown’s chances of winning are slim unless by some miracle they pile sacks.
The Top Pick: Leonard Williams
Since Dante Fowler Jr. is out for the year, Williams is the top defensive pick that will be playing in 2015. That automatically makes him one of the favorites for the award, especially since pass-rushers have one of the easiest paths to victory.
While sacks don’t come easy, they do come easier than interceptions and a player doesn’t need gobs of them as they do tackles. Playing alongside Muhammad Wilkerson and eventually Sheldon Richardson will almost guarantee Williams will get opportunities to get after the quarterback without too much resistance.
Williams was also widely considered the most talented defensive player in the draft despite being the second defensive player selected. New Jets head coach Todd Bowles is known for putting his players in position to make plays, so Williams should get plenty of opportunities.
During the preseason, Williams was productive with 1.5 sacks in limited work. If Williams approaches double-digit sacks, he has a very good chance to win the award. Playing in a big media market like he does also ensures that his accomplishments won’t go unnoticed.
The Favorite: Vic Beasley
Beasley is a classic edge rusher with the kind of speed and bend that could make him a double-digit sack player for years to come. The only thing that could hurt Vic Beasley’s odds of winning the award is the attention opposing offenses will give him.
If Beasley gets off to a fast start, he can expect to get chipped by tight end and running backs. The Atlanta Falcons will lean heavily on Beasley and they don’t really have a lot of help for him. They don’t have another pass-rusher that will bring pressure from the other side and allow Beasley to get a few clean-up sacks.
Despite this, Beasley is still easily one of the favorites to win the award. Beasley will get tons of opportunities, which is usually a great thing for a speed pass-rusher.
Last season, the Falcons allowed the highest net yards per pass attempt in the entire league mark by a wide margin. That means opponents live to pass on the Falcons. If the offense is as high-powered as some expect, then there is potential for shootouts every week, which would further benefit Beasley.
The Third Wheel: Shane Ray
Unlike Beasley, Shane Ray has a load of help with the Denver Broncos. Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware will ensure that Ray gets plenty of space to rush the quarterback. It’s hard to imagine an offense spending too much time worrying about Ray when they have to worry about two of the better pass-rushers in the game.
Part of the challenge for Ray will be getting enough opportunities, but the Denver Broncos didn’t draft him in the first round for him to sit on the bench. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips loves to bring pressure, so he’ll devise plenty of ways to get Ray on the field.
Part of the genius having Ray be the No. 3 pass-rusher is that he won’t always have to get to the quarterback from the outside edge. Ray is a high-effort rusher who make lack the flexibility to turn the corner consistently. Until he develops his technique, Ray could find himself coming through gaps and cracks in opposing offensive lines created by his teammates.
The Tackle Machine: Stephone Anthony
The first player on the list that could win the award without sacks figuring heavily into it is Stephone Anthony of the New Orleans Saints. Anthony is already starting, which is essential if he’s going to accumulate the volume of tackles he will need to win the award. The next challenge will be staying healthy.
Anthony’s best chance of winning the award will be if all the rookie pass-rushers fail. Even eight sacks by Williams, Beasley or Ray could make it tough for an inside backer like Anthony to win with only tackles on his stat sheet.
Still, he has a chance since tackles are much less specific stat than sacks. Tackle statistics can appear much larger than they really are if the scorer gives a lot of assists. Anthony’s resume could look ridiculously impressive compared to a player with around six sacks.
If the Saints defense also improves in 2015, Anthony can also claim he’s a big reason why since he’s essentially the quarterback of the defense. The odds of everything coming together for Anthony is probably not that likely, but it’s certainly possible.
The Dark Horse: Mario Edwards Jr.
Bud Dupree of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arik Armstead of the San Francisco 49ers are athletic freaks that could make noise in the DROY race. However, both of them came into the league relatively raw and will probably need some time to adjust at the pro level as rotational players.
Considering their lackluster supporting casts when it comes to rushing the passer, neither are as good of a candidate as the dark horse on the list—Mario Edwards Jr. of the Oakland Raiders. Edwards is a more refined player with a better supporting cast and a clearly defined role that could make him one of the rare second-round picks to win the award.
Edwards will keep veteran defensive end Justin Tuck rested and also kick him inside in passing situations. He’ll also be playing opposite Khalil Mack, who is destined to become a star this season. Edwards should get plenty of opportunities to attack the weakest links of opposing offensive lines with Mack drawing so much attention.
A lot of people scratched their heads a bit when the Raiders selected Edwards, but he is starting to show why the Raiders were willing to spent a top 50 pick on him. Edwards has had a great preseason with 2.5 sacks and appears ready for a sizeable role on Oakland’s defense.
Like the other pass-rushers on the list, if Edwards gets to double-digit sacks and Oakland’s defense improves significantly, he has a chance. The thing working against Edwards is that he’ll need all the picks drafted ahead of him to be clearly worse, which right now seems like a long shot.