NFL: Top 5 Candidates for 2015 Defensive Rookie of the Year

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The 2015 NFL Draft has come and gone. Most teams got the first glimpse of their newcomers during rookie mini-camps over the past week. Unfortunately for some teams and players, there were a couple of major injuries over the weekend. Defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., the No. 3 overall pick in the draft, chosen by the Jacksonville Jaguars, and tight end Jeff Heuerman, a third-round pick of the Denver Broncos, both tore ACLs over the weekend.

Both players were expected to see the field quite a bit in 2015, but it was Fowler who was widely considered one of the top candidates to win the 2015 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year following the NFL Draft. Fowler’s season-ending injury piqued our interest in looking into which rookie defensive players have the best chance at having an impactful season and making a run at winning the 2015 Defensive Rookie of the Year Award.

We’ve all heard the saying, “It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.” The players who made our list may not have the most long-term success in the NFL, but we believe that they are the players with the best chances at coming in and playing at a high level right away. Parts of our selections were based on overall talent, but we also considered scheme fits and team needs when making our decisions.

For example, we feel strongly that Shane Ray will be a Pro Bowl-caliber player for the Denver Broncos down the road, but for now, he will have a difficult time stealing snaps from Von Miller or DeMarcus Ware. With that being said, here is a look at the top five candidates to win the 2015 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award.

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1. Vic Beasley, outside linebacker, Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons are counting on Beasley to help turn around their defense in 2015. New head coach Dan Quinn is bringing the defensive scheme that he used with the Seattle Seahawks for the last two seasons to Atlanta, but for the Falcons to be successful in 2015, they need playmakers. Beasley, who has a lightning-quick first step, was drafted to fill that role from the LEO position in the Quinn’s defensive scheme.

If the 6-foot-3, 246 pounder out of Clemson turns out to be as good as scouts think he can be, chances are that the Falcons will improve dramatically on the defensive side of the ball, and Beasely will emerge as one of the top candidates in the league to win the 2015 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award.

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2. Bud Dupree, outside linebacker, Pittsburgh Steelers

We’ve been high on Dupree all offseason, and nothing has changed. In fact, we believe he may have landed in the best possible spot for him to maximize his NFL potential with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He is the prototypical 3-4 outside linebacker with the ability to rush the passer, play the run, and drop into coverage.

On top of that, Dupree is a 6-foot-4, 269-pound physical freak with a 42-inch vertical leap and a 4.56-second 40-yard dash time. He will be counted on by the Steelers to help revive their pass rush, which was below average in 2014. If Dupree stays healthy and successfully absorbs the Steelers’ defensive playbook, we would be surprised if he isn’t in the thick of the 2015 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year race.

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3. Stephone Anthony, inside linebacker, New Orleans Saints

There is a very strong chance that Anthony will be one of the starting inside linebackers in Rob Ryan’s 3-4 defense when the Saints take on the Arizona Cardinals in Week 1. Anthony is big, fast, strong, and physical, all traits that make up successful linebackers in the NFL. If he can mentally grasp the Saints playbook during OTAs and training camp, there is a very good chance that the 6-foot-3, 243-pound rookie out of Clemson could find himself playing in the Pro Bowl and in the hunt for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award in 2015.

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4. Leonard Williams, defensive end, New York Jets

Williams, out of USC, was widely viewed as the best overall player available in the 2015 NFL Draft. He is the rare defensive lineman who can play practically any position along the defensive line in any defensive scheme. New Jets head coach Todd Bowles has always been flexible in building his defense around the strengths of his players.

If Bowles ends up installing a similar defense to what he ran with the Arizona Cardinals in 2014, then Williams will likely be used in a role this season that closely resembles the role Calais Campbell played in Bowles’s defense last season. There are no sure things in the NFL draft, but Williams was the closest thing to it in 2015.

While he may not post a huge sack total as a rookie, Williams will likely be a solid three-down player who grades out well on a weekly basis. Williams is without a doubt another rookie with Pro Bowl potential who could also be in the mix for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award in 2015.

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5. Landon Collins, safety, New York Giants

Collins surprisingly slipped into the second round of the 2015 draft, going to the New York Giants with the 33rd overall selection. The former Alabama safety projects to be a T.J. Ward-type of player at the NFL level, and he is expected to be a Week 1 starter in the Giants’ defensive backfield. Collins already plays the run better than some linebackers, and if he proves to be above average in coverage as well, the Giants could have an All-Pro on their hands. At the very minimum, we expect Collins to be on the 2015 All-Rookie team.