2018 NFL All-Rookie Team, defense: Who'll win DROY?

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With yet another spectacular performance in Week 14, Giants superstar Saquon Barkley is beginning to pull away from undrafted Broncos dynamo Phillip Lindsay and scorching Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield in a lively Offensive Rookie of the Year race.

There's no such favorite on the other side of the ball, where Colts linebacker Darius Leonard, Chargers safety Derwin James, Broncos edge rusher Bradley Chubb and Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch are locked in a fierce battle for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. The field is so strong, in fact, that Chubb has a chance to break Jevon Kearse's rookie sack record (14.5) -- and still finish third or fourth.

Last week, we unveiled the All-Rookie Team on offense. Let's turn our attention to defense this time around:

Edge rushers: Bradley Chubb, Denver Broncos; Marcus Davenport, New Orleans Saints

Did the Browns make the right choice in bypassing Chubb in favor of cornerback Denzel Ward with the draft's No. 4 overall pick? That certainly appeared to be the case early in the season when Ward's playmaking ability was lifting the perennial AFC North doormat to upset victories. Cleveland's brass will get a chance to see Chubb in person this week as he stalks Mayfield around the gridiron in a matchup of two of the league's loaded draft classes. Chubb has already sailed past Von Miller's Denver rookie record of 11.5 sacks and has Kearse in the crosshairs with three games to play. The Broncos' bookend pass rushers boast the second- and fourth-highest sack rates (Miller 3.7, Chubb 3.5) in the NFL this season, combining for a league-leading 25.5 QB takedowns as a duo.

While Titans' second-round pick, Harold Landry, merits consideration alongside Chubb, Davenport gets the nod for a steadily improving Saints defense. As NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger pointed out this week, it's Davenport who is already drawing extra attention in the form of chip blocks and tight end help on New Orleans' defensive line. He still blew through Donovan Smith's holding penalty and a double-team for his two hits on Jameis Winston in the Saints' come-from-behind victory. The draft's No. 14 overall pick has shown an uncanny knack for making impact plays in the run game as well as hounding quarterbacks.

Interior linemen: Daron Payne, Washington Redskins; Da'Shawn Hand, Detroit Lions

Before the offense collapsed in a heap of injuries, the Redskins took a commanding midseason division lead due to their work in the trenches. The D-line trio of Payne, 2017 first-round pick Jonathan Allen and 2016 fifth-round steal Matt Ioannidis has been the strength of the team, combining for 17.5 sacks to go with stout run defense.

Hand has been a pleasant surprise for Matt Patricia's defense, leading all rookie interior linemen in Pro Football Focus' pass-rushing metrics before suffering an MCL sprain in Week 14.

Linebackers: Darius Leonard, Indianapolis Colts; Leighton Vander Esch, Dallas Cowboys; Roquan Smith, Chicago Bears

With apologies to San Francisco's Fred Warner and Denver's Josey Jewell, the linebacker selections are written in indelible ink. Indianapolis' overhauled defense was in tatters this past offseason, drawing scorn and derision as perhaps the league's least-talented unit. With Leonard as the omnipresent centerpiece, Matt Eberflus' collection of misfits, castoffs and rookies has exceeded expectations throughout the season. A second-round gem out of tiny South Carolina State, Leonard is averaging more tackles per game (11.3) than any rookie this century, pushing past former Defensive Rookies of the Year and perennial All-Pros Patrick Willis (10.9, 2007) and Luke Kuechly (10.3, 2012). Not impressed with Leonard's league-leading 135 tackles? He has also recorded four forced fumbles and seven sacks -- numbers that no off-the-ball linebacker can match. If the season ended now, he would edge out James as my personal DROY choice.

Hot on Leonard's heels in tackle percentage (18.4 to 18.1), Vander Esch is emerging as the answer to the question of how linebackers will evolve to handle the freakishly athletic tight ends and quick-cutting scatbacks that drive modern NFL pass attacks. Raising the level of Rod Marinelli's defense while standing in for injured All-Pro Sean Lee, Vander Esch erased Saints mismatch Alvin Kamara with relentless sideline-to-sideline pursuit in the Cowboys' shocking Week 13 upset. In Vander Esch, third-year linebacker Jaylon Smith and disruptive edge rusher DeMarcus Lawrence, Dallas now boasts a three-pack of defensive stars that stand toe-to-toe with the best around.

Speaking of the best around, Vic Fangio's Bears defense has legitimate stars at all three levels: Akiem Hicks on the interior, Khalil Mack and Smith at linebacker and Kyle Fuller and Eddie Jackson in the secondary. The leading tackler on the league's most ferocious defense, Smith has also pitched in four sacks and an interception while showing improvement throughout the season.

Cornerbacks: Denzel Ward, Cleveland Browns; Jaire Alexander, Green Bay Packers

Ward is going to miss his second straight game with a concussion, but through the first 13 weeks of the season, he ranked 11th out of 128 cornerbacks graded by Pro Football Focus. He's displayed sticky coverage, a nose for the ball and strong tackling ability in space, traits that will lead to All-Pro recognition in the not-too-distant future.

The Packers think so highly of Alexander that they had him shadow Julio Jones around Lambeau Field last week, making the All-Pro wideout work exceptionally hard for his latest 100-yard performance. From deposed coach Mike McCarthy to living legend Bill Belichick and future Hall of Famer Aaron Rodgers, everyone seems to be in agreement that Alexander is a star in the making.

Safeties: Derwin James, Los Angeles Chargers; Jessie Bates, Cincinnati Bengals

We are being treated to a superb rookie safety class, with Houston's Justin Reid and Jacksonville's Ronnie Harrison also flashing playmaking potential of late. James is already pushing the Vikings' Harrison Smith and the Jets' Jamal Adams as the most well-rounded safety in the league. A bigger, more athletic version of Tyrann Mathieu, James is comfortable at all levels of Gus Bradley's defense, blitzing from the edge, stonewalling the run from the box or lurking in the back end to pick the quarterback's pocket, as he did to Ben Roethlisberger in the Bolts' thrilling Week 13 victory at Pittsburgh. James is the only NFL player this season with at least 80 tackles, three interceptions and three sacks -- a numerical feat only four other rookies (Zach Brown, 2012; Brian Cushing, 2009; Lofa Tatupu, 2005; Dunta Robinson, 2004) have reached since sacks became official in 1982, according to NFL Research.

Bates will never be confused with a bone-jarring box safety, but Pro Football Focus' Defensive Rookie of the Month for October has been a standout as a center fielder patrolling the last line of defense. Quarterbacks have managed just a 46.4 passer rating on throws into Bates' coverage, one of the lowest figures attributed to full-time safeties.

Defensive back: Minkah Fitzpatrick, Miami Dolphins

Not a prototypical "island" cornerback along the lines of Ward and Alexander, Fitzpatrick is a new-school corner capable of excelling in the slot and at safety while moonlighting outside the numbers. With the exception of his schooling at the hands of Raiders veteran Jordy Nelson in late September, Fitzpatrick has been one of Miami's most valuable defenders. He's allowing a minuscule passer rating of 49.6 from the slot, per PFF, beating out the Broncos' Chris Harris (57.3), the Texans' Kareem Jackson (68.3), the Chargers' Desmond King (69.0) and the Bears' Bryce Callahan (78.9).

Punter: Michael Dickson, Seattle Seahawks

Armed with an arsenal of dropkicks, knuckleballs, pop-ups, coffin-corners and bold fakes, Dickson is already the most fun punter in the league. To be clear, this isn't a case of style over substance. The former Aussie rules star leads all punters with a net average of 44.2 yards this season. It might not be long before he's rivaling perennial Rams All-Pro Johnny Hekker as the position's gold standard.

Follow Chris Wesseling on Twitter @ChrisWesseling.

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