Denzel Ward

Three leading contenders for Defensive Rookie of the Year

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They say that defences win championships and in the infamous words of legendary football coach Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant, “Offence sells tickets. Defence wins Championships.”

We have had Dick LeBeau’s Steelers Blitzburgh defense in the 90s along with the Pittsburgh Steel Curtain of the 70s to the recent Legion of Boom in Seattle.

There have been so many in the Super Bowl era including the ’46 Bears and the Ray Lewis led Ravens in 2000.

Defence is sometimes forgotten about when it comes to the draft, but that can’t be said with this year’s draft class playing at such a high standard and consistently. It was tough to select just three players to focus on, some will agree, and some will disagree with who I’ve picked but let’s put that down to how good these guys have been so far this season.

Darius Leonard (Indianapolis Colts, linebacker)

Leonard was picked in the 2nd round (36th overall) by the Colts and what a steal he’s been.


The former South Carolina State stud has been a welcome addition in Indianapolis. His stats so far are incredible, 114 tackles, six sacks, one interception and four forced fumbles.

The 114 tackles currently lead the league and don’t forget he also missed a game (New England).

Leonard has rushed the passer a mere 33 times yet has six sacks, he’s a smart footballer, has patience and knows when to make his move on opposing quarterbacks. It’s clear to see his presence has transformed what looked like a poor run defence into one of the best in the NFL. They currently rank 5th going into the final quarter of the season.

Derwin James (Los Angeles Chargers, safety)

James had a Rodgers-esque type draft. He was expected to go high (top 10) but dropped to 17th, much to the delight of the Chargers.

James stats tick all the boxes so far (3.5 sacks, two interceptions and six QB hits), he’s a speedy DB who can rush the passer, go toe to toe with the speediest receivers in the league and make a play in the open field.


You can see why analysts compared him to Jalen Ramsey, he has the same freakish ability and versatility. He can play safety or slot cornerback and he wouldn’t look out of place playing linebacker with his tackling ability. The Chargers have found an absolute gem and along with Jose Bosa could have one of the NFL’s top defences for years to come

Leighton Vander Esch (Dallas Cowboys, linebacker)

I delayed writing this piece until the TNF game between the Saints and the Cowboys had been played, just in case Vander Esch continued doing what he’s been doing most of the season and he did.

He recorded 10 total tackles and it felt like he made more, he was everywhere! The 1st round pick (19th overall) has 102 tackles so far and a couple of interceptions and with his 4.65 40-yard dash, he covers the ground like a top running back.

Sean Lee’s injury has put a bit of extra pressure on Vander Esch, but he’s taken it on like a seasoned veteran. It’s a scary thought what the Dallas defence will be like when Lee’s healthy.

The chasing pack

Bradley Chubb started the year as the favourite for DROY after finishing his final year at NC State with 72 tackles (23 for a loss) and 10 sacks. With Von Miller lined up opposite Chubb it has been easy to forget how good Chubb has been this season (41 tackles and nine sacks).

The Browns drafted well with their first-round picks and Denzel Ward flew out of the blocks with six tackles and two interceptions in his first game against the Steelers. Its kind of gone downhill recently for the rookie Ward but don’t count him out just yet.

Despite the presence of Khalil Mack, Roquan Smith has made a name for himself within the Bears franchise. Anther 1st round pick who has justified his selection, Smith had his first sack on his first NFL snap. With 81 tackles and 4 sacks, Smith has gone about his business in an under the radar fashion. That Bears defence has traits of the ’46 Bears.