2014 was a vintage season for rookies on the defensive side of the ball with four candidates standing out as having season’s worth of taking home the prize at the end of the season. It is rare to see a number of rookies come in and not just impress by the standard of other rookies in that and past seasons but in comparison to veteran players alike as we had in 2014.
The strongest performances were reserved for the front seven this season with difference-makers raising their hand in every area of the front seven. The quality was so high that it made it difficult to cut the list below five names so much like the offensive and defensive player of the year awards that we handed out last week we’re extending our shortlist to give credit to those defensive rookies who raised their games and made the biggest instant impact.
4th Runner Up
Anthony Barr, OLB, Minnesota Vikings
Perceived as a fairly raw prospect coming out of UCLA, there was some debate as to what position best suited Barr in the pros. What he proved this season was that he is just a good football player. The Vikings didn’t try to turn him into a Von Miller-style outside linebacker sending him after the quarterback at every opportunity (his 103 pass rushes were fifth most among 4-3 OLBs when his season ended due to injury). That doesn’t mean they didn’t make good use of his pass rushing skills either. His 17 pressures were evidence of his talent as a pass rusher and effective usage netting three sacks and four hits over the course of the season.
Barr paired his pass rushing with strong run defense and solid work in coverage where some might have expected him to be exposed a little more. There were certainly some things to work on in coverage, but for a first season, Barr disproved any doubters who might have suggested he would just be a part-time player for the Vikings in 2014. Though a step below our Top 4 who separated themselves from the field, Barr might have been closer had injury not curtailed his rookie season by a month.
3rd Runner Up
C.J. Mosley, ILB, Baltimore Ravens
After a steady first week as a pro (which included a rough night in coverage against the Steelers on the first Thursday Night Football of the season) Mosley exploded into life over the next eight weeks. He earned a positive grade in seven games including two spectacular displays against the Panthers (+7.1) and Bengals (+3.4). In that eight-week stretch, Mosley was our highest-graded inside linebacker earning a +15.7 overall grade and racking up 39 of his 61 stops for the season.
Finishing his rookie season inside the Top 10 of our inside linebacker grades Mosley’s strength was in run defense registering 31 stops and looking adept at shedding blocks in the pros from very early on. Also adding a threat as an extra rusher to his game Mosley flashed an all-around game that at this very early stage would suggest he is the next in a long line of excellent Ravens linebackers. One of the few things holding Mosley back were his occasional struggles that re-appeared late in the season with four game grades of -1.2 or below in coverage in the Ravens’ last eight games.
2nd Runner Up
Chris Borland, ILB, San Francisco 49ers
Going into the 49ers’ season as a third-round pick at inside linebacker you might have expected Borland to play fewer than 100 snaps. When Patrick Willis’ injury against the Rams presented the former Wisconsin Badger with an opportunity, he grabbed it and never looked back. In spite of only playing 487 snaps (40th among inside linebackers), Borland earned our fourth-highest grade at his position and got through a work rate in terms of tackles and stops compared to many full season starters.
His 54 defensive stops were topped by only six other inside linebackers (all of whom played at least 997 snaps). When you factor in his playing time his run stop percentage (21.3%) dwarfs any other inside linebacker, including Rolando McClain’s work as a two-down linebacker in Dallas. His work in coverage wasn’t as strong as his work against the run, though it was by no means the weakness you occasionally see from rookie linebackers. Had Borland played a full season, or perhaps even been healthy for the last two weeks of the season, he would have been a closer challenger to the top two defensive rookies.
1st Runner Up
Khalil Mack, OLB, Oakland Raiders
The Raiders didn’t get much right last offseason, but they hit a home run with their first-round pick from the University of Buffalo. Too much attention when talking about Mack was given to his 11-week wait for his first career sack rather than his dominant work against the run. While he was waiting for that first sack he was still providing steady if not overwhelming pressure, racking up seven hits in the eight games before his first sack.
Unusually for a rookie edge defender, though, it was Mack’s work against the run that was the cornerstone of his rookie season. Not until the final game of the regular season against the Broncos did Mack earn a single game grade below +1.0 as he racked up 42 stops in run defense as an ultra-disruptive force against opposing ground attacks. His 14 tackles for loss were bettered by only DeAndre Levy and Lavonte David (16 apiece) as he took on a similar role to Von Miller in Denver. He was not the same threat as a pass rusher, but a stronger and more consistent force as a run defender.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
Aaron Donald, DT, St Louis Rams
In a close battle at the top it is, however, an “undersized” defensive tackle who takes the crown as the league’s best defensive rookie in 2014. There were questions over how Aaron Donald would cope with the physicality and the grind in the NFL trenches during the pre-draft process but Donald turned those questions on their head in his rookie season. At the end of his rookie season Donald had posed more questions as to how NFL offensive lines could cope with his blend of speed, technique and agility than he had to answer about durability or power. In the second half of the season he earned a higher grade and played more snaps than he did in his first eight weeks, breaking through rather than hitting the rookie wall.
Much more than just a one-dimensional upfield pass rusher, Donald was able to use his strength and leverage to be a destructive run defender as well. In fact, his form as a run defender really came well before his late surge as a pass rusher (20 of his 44 pressures came in the last five weeks). That balance sets Donald’s inaugural season aside as a special one not just in this year but in any. He wasn’t just an impact player racking up the big plays but flawed in other areas, right away Donald brought out his A-game and was among the league’s very best defensive tackles based solely on their play in 2014. What might have been taken as a luxury pick for the Rams in May proved to be one of the best defensive linemen in the league in 2014, making Donald a more-than-worthy winner of our Defensive Rookie of the Year award.
See the other awards we've handed out this week:
2014 PFF All-Pro Team
2014 PFF All-Pro Special Teams
2014 PFF Stephenson Award (Best Player)
2014 PFF Offensive Player of the Year
2014 PFF Defensive Player of the Year
2014 PFF Matthews Award (Best Offensive Lineman)
2014 PFF O-Line Rankings
2014 PFF Rookie of the Year
2014 PFF Offensive Rookie of the Year
2014 PFF Defensive Rookie of the Year
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