NFL News & Analysis

Darkhorse candidates to win NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2021

Costa Mesa, CA, USA; Los Angeles Chargers cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. (26) during rookie minicamp at Hoag Performance Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Off-ball linebackers and edge defenders have dominated the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Award over recent seasons. Why? Tackles and sacks — two relatively outdated statistics that continue to be the deciding factor when it comes to naming the winner. It is why the six favorites to win the award, according to DraftKings Sportsbook, play one of those two positions.

Still, it's not unheard of for defensive backs to leapfrog those front-seven players and snatch the award at the finish line — just as Marshon Lattimore did in 2017 and Marcus Peters did two years before him.

Here are four first-year players who could emerge and swoop the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award away from one of the betting favorites.

DI Christian Barmore, New England Patriots (+2,000)

Barmore’s slide in the 2021 NFL Draft was questionable, to say the least. He was the clear No. 1 defensive lineman on the PFF Big Board and 12th-rated prospect overall. Yet, the Patriots were able to grab him in Round 2.

The pre-draft chatter about how the former Alabama star might not respect or seek out coaching was seemingly overblown; it has yet to be an issue up in New England playing for Bill Belichick, and he has the kind of talent that warranted a first-round selection.

Reports indicate that Barmore was a force to be reckoned with in one-on-ones in camp last week before a minor injury forced him to the sidelines — and he got to see reps with the team’s starting unit.

Again, this isn’t a surprise. Barmore has the ideal frame at 6-foot-4 and 310-pounds with 34 ⅝-inch arms, and he also boasts great hand usage, burst, power and bend. There's no wonder why he earned a Power Five-best 92.2 pass-rush grade from 2019 to 2020, or why he generated a 91.3 pass-rush grade and 12 pressures against Notre Dame and Ohio State in the 2020 College Football Playoff.

Barmore is as NFL-ready as they come. If he ends up with a starting spot, count on him making an impact.

CB Caleb Farley, Tennessee Titans (+2,500)

Farley was a clean medical report away from going within the first 10 picks of the 2021 NFL Draft. However, he was among the 2020 opt-outs and has had to battle a slew of injuries over the last few years after tearing his ACL in 2017 and undergoing two back operations over the last two years.

The good news is that Farley was told at the medical combine in Indianapolis that his back injury shouldn’t be a long-term issue. The better news is that Farley passed his physical, made his way to the practice field and is now in line for a major role in Tennessee’s defense.

Farley has the size, length, speed and collegiate production that few prospects can boast. The 6-foot-2, 207-pound corner can run a sub-4.3 40-yard dash and was one of the best college cornerbacks of 2019, ranking top-three in the Power Five in coverage grade (90.5) and completion rate (36%).

Edge Joe Tryon, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (+3,500)

The biggest concern with Tryon entering the 2021 NFL Draft was the recklessness within his rushes. His pass-rush plan was always errant, and his dominant reps wouldn’t come consistently. Tryon posted a middling 71.9 pass-rush grade in his final season at Washington in 2019 before opting out in 2020. Along with that, nearly half of his 41 pressures were either unblocked or came on cleanup plays.

But according to Bucs head coach Bruce Arians, Tryon might be a much more polished player since the last time he took the field in 2019.

“You should ask Tristan Wirfs and Donovan Smith because he’s [Tryon] kicking their asses pretty good sometimes. I don’t think he needs any more moves, that’s for sure.” — Arians when asked about Joe Tryon’s pass-rush move inventory

Arians also indicated that Tryon is “carving out a real, real nice role.”

The Washington product has the size, length and explosiveness for the position. He is such a violent player with a menacing bull rush, and the dominant reps he put on tape are easy to fall in love with. If he is developing at the rate Arians and many around Tampa’s camp have alluded to, Tryon could put up better-than-expected production in a blitz-heavy defense littered with talent.

CB Asante Samuel Jr., Los Angeles Chargers (+3,500)

Samuel and new Chargers head coach Brandon Staley’s defense is a match made in heaven. Staley needs athletic and instinctive corners in his system, and that’s precisely who Samuel is. Yes, he is on the smaller end at 5-foot-10, 180-pounds, but he was meant for an off-zone, versatile role like this one. At Florida State, he cemented his standing as a premier playmaker, forcing the second-most incompletions among Power Five cornerbacks from 2018 to 2020. He processes the game at a high level, and Staley recognizes that.

“He’s going to play outside plenty whether we’re in four DBs or five or six… But we’re trying to cross-train him inside so that you’re putting your best combination out there. The fact that ‘Sant has that type of skill set just increases our ability to be flexible, multiple.” — Staley on Samuel seeing first-team slot reps

Samuel has reportedly been climbing up the depth chart at Chargers camp and has worked his way into seeing reps with the first team. He is capable of enjoying the same level of success in L.A. as he had in Tallahassee.

You've got the first pick with your finances. Western Southern Financial Group.

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