The 28 best seasons for NFL defensive rookies

The 28 best seasons for NFL defensive rookies

The best seasons by NFL defensive rookies: Lawrence Taylor, Night Train Lane, Ronnie Lott, Dıck Butkus, Al Baker, Jevon Kearse, Nick Bosa, Micah Parsons, Lem Barney, Mike Haynes, Ndamukong Suh, Von Miller, Paul Krause, Aaron Donald, Darius Leonard,,,,

Here are The 28 best seasons for NFL defensive rookies

1. Lawrence Taylor, 1981

Lott’s brilliance did not earn Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. Because Taylor was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, turning enough heads to beat out Joe Klecko’s 20.5-sack season. Retroactive sack compiling only gives Taylor 9.5 (plus two in the playoffs), but he was blazing a new positional trail. The Giants’ size-speed monster straight out of the 21st century was being credited as changing the NFL during his rookie year. Taylor destroyed running backs and tight ends from his outside linebacker spot, making an impact in the run game as well to lift the Giants defense from 27th to third from 1980-81. LT forced seminal blocking adjustments and powered the Giants to their first playoff berth in 18 years.

2. Night Train Lane, 1952

The NFL of the 1950s allowed defenders to maul receivers and limited offensive linemen’s hand usage, creating a playground for defensive backs. No one put together a season like Lane, who set a still-standing interception record in his debut Rams season. The 6-foot-1 cornerback picked off 14 passes in 12 games, and the intimidating cover man turned those into 298 return yards and two touchdowns for a 9-3 Rams team. The clothesline artist brought a menacing nature to his position, forcing the NFL to change the rules to protect ball carriers, and remains one of the best corners in league history.

3. Ronnie Lott, 1981

It is difficult to make a greater rookie-year impact than Lott did, and the all-time great did so at his second-best position. The 49ers stationed Lott at cornerback as a rookie, not moving him to safety until 1985. The first-round pick still thrived, intercepting nine total passes (two in a divisional-round win over the Giants) and returning four of those for TDs. The USC standout did the most to change the fortunes of the 49ers defense, which improved from 26th in 1980 to second in ’81. San Francisco’s secondary featured a host of impact rookies, but Lott’s physicality and coverage instincts played an essential role in the 49ers’ first Super Bowl season.

4. Dıck Butkus, 1965

It is unfortunate Butkus both played exclusively on non-playoff teams and played before proper defensive stats were the norm. Butkus lost out to Bears teammate Gale Sayers for Rookie of the Year, back when offensive and defensive players were grouped together, but finished 1965 as a first-team All-Pro. The do-everything linebacker’s fearsome hitting style is well known, but Butkus also showed his turnover-producing chops as a rookie. Chicago’s middle linebacker intercepted five passes and recovered seven fumbles, likely forcing several of those. The rare player to make two All-Decade teams, Butkus was at his best in the 1960s, before knee trouble slowed him.

5. Al Baker, 1978

While the numbers are unofficial, Baker is credited with not just recording the most sacks by a rookie but holding the NFL’s single-season sack record. The Lions’ second-round pick delivered a stunning breakout, finishing his rookie season with 23 sacks. Few players suffered from the lack of prior eras’ defensive statistics like Baker, who was a fearsome pass rusher during his early seasons. Detroit’s defensive end talent stood at 56.5 sacks, unofficially, through three seasons and twice led the league. His 1978 total led the NFL by 5.5. Baker earned first-team All-Pro recognition for his rookie-year efforts

6. Jevon Kearse, 1999

The official rookie sack standard still belongs to Kearse, who registered 14.5 with the Titans to break Reggie White’s record. (White’s USFL years made him ineligible for this list.) While the pre-sack-charting era includes higher totals, Kearse made a massive impact for a franchise that had never previously qualified for a Super Bowl. “The Freak” forced eight fumbles, including one on MVP Kurt Warner, during the regular season and cemented his place in sack lore with his outing in the “Music City Miracle” game. Kearse dropped Rob Johnson twice, forcing two fumbles, with the second being a safety. The first-round pick also dropped Warner once in Super Bowl XXXIV.

7. Nick Bosa, 2019

The 49ers ranked 30th in defensive DVOA in 2018, a 4-12 season. Their 2019 unit finished second in this metric and lifted the team to Super Bowl LIV. The top variable: Bosa. While the 49ers employed a defensive line flush with first-round picks, the group did not matter much until Bosa arrived as the No. 2 overall pick. The Ohio State-honed D-end finished with nine sacks, 16 tackles for loss, and 25 QB hits and was a top-10 pressure producer. He added four more sacks in the playoffs, being set to win Super Bowl MVP had Patrick Mahomes not awakened late. Bosa’s impact transcended stats; the 49ers are a much different team with their top pass rusher on the field.

8. Micah Parsons, 2021

Parsons’ rookie year means one of the NFL’s top early-2020s subplots will be charting where the Cowboys’ front-seven destroyer’s career goes. Helping out at defensive end while playing his traditional standup linebacker, Parsons did it all for a Cowboys defense he transformed in 2021. Missing one game, Parsons still dropped a stunning 13-20-30 sacks-TFLs-QB hits line and passed the eye test more emphatically. He and Ja’Marr Chase’s success following COVID-19 opt-outs will make college stars even more cautious in the future, and the Penn State product will be a fixture on some intriguing Dallas defenses.

9. Lem Barney, 1967

Barney displayed his supreme athletic gifts quickly, notching a diving pick-six on Bart Starr — in the Packer legend’s fifth championship season — on his second NFL play. A second-round pick out of Jackson State, Barney built on that hot start by leading the league with 10 INTs. The lockdown cornerback tallied an NFL-leading 232 return yards and three pick-sixes. The third of those, a 71-yard return against the Vikings, doubles as one of the more effortless cross-field saunters you’ll see. Continuing the lineage of dominant Lions corners, Barney exited his fourth season with 32 INTs en route to Hall of Fame enshrinement.

10. Mike Haynes, 1976

During a period that gave cover men more freedom, Haynes was simply an unfair weapon to deploy. The future NFL 100th Anniversary teamer intercepted a career-high eight passes and showcased elite coverage chops, skills that later led to quarterbacks testing other defenders on Haynes’ teams. The 6-foot-2 cornerback also returned two punts for TDs, added three fumble recoveries, and helped the Patriots to their first post-merger playoff berth. While the all-timer later flourished with the Raiders, after the NFL cracked down on physical coverage, he was also a marvel on lesser-remembered Patriot teams.

11. Ndamukong Suh, 2010

Suh’s college profile (fourth in the 2009 Heisman voting) and draft status (No. 2 overall) gave the elite defensive tackle prospect a profile his Detroit arrival could not diminish. This helped the Nebraska alum shine immediately. Suh finished his debut season with 10 sacks and 17 quarterback hits, bulldozing his way to first-team All-Pro honors despite playing for a 6-10 team. Suh immediately became a grueling blocking assignment for opposing interior O-linemen, and opponents’ blocking schemes reflected it henceforth. This season remains Suh’s only double-digit sack showing.

12. Von Miller, 2011

John Elway’s first draft running the Broncos featured an interesting decision. While Patrick Peterson and Marcell Dareus became quality defenders, the ex-Bronco honcho made the right call at No. 2 overall in Miller. The slithery outside linebacker’s eye-popping abilities showed immediately, with the Texas A&M product playing a vital role on a defense that enabled a Tim Tebow-quarterbacked team to make the playoffs. Despite playing outside linebacker in a 4-3 defense and battling a torn thumb ligament late in the season, Miller tortured right tackles throughout an 11.5-sack (feat. 29 QB hits) campaign. No one felt the wrath like Jets tackle Wayne Hunter.

13. Paul Krause, 1964

With all players grouped into one category at this point, Krause was denied Rookie of the Year acclaim by Washington teammate and fellow future Hall of Famer Charley Taylor. But Krause’s centerfield ability and unparalleled interception production were on display early. The savvy safety intercepted an NFL-high 12 passes — the most the league’s all-time INT kingpin snared in a season — and took one of those back for a touchdown. Krause did not rely on a few bad QBs to get to 12, either, intercepting passes in nine games. Washington traded Krause to Minnesota after four seasons.

14. Aaron Donald, 2014

The only non-All-Pro Donald season still doubles as one of the best by an NFL rookie. The Rams used their first-round pick as a backup in the season’s first month, with the all-time great playing fewer than 51% of St. Louis’ snaps in each of the team’s first four games. Jeff Fisher took the training wheels off henceforth, and the Pitt product began his terrifying ascent. The menacing defensive tackle finished with nine sacks and 18 tackles for loss. These are pedestrian Donald numbers, but he made an impact immediately and became the best player on a D-line housing vets Chris Long, Michael Brockers, and Robert Quinn.

15. Darius Leonard, 2018

The main reason Matt Eberflus landed as a head coach, Leonard rewarded the Colts for their second-round gamble on a Division I-FCS player. “The Maniac” led the league in tackles (163) despite missing a game and added seven sacks from his off-ball linebacker spot. The South Carolina State alum began his fumble-forcing rampage as a rookie, producing four of his 17 career strips, and earned first-team All-Pro recognition as a non-Pro Bowler to further expose the latter’s flawed voting process. Leonard was the main reason the Colts emerged from nowhere to go 10-6 and advance to the AFC’s divisional round.

16. Tommy Nobis, 1966

Before injuries intervened, Nobis was a sideline-to-sideline presence in Atlanta. The linebacker dubbed “Mr. Falcon” was the No. 1 overall pick in 1966. Atlanta hit it big on its first-ever draftee, but the team’s struggles obscured Nobis’ performance. Dıck Butkus, Ray Nitschke, and Willie Lanier overshadowed the Falcons tackler, but as a rookie, Nobis turned heads. While the unofficial-record 294 tackles attributed to Nobis say more about the NFL’s suspect tackling stats of that era, Nobis added five sacks and was easily the top Falcon for most of his career. He is one of the best players not in the Hall of Fame.

17. Mark Carrier, 1990

From a turnover-producing standpoint, Carrier’s rookie season stands among one of the best in NFL history — for a player of any age. Chosen sixth overall by the Bears, Carrier played a big part in the team returning to the playoffs that season. Not only did the rookie safety intercept an NFL-high 10 passes, but he also forced five fumbles for an 11-5 Bears team. One of two NFL Mark Carriers at the time, the Chicago resident added an 11th INT in a wild-card playoff win. Infusing Chicago’s aging defense with young talent, Carrier cemented his breakout season with three INTs against Washington — two coming on deep Mark Rypien passes to Pro Bowler Gary Clark.

18. Brian Urlacher, 2000

After operating as a safety/linebacker hybrid in college, Urlacher moved into the Bears’ starting lineup in Week 3 of his rookie season. Over the next five weeks, he unleashed a breakout stretch by collecting six sacks from his middle linebacker position. The New Mexico product finished the year with eight sacks, 124 tackles (16 for loss), and two interceptions. This versatility paved the way for the rangy (even at nearly 260 pounds) linebacker to become the centerpiece of Lovie Smith’s Tampa-2 defense — an Urlacher-geared dominant unit by the mid-2000s — and a first-ballot Hall of Fame induction.

19. Patrick Willis, 2007

The player who eventually snatched Ray Lewis’ best-linebacker-alive belt became a force quickly, leading the NFL with 174 tackles. No one else was in the No. 11 overall pick’s tackling stratosphere that year, with Willis’ solo-tackle count (136) outpacing everyone else by at least 30. Although the 49ers went 5-11 and were years away from their Jim Harbaugh-guided rise, their do-everything middle linebacker was a plug-and-play dynamo — one who eventually became the centerpiece for that defense-powered ascent in the early 2010s. Willis became the rare rookie to earn first-team All-Pro honors, a feat he repeated in four of the next five years.

20. Mel Renfro, 1964

Before making the less common transition from safety to cornerback, Renfro displayed his Hall of Fame talents for a still-building Cowboys team as a rookie. The first-year safety notched seven interceptions on defense and led the NFL in both kick- and punt-return yardage. Although the Cowboys went 5-8-1 in their fifth season, Renfro scored two touchdowns and served notice he would be one of the NFL’s top DBs for the next 14 seasons. The college running back proved a natural in Dallas’ defensive backfield, and he soon became part of the first incarnation of Dallas’ Doomsday defenses.

21. Everson Walls, 1981

Some higher-ranked 1981 rookie seasons resulted in zero Defensive Rookie of the Year votes for Walls, but the Cowboys cornerback intercepted an NFL-leading 11 passes. No player has topped that since. An undrafted free agent (after a 12-round draft) out of Grambling, Walls became a starter for a famed Dallas defense and made an impact in the team getting to the Super Bowl XVI doorstep. While he was in coverage on the most famous wide receiver play in NFL history — “The Catch” — Walls intercepted Joe Montana twice in that game.

22. Marcus Peters, 2015

Even though Peters missed the 2021 season due to injury, he still leads the NFL in interceptions — by four — since 2015 with 31. The Chiefs’ first-round pick began that run as a rookie, leading the NFL with eight picks and completing the DB sweep by also pacing the league in return yards (280), return TDs (two), and passes defensed (26). QBs targeted Kansas City’s gambling cornerback more than any other player that year, but Peters made them pay often. Peters added a ninth pick in the Chiefs’ wild-card win in Houston, the franchise’s first playoff victory in 22 years. Peters’ 280 INT return yards ranks in the top 10 all-time.

23. Marshon Lattimore, 2017

Although Drew Brees piloted the Saints to four straight playoff brackets to close out his career, it is hard to overstate how bad New Orleans’ defense was in the years immediately prior. The 2015 Saints gave up the most TD passes in a season, and their 2016 version ranked 31st to hold Brees back. Lattimore’s arrival marked the top variable for the 2017 squad, which rode a stellar draft class back to prominence. The Pro Bowler stepped in as a starter and became the Saints’ No. 1 cornerback, intercepting a career-high five passes and becoming a difficult matchup outside. The Saints rocketed up to 10th in defense and won the NFC South.

24. Dwight Freeney, 2002

Months after Jim Mora was correct in his skepticism of the 2001 Colts’ playoff chances, his replacement took the keys and ended up with a Ferrari at defensive end. Tony Dungy’s Colts took Freeney 11th overall after his Big East-record 17.5-sack season at Syracuse. The undersized edge rusher started only eight games as a rookie and did not make the Pro Bowl. Here is what did happen: the spin-move master craftsman led the NFL in tackles for loss (20) and forced fumbles (nine), taking off after moving into the lineup in Week 9. No rookie this century matches Freeney’s forced-fumble total, and he began a Hall of Fame-caliber career with 13 sacks. Not bad.

25. Milt Davis, 1957

A rookie at age 28, Davis made up for lost time by completing a clean sweep of NFL stat categories most pertinent to defensive backs. The military veteran and ex-Lions draftee intercepted 10 passes and posted 219 return yards and two touchdowns for a Colts team on the cusp of its Baltimore-era apex. The UCLA alum became an instant starter, and while the Colts went just 7-5 in 1957, Davis remained a first-string safety for the 1958 and ’59 NFL champion Baltimore squads.

26. Aldon Smith, 2011

Not a Pro Bowler or a starter, Smith still made a clear impact on a 49ers team that earned the NFC’s No. 2 seed thanks to a major defensive leap. While off-field troubles later derailed Smith’s career, he stayed on the field for a San Francisco defense that ranked second — a year after a 16th-place ranking — in a 13-3 season. Smith finished with 14 sacks, 0.5 off the recognized rookie record, and 27 QB hits. The Mizzou-developed outside linebacker added two more in the playoffs, including one in a physical Giants matchup in which the 49ers pushed the eventual Super Bowl champs to the brink.

27. Julius Peppers, 2002

The former North Carolina post player justified his home-state NFL team’s No. 2 overall investment, winning the Defensive Rookie of the Year prize after an abbreviated season. Missing the Panthers’ final four games due to a substance-abuse violation, Peppers still accumulated 12 sacks and forced five fumbles. The ex-Tar Heel hardwood mainstay also batted down six passes. The 6-foot-6 talent would prove quite durable, adding 16 more seasons to a resume that features the fourth-most sacks in NFL history.

28. Charles Woodson, 1998

Woodson enjoyed an awards-filled late 1990s, becoming the only full-time defender to win the Heisman Trophy before winning Defensive Rookie of the Year honors a year later. The No. 4 overall pick started all 16 games for the Raiders, intercepting five passes and adding two more turnovers on forced fumbles. The ex-Michigan superstar impressed enough, making four straight Pro Bowls to start his career, QBs largely avoided him by his late 20s, leading to a less eventful end to his first Oakland stint.

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