News & Analysis

3 sleeper NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year candidates

SANTA CLARA, CA - MAY 7: Will Redmond #23 of the San Francisco 49ers stays loose on the bike during the 49ers Rookie Camp at Levi Stadium on May 7, 2015 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)

We all know the big names at the top of the draft each year, and those players are always the most likely to win rookie awards by the end of their first NFL season. They are supposed to be the best players of the draft class, and will be given the corresponding best opportunity to get on the field and show their worth.

In many years, however, the most impressive seasons come from players selected later in the draft—breakout stars that people don't see coming.

So, who are three sleeper picks for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year this season?

1. Sheldon Day, DT, Jaguars (Round 4, pick No. 103)

Jacksonville’s first two draft picks have received a majority of the ink post-draft, but their fourth selection could make a huge impact from day one. Sheldon Day was the second-highest-graded defensive interior player in the entire nation last season, trailing only DeForest Buckner, who went No. 7 overall.

Day was consistently one of the most disruptive players in the nation at Notre Dame, but slipped because he is a little undersized and does not always finish the play. Those are the same things that caused Geno Atkins and Aaron Donald to slip in the draft, and those two are now arguably the best two defensive tackles in the game in a league that is ever-more tailored to undersized interior disruptors.

Day may not have recorded huge sack numbers, but he did notch 46 total pressures, fourth-best in the nation among defensive tackles last season, with the fourth-best pass-rushing productivity mark, as well. He practically lived in the backfield, penetrating with quickness and the kind of versatility to move along that Jaguars' front and play a few different spots along the line. If he earns enough playing time, he could be the kind of disruptive force that cements a role early and produces way in excess of expectations.

2. Carl Nassib, DE, Browns (Round 3, pick No. 65)

About the only trend you can gather from Cleveland’s draft strategy is that they want to throw a lot at the wall and see what sticks. The team drafted 14 players and double-dipped in multiple areas of need to try and maximize the chance of hitting on those spots (and fix the problem areas of the roster).

Carl Nassib is a player who many liked in terms of potential, but not necessarily for his physical traits. The former Penn State standout graded very well for PFF last season; as a pass-rusher, he was the seventh-ranked edge rusher in the draft class, with a higher grade than first-rounder Shaq Lawson and several other notable defenders. He notched 53 total pressures and, on a per-snap basis, had the highest pass-rushing productivity mark in the entire nation among 4-3 defensive ends.

The Browns have a hole at edge rusher, and Nassib wasn’t the only player they hooked to try and address it, with Emmanuel Ogbah and Joe Schobert also in the mix. However, Nassib could emerge from that group to be more productive than many expect early and, unlike Ogbah, doesn’t struggle against the run to the point that it might limit him to a sub-package role.

3. Will Redmond, CB, 49ers (Round 3, pick No. 68)

Part of this equation for the former Mississippi State Bulldog is actually getting on the field in the first place. You might be the most-talented player around, but if you got drafted in the third round and you’re buried on the depth chart, you may never get the chance to prove it to anybody. The 49ers have been hunting for cornerbacks all offseason, and drafted three of them, but Redmond is the one most likely to make an immediate impact and impress early on.

He tore his ACL after seven games of his final season in college, but before that misfortune, had demonstrated one of the quickest breaks on the ball and earliest reads on the pass of any corner in this class. Defensive Rookie of the Year is often about the big plays you make rather than the bad ones—think Marcus Peters winning it this past season with a league-leading eight interceptions, despite being second in the NFL in TDs allowed (eight), third in yards allowed (939), and third in catches surrendered (69).

Redmond will give up some plays, but he also allowed just 48.3 percent of passes thrown his way to be caught over the past two seasons, and has the kind of break on the ball to make big plays and earn a run of interceptions if he sees the field early and gets picked on by NFL quarterbacks.

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