It would be remiss if the 2018 NFL AP Defensive Rookie of the Year were not mentioned first on this list. Linebacker Darius Leonard was a second-round pick (36th overall) of the Indianapolis Colts. And he was a force to be reckoned with for opposing offensive players. He logged double-digit combined tackles in three of his first four games. That included a whopping 19 combined tackles in his second NFL game. He would go onto to finish the season the league leader in tackles with 163 combined tackles. That was the most for a rookie since Patrick Willis in 2007 who had 174.
Leonard proved to be more than just a tackling machine though. The South Carolina State University product also registered two interceptions, four forced fumbles, seven sacks, and eight passes defended. Look for him to continue his defensive dominance in the 2019 season and help guide the Colts to another playoff berth.
Quarterbacks were not safe during the 2018 season when Bradley Chubb was lined up opposite them. The edge rusher Chubb was a first round (5th overall) pick out of North Carolina State University for the Denver Broncos. He racked up 12 sacks throughout the season. That led all rookies and put him at 16th overall in sacks for the season.
Chubb should come into the 2019 season with the same intensity he brought in his rookie season. His pass rush skills will continue to grow and evolve in 2019. Don’t be surprised if he finishes his sophomore season top 10 in the league in sacks!
It was hard being a Los Angeles Charger in the 2018 NFL season. They were very clearly the second team in Los Angeles after the Rams. If the Rams were Eddie Van Halen, the Chargers were Alex Van Halen. If the Rams were Batman, the Chargers were Robin. If the Rams were Bono, the Chargers were The Edge. You get the point. They could barely pack their home stadium, the StubHub Center (now Dignity Health Sports Park). But despite all that the Chargers fought all season and made the playoffs. And safety Derwin James played a huge role in that.
James was the first-round pick (17th overall) of the Chargers out of Florida State University. In the 2018 season he started all 16 games and recorded three interceptions, 3.5 sacks, and 13 passes defended. He also added 105 combined tackles to his stat line. Those numbers earned him a Pro Bowl and First Team All-Pro selection. Look for James to up those numbers in 2019 and be a top three safety in the league.
The Ohio State University produced another NFL defensive back, this one in the 2018 draft. This one happened to fall into the hands of the Cleveland Browns in the first round, coming fourth overall. Denzel Ward was the Brown’s second first round pick after Baker Mayfield (see the Offensive Edition for more on him). The Browns were just coming off of an 0-16 season, so expectations were very low. But both of their first-round picks lived up to expectations.
In the 2018 season Ward had three interceptions, one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries, and 11 passes defended. He also earned himself a Pro Bowl selection. The Browns looked destined for disaster at the start of the 2018 season. As the season progressed though they started to look like a young team going places. In 2019 Ward should be an integral part of leading the Browns to their first division title since 1989!
Leighton Vander Esch
Anyone who can successfully replace injured All-Pro linebacker Sean Lee deserves recognition. In place of Lee, rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch had one hell of a season. The Dallas Cowboys selected Vander Esch out of Boise State University in the first round (19th overall). The turf at Boise State may be blue, but he ensured the Cowboys didn’t feel that way after picking him!
Vander Esch made waves in the 2018 season picking up 140 combined tackles. That put him at number three overall in tackles for the season. In addition to his stellar tackling he also recorded two interceptions and seven passes defended. His play earned him a Pro Bowl selection. And he helped lead a Dallas team to the playoffs. Look for him to have a big 2019 and rank in the top five of linebackers.
All the defensive players mentioned above earned the distinction of being named to the 2018 NFL All-Rookie Team. They exhibited excellence in their rookie seasons. Many of them led their teams to the playoffs. And the ones that didn’t, fought until the very end of the season, and were very close to making it. These individuals will all be looking to make an extreme impact in 2019. And fans should follow them closely!