A bit earlier, we checked in on the top Offensive Rookie of the Year candidates. And while that side of the ball has been super impressive for first-year players, there have been dominating performances from more than a handful of rookies on defense.
From Khalil Mack’s awesome all-around performance in Oakland to Aaron Donald standing out among defensive linemen, here is our look at the top-five Defensive Rookie of the Year Candidates heading into Week 12.
1. Khalil Mack, Linebacker, Oakland Raiders
Statistics: 57 tackles, 49 solo, 30 quarterback hurries and one sack
Mack might not have the sack numbers to show for it, but he’s been about as good as you could ask a rookie linebacker to be on what had been a really bad defense. Mack is averaging nearly three quarterback hurries per game, continues to put consistent pressure on the quarterback, and has been among the most dynamic linebackers in the NFL at stopping the run.
Naturally a 3-4 outside linebacker by trade, Mack has shown the ability to be more than a pass-rush specialist. His overall game reminds this one scribe of a young Lawrence Taylor. And that’s not taking the comparison lightly at all. Mack may not win the award because he doesn’t have the sexy sack numbers, but there is little doubt that he has been the best rookie on the defensive side of the ball in the NFL.
2. Aaron Donald, Defensive Tackle, St. Louis Rams
Statistics: 24 tackles, 18 solo, 14 quarterback hurries and four sacks
Shame on the Rams for not starting Donald from Day 1. His presence on their defensive line has made up for the loss of Chris Long, and then some. Equally as stout against the run as getting to the quarterback, Donald is now teaming up with Michael Brockers to form one dynamite defensive tackle tandem in St. Louis.
What makes Donald such an awesome force is his ability to provide pressure from the interior of the defensive line. That’s something most quarterbacks tend to struggle with and can cause a large number of mistakes. Once St. Louis upgrades at cornerback, Donald’s impact will be that much greater.
3. Chris Borland, Linebacker, San Francisco 49ers
Statistics: 55 tackles, 46 solo, one sack, two interceptions and two passes defended
Borland really didn’t start getting major playing time until Patrick Willis was lost for the season back in Week 6 against the St. Louis Rams. And to be honest, that’s the only reason he doesn’t sit atop this list. Since taking over for Willis, Borland hasn’t only been the best rookie linebacker in the NFL, he’s been among the best overall defensive players in the league.
According to Pro Football Focus official metrics, Borland currently grades out as the second-best inside linebacker in the NFL behind Luke Kuechly. He also tops that position against the run. Even more than his tackle numbers (44 in the last three games), Borland’s impact has been felt on a defense that ranks among the best in the NFL despite the losses of multiple All-Pro performers. Last week’s two-interception performance was Borland’s coming-out party, but he’s been special ever since replacing Willis back in Week 6.
4. Anthony Barr, Linebacker, Minnesota Vikings
Statistics: 71 tackles, 50 solo, 11 quarterback hurries, four sacks and one interception
Seen mainly as a 3-4 outside linebacker leading up to the 2014 NFL draft, Barr has made his transition to Minnesota’s somewhat hybrid 4-3 front look easy. Outside of his game-winning fumble recovery against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a few weeks back, the first-round pick continues to play excellent overall football. He may have missed a few tackles here and there, but that’s to be expected. What makes Barr so special is the fact that he is able to get to the quarterback as an individual that’s not reliant on a specific scheme. Those players are rare in today’s NFL.
5. C.J. Mosley, Linebacker, Baltimore Ravens
Statistics: 88 tackles, 72 solo, 10 quarterback hurries and two interceptions
What better way to replace Ray Lewis than with someone of Mosley’s pedigree? After captaining an Alabama defense that showed flashes of downright domination through the years, Mosley quickly became a Day 1 starter for the Ravens. And since early struggles, he has shown the ability to play at a Pro Bowl level. Mosley’s best attribute thus far in his career has been against the run, where he ranks second behind only Chris Borland among inside linebackers (via Pro Football Focus).
If Mosley is able to fix some issues as it relates to coverage between the hashes, he will be able to take his game to All-Pro level. And as just a rookie, we can expect this to happen sooner rather than later.