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The bulk of the attention we pay to rookies happens to be on the offensive side of the ball, largely because of our obsession with quarterbacks.
This year, though, it’s the defenders intercepting and knocking those quarterbacks on their backside that are deserving of most of the credit. As a result, there’s a very close NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year race in the works.
Here are the five leading candidates for the 2014 award:
1. C.J. Mosley
The Ravens have a knack for drafting tremendous linebackers, and the latest in that line is Mosley. The first-round pick is already the leader of Baltimore’s reinvigorated defense.
Mosley plays all three downs for the team, showing off his ability to defend both the run and the pass effectively. Already he leads the pack with 76 tackles, a rare feat by a rookie linebacker, and through the first six weeks earned a whopping +6.7 grade from Pro Football Focus, which ranks among the top five NFL inside backers.
2. Anthony Barr
Last week’s strip-sack returned for a touchdown gave the Vikings an overtime victory over the Buccaneers, but also thrust Barr into the Defensive Rookie of the Year conversation. Barr has 54 tackles and three sacks halfway through his first season, and looks to be the centerpiece of Mike Zimmer’s young, up-and-coming defense.
Barr already shares the Subway spotlights with Justin Tuck, and Barr could be as equally as impactful of a defensive player in Minnesota. He’s shown flashes of being a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks already, and is living up to the pre-draft billing as being the West Coast’s version of Jadeveon Clowney.
3. Kyle Fuller
Fuller was leading the league in interceptions early on in this season, but the rookie cornerback has had his share of struggles of late. Not surprisingly, the Bears defense as a whole has been less formidable during this span as well.
Still, Fuller’s three picks and nine pass breakups leads all rookie defensive backs. The Bears’ defensive front hasn’t scared any opposing quarterback in weeks, so Fuller and the rest of the secondary are constantly at a disadvantage. He’s a lone bright spot for the unit.
4. Khalil Mack
The Raiders’ attempt to bring in veteran defenders on their last hurrah has — not surprisingly — been an utter disappointment. However, the season has been salvaged by some stellar play out of the rookie Mack.
Mack’s Pro Football Focus run-stopping grade (+10.37) is twice as high as the next-best player in that category and easily tops among outside linebackers. His pass-rushing ability is getting there, as he’s generating pressure but not coming up with sacks just yet.
Color me a prisoner of the moment, but perhaps one of the best young cover corners in the league finally got some national exposure on Monday night when Breeland shadowed Dez Bryant and limited the perennial All-Pro to three receptions for 30 yards.
Breeland’s performance against Bryant earned him a +3.7 grade by Pro Football Focus. He was targeted 11 times and batted down four passes, including the game-sealing pass on the game’s final play. The injury to DeAngelo Hall has opened up playing time for Breeland, the future of Washington’s secondary.
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