Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner did the unthinkable last season — he aptly followed a legendary rookie campaign from 2021 Defensive Rookie of the Year Micah Parsons with a legendary rookie year of his own en route to winning the prestigious NFL award.
Now, Gardner and Parsons in back-to-back seasons? Two tough acts to follow for the defensive group from the 2023 draft class. Who will stand out most this upcoming season?
Gardner’s cruise to DROY in 2022 made him just the third cornerback to take home the award since Charles Woodson’s win in 1998. Historically, the DROY award is predominantly owned by defenders who sack the quarterback and those who tackle the ball carrier. Also, like Offensive Rookie of the Year, this is a first-round pick-dominated distinction. Only two of the last 20 DROYs were selected outside of Round 1.
8. Calijah Kancey, DT, Buccaneers
Kancey is Aaron Donald’s size — despite shorter arms, which absolutely matter for defensive linemen — with Donald-esque explosiveness and close to a Donald-type loaded arsenal of pass-rush moves. He’s in for a productive rookie season, but on a rebuilt Buccaneers defensive front, I can’t envision him getting the sack total likely needed to garner serious Defensive Rookie of the Year consideration. Voters are starting to value pressures — and pressure rate — over pure sacks, but that line of thinking isn’t widespread enough for any solely disruptive defensive tackle to win the award. Yet.
7. Jack Campbell, LB, Lions
I adored Campbell during the pre-draft process. Easily my LB1 in the 2023 class with a top 25 grade. No qualms from me about when he was drafted by Detroit. He’s going to be a three-down monster on the Lions defense — think 100-plus tackles, a few sacks, a handful of tackles for loss and the occasional splash play in coverage.
But in order to win DROY as a traditional off-ball linebacker like Campbell most certainly is, the stat sheet needs to be totally jam-packed, and he needs to get help, meaning limited productivity from the marquee edge rushers and cornerbacks. The Lions will be thrilled with Campbell’s play in 2023, but it won’t be enough for him to become a serious DROY candidate, mostly due to the position he plays.
6. Devon Witherspoon, CB, Seahawks
I liked Witherspoon as a prospect. I did. I wasn’t absolutely enamored with him like most were. The highlight reel hits were tantalizing, but he missed a fair amount of tackles, too, and didn’t have major ball production in his stellar Illinois career. However, Pete Carroll has long been one of the best defensive back teachers in football when it comes to the subtleties of playing the position. Yes, even tackling.
Heck, Tariq Woolen was universally viewed as a high-upside project who turned in a six-interception, 16-pass break-up rookie campaign. If anyone can get the most out of Witherspoon’s massive talent and emphatic style, it’s Carroll in Seattle’s secondary. Will the pass rush be good enough to help Witherspoon though? That’s typically the unheralded catalyst for a strong defensive back season. The Seahawks have invested in the pass rush with early picks. The pass rush is still very young and unproven. Witherspoon’s big-hit tendency won’t be enough to garner major DROY consideration.
5. Will McDonald, EDGE, Jets
McDonald’s is an outside speed-rushing specialist, through and through. He’s best when freed to pin his ears back, explode and bend. Unfortunately, he played end in many three-man fronts during his time at Iowa State yet still managed a stellar career for the Cyclones.
With the Jets, Robert Saleh will provide plenty more opportunities to attack the outside shoulder of the opposing right or left tackle. At around 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, McDonald doesn’t have the width and pure point-of-attack power yet to win as an edge-setting run-stuffer. And he’s on a defensive line in New York in dire need of a genuinely threatening edge-rushing presence — Carl Lawson’s was good, not great in 2022. McDonald can be that guy in Year 1, but I’m not expecting a Nick Bosa-type rookie season.
4. Joey Porter Jr., CB, Steelers
Porter landed in an exquisite scenario in Pittsburgh, and it’s not because his dad was a star for the organization. This is a defense on the upswing, one that needs an alpha man-to-man corner and already boasts an imposing pass-rushing unit with superstar T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward, Alex Highsmith and Co. Fellow rookie Keeanu Benton will make the interior of the defensive front more menacing, too. All those bodies in the trenches will give Porter more targets in his vicinity on hurried throws from opposing quarterbacks than most rookie corners.
With his experience, productivity and extraordinary length, he’ll be a ball magnet as a rookie in Teryl Austin’s defense. Austin was the Lion’s defensive coordinator during Darius Slay’s fine rookie season in 2014. Porter is a similar, lengthy, in-your-face outside corner.
3. Jalen Carter, DT, Eagles
Carter was the best defensive player on Georgia’s legendary 2021 defense. He was outstanding again in 2022, yet some conditioning issues appeared on film — and during the pre-draft process — and at times his rushes are a tick high. I promise I’m not a nit-picker though. Carter’s explosiveness, sheer power and polished hand work will make him a nightmare to block along the Eagles’ ferocious defensive line.
The only reason he’s a few spots lower than you probably expected — Philadelphia is already incredibly deep up front, and it won’t be surprising if Carter’s snaps are relatively limited as a rookie.
2. Will Anderson, EDGE, Texans
Anderson is going to be a three-down stud in Houston from the jump. He was that player from the jump at Alabama. He has the exact stylistic makeup to get serious DROY hype. He’s going to load the stat sheet against the run and as a pass rusher. Before the draft, I likened Anderson to a “lite” version of Khalil Mack, who finished third in the DROY race in 2014 with 76 tackles, 16 tackles for loss and four sacks.
I expect Anderson to eclipse all of those statistics and be a central figure in a much more respectable Texans defense in 2023.
1. Christian Gonzalez, CB, Patriots
I’m shocked Bill Belichick traded down before picking Gonzalez in the first round. Why? Well, it’s actually classic Belichick to move down in Round 1, but I was stunned because Gonzalez is the prototypical Belichickian perimeter cornerback, and the trade down risked Gonzalez would no longer be available. He’s long, naturally sticky in coverage and has the body control to make plays on the football down the field and on those pesky back shoulders.
For the litany of accolades Belichick has achieved in his career, the one that goes a bit unnoticed is his uncanny ability to get the most out press-man corners. Not just Darrelle Revis and Ty Law. J.C. Jackson, Jonathan Jones, Malcolm Butler, etc. Belichick knows how to teach those types, and Gonzalez was arguably the finest, pure press-man corner in the class. Gonzalez is in for a spectacular rookie campaign in New England.