This is the second part of the halfway mark All-Rookie team, focusing on defense. Click here
for part one, focused on offense.
4-3 Defensive Front
Defensive Ends - Chandler Jones (NE) & Bruce Irvin (SEA):
Far and away the front-runner for Defensive Rookie of the Year at the halfway point, Jones has been every bit as good as advertised coming out of Syracuse. He's logged six sacks so far, and has added enough extra hits and hurries on the quarterback to be tied for sixth-place among all 4-3 defensive ends in total pressures. Not only has he quickly established himself as a fearsome pass-rusher, but Jones has been a force in stopping the run as well. It's hard to really find any flaws in his game, and he's been everything the Patriots could have hoped for when they took him with 21st overall pick last April.
The spot opposite Jones ended up being a close call between Irvin and Frank Alexander of the Carolina Panthers, but in the end it just was too hard to overlook how impressive Irvin has been thus far. Let's do a little bit of number crunching. Previously mentioned stud pass-rusher, Chandler Jones, has tallied 34 total pressures on opposing quarterbacks in 282 pass-rushing snaps. That equates to a pressure about once every 8.29 attempts. Compare that to Bruce Irvin, who has accumulated 23 total pressures on just 165 pass-rushing snaps. That adds up to a pressure once every 7.17 attempts. Impressive. It also means that Pete Carroll now has a 50% success rate in selecting players in the first round that were otherwise likely to go in the third round.
Defensive Tackles - Mike Martin (TEN) & Akiem Hicks (NO):
You won't hear his name a lot, if at all, on any studio shows, or see it written in any major newspaper or website that often either. But make no mistake, Mike Martin has been good. Really, really good. He bypassed last year's surprising fifth-round pick Karl Klug in the rotation at defensive tackle, and has been one of the most impactful players at his position so far this year. His value has especially shined when it comes to rushing the passer, where his seventeen total pressures rank him sixth among all defensive tackles in the league. He's been a plus defending the run too, though it hasn't been as impressive as his ability to get after the quarterback. Viewed as an undersized tweener prospect coming out of Michigan, the Titans are reaping great and unexpected rewards from their third-round pick.
Joining Martin on this team is the player who was selected seven spots later in the Draft, fellow third-round pick out of Regina University in Saskatchewan, Canada (Also the college of current Seahawks punter Jon Ryan!), Akiem Hicks. He hasn't done anything splashy or that jumps off the page, but he's put in solid work every week coming off the bench in the New Orleans defensive line rotation. He's not much of a pass-rusher, but his run defense has been a sight for sore eyes down in the bayou. And yes, this does mean that there actually is something positive going for the Saints' defense this year.
Outside Linebackers - Lavonte David (TB) & Vontaze Burfict (CIN):
After a 2011 campaign featuring one of the most disastrous displays of run defense in recent memory, it was clear that some changes had to be made. So the Buccaneers went into the NFL Draft and selected Lavonte David out of Nebraska with their second-round pick. That decision is paying immediate dividends so far, as David's play has been a key factor in their turnaround from the bottom of the barrel in 2011, to currently sixth overall in rushing yards allowed per game. He's also flashed skills in coverage, giving up just 8.4 yards per completion.
And now the only undrafted player on defense for the All-Rookie team, a name that we should all be quite familiar with by now, former Arizona State Sun Devil Vontaze Burfict. I've read and heard scouts and analysts hail him as possibly the second coming of Ray Lewis, but after a catastrophic senior year, Burfict fell from being a first-round lock to going undrafted and getting a deal with the Cincinnati Bengals. Fortune favored Burfict, as a combination of Thomas Howard's injury and Dontay Moch's suspension paved the way for him to assume the starting role as the weakside linebacker. He hasn't looked back since, playing with a chip on his shoulders and showing off some of the skills that made him such a high-caliber prospect in the first place. The Bengals took a lot of flak and were the familiar punchline considering their reputation as well as Burfict's, but they look like the ones getting the last laugh if Burfict continues to live up to his potential like this.
Inside Linebacker - Bobby Wagner (SEA):
I would like to go on the record and remind everybody that I loved Bobby Wagner coming out of Utah State. It's always good to make sure people don't forget when you actually are right about something. The Seahawks clearly agreed with me and made Wagner their second-round pick this past April, and he then proceeded to win the starting job at inside linebacker after their man in the middle last year, David Hawthorne, fled to greener pastures in New Orleans. Wonder how he's feeling about that choice. Either way, Wagner hasn't disappointed, and you can live with his minor struggles in coverage when he's cleaning up in the run game like he has been so far. His 32 stops (defined as any solo tackle made which constitutes an offensive failure) are the third most among all inside linebackers, trailing only Daryl Washington and Derrick Johnson.
3-4 Defensive Front
Defensive Ends - Quinton Coples (NYJ) & Tyrone Crawford (DAL):
I was skeptical about the ability of Coples to play in a 3-4 scheme. I thought it would be a waste of his real talent. And while I still believe he would be even better as a defensive end in a 4-3, Coples has certainly proved so far that he is more than capable of holding down a job as a five-technique. With Muhammad Wilkerson firmly locking down one of those spots on the Jets, Coples splits most of his snaps on the other side with Mike DeVito, and he's really shown promise coming off of the bench. He's been decent in stuffing the run, but his real value has been as a pass-rusher and that's something not typically expected from his position. All he needs to do is cut down on the penalties, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him overtake DeVito for the starting job by season's end.
Tyrone Crawford doesn't get a lot of snaps for the Cowboys, and is really the last man in their defensive line rotation, but when he has gotten onto the field he's played decently. A third-round pick out of Boise State, Crawford has found his way onto the field on every game for Dallas so far, and has put in a workman-like performance each time. With all of the talent and names in the Dallas front line, Crawford won't get any publicity, but he's a name to keep an eye on down the road as his role is expanded.
Nose Tackle - Dontari Poe (KC):
Winner by default!! Winner by default!! Out of the eleven teams which primarily run a 3-4 defense, the only rookie who has seen any significant snaps as the nose tackle for any of those teams has been Dontari Poe. This by no means should lead you to believe that Poe has been any good, because he hasn't. Not by any stretch of the imagination. If there is a positive thing to say about him, it's that he hasn't committed any penalties yet. But he hasn't been a force in defending the run or getting after the quarterback, and the only reason Kansas City keeps playing him is because they don't have any other options that are even remotely palatable. That's pretty much the takeaway from Poe's rookie season so far - he's better than Jerrell Powe and Anthony Toribio.
Outside Linebackers - Melvin Ingram (SD) & Courtney Upshaw (BAL):
The two outside linebackers on our 3-4 team both have established themselves more as run defenders early on, more so than as pass-rushers like you would typically expect. Melvin Ingram is the more well-rounded of the two players, and has played well doing a little bit of everything for the Chargers as their first OLB off the bench. With the disappointing play of Jarrett Johnson, Ingram has provided some of the run defense in his place, and has shown off his skill as a pass-rusher from time to time too. The Chargers invested a first-round pick in Ingram and certainly have high hopes for him in the future. But considering how highly he was hyped coming out of South Carolina, his season so far may be considered a little bit disappointing,
Ingram's partner on this hypothetical team is the more extreme of these two players, Courtney Upshaw, a second-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens out of Alabama. Where he has really struggled to make an impact as a pass-rusher, Upshaw has been one of the few bright spots on the team in defending the run. He's yet to miss a tackle and has one of the highest stop percentages among all 3-4 outside linebackers. As a pass-rusher his thirteen total pressures aren't too bad on the whole, but with only one of them being an actual sack, it leaves his numbers being less valuable than they really could be.
Inside Linebackers - Demario Davis (NYJ) & Luke Kuechly (CAR):
The Jets took a chance on Arkansas State product Demario Davis in the third round of the 2012 Draft, and so far he's proved to be worth it. His play hasn't been spectacular by any means, but considering how poorly the rest of the Jets' linebacking corps has played this season, he stands out that much more. He's done a little bit of everything in his role as the first man off the bench to relieve David Harris and Bart Scott, and considering the play so far of the two guys just mentioned, it wouldn't be surprising to see Davis get some starts down the road.
And yes, technically I'm cheating again here. Obviously Luke Kuechly does not play in a 3-4 with the Panthers. But there were no other worthy candidates for this spot and I wanted to take the opportunity to mention how dramatically Kuechly has turned around his play the past few weeks. Through the first handful of games this season, it was really jarring to see how poorly he was playing. He was constantly out of position in run defense and looked plain lost at times in coverage. However, once the Panthers made the decision to move Kuechly from the weakside back to his natural position in the middle, the ninth-overall pick out of Boston College has looked much more like the player everyone thought he would be.
Cornerbacks - Casey Hayward (GB) & Alfonzo Dennard (NE):
When the Packers selected Casey Hayward out of Vanderbilt in the second round of the NFL Draft, I was a bit surprised. I thought Hayward's limitations as an athlete would really drop him down the board for a lot of teams. And maybe it did, but the Packers saw enough to take him early on. And for their troubles? How about a nickel corner who's only allowing completions on 46.2% of the passes thrown in his direction, has deflected three passes, intercepted four more, and hasn't given up a touchdown yet in his career. Or if you'd like a more succinct version, how about a corner allowing just a 25.5 quarterback rating on passes thrown at him so far? Hayward has been fantastic through the first half of the year, but his lack of snaps will likely keep him from serious merit for the Pro Bowl or Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
The second spot was a tossup between Alfonzo Dennard and Morris Claiborne; but Dennard's very impressive performance in significantly fewer snaps gave him the edge over the highly touted pick out of LSU. Dennard himself was projected to be a first or second round selection himself, but for whatever combination of reasons he fell all the way to the 224th pick where the Patriots scooped him up. A mixture of injuries and poor play gave way to Dennard getting his first taste of NFL action in week five against the Broncos, where he was targeted five times and allowed zero of them to be completed, including deflecting two of them. He's played so well that he has been a starter for the team the past two weeks. and his numbers for the season stand at one touchdown allowed versus two interceptions and two passes deflected, as well as being targeted 21 times and giving up just nine receptions.
Free Safety - Jerron McMillian (GB):
The rich continue to get richer. McMillian, a fourth-round pick out of the football powerhouse of Maine, has been a pleasant surprise for the Packers this year. Coming off the bench he's provided above average play in both pass coverage and run defense. He's come down to earth a little bit after a great start to his career, but he has played well still, and has been a very nice compliment to the work of both Charles Woodson and Morgan Burnett. He's yet to allow a touchdown in his career.
Strong Safety - Harrison Smith (MIN):
The returns of both Antoine Winfield and Chris Cook, combined with the addition of Harrison Smith to the team, have resulted in a huge turnaround for the Vikings secondary this season akin to the turnaround of the Buccaneers' run defense. Smith has given up just seven receptions for 54 yards through half of the season, and is only allowing a reception once about every 42.6 he drops back into coverage. He needs to work on his run defense some more, and clean up his game a little bit (he's already starting to garner a bit of a reputation as a dirty player), but there doesn't appear to be any reason for Smith not do develop into a real star at the safety position.