After rolling out the offensive side of my All-Rookie Team last week, it's time to reveal the defensive selections.
Bosa's sack numbers have taken a nosedive since a midseason stretch of show-stealing dominance, but anyone who watched him crash the pocket on Drew Brees last week can tell you he's still a relentless force to be reckoned with every single snap. Tied with his brother Joey for second-most tackles for loss (15) in the NFL, Nick may no longer be among the favorites for Defensive Player of the Year. Make no mistake, though: He's running away with the rookie award. Allen's numbers have seen a similar second-half downturn on a face-planting Jaguars defense, but he still stands out for his rare blend of size, physicality and athleticism. There simply aren't many edge rushers alive capable of matching the Week 13 two-play sequence versus the Buccaneers in which Allen stalked Dare Ogunbowale from behind on a third-down reception and then corralled a scrambling Jameis Winston on fourth down for the drive-ending sack.
Already the most consistently disruptive force on the Giants' defense, Lawrence has joined second-year Bucs standout Vita Vea in laying waste to the notion that 340-pound behemoths are gridiron dinosaurs no longer worthy of high draft picks. Oliver has been a man possessed since his midseason benching, recording four sacks in the last four games. A reeling Bills defense facing an identity crisis a month ago has surged back into second place in points per game (16.3) and third place in total yards per game (296.8).
Much like ballhawking savior Minkah Fitzpatrick, Bush has shown a nose for the football with four fumble recoveries and a pair of interceptions for the best Steelers defense since Troy Polamalu took home Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2010. After an early-season disappearing act, White began to play with confidence and impressive closing speed as a sideline-to-sideline, seek-and-destroy menace versus the Cardinals in Week 10. He went on to capture NFC Defensive Rookie of the Month honors for November, following a five-game stretch that featured 46 tackles, 2.5 sacks, five QB hits, one interception, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery returned for a touchdown. Stout against the run, Holcomb has overtaken Bush as the leading rookie tackler (90). If this hypothetical All-Rookie squad ever took the field, we'd replace him with Colts linebacker Bobby Okereke on passing downs.
We were spoiled last year with Cleveland's Denzel Ward and Green Bay's Jaire Alexander flashing playmaking ability while avoiding the typical target worn on the backs of most rookie cornerbacks. This year's rookie crop has been a mix of inconsistent penalty magnets (Rock Ya-Sin, Colts; Greedy Williams, Browns; Nik Needham, Dolphins) and every-down players gradually getting exposed across the long season (Byron Murphy, Cardinals; Deandre Baker, Giants). Murphy-Bunting and Gardner-Johnson may be the pick of the litter from a group of early-season afterthoughts emerging as weekly contributors in the second half of the 2019 campaign. The former has teamed with fellow rookie Jamel Dean in an improving Bucs secondary, while the latter has been an upgrade on P.J. Williams in the slot.
While run defense remains a problem in Kansas City, Thornhill has teamed with Tyrann Mathieu to transform a porous pass defense that might have cost the Chiefs a shot at the Super Bowl title last season. The second-round pick finally got a signature play to match his week-to-week consistency, jumping Tyrell Williams' in-cutting route for a pick-six early in the Week 13 victory over the Raiders. The Rams' defense has been among the stingiest in football since Rapp and Jalen Ramsey joined the starting lineup in Week 7, replacing John Johnson and Marcus Peters, respectively. If we throw out the Week 12 Monday night meltdown at the hands of the juggernaut Ravens, Wade Phillips' defense is allowing just 10.5 points per game over that span. For perspective, the Patriots' historically great defense has allowed 12.9 points per game on the season.
Savage will have to clean up his tackling to start gaining Pro Bowl recognition, but he's been a godsend in coverage, adding much-needed range, closing speed and ball skills to the back end of Mike Pettine's improved Packers defense. Colts rookie Khari Willis looks like a keeper, as well, aligning in the box, at free safety, along the defensive line, in the slot and even out wide as one of the most versatile defensive backs in football.
This is simply too close to call in a rare season that features two rookies among the five most effective punters in football. Christened the "Scottish Hammer," Gillan has been more decorated, capturing AFC Special Teams Player of the Month honors in September. Bailey has been just as impressive, capturing the heart of special teams aficionado Bill Belichick for his ability to pin returners against the sideline inside the 20-yard line. How close are these two punters? According to Pro Football Focus, they have nearly identical numbers in net average (41.5 for Gillan vs. 41.2 for Bailey), return yardage (145 for Gillan vs. 142 for Bailey), percentage returned (28.8 for Gillan vs. 32.9 for Bailey) and downed punts (11 each). Although Bailey has landed more punts inside the 20-yard line (35 vs. 26), Gillan holds the edge in nickname, goldilocks and biceps.
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