This is the second part of the 2012 All-Rookie Team article. If you missed part one, the offensive side of the ball, click here.
Defensive Ends: Chandler Jones (NE) & Bruce Irvin (SEA)
Chandler Jones was one of the biggest late risers in the 2012 Draft, impressing teams thoroughly in workouts and interviews leading up to last April as he vaulted all the way up into the mid-first round of the Draft, where the Patriots selected him with the 21st overall pick. He burst out onto the scene quite impressively too, recording a sack in both of his first two games and showing his presence in the run game as well. Despite cooling down as the season went along, Jones was still an easy selection for a spot on the All-Rookie team due to his solid play in all departments. His Pacific Northwest counterpart was not too difficult of a selection either. He is an obvious liability as a run defender, but the impact he had as a pass-rushing specialist off the bench helped vindicate Pete Carroll's still somewhat dubious selection of him in the first round. In the previous article covering the offense, I reference the Pass Blocking Efficiency rating, devised and used by Pro Football Focus as a way of measuring offensive linemen. Well, they have a mirror rating for defensive players known as Pass Rush Productivity, which measures pressure created on a per snap basis with weighting towards sacks. Irvin's 42 total pressures (10 sacks, 12 hits, 20 hurries) in just 324 pass-rushing snaps was good enough to place him as not only the rookie leader in this metric, but higher than well-respected and fearsome pass-rushers in the league, including Carlos Dunlap, Elvis Dumervil, and Chris Clemons.
Defensive Tackles: Mike Martin (TEN) & Fletcher Cox (PHI)
It came as a bit of a surprise when the Titans selected former Michigan Wolverine, Mike Martin, in the third round of the 2012 Draft. After all, the team had found some pretty good success with a pair of rookie defensive tackles in 2011, emerging star Jurrell Casey and Karl Klug. The move worked out rather well for Tennessee in year one however, as despite having only three sacks, Martin posted the fourth-highest Pass Rush Productivity among all qualified defensive tackles last year. He only trailed Geno Atkins, Nick Fairley, and Ndamukong Suh, and that's quite a good list of company to keep. With Casey and Martin manning the middle of their defensive line, the Titans may have a dominating duo of the future on their hands. Cox's impressive 2012 season as a part of the Eagles' envious defensive line rotation was enough to beat out Michael Brockers and the surprisingly pleasant season submitted by Akiem Hicks, a Canadian import drafted by the New Orleans Saints in the third round. If Cox can work on playing more consistently and being a more reliable option from week to week, he'll have no problem maintaining the starting role with Philly he earned halfway through last season.
Outside Linebackers: Lavonte David (TB) & Dont'a Hightower (NE)
Lavonte David, a late second-round selection by the new regime of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last April, started every game for a defense that was the worst in the league at stopping the run in 2011. This year? They orchestrated a complete turnaround in the most literal way possible, finishing 2012 with the number one defense in all the land. David was big factor in that, flying all over the field and bringing down the ball carrier more times than you could shake a stick at. Joining him on this team is Dont'a Hightower, a late first-round pick by the New England Patriots who showed off his skills as both a run defender and a pass-rusher in his rookie season. He didn't necessarily blow you away with his play, and his coverage work needs some improvement, but on the whole I found him more deserving of this spot than Zach Brown of the Titans, and Vontaze Burfict of the Bengals.
Inside Linebacker: Bobby Wagner (SEA)
Not surprisingly, another Seahawk rookie on the defensive side of the ball had a very strong impact in 2012. Wagner, runner-up for the Football Pros Defensive Rookie of the Year Award
, was about as tremendous of a run defender as you could have asked any player to be, let alone a first-year player out of Utah State. I really liked Wagner coming out of the Draft, but even I was surprised at his stellar performance this past season. At this rate, we'll be talking about him within the next few years as possibly the best inside linebacker in the game. If there is an area he can improve on, it would likely be is pass coverage. He allowed about 80% of passes in his direction to be completed for an average of 10.3 yards per reception. Both of those figures are noticeably enough below average compared to all other inside linebackers this past season.
Cornerbacks: Casey Hayward (GB) & Alfonzo Dennard (NE)
The actual winner of the 2012 Football Pros Defensive Rookie of the Year Award makes his appearance on this roster now. I was very surprised to see Hayward go at the end of the second-round to Green Bay. I thought that the former Vanderbilt Commodore would be limited in the NFL due to his lack of speed and athleticism. He certainly didn't show any signs of limitation in his rookie season though, allowing just a mere 44.6% completion rate on passes thrown while he was the primary defender in coverage. He didn't give up a single touchdown, recorded six interceptions, and deflected twelve other passes in an extremely impressive rookie campaign. It would be hard for any player to repeat that kind of season, but Green Bay still may have an unexpected future star on their hands. In the other spot sits Alfonzo Dennard, yet another New England Patriot rookie defender who helped fully revamp that unit this year. Once seen as a first-round prospect, Dennard fell all the way to pick #224 overall, getting selected in the seventh round by the always shrewd Patriots' brain trust (See Belichick, Bill). Dennard worked his way up the depth chart through camp and finally got his first in-game action in Week 5 against the Denver Broncos, where he was targeted five times by Peyton Manning, but surrendered no receptions and deflected two passes in his NFL debut. By the end of the year, Dennard was a starter for the club, and looks primed to show every team that passed on him (several times) how wrong they were.
Safeties: Harrison Smith (MIN) & Tavon Wilson (NE)
Almost as impressive as the jarring turnaround of the Tampa Bay run defense was the equally phenomenal reformation of the Minnesota Vikings' pass defense. The reasons for that are quite obvious: they got a healthy Antoine Winfield back, Chris Cook got back into the fold after off-field issues and injuries, and the addition of Harrison Smith. The former Fighting Irish standout hit a rough patch in the middle of the season, but his solid start and strong finish to 2012 made it easy to reserve a spot for him on the All-Rookie team. And if you thought that three New England Patriot defenders was enough for one team, you would be sorely mistaken! One of the most surprising early selections of the 2012 Draft was when the Patriots selected little-known Illinois safety prospect, Tavon Wilson, in the middle of the second round. Most pundits and prognosticators (myself included) didn't expect Wilson to be taken until the sixth or seventh round, if at all. Clearly we are all worse at our jobs than Bill Belichick would be, as Wilson made a name for himself as an extra DB in sub packages. His coverage skills still need some tuning up, but he was quite a competent run defender, and he was just barley good enough to beat out Jerron McMillian of the Packers for the second safety spot here.