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Predicting the 2021 Defensive Rookie of the Year with Analytics

The 2021 defensive draft class is a unique one. The first round was largely dominated by offensive players – the first eight picks and 18 of the 32 first-round selections were spent on offense. Regardless of the number, there are plenty of good players on the defensive side of the ball who will be strong candidates for the 2021 Defensive Rookie of the Year award.

Above are the last 21 Defensive Rookie of the Year winners (2000-2020). Nine of the winners were LBs, seven were pass rushers, three were DTs and two were CBs. Most DROY winners have been drafted early -- 18 of the past 21 winners were first-round picks. Of the three that were not, the lowest-drafted player was pick No. 39. In addition, 13 of the 21 were the first player taken at their position. Four DROYs were the second selected at their position, two were the third, and one each was the fifth and seventh in their drafts.

Using the data from above, it is very likely that the leading candidate for 2021 DROY was a first-round selection. However, there is a chance the award could go to a second-rounder, as long as he was selected in the top half of the round. While the data favors the award going to a linebacker, most of those winners were from the earlier half of the list, as Darius Leonard is the only LB to have won since Luke Kuechly in 2012. For that reason, the position with the best chance of taking home the award is a pass rusher. Back-to-back and three of the last five winners have been pass rushers. Of the seven pass-rusher DROYs, all have been first-round selections. All of the winners were the first pass rusher taken, aside from Terrell Suggs, who was still picked in the top ten. Five of the seven were top-three picks and four were selected second overall.

Looking at their collegiate success, every DROY winner was very accomplished. Seven of the eight winners were early draft entries, as only Von Miller stayed all four years. Three of the winners were multi-time AP All-Americans, and an additional two were one-time selections. Only Shawne Merriman and Nick Bosa were not a part of that group.

Their respective combine measurables show that most of the winners were very athletic, further warranting their high selections. It was hard to find a theme among the numbers because all of these players have slightly different body types and athletic makeups. Of those that qualified, Merriman and Miller both tested very high in their RAS (Relative Athletic Score) for OLBs, while the Bosa brothers tested well for DEs.

Pass Rusher DROY Candidates

  1. Jaelan Phillips, EDGE, Miami Dolphins

Phillips was not selected in the top three or even the top 10 of the 2021 draft. However, he was still the first pass rusher selected. If injuries had not been such a concern, he had the talent to be a top 10 selection. Looking at how he compares to some of the other winners, Phillips’ RAS came out as 6.43 for DEs and 8.77 for OLBs. These scores indicate he is a high-end athlete. Phillips was an early entry and had a decorated junior season in which he was named second-team all-conference and All-American.

  1. Payton Turner, EDGE, New Orleans Saints

Turner may have been a surprise to many on night one, but he shows a great combination of size and athleticism to be very effective at the next level. He did not have the same decorated college career as many of the past winners, outside of a second-team all-conference in 2020. However, his chances are helped by the fact that he was a first-round selection and tested very well, scoring 9.68 on his RAS.

  1. Kwity Paye, EDGE, Indianapolis Colts

The numbers do not favor him as much, as he was only the second pass rusher taken, but Paye could be disruptive right away with the Colts. Like all the former winners, he was a first-round pick, but his low score of 5.74 on his RAS does not help his chances. Unlike many of the former winners, Paye was a four-year player and did not earn All-American honors, which is why he is lower on this list. To his credit, he was a two-time all-conference selection.

  1. Azeez Ojulari, EDGE, New York Giants

In addition to not being the first rusher off the board, the numbers do not favor any rusher that was taken outside the first round. Ojulari still has the ability to get after the QB. He was certainly talented enough to hear his name called in the first round; he likely fell to the second round due to injury concerns. Ojulari did not have the same sort of top-notch collegiate success as past DROYs, but he still earned second-team all-conference in 2020. Ojulari was an early entry, which helps his case, but his RAS numbers (5.94 for LBs and 3.86 for DEs) do not work in his favor.

Next, we go to the LB position. Of the nine LBs that have taken home the prestigious award, six were first-round picks, and the other three were early second-rounders. Three of the LBs were the first one off the board and three were the second off the board, while Brian Cushing and Darius Leonard were the fifth, and DeMeco Ryans was the seventh. Unlike the EDGE position, there was no real theme for these LBs aside from the fact that they were all top 40 picks.

Predicting the 2020 Defensive Rookie of the Year

Above we can see that all of the winners, except for Luke Kuechly and Jerod Mayo, stayed their whole college careers. Six of the eight were also All-Americans at least once, while three were multi-time selections. Just like the EDGE group, this group was very accomplished in terms of all-conference selections, DPOY awards, etc.

Predicting the 2021 Defensive Rookie of the Year

The combine results varied a lot among the winners, as they came in all different shapes and sizes. Brian Urlacher, Cushing and Kuechly were elite athletes, while the rest of the group was only okay-to-good athletes in terms of their RAS. Because of this, their RAS was not as predictive as for the pass rushers.

LB DROY Candidates

  1. Micah Parsons, LB, Dallas Cowboys

Parsons was the 12th overall pick, the first LB selected and one of the highest defensive selections overall. Much like Kuechly, he was an early entrant and had a very accomplished career. He took home awards such as all-conference, All-American, Big Ten LB of the Year and Cotton Bowl Defensive MVP as a sophomore. While the RAS was not as predictive as it was for pass rushers, Parsons tested very well, scoring a 9.59.

  1. Jamin Davis, LB, Washington Football Team

Davis was the third LB selected and is a highly athletic player who can fly around the field and make plays. Davis was a four-year player and a first-round pick, which will help his chances. He also tested off the charts, scoring a 9.93 RAS.

  1. Zaven Collins, LB, Arizona Cardinals

Collins was also picked highly, like the majority of the winners, as he was a first-round pick. He is a big athlete with a unique combination of size and speed. Collins was a four-year player who had a lot of success in college, similar to past winners. In 2020, he took home a lot of impressive hardware, including all-conference, All-American, AAC DPOY and NCAA DPOY. He also tested well, scoring an 8.73 RAS.

  1. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB, Cleveland Browns

Owusu-Koramoah looked like he would be a first-round pick, but slipped on draft night due to injury concerns and ended up being a second-round pick. The numbers say that a DROY at LB is likely a top 40 pick. JOK was not, as he was selected No. 52, which is why he is lower on this list. However he met some other qualifications, so he had to be included. Like the former winners, he was very accomplished in his college play, as he was a four-year player and took home numerous awards in 2020. He also tested well, earning a score of 8.72.

Cornerback is one of the more interesting lists to include, as it is unlikely that a CB wins. Only two have won in the past 21 years, but the CB position was the first defensive position picked in this year’s draft. Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Peters were both first-round picks, being the first and third corner off of the board, respectively. Peters had 11 INTs and 16 PD in college, then 8 INTs and 26 PD as a rookie. Lattimore had 4 INTs and 9 PD in his last year of college and 5 INTs and 18 PD as a rookie. Clearly, both had outstanding ball production in their college careers and first year in the league.

Predicting the 2021 Defensive Rookie of the Year

There were not many declarative themes from the list because of the small sample size. Both CB DROYs were all-conference players and were similar in height and weight. The next winner at the position would have to be a good athlete, who can get good ball production as a rookie.

CB DROY Candidates

  1. Jaycee Horn, CB, Carolina Panthers

The numbers do not favor a winner from the CB position, but Horn was the highest-picked defensive player in the draft, going number eight overall. He was an accomplished three-year starter in the SEC. He trailed Patrick Surtain II in the number of awards won, but that shouldn’t affect Horn’s impact, as he played on a worse team and opted out for part of the 2020 season. Horn didn’t garner many awards – but neither did the two former CB winners. Horn also helped himself, scoring an unprecedented score of 9.99 on his RAS.

  1. Patrick Surtain II, CB, Denver Broncos

Surtain was picked right after Horn at number nine overall. Surtain went from a top recruit to having three productive years in the SEC. He capped off his career with an impressive 2020, which included him earning all-conference, All-American and SEC DPOY. He scored a 9.95 on his RAS, showing off his athleticism. Like Lattimore, he was an early entrant as well.

With such a small field, the numbers do not show much of a trend, but these players were very highly touted for a reason. Caleb Farley and Greg Newsome both could have been included, but their injury histories may hurt their ability to play full seasons and win the award.

While there have been three DT winners over the last 21 years, all three players were top 13 picks and the first picked at their position. This year’s class had no DTs picked in the first round. The numbers do favor a candidate from this class but there are still some players capable of winning the award.

Predicting the 2021 Defensive Rookie of the Year

Outside of Sheldon Richardson, the two other winners had pretty dominant college careers, specifically in both of their senior years, where they both earned a litany of awards. Richardson seems like an outlier in this group, as Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh are also great athletes, while Richardson only had a slightly above average RAS. Richardson also was an early entrant, compared to the others. That said, Richardson was still a highly-anticipated prospect and a top 13 pick.

The data shows that past DT winners were likely dominant college players, athletes, and selected in the top half of the first round, which is why this class may have a hard time producing a winner.

DT DROY Candidates

  1. Christian Barmore, DT, New England Patriots

Of any player at this position, Barmore may have the best chance, as he was the highest selected DT. New England’s DL room may be deep, but Barmore should find his way onto the field to make an impact. Barmore had a pretty decorated 2020, which should help his chances, even though he came out early. He checked the athleticism box as well, scoring an 8.22 on his RAS.

  1. Levi Onwuzurike, DT, Detroit Lions

Onwuzurike is included because he was also a highly touted player, who was drafted towards the top end of the second round. He is very disruptive on the inside and could bring another DROY award home to Detroit. He was not an early entrant but opted out of his senior year. Before that, he was honored as an all-conference member in 2019. He is also physically impressive, scoring an 8.75.

Overall, based on the data, the DROY rankings look like this:

  1. Jaelan Phillips

  2. Micah Parsons

  3. Jaycee Horn

  4. Patrick Surtain II

  5. Jamin Davis

  6. Zaven Collins

  7. Payton Turner

  8. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah

  9. Kwity Paye

  10. Azeez Ojulari

  11. Christian Barmore

  12. Levi Onwuzurike

BetMGM Betting Odds:

  1. Micah Parsons +400

  2. Jaelan Phillips +650

  3. Kwity Paye/Jamin Davis +900

  4. Patrick Surtain II/Zaven Collins +1200

  5. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah +1400


All college and NFL stats from; RAS from