Rookies making an impact out of the gate is one of the most exciting aspects of a new NFL season. With that said, the true test is sustaining success. Can they keep making an impact even after there is game film that reveals how they are going to be used, how they win and where they have deficiencies?
Kudos to these five rookie standouts but seeing where they fall in a few weeks will be the true test. Let’s examine the five best defensive rookies in the AFC through the first four weeks of the season.
5. Minkah Fitzpatrick, S, Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins are doing a terrific job taking advantage of Fitzpatrick’s versatility and he’s rewarded Miami with outstanding play in coverage and run support. After working primarily from the slot in Week’s 1 and 2, Fitzpatrick’s role has expanded to playing deep safety and slot in Week’s 3 and 4 with the injury to Reshad Jones. His ability to win in a variety of techniques is a big reason why Miami is only allowing a passer rating of 72.2 against its coverage so far this season which is second best in the entire NFL.
Fitzpatrick is quickly blossoming into the player Miami envisioned when drafting him No. 11 overall.
4. Jessie Bates, S, Cincinnati Bengals
The 2018 safety crop was L-O-A-D-E-D and the Cincinnati Bengals got a good one in Bates at pick No. 54 overall. My No. 31 overall player in the class. His range, processing skills, awareness and ball skills have already popped as a rookie and he’s taken major strides as a tackler compared to what we saw from him in college. Bates is playing under control, showcasing excellent spatial awareness and reacting swiftly and properly to what his keys tell him.
He’s quickly made Bengals fans forget about longtime starter Georgia Illoka who was released during the preseason and filling that free safety role for Cincy.
3. Darius Leonard, LB, Indianapolis Colts
From South Carolina State to starting for the Colts on Sunday’s, Leonard has been a standout performer already. Leading the NFL with 54 tackles, Leonard also has 4 sacks, 2 pass breakups a forced fumble and fumble recovery. The Colts defense is putting him in position to take advantage of his athleticism and he’s making plays all over the field.
It hasn’t all been perfect for Leonard and the Eagles and Texans challenged him the past two weeks, but his production has been outstanding and he’ll only continue to improve.
2. Denzel Ward, CB, Cleveland Browns
The Browns took some heat for drafting a smallish corner with pick No. 4 but after the way Ward has played in the first quarter of the season, nobody is questioning the selection now. His career got off to a blazing start, picking off Ben Roethlisberger twice in Week 1 and has been a standout.
According to Pro Football Focus, Ward has allowed a completion percentage of 59.3 thrown against his coverage and allowed a passer rating of only 69.7 which is in the top-1o among cornerbacks with at least 20 targets. The Browns are in the top-5 of the entire NFL in passer rating allowing against its coverage and Ward is a big reason why. It’s even more impressive when you consider the offenses Cleveland has faced in Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Oakland who feature high-powered passing attacks.
1. Derwin James, S, Los Angeles Chargers
Filling spots 2-5 on this was a challenge given how many standout rookie defenders there have been already in the AFC but the top spot was a no-brainer. James is already establishing himself as one of the best safeties and defensive playmakers in the entire NFL.
Lining up everywhere and executing at a high level, James has 26 tackles, 3 sacks, 6 pass breakups and an interception through the first four games of his career. The Chargers got a steal at No. 17 overall and he is the early favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year.