Ranking the 2021 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year candidates: Browns and NFC East well-represented


Chase Young went from NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year favorite to award winner at season’s end in 2020, but with an offensive-centric first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, there’s not as much clarity for the DROY this time around. There wasn’t a safety or a defensive tackle prospect picked in Round 1. That’s unprecedented. 

While you’ll find some of the current betting favorites for the award below, I envision first longer-shot candidates with the best opportunity to win it. Next to each player is his DROY odds, set by William Hill Sportsbook. 

Without further ado, let’s dive into my top 11 Defensive Rookie of the Year candidates. 

11. Trevon Moehrig, S, Raiders (N/A)

Moehrig had no business going in Round 2. His film was first-round caliber. He’s the modern-day, do-everything safety ready to flourish in today’s NFL, a league that offensively tries to find mismatches with quick slot receivers or athletic tight ends by getting linebackers and safeties in coverage. 

But the 6-1, 202-pound Moehrig has the lateral quicks to stay with separators in man coverage and the instincts to find the football on a routine basis down the field. And he’s entering a Raiders secondary that can essentially only improve. The Vegas pass defense was 26th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA in 2020. 

Moehrig steps in as the most coverage-capable safety on the roster. He’s an impactful run defender, too. I expect Moehrig to make plays often. But the Raiders pass rush still isn’t threatening enough to help the defensive backfield on a regular basis. That’ll limit just how frequently the splash plays occur. Also, history isn’t on Moehrig’s side. Over the past 20 years, Darius Leonard and Kendrell Bell are the only second-round picks to win the award. 

10. Jaycee Horn, CB, Panthers (+1400)

Horn was the first cornerback off the board, so most people wouldn’t be surprised if he won DROY. I would be. I wasn’t nearly as high on Horn as the Panthers clearly were. For as long, explosive, and physical as Horn is, I didn’t see a naturally gifted mirroring type down the field and felt he relied too much on a knockout at the line of scrimmage in press to “win” the rep against wideouts. 

Will Horn excel against bigger perimeter wideouts who lack juice in and out of their breaks and try to outmuscle on every route? Yes. But there are getting to be less and less of those receivers in the NFL. It’s a league loaded with ultra-quick, crafty separators. And remember how rudely the NFL greeted Jeff Okudah and C.J. Henderson, two long, dynamic press-man specialists, last season?

Horn will get his hands on the football on occasion. But it won’t be enough to garner serious DROY consideration. 

9. Greg Newsome II, CB, Browns (N/A)

Newsome was my CB3 in the 2021 class, and I thought he was the smoothest cornerback in the draft. He flipped his hips and changed directions like he had no ligaments in his lower half. 

And it was a joy watching him plant then drive on the football. He’s the type of athlete who finds it frequently. And he landed in an outstanding scenario in Cleveland for a few reasons. Firstly, Newsome won’t draw the opposition’s No. 1 wideout every week thanks to the presence of the equally if not more twitched-up Denzel Ward. And the defensive line boasts Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney on the edges. The interior is a work in progress, but the Browns should be at least average getting after the quarterback, and we know Garrett can totally wreck offensive game plans. 

Newsome has an ultra-aggressive mentality when playing the football, too. Like Horn, he can be a overly grabby at times, but he will fight to get his hands on the football at the catch point. On a revamped Browns secondary, Newsome probably won’t emerge as the biggest star, but the blend of talent and situation will lead to a quality rookie season.

8. Patrick Surtain II, CB, Broncos (+1000)

Surtain is the other first-round cornerback I wasn’t particularly as giddy about as the team that drafted him. While I had a early second-round grade on Horn, I did have a first-round grade on Surtain, and that was mostly buoyed by his calmness in press coverage and the high-level explosiveness he showcased at the Alabama pro day. 

Why was I somewhat low on the new Broncos corner? His clearly limited short-area quickness and occasional lapse in awareness as the football arrived in his coverage area, for starters. Those are two sizable weaknesses for any defensive back. Because of his pro-ready press-coverage skills, length, and explosion, Surtain won’t be abysmal as a rookie. In fact, he has a pretty high floor. But I don’t see him as an outside cornerback who’s going to have enough ball production to be a serious DROY candidate in 2021. 

7. Caleb Farley, CB, Titans (+1200)

Farley was my CB1 in this class. Best combination of everything you want in a top cornerback in today’s NFL — twitch, speed, awareness, ball skills. But he’s dealing with a back injury that could hamper the start to his pro career. 

But if he’s healthy, Farley’s going to be really good. Given how tremendously gifted most top pro receivers are today, I never love when a rookie corner has to step into a No. 1 cornerback role, and that could be the case for Farley in Tennessee. The former Virginia Tech star would be in a more advantageous situation if Kristian Fulton can take a step in his second season with the Titans. 

Anyway, the Titans pass defense can only improve from the porous unit it was in 2020. It ranked 30th in Football Outsiders DVOA. Teams will come into contests against Mike Vrabel’s club ready to air it out, so there’ll be plenty of opportunity for Farley to get his hands on the football. But I do believe the Titans defense is probably a year away from being stingy enough that it’s reasonable to expect it can house an individual award winner. 

6. Micah Parsons, LB, Cowboys (+600)

Didn’t have it in me to put Parsons, the odds-on favorite to win the award, any higher on this list. His lack of coverage experience caps his potential as a rookie. Sure, Parsons was built in a football laboratory. And he looked like a first-round pick in his freshman and sophomore seasons at Penn State before opting out in 2020. 

But he simply didn’t get much experience in coverage during his two years at the collegiate level. He finished his career with the Nittany Lions totaling five pass breakups and no interceptions. He’s a tremendous edge-rusher in obvious passing situations, and for his sake that’s how I hope the Cowboys deploy him as a rookie. But as we saw last season, NFL teams will easily exploit even the most athletic linebackers who aren’t deft coverage defenders. All the first-round linebackers struggled mightily in man and zone last year. 

Also, Parsons has Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith in front of him on the Cowboys linebacker depth chart. Do I expect Parsons to sit for a long stretch in Year 1? No. But there are only so many tackles to go around. 

5. Kwity Paye, EDGE, Colts (+800)

Paye is in line to be the Colts’ primary edge rusher as a rookie. Now, at some positions, I’d label that as a negative: not for an outside pass rusher. The former Michigan standout is in line to rush the quarterback 400+ times as a rookie, meaning more opportunities to generate pressure. 

And he has an NFL upper body right now, so handling power won’t be an issue. Plus, he’s a great athlete for his size and demonstrated more awareness of how to utilize his hands during his four games with the Wolverines in 2020. He was my EDGE2 in his class, and he’s just scratching the surface of how good of a football player he can be. 

4. Jaelan Phillips, EDGE, Dolphins (+1000)

Phillips has the all-systems-go skill set. He has the length, athleticism, bend, and hand work to be a three-down, instant-impact type at a premium position.

Phillips finds himself on a team that’ll certainly be in the spotlight this season after a breakout 2020, and it boasts a greedy defense. For as good as the Dolphins were defensively last year — 11th in total Football Outsiders DVOA — there was Emmanuel Ogbah and not much else producing on a regular basis around the corner. 

Ogbah will likely be the initial edge rusher offensive coordinators will game plan to stop, which should help Phillips land in opportunistic, one-on-one situations. 

3. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB, Browns (+800)

Owusu-Koramoah was my highest-graded defender in the 2021 class. I had him at No. 10 overall on my Big Board. In my estimation, he was that special of a prospect. 

He overloaded the stat sheet at Notre Dame — 24.5 tackles for loss in 25 games along with seven pass breakups and five forced fumbles. Because of his insane twitch, explosion, sustained speed, and defensive back-like ball skills, Owusu-Koramoah is bound to be an steady three-down producer in Cleveland. 

Now there are some veterans in front of him at linebacker to begin his NFL career, and it may take time for Browns defensive coordinator Joe Woods to decide how to properly use Owusu-Koramoah, both of which would hinder his DROY case over the 17-game regular season. But by October or so, Owusu-Koramoah should be the most dynamic playmaker at the second level of the Browns defense, and his coverage expertise will allow him to make impact plays on more than just outside runs. 

2. Azeez Ojulari, EDGE, Giants (+1400)

For those who believe Ojulari is “undersized” to rush the passer in the NFL — he was almost 6-3 and 249 pounds with 34 1/2-inch arms at the Georgia pro day. In 2011, Von Miller was 6-3 and 246 pounds with 33 1/2-inch arms before entering the NFL. 

And while Ojulari isn’t as naturally talented at Miller, had the Bulldogs star stayed in college one more year, Miller-type hype would not have surprised me at all. Ojulari is that explosive, flexible, and deceptively powerful at the point of attack. He was my EDGE1 in the 2021 class, and his edge-setting pop will get him on the field for three downs, thereby increasing his pressure/sack opportunities in Year 1 with the Giants. 

New York’s defense is on the upswing and needs a true alpha rusher to pair with newcomer Ifeadi Odenigbo around the corner. Ojulari will be that guy. Big season on the horizon for the Giants’ second-round pick on a playoff-caliber team, the recipe for legitimate DROY candidacy. 

1. Jamin Davis, LB, Washington Football Team (+1600)

Davis was the Zach Wilson of the linebacker group, an out-of-seemingly-nowhere one-year wonder whose film was so juicy he ascended from complete obscurity to the first round. 

And Davis’ 2020 film really was phenomenal. His gigantic frame made him instantly pop out, and he consistently showcased serious range on outside runs, creative weaves through traffic on runs up the middle and, most critically, game-changing plays in coverage. Davis is a towering linebacker with the explosion and athletic fluidity needed to hold up in coverage in today’s NFL. 

Another reason he’s my DROY pick — the Washington defensive line is going to keep his jersey as clean as if he didn’t even step foot on the field. And with Davis being a tick slow reacting to his keys, not having to immediately deal with blockers climbing to the second level will speed up his processing.

How good is the Football Team’s front four? In 2020, journeyman Jon Bostic led the team with 118 tackles. While Bostic’s still on the roster, Davis will get to play one of the playmaking, outside linebacker spots. Not only will he hit the 100-tackle threshold, he’ll get plenty of opportunities to disrupt on pass plays. And Davis will. Frequently. 





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