Three of this season's elite pass-rushers in the NFL came from the 2011 rookie class. In fact, the top three finishers in sacks were all sophomores: Houston's J.J. Watt (20.5), San Francisco's Aldon Smith (19.5) and Denver's Von Miller (18.5).
Miller was last year's Defensive Rookie of the Year and Smith has the second-most sacks (33.5) over the past two seasons behind only Minnesota's Jared Allen (34.0).
Not just a pass-rushing specialist, however, "J.J. Swat" is tied for 10th in the league in passes defended (16). The only other non-DBs to have double-digit passes defended were Washington linebacker London Fletcher (11) and Chicago linebacker Lance Briggs (11).
Turning our attention to this year's rookie class, there are several players in the running for the Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Here's my prediction for the winner and runner-up of the award.
Winner: Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers
In three seasons at Boston College, Kuechly was a tackling machine, and the instinctive linebacker picked up in his first NFL season where he left off in college.
Kuechly led the NFL in tackles (164), finishing with 15 more than San Francisco's Navorro Bowman, who came in second in tackles this year.
Aside from leading the NFL in tackles, Kuechly had three fumble recoveries, one sack and two interceptions. He also had eight passes defended.
With the addition of Kuechly, the Panthers defense allowed more than four fewer points per game in 2012 (22.7, down from 26.8 PPG in 2011). Plus, they held opponents to a total of 333.1 yards per game (down from 377.6 YPG) and 110.1 rushing yards per game (down from 130.8 YPG).
Runner-up: Janoris Jenkins, St. Louis Rams
The choice for runner-up was close as I considered Green Bay's Casey Hayward (who led all rookies with six interceptions and 21 passes defended), Tampa Bay's Lavonte David, Seattle's Bobby Wagner and Minnesota's Harrison Smith. But in the end, I had to go with Janoris Jenkins.
Along with Patriots safety Tavon Wilson, Jenkins was tied for second among rookies in interceptions (four). Remarkably, Jenkins has returned three of his four interceptions for touchdowns. The only other player to return three interceptions for scores this season was Chicago's Charles Tillman.
In addition, Jenkins finished 11th among rookies in tackles (73). All of the rookies inside the top 10 were linebackers (eight) or safeties (two).
He is third in passes defended (14) behind Hayward and Buffalo's Stephon Gilmore.
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