With one regular season in the books for the 2022 NFL Draft class, it's time to crown the top defensive talents.
Last April's draft had a decidedly defensive feel, at least at the top, as players from that side of the ball filled the first five slots in Round 1. And as the 2022 NFL season played out, many of the most ballyhooed rookie classes were headlined by dynamic defenders, like the Sauce Gardner-led Jets group. The Lions' second-half surge came on the backs of numerous rookies on defense, like Aidan Hutchinson, Kerby Joseph, James Houston and Malcolm Rodriguez. And the Houston Texans found several keepers, including stat-stuffing playmaker Jalen Pitre.
Piecing together my Defensive All-Rookie team, it was clear some positions were extremely deep (corner, edge rusher), while others sorely lacked juice (defensive tackle). I chose to field a nickel defense here, as it's the most common alignment in today's pass-happy league.
NOTE: To maintain a level playing field for all possible candidates, this list is completely reliant on regular-season performance -- i.e., the playoffs don't exist in this exercise.
DRAFTED: Round 1, No. 2 overall
The hometown pass rusher surged down the stretch, becoming a menace in backfield. Hutchinson improved his technique and rush versatility as the season aged, pushing Sauce Gardner for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. The Lions' edge rusher led all rookies with 9.5 sacks and 45 QB pressures, per Next Gen Stats. Hutchinson became the first player since Hall of Famer Richard Dent in 1990 to generate 9.5 sacks, three interceptions and two fumble recoveries. In the final six weeks of the regular season, as the Lions pushed for a playoff spot, Hutchinson was sensational, posting four sacks, five QB hits, 21 tackles and five tackles for loss, with a pick and fumble recovery for good measure. The best news for Detroit: There is still meat on the bone for the No. 2 overall pick to improve and keep the hot streak going into 2023.
DRAFTED: Round 1, No. 5 overall
I went back and forth between Thibodeaux, Travon Walker and George Karlaftis for the other edge spot, but the No. 5 overall pick's scorching close to the regular season was too much to ignore. Thibodeaux has been a menace, discombobulating opposing backfields by screaming off the edge. While the sack numbers aren't astronomical (four), pressure is production, and Thibodeaux generated 40 pressures in just 14 games played. His 11.1 QB pressure rate was tops among all rookies who played at least 500 snaps, per Next Gen Stats. He's also the only rookie in the top 16 of ESPN's "sacks created" stat. Thibodeaux added game-changing moments, as well. His strip-sack touchdown against Washington in Week 15 turned the tide of the crucial contest and helped lift the Giants to the postseason. All those pre-draft concerns about the Oregon product look silly when you watch Thibs on the field.
DRAFTED: Round 1, No. 13 overall
Davis' importance to the Eagles' defense was evident in games he missed, prompting Philly to bring in veterans to plug the gap. The 6-foot-6, 336-pound behemoth eats up blockers, giving Eagles linebackers clear lanes to the football. In limited regular-season snaps due to injury, Davis still gobbled up nine stops and generated eight QB pressures, per PFF. A rotational player in his first year in Philly, Davis owns the size and upside to be a game-wrecker in the middle of the Eagles' defense if he stays healthy.
DRAFTED: Round 3, No. 76 overall
In a down year for rookie defensive tackles, Jones gets my second slot among the big boys. For much of the season, the rookie DT displayed an ability to get off blocks and missed just one tackle. His 24 tackles and 19 stops rank second among rookie DTs. Like many first-year players, Jones started slow, but then showed potential in spurts that helped the Ravens field one of the best run Ds in the NFL for the balance of the season.
DRAFTED: Round 1, No. 22 overall
Like most rookies, Walker experienced ups and downs in Year 1. But when things were clicking, whoa boy, he's a game-changer in the middle of the Packers' defense -- and he was a big reason for Green Bay's late-season surge. Walker is phenomenal in coverage; his range and speed are undeniable. While sometimes wonky in diagnosing, when Walker sniffs things out correctly, he brings the hammer, generating 52 stops -- tops in his class, per NGS. Walker also led all rookie linebackers with 121 tackles, 11 QB pressures and a 58.8 completion percentage allowed in coverage. Getting ejected from Week 18's season-ending loss to Detroit for pushing a trainer was a boneheaded move -- and Walker's second inexplicable ejection of the year -- but when his head is on straight, the linebacker is an unquestionable talent.
DRAFTED: Round 1, No. 27 overall
The Jags linebacker got off to a hot start before hitting the proverbial rookie wall, forcing him to split snaps with fellow rookie Chad Muma. Lloyd got back on track down the stretch, and his ability is undeniable. When things are right, Lloyd is constantly around the ball, racking up 115 tackles, second-most among rookie LBs, and finishing second to Walker with 50 stops. Owning athletic ability and a nose for the ball, Lloyd can drop in coverage, play sideline to sideline, stuff the run and even heat up the quarterback (seven QB pressures). I'll chalk the midseason swoon, which included several blown plays, to a rookie still learning.
DRAFTED: Round 1, No. 4 overall
The easiest pick on the list, Gardner rightfully earned a first-team All-Pro selection in Year 1. The No. 4 overall pick is every bit the lockdown corner he was tabbed to be coming out of Cincinnati. Sauce owns the length and speed to stick with every type of wideout and the versatility to play any coverage scheme. Gardner allowed just two TDs, per Next Gen Stats, while intercepting two passes and generating a -28.8 target EPA, second-best among all corners. The rookie displays intelligence and excellent body control, and he knows when to attack the ball. He didn't travel in the Jets' defense, but has already blanketed one side of the field, forcing offenses to look elsewhere for yards. The NFL's next shutdown corner has arrived.
DRAFTED: Round 5, No. 153 overall
To call Woolen a steal would be an understatement. The fifth-round pick is a ballhawk, netting six interceptions, tied for the NFL lead, with 16 passes defended. The 6-4 corner possesses the size and length to lock up wideouts. Perhaps more impressive is his closing speed with the ball in the air. Quarterbacks think they have a window, and Woolen slams it shut. A perfect fit in Seattle's defense, the rookie allowed just a 49.8 passer rating against, the lowest among all corners with least 200 coverage snaps, per Next Gen Stats.
DRAFTED: Undrafted free agent
If I were picking three outside corners, New England's Jack Jones might have been the call. And Kansas City's Trent McDuffie performed well down the stretch as he played more in the slot. But Kohou shined in the difficult nickel position for the bulk of the season. The Dolphins rookie proved sticky on the inside, a tough spot for first-year players to master. Kohou displayed good footwork, gluey coverage and excellent tackling from the slot. While being targeted more than any other rookie corner, Kohou generated a -6.6 reception over expected and -25.0 Target EPA, per Next Gen Stats, second-best among rookies (behind only Gardner). Despite dealing with an oblique injury, Kohou generated 72 tackles, five tackles for loss, 10 passes defended with a pick and a forced fumble in 15 games. This undrafted corner is a keeper in South Beach.
DRAFTED: Round 2, No. 37 overall
Like a hawk to prey, Pitre flies to the football with gusto and bad intentions. In a good Texans rookie class, Pitre is the stud. He led all rookie safeties with five interceptions and with a whopping 147 tackles, 43 more than any other safety in his class. Yes, the missed tackles were an issue, but that also underscores the fact that Pitre was always around the ball. He can soar deep in coverage, swoop down against the run and even displays the ability to pressure the QB when brought on the blitz. Pitre provides big hits and big plays on a Texans D in need of both and is one of the most exciting young defenders to watch.
DRAFTED: Round 1, No. 14 overall
With a strong end to the season, Detroit's Kirby Joseph nearly swiped the second safety spot like it was an Aaron Rodgers pass. But I'm sticking with Hamilton. The Ravens rookie had a tough start to his NFL career, but surged after the club put him in a better position to make plays. Hamilton lined up 45 times at free safety during the first two weeks, when he struggled. He then saw his production elevate as a slot/box safety. Still not great in deep coverage, Hamilton is at his best near the line of scrimmage and in the slot, where he's the best run-defending safety among rookies. Hamilton displayed good timing on the blitz, generating eight pressures (most among rookie safeties, per PFF) and two sacks. As the unique defender gets more seasoning, the talent is there for Hamilton to continue to improve in Baltimore's system in Year 2 and become an even more aggressive difference-maker.