This was a tough list to compile, in that there were probably about 15 players who could have made the cut. That said, I do feel confident about my top candidate to win the Defensive Rookie of the Year award this season -- a youngster who has more than a little bit in common with 2015 winner Marcus Peters (whose success I correctly predicted last year).
Who is that No. 1 contender? And who else could be fighting him for the top spot among defensive newbies? Below, you'll see my top six candidates to win the 2016 Defensive Rookie of the Year award, listed in reverse order.
The 5-foot-10 Joseph lacks ideal height for the position, but he's a very physical player and excellent run defender who can serve as a sort of extra linebacker/run-stopping DB for Oakland -- like a smaller version of Seattle's Kam Chancellor. He's very explosive. Less than a year after injuring his ACL, the No. 14 overall pick has started two preseason games. If he performs well against the Titans this week, I expect him to cement his spot as a Week 1 starter. Joseph has a good backpedal.
Joseph picked off five passes last year at West Virginia, but with ballhawking veteran Reggie Nelson set to play alongside him (and get him lined up correctly), the burden for picking off passes won't fall on Joseph. If the Raiders get any interceptions out of him, it'll be a bonus. After watching him practice, I'm confident he'll be a factor in 2016.
Another Chancellor-esque tough-tackling run defender, Neal looked very good in the practice I watched in Atlanta. The No. 17 overall pick is very strong, smart and physical, and he'll definitely help strengthen Dan Quinn's Falcons secondary, especially when it comes to stopping the run. Neal needs to improve his ball skills, but he'll make plays on receivers running crossing routes. He had the largest hands (10 5/8 inches) of any defensive back measured at the NFL Scouting Combine and is quite explosive, as evidenced by his 38-inch vertical and 11-foot broad jump.
Buckner is perfect for playing end in a 3-4 defense, though he can also move inside in a 4-3 and still effectively pressure the quarterback as a pass rusher from the tackle spot. He's exceptionally strong and powerful, with long arms and big hands. The Oregon product was the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2015. The No. 7 overall pick tends to play too high at times and will get overpowered, but he's a good athlete. This Niners team probably won't be very good, but he'll provide a solid foundation for the future at an important position. To get on the DROY radar in 2016, Buckner will have to make some plays, maybe by collecting a good number of sacks when he moves inside in long-yardage situations.
Hargreaves does not have big hands (8 3/4 inches) or long arms (30 5/8 inches), but the No. 11 overall pick does boast exceptional ball skills and great anticipation. The smart and very fluid defender is also an explosive athlete and above-average competitor who will tackle and can flip his hips. Hargreaves picked offtwo passesagainst Jacksonville on Saturday, and I think he'll make this Bucs defense -- which was headed in the right direction last year, when it ranked 10th overall and 16th against the pass -- even better. Hargreaves reminds me a lot of Browns cornerback Joe Haden -- a two-time Pro Bowler -- when he entered the NFL.
The long-armed (33 3/8 inches) Ramsey is a very good athlete (having posted a 41.5-inch vertical jump) who can play three spots on defense (corner, slot corner and safety) and return kicks if needed. He has a special knack for playing press. Ramsey posted just three picks in three college seasons and does not have the coverage or ball skills of Hargreaves, but he knows how to body up guys. He's a good tackler who plays with swagger; in addition to buttressing Jacksonville's pass defense, the fifth overall pick should provide a significant boost against the run. He reminds me of Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes.
Notably, in 2013, Ramsey became the first true freshman to start at cornerback for Florida State since Deion Sanders in 1985. If you could combine Hargreaves' ball skills with Ramsey's size, you'd have a player like Sanders.
Probably the best defensive rookie I saw in my visits to various training camps this preseason, Williams matched up very well with the Cardinals' speedy receivers in practice -- he looked really good. The third-round pick has great ball skills and excels at pass breakups (he posted two against the Chargers last Friday). He boasts good size (197 pounds), height (5-11), arm length (32 1/2 inches), burst and recovery. And he's tough; he does not go into a shell if he gets beat on a play.
Last season's DROY, Marcus Peters, got a chance to shine in Kansas City in part because opponents threw at him in an effort to avoid veteran Sean Smith. I could see Williams benefitting from a similar situation in Arizona. I know Williams is not as safe a pick as someone like Ramsey, but I trust my eyes. I fully expect Williams to hang on to the starting spot opposite Patrick Peterson and capitalize on all the action he sees from teams afraid of going near the five-time Pro Bowler.