Most Defensive Rookie of the Year winners come off the board in Round 1, but these five names present dark horse options to keep an eye on heading into the 2023 NFL season.
The defensive side of the ball slightly edged out the offense on Day 1 of the NFL Draft. Sixteen players heard their name called in Round 1, with the likes of Will Anderson and Jalen Carter leading the way. Tyree Wilson, Lukas Van Ness, and Will McDonald all went inside the top 16 selections, plus a few more defensive linemen as the round continued.
Last year’s Defensive Rookie of the Year, Sauce Gardner, became only the fourth cornerback since 1993 to take home the award. In this draft cycle, Devon Witherspoon, Emmanuel Forbes, Christian Gonzalez, and Deonte Banks will look to repeat the success and claim the honors themselves.
Linebacker cannot be slept on when it comes to Defensive Rookie of the Year conversations. Jack Campbell boasts All-Pro potential from the jump and should stuff the box score week in and week out as a rookie. Campbell immediately steps in as the quarterback of the defense in Detroit, giving him ample opportunity to make a name for himself quickly.
With all this talent from Round 1, it may seem like a long shot for any player drafted in the later portion of the draft. But fifth-round breakout star Tariq Woolen earned a finalist spot in the voting this past season, opening up the door for other dark horse options in the future.
Dark Horse Defensive Rookie of the Year Contenders: B.J. Ojulari, Drew Sanders, Plus More!
So, who can be this year’s Woolen? Will the cornerback position win unprecedented back-to-back Defensive Rookie of the Year awards? Here are five names to monitor as the 2023 season approaches. Each player has a realistic path to starter reps, and all possess the talent to make the most of the opportunity. Without further ado, let’s get things rolling…
Joey Porter Jr., CB, Steelers
The Steelers hit the jackpot to open Day 2 of the 2023 NFL Draft. After employing his father for most of the 2000s, Pittsburgh landed Joey Porter Jr. at No. 32 overall. It was a surprise to see the Nittany Lion standout last until the second day of the event, as he was the top-rated cornerback on my Big Board.
Porter matches last year’s Defensive Rookie of the Year, Sauce Gardner, in terms of tenacity and swagger. The long-armed defender excels at using his length to disrupt passing lanes and wrap up ball carriers on the ground. He has an opportunity to earn first-team reps as a rookie, and with all the talent on the Steelers’ defense, JPJ could put together a DROY campaign.
B.J. Ojulari, EDGE, Cardinals
B.J. Ojulari was a slept-on man in a stacked pass-rushing group this draft cycle. In 2021, his brother Azeez fell to No. 50 overall, so little bro owns the bragging rights after going No. 41 last month. Azeez recorded 13.5 sacks in his first two seasons, and B.J. has a chance to approach that number in his debut campaign.
Similar to his big brother, the younger Ojulari is a natural pass rusher. He is quick off the snap, possesses a long wingspan, and mixes in several different moves as he pursues the quarterback. He could be more consistent in the run game, but on a roster lacking a difference maker off the edge, Ojulari is poised to be that early in his career.
Drew Sanders, LB, Broncos
Drew Sanders is another first-round talent that fell into the second day. The Broncos cashed in on this tumble as the team entered the 2023 NFL Draft without a pick inside the first two rounds. Coming away with Sanders anyway is a move that can benefit Denver this season.
Sanders is a gifted athlete with a high football IQ. He has a nose for the football and regularly finds his way into the backfield. The former five-star recruit showed ability in coverage at Arkansas, albeit in a mostly limited capacity. His tackling needs work, but Sanders has the chops to stay on the field every down. The volume of opportunities will vault him up the DROY rankings.
Byron Young, EDGE, Rams
The Rams are only one season removed from hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. Now, the roster is in shambles and will rely heavily on the additions made at the 2023 NFL Draft. The most promising selection on the defensive side, at least in terms of immediate impact, is Byron Young out of Tennessee.
Young is an older prospect, which was the primary factor for his slide down the board, but he can step in and challenge for 10+ sacks in Year 1. The former Volunteer superstar showed out at the NFL Combine, flexing one-of-one athleticism and a cool, calm demeanor at the podium. Young is pretty easily the best pass rusher on the roster.
Mekhi Blackmon, CB, Vikings
My favorite sleeper of the 2023 NFL Draft is Mekhi Blackmon. After starring for four seasons at Colorado, the 5-foot-11 defensive back transferred to USC and posted the best year of his career. He put up a sparkling PFF coverage grade (90.6) and allowed less than 50 percent of passes his way to be completed.
Thanks to a slender frame and durability concerns that come with it, Blackmon almost fell out of the first two days of the 2023 NFL Draft. Luckily, the Vikings wisely took him at No. 102 and will give him the chance to earn a starting role alongside the newly-acquired Byron Murphy and last year’s second-rounder Andrew Booth Jr. The battle for the third spot in the cornerback room between Blackmon and Akayleb Evans should be fun.