With the NFL’s regular season in the books, now is a good time to look back on the 2021 rookies and determine which players excelled at each position. Yesterday we built the offense (which featured two Eagles players!). Today we’ll focus on defense. Stats from Pro Football Reference.
Odafe Oweh, Baltimore Ravens, Pick 31
Stats: 5 Sacks, 5 TFLs, 15 QB Hits, 3 FFs
Odafe Oweh went from a talented, but raw pass rusher in college to one of the most promising rookie defenders in the NFL. Oweh’s rare speed as a pass rusher made him a defensive weapon for the Ravens and they deployed him in a variety of ways. While he was more of a rotational player in 2021, it would be no surprise to see him take a huge leap in year two.
Kwity Paye, Indianapolis Colts, Pick 21
Stats: 4 Sacks, 3 TFLs, 10 QB Hits, 1 FFs
The Colts have to be pleased with their selection of Kwity Paye after even one year. The former Michigan Wolverine played a ton of snaps in his rookie season and had some extremely promising moments as a pass rusher. It is clear he still has a long way to go, but there is no doubt the sky’s the limit for Kwity Paye.
Christian Barmore, New England Patriots, Pick 38
Stats: 46 Total Tackles, 1.5 Sacks, 3 TFLs, 9 QB Hits
Christian Barmore already looks like a steal by the Patriots in the second round of last year’s draft. While Barmore was a rotational player during his rookie season, his disruptive ability as a pass rusher was evident from his first snap. Barmore was a big part of New England’s excellent defense that helped propel them to the playoffs. Expect his numbers to look gaudier a year from now as he carves out a bigger role.
Milton Williams, Philadelphia Eagles, Pick 73
Stats: 30 Total Tackles, 2 Sacks, 6 TFLs, 6 QB Hits
Milton Williams was a unique role player on the Eagles defense. At 6’2” and 280 pounds with rare athleticism, the Eagles used him as a penetrating 3-Technique defensive tackle, a two gapping defensive end in three man fronts, and as a true defensive end on early downs. This multifaceted role meant a steeper learning curve and being a rotational player meant his numbers were never going to be amazing in year one. Despite a slow start, Milton Williams hit a clear point midway through the season where he was making big plays on a more consistent basis. By the end of the regular season, Milton Williams was a difference maker when he was on the field. His strength and physicality made him an effective run defender and his burst allowed him to make an impact as an interior pass rusher. Williams looks like he could develop into a difference making starter down the line in Philadelphia.
Micah Parsons, Dallas Cowboys, Pick 12
Stats: 84 Total Tackles, 13 Sacks, 20 TFLs, 30 QB Hits, 3 FFs
Micah Parsons was seen by many (including myself) as a high-risk, high-reward pick and the early returns for Dallas are… looking very good (for them, not for the rest of the NFC East). Micah Parsons was supposed to come in as a conventional linebacker for the Cowboys, but Dan Quinn probably saw his out of this world athletic ability and decided to turn him loose as a pass rusher. Parsons blazing speed made him a dominant force as a blitzer and true pass rusher, yielding video game numbers for a first year player. Parsons wasn’t just a pass rusher, however. The Cowboys still used him heavily as a typical off-ball linebacker where he still thrived. His speed made him an asset as a coverage linebacker and sideline-to-sideline run defender. The scary thing about Micah Parsons is he still could get so, so much better.
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Cleveland Browns, Pick 52
Stats: 76 Total Tackles, 1.5 Sacks, 3 TFLs, 4 QB Hits, 2 FFs, 4 PDs
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah surprised when the NFL let him fall to the second round last year. The Cleveland Browns were the beneficiaries of his surprising fall and drafted who would quickly become one of the better coverage linebackers in the NFL. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah’s speed and instincts immediately translated to becoming a valuable pass defender. His unique skills gave the Browns a lot of flexibility with how to use him and align their defense. JOK also flashed ability to make an impact as a run defender and blitzer, but those are definitely areas where he can improve. However, his short term impact is very clear and he has the talented to be a well rounded difference maker for the Browns.
Nick Bolton, Kansas City Chiefs, Pick 58
Stats: 112 Total Tackles, 11 TFLs, 3 QB Hits, 3 PDs
Nick Bolton lead all rookies in total tackles this season. The former Mizzou linebacker’s speed and aggressiveness allowed him to thrive in the middle of the Kansas City defense. Bolton can still grow as a coverage linebacker and become more consistent against the run, but his ability to have bright moments across his rookie season should give hope for his NFL future.
Patrick Surtain II, Denver Broncos, Pick 9
Stats: 58 Total Tackles, 1 TFL, 14 PDs, 4 INTs, 1 TD, Allowed QB Rating of 61.3
Patrick Surtain II was a day one star for the Denver Broncos. Surtain was scene was the most pro-ready cornerback in the draft and played like it. His advanced technical prowess, high level instincts and football IQ paired perfectly with his prototypical athletic profile. Surtain II was not just the best rookie cornerback, but one of the better defenders in the whole league.
Eric Stokes, Green Bay Packers, Pick 29
Stats: 55 Total Tackles, 14 PDs, 1 INT, Allowed QB Rating of 71.3
The 2021 class has a handful of cornerbacks who showed out in their first year, but Eric Stokes stood out as the second best among them. Stokes quickly looked like a natural cornerback in the Green Bay defense. His speed and ball skills helped him thrive as a true cover cornerback. As he develops further, he and Jaire Alexander could be one of the best cornerback duos in the NFL.
Jevon Holland, Miami Dolphins, Pick 36
Stats: 69 Total Tackles, 2.5 Sacks, 3 TFLs, 7 QB Hits, 10 PDs, 2 INTs, Allowed QB Rating of 109.7
Jevon Holland was one of the best safeties in the NFL as a rookie. Not bad for someone who didn’t play college ball in 2020. Holland was given many responsibilities in the Miami defense despite his youth, being asked to cover high, in the box, the slot, defend the run and blitz regularly. Holland excelled as an all-around defender, with allowed big plays being an aberration. Who knows how Holland’s outlook changes with Brian Flores no longer calling the shots, but he clearly has a skill-set to thrive in any NFL defense.
Trevon Moehrig, Las Vegas Raiders, Pick 43
Stats: 55 Total Tackles, 6 PDs, 1 INT, Allowed QB Rating of 92.5
Where Jevon Holland was a do-it-all defender at safety, Trevon Moehrig had a very defined role in Las Vegas. The talented safety was a center-fielding specialist in the Raiders’ Cover 3-heavy defense. Moehrig’s range, and football IQ allowed him to quarterback the secondary and was fundamental in the Raiders ability to prevent big passing plays. His numbers aren’t eye-popping because his role didn’t put him around the ball very much, but his play as a rookie is a big reason the Raiders are in the playoffs.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Micah Parsons
In any other year, Patrick Surtain would be the clear choice here. However, Micah Parsons is a legit Defensive Player of the Year candidate as a rookie, something the NFL has not seen in a very long time. Parsons’ high impact and versatility in the Cowboys defense is a primary reason for the unit’s turnaround and team’s success. Much to the chagrin of the Eagles, Parsons is going to be a difference maker in Dallas for a very long time.