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Who Will Win Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2022?

The Defensive Rookie of the Year (DROY) race can be uneventful, and while we’ve seen several mid-round players rise to win the Offensive Rookie of the Year, most recently Alvin Kamara and Dak Prescott, the defensive version hasn’t seen a winner outside of the top forty picks in an astounding 34 years. That’s 1988’s Jets safety Erik McMillan, a third-round pick who snagged 8 interceptions for two touchdowns en route to the first of his two career Pro Bowl nods.

In our search for the next DROY, this narrows the field significantly. The NFL went with defensive picks on 22 of the top 40 selection in the 2022 NFL Draft, including each of the first five selections, so there’s quite a few players who could rise to the occasion. The top-heavy nature of this draft could continue a recent trend we’ve seen in DROY winners – each of the past five have married their award with a Pro Bowl or All-Pro selection.

The final trend to mention before we look at potential candidates is the positional variety. While it may be easier for some positions to acclimate to the NFL than others, the DROY award has truly been anyone’s game. Despite the last three winners being pass-rushing edges, they join only one other defensive end to win since Von Miller in 2011. Since Miller, there have been interior defenders (Aaron Donald and Sheldon Richardson), off-ball LBs (Luke Kuechly and Darius Leonard), and corners (Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Peters). The only conspicuous absence is at safety, which hasn’t received the award since 1990’s Mark Carrier in Chicago. Maybe Kyle Hamilton, Daxton Hill, Lewis Cine, or Jalen Pitre will break that trend, but they’re going against a lot of history.

With 17 candidates left, there’s still some sifting to do. In the past decade, 30% of winners were the first defender drafted that year and 80% were the first at their position. The last two? Darius Leonard and Marcus Peters, who each led the league in a major category (163 tackles and 8 INTs respectively). The task, therefore, is clear: the highest-drafted player at the position or someone who can lead the league in a key stat.

Potential Candidates:

DE Travon Walker, JAXFirst DE selected

DE Aidan Hutchinson, DETTop pass-rusher on team that elevated sack totals of Charles Harris & Julian Okwara

CB Derek Stingley Jr., HOUFirst CB selected

DE Kayvon Thibodeaux, NYGTop pass-rusher who can benefit from attention paid to Azeez Ojulari & Leonard Williams

DT Jordan Davis, PHIFirst DT selected

LB Quay Walker, GBFirst LB selected

LB Devin Lloyd, JAXLikely to lead JAX in tackles after replacing Myles Jack & Damien Wilson

DE George Karlaftis, KCWill get extensive opportunity to accumulate sacks as teams chase Mahomes

Missing somebody? Robert Saleh’s defenses haven’t produced high interception numbers, hurting Ahmad Gardner’s candidacy, while Jermaine Johnson II would likely need to better his 11.8% pressure rate to have a shot.

Kyle Hamilton landed in a great spot in Baltimore and has one of the best chances of any safety since Jamal Adams, but he’d have to be one of the NFL’s best DBs on Day 1 to outshine the rest of the class in award voting. Trent McDuffie, Kaiir Elam, Roger McCreary, and Kyler Gordon didn’t produce many INTs in college – that’s unlikely to immediately change.

Devonte Wyatt and Logan Hall are likely to be excellent players, but they’ll struggle to get national attention on defenses with several other stars. Arnold Ebiketie can’t fix the schematic issues that left the Falcons with a terrible 16.0 team sacks last year, while Boye Mafe likely still needs some seasoning to hit his peak.

With that, eight clear candidates are set. Several are expected names, but that’s par for the course with the DROY award. The only part left is to watch it play out.