When analyzing any awards market wager, we should start with identifying commonalities amongst previous winners. For Defensive Rookie of the Year (DROY) we want to consider:
— Over the last 11 seasons, four edge rushers, three interior defensive linemen, two linebackers, two cornerbacks, and no safeties have won DROY.
— One could frame that as if seven of the last 11 DROY winners were pass rushers or, at minimum, disruptors.
— Colts linebacker Darius Leonard is the only DROY of the year not taken in the first round during this 11-year span. He was close, however, as he was taken with the 36th overall pick. Further, Leonard had a truly fantastic season (161 tackles, 7 sacks, 2 INTs, 4 FF, 2 FR, 8 PD) the year he won the DROY award, so he was an outlier across the board.
— Nine of the last 11 DROYs were selected within the first 13 picks, while five were taken within the top three.
— Similarly, expected contenders have won seven of the last 11 DROY races.
— Neither team success nor a team’s defensive ranking have been consistent factors amongst recent DROY winners.
Unlike last year with Washington’s Chase Young or the year before with the 49ers’ Nick Bosa, the 2021 rookie class lacks a true top-of-the-draft pass rusher. With that in mind we can reasonably expect this race to play out a little more unconventionally than it has in recent years. The sportsbooks used in this column are:
Fox: Fox Bet
PB: Points Bet
Micah Parsons (+550 FD vs +450 Fox and PB vs +400 DK and MGM): Parsons is the consensus DROY favorite as was expected in this class. Despite new Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn running a 4-3 base both as the head coach of the Falcons and as the defensive coordinator for the Legion of Boom in Seattle, according to what Parsons said on Ross Tucker’s podcast, Dallas intends to run a 3-4 base this season. That’s good news for Parsons in the short-term as the one area the Cowboys’ defense is strong is off-ball linebacker, where they already have Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. Normally the historic base defense doesn’t matter as much as it used to, as nickel variants are technically the base defense of this era, but for Parsons it means that losing reps to Smith or Vander Esch is less of a concern in this system than in a traditional 4-3 (four-man front nickel). It also means Parsons could see more significant usage as a pass rusher, which could help his DROY chances. A 100+ tackle season paired with half a dozen sacks or more would be tough to beat, and that outcome is in play for Parsons this year.
Jaelan Phillips (+1000 Fox vs +900 FD vs +850 PB vs +700 DK vs +650 MGM): The Dolphins’ pass rush exceeded my expectations more than any other unit in football last year. While there’s no guarantee that a “the group is greater than the sum of its parts” Dolphins pass rush will repeat what it did a year ago, the addition of Phillips can do nothing but add to that ahead-of-schedule progress along the defensive front. Apart from general regression regarding Miami’s returning pass rush, the Dolphins also lack a true headliner that would require opposing offenses to consistently game plan for. That means if Phillips starts to become that guy, he’s in a position where he will get extra attention from opponents, which is something none of his competitors would be likely to face during their rookie campaign. On the positive side Phillips, along with Michigan/Colts Edge Kwity Paye, is one of the consensus top two pass rushers in this class and a primary contender for DROY. Additionally, the Dolphins have one of the better secondaries in football which, theoretically, could result in their pass rushers having more time to turn some of their pressures into sacks. Lastly, the Dolphins have a win total of 9.0 games, which loosely projects them to play with a lead more often than not. Being on a winning team is a good thing for pass rushers, as it creates more opportunities. Phillips is in a position to see significant playing time on a defense that exceeded expectations last year, while retaining one of the better secondaries in the league.
Kwity Paye (+1000 DK vs +900 MGM and PB vs +850 FD vs +800 Fox Bet): Indianapolis’s Paye (21st overall pick) and Miami Edge Jaelen Phillips (18th overall pick) are the consensus top two pass rushers in this draft class and among the primary contenders for the DROY race. One advantage that Paye has over Phillips is that the Colts have a defensive lineman that can derail games in DeForest Buckner, which means that Buckner will see the lion’s share of extra attention, leaving Paye in more one-on-one situations on passing downs. Similar to Phillips with the Dolphins, the Colts are also projected to be an above .500 team this year, which would theoretically create more pass rushing opportunities for Paye.
Patrick Surtain II (+1200 MGM and DK vs +1100 FD vs +1000 PB vs +900 Fox): Surtain was the ninth pick and the second defensive player taken overall behind only Panthers cornerback Jaycee Horn (eighth overall pick). Surtain has two advantages over Horn in this race: Denver has a better pass rush than Carolina and the Broncos have a much better secondary than the Panthers. Surtain is in a situation where he could benefit from more stressed decisions from opposing quarterbacks and he cannot be easily avoided since Denver’s secondary is filled with legitimate NFL players. Now, that also means that Surtain is going to have to jump either Ronald Darby or Bryce Callahan to get on the field consistently in nickel packages. He probably will, as you don’t pass on your future at quarterback to take a corner with the ninth pick if you’re not going to play him, but if you’re considering a bet on Surtain, you have to account for the possibility that he has to compete for playing time.
Zaven Collins (+1300 FD and Fox vs +1200 MGM and PB vs +1100 DK): Collins was among my favorite players when I first started digging into the draft back in February, as I tend to value reliable team defense players like Collins. Ultimately, the Cardinals liked him even more than I did taking him with the 16th overall pick. I expect Collins to be a good pro due to his combination of size and athleticism paired with his consistency, effort and that ability to play team defense. He’s not, however, a notable pass rusher. Collins’ particular style and skill set rarely wins the DROY award. In other words, Collins will either need an outlier season or for the other contenders in this race to essentially fail in order for him to take down the DROY.
Jamin Davis (+1500 FD vs +1400 PB vs +1200 Fox vs +900 MGM and DK): Davis is the first DROY contender to have a fairly wide discrepancy in his market value, with a range of +900 odds to +1500 on FanDuel Sportsbook. On the plus side Davis landed in a really good spot behind what is arguably football’s best front four in Washington. He’s also in position to see significant playing time right out of the gate. On the downside, Davis is more or a traditional off ball linebacker that, similar to Cardinals rookie linebacker Zaven Collins, is either going to need an outlier season on the splash play front (sacks and turnovers) or he’s going to need the rest of the contenders for this award to essentially fail to have a shot at winning. Former Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly’s 2012 DROY campaign would be the most likely path for Davis, which would be an ambitious expectation as Kuechly was one of the better middle linebackers of the modern era.
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (+1400 MGM and DK vs +1100 PB and Fox vs +750 FD): In the interest of full disclosure, Owusu-Koramoah was among my favorite players in this draft. His combination of versatility and relentless effort at Notre Dame was a unique and memorable experience. His slide in the draft was rumored to be medical related (both the player and Browns GM Andrew Berry are unconcerned as stated here, so that situation has to be considered when making any “JOK” related bets. That said, Owusu-Koramoah landed on what is a genuinely strong Browns roster with a pretty clear path to considerable playing time. JOK was the second favorite for DROY heading into the draft, and FanDuel hasn’t adjusted his odds despite JOK landing roughly a full round later than was widely expected. Since this DROY race is more wide open than normal, JOK has the versatile skill set and the capacity to have a Darius Leonard-style outlier season that includes splash plays (sacks and turnovers) while exceeding 100 tackles. That’s a big reason why he was originally second in the pre-draft odds.
Jaycee Horn (+1600 MGM vs +1500 DK, FD, PB vs +1400 Fox): Horn was the first defensive player taken in this year’s draft (eighth overall to Carolina), which makes his near consensus listing as the eighth-most likely candidate to win the Defensive Rookie of the Year an eye-catching observation. Both cornerbacks that have won the DROY since 2010 (Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Peters) each had at least five interceptions. Horn only had two interceptions in his college career and teams could easily avoid him (just like they often did in college) if they wanted because the Panthers’ corner group is mediocre. I’ll be curious to see if Carolina intends to have Horn shadow opponents’ best receivers out of the gate, because if they do he might actually get more opportunities to create impact plays.
Azeez Ojulari (+2000 MGM, DK, Fox vs +1700 PB vs +1500 FD): I always take note when odds either surprise me or look “wrong,” because there is usually a reason for those instances. I expected the 50th overall pick Ojulari to be in the 25:1 range; that’s why five of the biggest sportsbooks in the country all posting lower odds than I expected, with FanDuel in particular being nearly half of that, made me take notice. From a football standpoint, the Giants’ defense overachieved last year behind strong, opponent-specific game planning and roster deployments. Heading into this year Big Blue’s secondary is both improved and ultimately has a shot to be among the better coverage groups in the sport. Ojulari is going to see significant playing time due to the Giants’ weak Edge group, while opposing offenses will have to manage Dexter Lawrence on early downs and Leonard Williams whenever he’s on the field. That puts Ojulari in a position where he’s set to see significant opportunity, where he’s unlikely to draw double teams, while potentially benefiting from his secondary creating greater-than-average opportunities for pass rushers to get home. His draft slot alone would make him an outlier to win this award, and I don’t personally view him as a headliner type of pass rusher, which the other Edge DROY winners since 2010 have all been. However, in this wide open of a race, an eight-sack campaign with a few turnover-related moments could put Ojulari in contention. That, I expect, is why sportsbooks are currently looking to take less liability on Ojulari than they normally would on a mid-second round pass rusher.
Long Shot Pass Rushers
Gregory Rousseau (+2500 Fox vs +2000 MGM, FD, PB vs +1600 DK): Rousseau is talented, but raw. Buffalo boasts one of the better built rosters in football which allows them to bring a player like Rousseau along slowly as part of a rotation. Opportunity would be my concern if considering a Rousseau bet.
Jayson Oweh (+3300 FD vs +2500 MGM and PB vs +2200 Fox vs +2000 DK): Oweh is essentially the replacement for the New England bound Edge Matthew Judon. Oweh is likely going to have to leap Tyus Bowser (which is doable) to have enough opportunity to contend for the DROY award. If Oweh became a primary component of the Ravens’ pass rush, his +3300 odds at FanDuel Sportsbook would become a strong value.
Joe Tryon (+6000 FD vs +4000 Fox vs +3000 MGM and PB vs +2500 DK): First, there is considerable market value on Tryon at FanDuel Sportsbook. That said, for Tryon to play enough to make an impact in this race, either Shaq Barrett or Jason Pierre-Paul is going to have to miss at least half of the season, or Tryon is going to have to absolutely kill in limited opportunities.
Also be aware of: Browns CB Greg Newsome II, Titans CB Caleb Farley, Packers CB Eric Stokes, Jaguars CB Tyson Campbell, Cowboys CB Kelvin Joseph, Chargers CB Asante Samuel Jr., Patriots DT Christian Barmore, Raiders S Trevon Moehrig.