In my Offensive Rookie of the Year write up, I talked about how hard it is to compare players across positions, which led to a trio of wide receiver Keenan Allen, running back Eddie Lacy, and guard Larry Warford that was hard to choose from. The same is true on defense, but fortunately there’s one defensive rookie who I feel was by far the best, regardless of position. I say this with apologies to the two Carolina defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawaan Short (who I talked about in the writeup for Dave Gettleman for Executive of the Year), Buffalo middle linebacker Kiko Alonso, and even injured Arizona safety Tyrann Mathieu.
New York Jets defensive end Sheldon Richardson was the only defensive rookie I even really considered as a Pro-Bowler (Mathieu I would have had he not gotten hurt) and I think he was one of the best defensive linemen in the game this year. The fact that he didn’t make the Pro-Bowl is a testament to the public’s obsession with sack numbers and their distastes for all things Jets (unless they’re hilarious).
Richardson only had 4 sacks on the year but was a huge part of a dominant Jets’ 3 man defensive line that played a big role in the Jets finishing #1 in yards per carry allowed, allowing 3.4 yards per carry. No one else allowed fewer than 3.7 and there was more distance between #2 and #11 than there was in between #2 and #1. For that reason, I argued the Jets’ entire defensive line should have gotten to go to Hawaii. There might not be a single better unit on any other team except for maybe Seattle’s secondary.
Richardson’s 52 solo tackles were 2nd most at the 5-technique defensive end position behind all-everything JJ Watt and he also had 16 assisted tackles, which led the position, and missed just 4 tackles. As good as JJ Watt was, he missed 7 tackles. Richardson also had 41 “stops” which also came in 2nd at his positions, again behind Watt. Stops refer to a tackle within 4 yards of the original line of scrimmage on 1st down, 6 yards on 2nd down, and the full distance and 3rd and 4th down. 32 of those stops came on run plays, on 325 run snaps, a rate of 9.8% that was 7th among eligible 5-technique defensive ends. He also did a great job of tying up multiple blockers when asked. For his work against the run, he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked 5-technique against the run and 5th overall.
He wasn’t nearly as impressive as a pass rusher, with those aforementioned 4 sacks. He also had 5 hits and 24 hurries, for a pass rush productivity number of 5.4, 29th at his position out of 45 eligible. That isn’t that bad and he only graded out slightly below average in this aspect on Pro Football Focus. Overall, his body of work at his position is significantly greater than any other defensive rookie, especially since rushing the passer wasn’t his primary job. For that reason, he deserves Defensive Rookie of the Year.