With the 2021 NFL season drawing to a close, I wanted to take a look back at some of the best defenders among the rookie class this season. You likely know about a certain Cowboys linebacker who has been taking the league by storm, but which other rookie defensive players have been making their mark?
Below is my 2021 Defensive All-Rookie Team. Before you dig in, a note: Yes, there are 12 players listed here, because I wanted to make room for three outstanding linebackers and three top-notch cornerbacks.
Be sure to check out David Carr's Offensive All-Rookie Team.
Don't be fooled by Barmore's miniscule sack total (0.5 in 14 games); he's still impacting the pass game from the inside. Among rookie DTs, the second-round pick has the most QB pressures (32) this season, per Next Gen Stats -- that's also the second-highest pressure total on the league's third-best defense. And the pass-rushing grade he's earning from Pro Football Focus is the fifth-best for a rookie interior defensive lineman over the past five seasons.
Ojulari should be one source of optimism for the Giants as their otherwise-grim season winds down. The second-rounder set the official rookie sack mark for the team in early December, and given that he's sitting at 8.0 sacks with two games to go, he's got a good chance to push that record to double digits. One thing that stands out about Ojulari: He's listed at just 6-foot-2, but his arm length (34 3/8 inches) allows him to play like a taller player.
Phillips, selected No. 18 overall in the draft, has definitely brought some spice to the Dolphins' pass rush; with 8.5 sacks to his name and two games on the schedule, he has a chance (along with veteran pass-rusher Emmanuel Ogbah, who has 9.0 sacks) to be the first Miami player to reach double digits in that category since Cameron Wake did it in 2017. Notably, seven of Phillips' sacks have come during the Dolphins' seven-game win streak.
The No. 12 overall pick isn't just having one of the best rookie defensive seasons in recent memory; it would also count as an all-time campaign for any player of any experience level. In fact, only seven other players in NFL history have accumulated 13-plus sacks, 75-plus tackles, three-plus passes defensed and three-plus forced fumbles in the same season, like Parsons has, per Pro Football Reference. Talent-wise, he compares to legendary defensive force Lawrence Taylor. In other words, Parsons is really special. His Pro Bowl berth is likely to be just the first honor at the beginning of what could become a Hall of Fame career down the road.
Even after spending Sunday's win over the Steelers on the reserve/COVID-19 list, Bolton leads all rookies in tackles (102) by a healthy margin. Bolton was especially productive in a two-game stretch as Anthony Hitchens' injury replacement at middle linebacker, racking up 26 tackles in Weeks 7 and 8. He hit a lull over the past month, then broke out against the Chargers in Week 15, posting 14 tackles (10 solo) and three passes defensed. Cleared to return to the team, he's now in position to help lead Kansas City's defense on a playoff push.
Owusu-Koramoah has missed three games, but he's otherwise provided exactly the kind of value the Browns were hoping for when they scooped him up in the second round of the draft, earning top-10 grades among rookies with 200-plus snaps from PFF in overall defense, run defense, pass rushing and coverage. He ranks third in stops (38) among first-year pros, per NGS, and he's second on the Browns in tackles (65) and first in fumbles forced (two). He edges New Orleans' Pete Werner for this final linebacker spot.
Like Parsons, Surtain earned his spot here not just by outplaying other rookies but by standing out among veterans. Surtain's targeted EPA (-20.0) ranks fifth in the league, per NGS, among those with a minimum of 50 targets, and his four interceptions put him in the same neighborhood as proven pros like Xavien Howard (four) and Jalen Ramsey (three). If Surtain can nab one more pick, he would have the most interceptions by a rookie cornerback since 2015, when Marcus Peters had eight.
Newsome might have fallen off your radar, given that he's been out since Week 12. But before he was sidelined by a concussion and, later, placement on the reserve/COVID-19 list, he'd proven himself an essential component of Cleveland's defense, earning the sixth-best overall defensive grade among all Browns players, per PFF. There are still plenty of variables (an extension for Denzel Ward and the long-term status of Greedy Williams and Grant Delpit, for instance) to figure out, but Newsome's emergence gives Cleveland at least one thing to feel secure about in the secondary.
Stokes' first-round selection might have seemed like something of a luxury in April, for a team that had Jaire Alexander and an apparent need in terms of offensive skill players. But then Alexander suffered a shoulder injury that's kept him out since early October, and in the meantime, Stokes has played more defensive snaps than any other Packers cornerback, per NGS. He's also been targeted more than any other Green Bay defender, and he's answered the call, tying for sixth in the NFL in passes defensed (14). While his targeted EPA (-1.0) might not sparkle like Surtain's, it is the second-best among rookies with at least 50 targets.
PFF gives Holland the second best overall defensive grade among all rookies with 200-plus snaps, behind only Parsons, and the best coverage grade. NGS, meanwhile, credits Holland with the best ballhawk rate (37.5%) and completion percentage allowed against expectation (-7.8%) among first-year pros with 20-plus targets. Between Holland and Phillips, Miami landed a pair of defensive gems in this draft.
Moehrig has done a little bit of everything for the Raiders, ranking second on the team in pass breakups (six) and fifth in tackles (49). He's also garnered PFF's third-best defensive grade among rookie DBs to have played 200-plus snaps. It's early, but Moehrig is looking like one of the better early-round draft picks made by the Raiders in recent years.