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NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year candidates: Devin White on top

The 2019 NFL Draft was known for its impressive assortment of defensive linemen, a couple of speedy Devins at linebacker and a group of defensive backs who were lacking in high-impact potential. After fitting players with teams, the list of Defensive Rookie of the Year candidates may stack up a little differently than how the prospects were drafted.

Let's take a glance at some historical notes and trends that could help piece the DROY puzzle together.

» Only two cornerbacks over the last 20 seasons have been named Defensive Rookie of the Year.
» No safety has won the award since Mark Carrier did it for the Chicago Bears in 1990.
» Last year's winner, second-rounder Darius Leonard, was the first non-first-round pick to claim the award since linebacker DeMeco Ryans in 2006.
» From 2004 through 2012, an inside linebacker won the award six times.
» Since 2002, five edge defenders have won it, all with season sack totals ranging from 10.0 to 14.5.

Below are my top eight candidates to win the Defensive Rookie of the Year award for the 2019 NFL season.

1) Devin White, LB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

White might have been the fourth defensive player to come off the board (drafted fifth overall, after Nick Bosa, Quinnen Williams and Clelin Ferrell), but he's my favorite to win the Defensive Rookie of the Year award, thanks to his speed, work ethic and football IQ. With Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh up the middle for the Bucs, expect opposing running games to spill outside, which will play right into White's blazing chase-and-tackle speed (he ran a 4.42-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine). Like Colts linebacker -- and reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year -- Darius Leonard, who led the NFL last season with 163 tackles, White has the talent and traits to fill up a number of stat columns on a regular basis, which will only strengthen his case.

2) Ed Oliver, DT, Buffalo Bills

The No. 9 overall pick is listed at 6-foot-2, 287 pounds, and I understand that his relative lack of size will generate some ugly reps on occasion, when powerful blockers square him up. I also understand that his rare explosiveness off the snap will allow him to pry open gaps and make splashy, disruptive plays in the backfield as often as any defender from this draft. He still needs to improve his hand usage and as an interior rusher in order to push his sack production beyond his college totals (13.5 sacks in three seasons at Houston), but Oliver's agility, quickness and twitch will be hard for even NFL linemen to counter.

3) Nick Bosa, DE, San Francisco 49ers

Here is the part where I tell you that Nick's older brother, Joey Bosa, won the Defensive Rookie of the Year award after his debut season with the Chargers in 2016, and then this is the part where you tell me to let Nick be his own person. Fair enough. But the similarities of strength and hand usage have to be accounted for when considering Nick's chances here. With such a talented defensive front alongside him, the No. 2 overall pick should get plenty of one-on-one looks. His production could see an additional bump if the 49ers turn him loose as an interior rusher from time to time.

4) Quinnen Williams, DT, New York Jets

New defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is known for employing an aggressive, attacking front, and that meshes perfectly with the quickness and athleticism of Quinnen Williams. With former first-round pick Leonard Williams on the same defensive line and blitz packages forcing offensive linemen on their heels, Quinnen Williams should see plenty of favorable one-on-one matchups -- especially on passing downs. His level of success may also lie in where the Jets decide to align the No. 3 overall pick, as he was much less effective as a mid-line player on tape.

5) Devin Bush, LB, Pittsburgh Steelers

While Devin White might be my favorite linebacker among the candidates to win this award, it's hard to argue that Bush isn't in a great position to make an early impact in a variety of categories for the Steelers. In college, Bush didn't post the same type of tackle production as White, but the No. 10 overall pick is just as fast, and of the two, Bush has arguably better instincts. Darius Leonard's sack totals (seven) and ball production in coverage (eight passes defensed, two interceptions) helped push him over the top as the DROY last season, and Bush flashed the same talent in those areas while at Michigan.

6) Josh Allen, Edge, Jacksonville Jaguars

When it comes to physical traits and overall NFL projection, Allen is one of the most exciting players to come out of the 2019 NFL Draft. For the purposes of this column, we must determine if he is still in a developmental phase as a rusher or whether he's already learned enough to unleash those traits and leverage his way into double-digit sacks as a rookie. My initial inclination is to assume Allen will face a learning curve as he transitions into his role as a full-time defensive end, but the No. 7 overall pick might have more talent than one-time Pro Bowler Yannick Ngakoue, who had a big rookie season of his own in Jacksonville (eight sacks, four forced fumbles and one pick in 2016).

7) Brian Burns, Edge, Carolina Panthers

Of the edge defenders who have won the DROY award since 2002, Von Miller might best compare with the style and athleticism that Burns uses to win. I'm not calling Burns the next Von Miller, but the 16th overall pick does have similar get-off and the bendy lower body to dip and trim the edge. He's currently about 25 pounds heavier than his college playing weight, and that additional mass could be surprisingly impactful when it comes to finishing his rush and turning pressures into sacks.

8) Montez Sweat, Edge, Washington Redskins

A day before the 2019 NFL draft, I had an executive from an NFL team tell me he was concerned about Sweat's maturity level and believed that his rookie season would be a huge indicator for the type of career he was going to have. What I do know is that Sweat's rare length and athletic traits are the stuff that dreams are made of for defensive-line coaches, and it is impossible to ignore the No. 26 overall pick's eye-popping production as a sack artist (22.5 sacks in his last two college seasons) and against the run.


Trysten Hill, DT, Dallas Cowboys: Strong, explosive and quick, Hill possesses key penetration ingredients and happens to be playing for Rod Marinelli, a chef who knows how to whip those ingredients into disruptive dishes. Hill ended up in the doghouse in his final season at UCF, but the second-round pick's talent leaped off the tape, and his outstanding performance at the NFL Scouting Combine provides reason to believe that he may belong in this group.

Follow Lance Zierlein on Twitter @LanceZierlein.

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