With the 2014 NFL season just a few weeks away, it's time to start throwing out some predictions. First up for me: Defensive Rookie of the Year. Instead of just providing one simple choice, I've come up with my top five candidates to win the award.
The five players I've identified have three things in common: outstanding physical ability, a defensive scheme that's perfectly suitable and huge statistical upside. This rookie class is loaded with talent. My top three players were slam-dunk choices, but the final two spots were very difficult to sort out.
In all likelihood, the winner of this award will be a linebacker or defensive lineman. Just look at the past 15 recipients: 11 linebackers and four defensive linemen (including last year's winner, New York Jets DE Sheldon Richardson). We haven't seen a cornerback win this award since Charles Woodson took home the hardware with the Oakland Raiders in 1998. The last safety honoree? Mark Carrier of the Chicago Bears -- in 1990!
Surely this DB drought has to come to an end in the near future. Does this year's draft class feature a cornerback or safety worthy of consideration for Defensive Player of the Year? I think so. Here's my list:
1) Jadeveon Clowney, OLB, Houston Texans (No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft): This shouldn't surprise anyone. Clowney is the most talented defensive player to enter the NFL in the past decade. He has ideal size, length and explosiveness. Oh, and he'll spend a lot of time lined up next to J.J. Watt in passing situations -- and that will make it very difficult for opponents to double-team him. I'll be surprised if Clowney doesn't post at least 12 sacks this fall.
2) Ryan Shazier, ILB, Pittsburgh Steelers (No. 15 overall pick): Shazier was a stat-sheet stuffer during his college career at Ohio State. Check out his final numbers from 2013: 143 tackles, 22.5 tackles for loss, six sacks and four forced fumbles. With defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau calling the shots in Pittsburgh, the Steelers have the perfect scheme to take advantage of Shazier's athleticism and playmaking skills. I think Shazier could notch five sacks and five interceptions in his rookie campaign.
3) Calvin Pryor, S, New York Jets (No. 18 overall pick): Pryor is the ideal player for Rex Ryan. He is extremely physical, performs with swagger and has a knack for creating big plays. The Louisville product has the range and ball skills to produce from the deep half, but I like him even better when he plays in the box. Pryor brings outstanding timing and burst as a blitzer and has the strength and instincts to function as an extra linebacker against the run. I expect him to post a high tackle total in Year 1 and also sprinkle in a handful of interceptions and forced fumbles.
4) C.J. Mosley, ILB, Baltimore Ravens (No. 17 overall pick): Mosley was one of the more impressive rookies I encountered on my training camp tour. His blend of instincts, play speed and physicality should result in a big statistical rookie season. The Ravens have a deep, talented defensive line, and they excel at keeping blockers from reaching the second level. Mosley showed what he could do while playing behind a talented front at Alabama. He has a strong chance to lead all rookies in tackles.
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5) Justin Gilbert, CB, Cleveland Browns (No. 8 overall pick): It's going to be difficult for any cornerback to win this award, as evidenced above. That being said, I think Gilbert has a legitimate shot at pulling it off. He has all of the desired traits to be a dominant cornerback: size, speed, fluidity and ball skills. And he should see plenty of balls thrown in his direction, thanks to the presence of Pro Bowl CB Joe Haden on the opposite side of the field. Gilbert is my pick to lead all rookies in interceptions.