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Top 10 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year candidates in 2023: Lions duo to contend

As a leading candidate for the 2022 Defensive Rookie of the Year award, the Lions' Aidan Hutchinson played with tremendous energy, finishing the season with 9.5 sacks and three interceptions. In most seasons, that would be good enough to win DROY, but the Sauce was just too strong for Hutchinson last season.

Yes, Sauce Gardner dominated the opposition in his final season at Cincinnati before stepping into the AFC East and bringing that same swagger to the Jets' defense in 2022. Hutchinson was the DROY runner-up to Gardner, who also earned first-team All-Pro honors.

An edge defender is once again the favorite in this category, but a pride of Lions, a talented Eagle and a ballhawking Seahawk are all in the mix. Before we get to them, here are a few historical notes for context:

  • No safety has won this award since Mark Carrier did it for the Chicago Bears in 1990.
  • Since 2009, Missouri's Sheldon Richardson (2013) is the lone winner of the award to come from the SEC.
  • The defensive tackle position has experienced a drought in this category since 2014, when Aaron Donald won as a rookie out of Pitt.

Now, before I get to my top 10 candidates to take home the 2023 Defensive Rookie of the Year award, let me begin with one long shot ...

DARK-HORSE CANDIDATE: Nolan Smith, OLB, Philadelphia Eagles. Smith's chances of winning the award could be tied directly to his usage. He's small for an edge defender, but he's surprisingly strong at the point of attack. He can really run and hit when he's in space. Smith still needs work as an edge rusher, but he could see a boost in sack production as a stand-up rusher if he's allowed to move around the defensive front.

NOTE: The odds below provided by Caesars are current as of 1 p.m. ET on Tuesday, July 25 unless otherwise noted.

Will McDonald IV
Iowa State · DE · +2500

Drafted: Round 1, No. 15 overall

McDonald is likely to find his playing time as a designated pass rusher. He’s not built to consistently hold his ground if asked to play the run, but he’s long and bendy with the hip explosion to beat tardy tackles up the edge and around the corner. McDonald might have to maximize his snaps to have a shot, but he’s capable of some rush production.

Calijah Kancey
Pittsburgh · DT · +2000

Drafted: Round 1, No. 19 overall

Kancey has a smaller frame for the position (6-foot-1, 281 pounds), which might have been a concern for some teams, but he is far and away the most explosive defensive lineman to come out of the 2023 draft. Comparisons to Aaron Donald due to his size/weight are unfair, as Kancey lacks the anchor and pure power of Donald. However, he does have similar first-step quickness with efficient hands and instinctive counters to puncture protection against much slower interior blockers. 

Brian Branch
Alabama · DB · +3000

Drafted: Round 2, No. 45 overall

Detroit head coach Dan Campbell announced that the non-contact injury suffered by C.J. Gardner-Johnson in Monday’s practice does not appear to be serious, which is great news. There still could be an opportunity for Branch to show Lions fans what he is capable of right off the bat, though. His NFL Scouting Combine testing failed to excite, but it doesn’t take much tape study to see that Branch is a pro-ready talent with strong coverage technique and tackle consistency. He can play both safety spots or the nickel, so he could be in position to make more plays than your average defensive back as a rookie.

Christian Gonzalez
Oregon · CB · +1000

Drafted: Round 1, No. 17 overall

Gonzalez was my favorite cornerback in this year’s draft. However, this award typically rewards takeaways and splash plays, which might not be his strength as a rookie. Gonzalez enters the league with the size, length, speed and fluidity that every team covets in a CB1. If he can develop better instincts in Bill Belichick’s system, he might be able to unlock that immense potential earlier than expected.

Tyree Wilson
Texas Tech · DE · +650

Drafted: Round 1, No. 7 overall

The biggest concern for Wilson, as of this writing, is getting back to 100% health as he works his way back from the foot injury he suffered last season. He was placed on the non-football injury list last week. Wilson’s freaky length allows him to separate from tackles and hound the pocket. He has rare stalk-and-capture talent once he’s chasing runners on the perimeter. Wilson would be higher on the list if there wasn't a question about when he would be ready to play.

Emmanuel Forbes
Mississippi State · CB · +1500

Drafted: Round 1, No. 16 overall

I really like Forbes’ chances to win this award thanks to team fit and traits. Forbes is very thin, which could hurt him in run support, but his rare blend of top-end speed, instincts and ball skills give him the opportunity to make his mark early on. A natural ballhawk, he finished his college career with 14 interceptions, including an FBS-record six returned for touchdowns. When healthy, the Commanders’ front can be menacing as a rush unit, which should only amplify Forbes’ playmaking talents.

Jalen Carter
Georgia · DT · +500

Drafted: Round 1, No. 9 overall

On paper, Carter is the most talented defensive player from the 2023 NFL Draft class. There are lingering questions about off-field issues, but if Carter remains focused on quieting those concerns, he should be a strong contender for the award. He’s sound against the run and has the ability to beat guards quickly as a pass rusher when facing single blocks. No defensive tackle has won DROY since 2014, but Carter has the juice to stack the numbers necessary to get into the conversation.

Jack Campbell
Iowa · LB · +1500

Drafted: Round 1, No. 18 overall

I will admit that I wasn’t as high on Campbell as the Lions were, but they certainly weren’t the only team bullish about his potential at the next level. Campbell plays with fairly average sideline-to-sideline speed, but he has a good feel for play development and finds his way to the football quite frequently. Inside linebackers who rack up tackles on good football teams have a track record of winning DROY.

Devon Witherspoon
Illinois · CB · +700

Drafted: Round 1, No. 5 overall

Sauce Gardner was the talk of the league last season with his smothering brand of man coverage. Offenses figured out quickly that testing him was a low-percentage play. While Witherspoon lacks Gardner’s size and length, his instincts and ballhawking talent are every bit as good as Gardner’s. I’m not sure his long speed matches his timed speed, so there could be some bumps in the road against deep-ball threats, but Witherspoon’s on-ball production is sure to make him one of the favorites.

Will Anderson Jr.
Alabama · DE · +500

Drafted: Round 1, No. 3 overall

Anderson was the most polished pass-rush prospect in the 2023 draft. We should see evidence of that fairly quickly in his first season as a pro. Anderson is a three-down defender capable of making splash plays against the run and pass. His explosive closing burst can turn pressures into sacks against plodding left tackles and in creative blitz packages. I expect him to consistently stress the pocket as a one-on-one rusher. He should find the production necessary to establish himself as the front-runner for this award.

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