Rookie of the Year: Top Five Defensive Contenders, and What They Need to Do the Rest of the Way

The offensive weapons get the most attention in the rookie of the year voting, but defensive performances by rookies on the Bills, Ravens and 49ers have helped pave the way for potential playoff berths, while the Vikings and Rams may have found standouts to help shape their defense around.

Each of the top-five defensive rookie of the year contenders bring a little something unique to the race. The four linebackers and one defensive tackle all have strong cases for the award.

5. Preston Brown – 79 tackles, 1 INT

Why He Deserves It: Last year, Kiko Alonso was the Bills surprise top-100, highly impressive linebacker, who was passed over for rookie of the year honors in favor of the Jets’ Sheldon Richardson. This year, Alonso was replaced (due to injury) with Preston Brown, who has emerged as a do-it-all linebacker that has helped keep the Bills defense successful despite their injuries.

Key Stat: Preston Brown has just one interception and zero sacks. While stats alone don’t show his impact on this defense, showing little impact statistically in passing situations doesn’t bode well. 

What He Needs to Do: Brown has five or fewer tackles in four games this year, and hasn’t produced in passing situations outside of one play in the team’s 43-23 win over the Jets. Continuing to put up big tackle numbers and maybe a sack/force fumble or two that helps guide the Bills defense to the playoffs.


4. Aaron Donald – 5 sacks, 31 tackles, 1 FF

Why He Deserves It: The last four weeks, highlighted by the 22-7 victory over Peyton Manning and the Broncos, the Rams defense has been really impressive, especially their vaunted front-four. While Robert Quinn has gotten the most attention for his play, it’s been the consistent disruption by Donald that has allowed this Rams defense to blossom into one of the league’s most feared.

Key Stat: Last year, Sheldon Richardson won the award with just four sacks. As of now, Aaron Donald has five sacks. However, it was Richardson’s impact on the Jets defense that (surprisingly) won voters over. Richardson’s grade was 26.8 on the year. As of now, Donald’s is 25.7, with five games left to play. 

What He Needs to Do: Producing a few more sacks certainly wouldn’t hurt, but it’s going to take consistently impressive performances by the defense for Donald to continue to get attention. The team not being a playoff contender and Robert Quinn being a big-name talent, Donald’s going to need a heavy media campaign to truly get past this list’s top-three.


3. CJ Mosely 99 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INTs, 1 FF

Why He Deserves It: The Ravens rookie has done wonders for the team’s run defense, and has been one of the NFL’s best against the run. The Ravens are firmly in the AFC North playoff hunt, and while Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata are the key to their defensive success, Mosley has lived up to his top-20 drafting as a run enforcer.

Key Stat: Mosley has had six games with 9 or more tackles. In Luke Kuechly’s remarkable rookie season had 11 games with that same production. Kuechly finished with 164 tackles, a sack and two interceptions, similar to what Mosley has at this point in the season. 

What He Needs to Do: With 100 tackles a lock on the season, Mosley simply needs to keep putting up huge tackle numbers. He’s not used much in coverage or as a consistent blitzer, but adding another few sacks to his resume wouldn’t hurt. If he can get to 130+ tackles and the Ravens are in the playoffs, he’d be hard to vote against.


2. Anthony Barr – 66 tackles, 4 sacks, 2 FF, 3 FR, 1 TD

Why He Deserves It: After being viewed as a “project” through the draft process, the one-time running back (just four years ago) has quickly become the most effective chess piece in Mike Zimmer’s defense. Along with winning the team’s game against Tampa Bay himself on a forced fumble recovery for a touchdown, he’s done plenty in coverage and on the perimeter on this defense.

Key Stat: Barr as done everything for the Vikings. Outside of an interception (he’s been surprisingly impressive in short-area coverage), he’s produced across the board. Barr’s stats look like they’ll be similar to Tennessee’s Zach Brown in 2012 of Tennessee, who finished with 5.5 sacks and 93 tackles. Despite Brown not winning the award that year, he was one of the finalist. 

What He Needs to Do: Reaching 100 tackles won’t be easy based on his current production, but reaching that plus 6-7 sacks would be unique for a rookie linebacker, especially one playing in a 4-3 defense. If voters can put his role in the defense in perspective along with his value even away from statistics, they’ll see he’s one of the more impressive 4-3 linebacker rookies in recent years.


1. Chris Borland – 71 tackles, 2 INT
Why He Deserves It: Filling in for two Pro Bowlers is a near-impossible task for any player in the NFL, nonetheless an undersized, third-round rookie. But Borland, since inheriting the starting job fully in Week 7, has produced at an incredible rate. He’s played in just 8 games, starting in five, and yet is third in tackles among rookies.

Key Stat: In the last four weeks, Borland has had 18, 17, 13, and 8 tackle games, along with two interceptions in the team’s win over the Giants. At that rate of production since the bye week, he’ll be projected to finish with 140 tackles on the year, which would be one of the five best outputs among rookie linebackers in the past five years, despite not starting the first six weeks.

What He Needs to Do: Putting up 10+ tackle performances will get him well over 100 tackles, and getting up into the 120 area combined with a few more impact plays in coverage and behind the line scrimmage will help. His emergence on this defense and his grade (one of the NFL’s best among linebackers already), has been astounding, and if the 49ers reach the playoffs, it’ll be huge thanks to him.