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Sorry, Detroit: Sauce Gardner, not Aidan Hutchinson, should be Defensive Rookie of the Year

Aidan Hutchinson had an incredible season, and the Lions have every reason to be thrilled with the player they picked second overall. Sauce Gardner’s season was just better.

Detroit Lions vs Chicago Bears Photo by Jorge Lemus/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Shawn Carter once dropped some knowledge on “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)” from his 2001 album The Blueprint: “Respect the game, that should be it, what you eat don’t make me shit, where’s the love?”

In wake of Aidan Hutchinson winning Defensive Rookie of the Month for a second time this season, Lions fans have taken to Pride Rock to hoist Hutchinson up as their Defensive Rookie of the Year and it’s understandable. Hutchinson’s production in his debut season rivals the numbers posted by some of the best edge defenders in the NFL during their respective rookie campaigns.

  • Aidan Hutchinson: 17 games, 9.5 sacks, 52 tackles, 9 TFL, 53 QB pressures, 3 INT
  • Joey Bosa*: 12 games, 10.5 sacks, 41 tackles, 17 TFL, 59 QB pressures, 1 forced fumbles
  • Nick Bosa*: 16 games, 9.0 sacks, 47 tackles, 16 TFL, 80 QB pressures, 2 forced fumbles
  • Myles Garrett: 11 games, 7.0 sacks, 31 tackles, 9 TFL, 37 QB pressures, 1 forced fumbles
  • Chase Young*: 15 games, 7.5 sacks, 44 tackles, 10 TFL, 42 QB pressures, 4 forced fumbles

* denotes AP Defensive Rookie of the Year honors

Against some of the best edge defenders in their first years, Hutchinson’s rookie season stacks up statistically. Both Bosa brothers and Young all won Defensive Rookie of the Year, and it’s hard to imagine how Hutchinson didn’t do enough to claim the award after he was the odds-on favorite at the beginning of the season.

Let’s consider, too, how Hutchinson’s season sits against some of the best players at his position regardless of experience. Among edge defenders with at least 325 pass rushing snaps, Hutchinson ranked 23rd in quarterback pressures (53) and 25th in pass rush win rate (14.6 percent), but maybe what’s most impressive about his rookie season is how he never hit the proverbial rookie wall—he finished second in defensive snaps (953) among edge defenders. One of his greatest attributes coming out of Michigan was a motor that just doesn’t quit, and that’s evidenced by how he played from Week 10 through season’s end: Hutchinson ranked 18th in pressures (29) and 14th in pass rush win rate (17.2 percent) between Weeks 10 and 18.

In run defense, Hutchinson was a standout defender in his rookie season, finishing sixth among edge defenders in defensive stops (22) and 21st in defensive stop rate (6.2 percent) across 360 snaps. Things get more impressive when you look at the second half of Hutchinson’s season in Weeks 10 through 18: 12 defensive stops was second among edge defenders, and his 9.8 percent defensive stop rate was third in the NFL, ahead of the likes of Maxx Crosby, Myles Garrett, and Danielle Hunter.

If only Hutchinson’s rookie season didn’t have to coincide with Sauce Gardner’s arrival.

Gardner, the fourth overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft by the New York Jets, put together a season that not only established himself as one of the best young cornerbacks in the league, but it’s likely he was NFL’s best cornerback this year. Here’s how Sauce’s rookie season ranks among some of the other best cornerbacks in the league and their debuts.

  • Sauce Gardner: 17 games, 20 passes defended, 2 INT, 75 tackles, 3 TFL
  • Patrick Surtain II: 16 games, 14 passes defended, 4 INT, 58 tackles, 1 TFL
  • Marshon Lattimore*: 13 games, 18 passes defended, 5 INT, 52 tackles, 1 TFL
  • Jalen Ramsey: 16 games, 14 passes defended, 2 INT, 65 tackles, 2 TFL
  • Marcus Peters*: 16 games, 26 passes defended, 8 INT, 1 forced fumble, 60 tackles, 1 TFL

* denotes AP Defensive Rookie of the Year honors

Outside of Peters gaudy numbers—more on those in a second—Gardner looks just at home as Hutchinson against other top defenders in their first year. For cornerbacks, it’s hard to rack up box score numbers like interceptions and passes defended if the ball’s not getting thrown your way. In Gardner’s first year, he was targeted 73 times, the 31st most targets faced by any cornerback in 2022. For Peters, he was the most-targeted cornerback (137) in 2015, allowing 69 receptions for 939 yards and eight touchdowns. For reference, 137 targets is getting tested quite often over 16 games—the most targeted cornerback in 2022 was Kader Kohou with 106 over 15 games.

For starters, Gardner led the NFL in passes defended (20) despite only being targeted 73 times—a ridiculous average of 0.27 passes defended per target. Among cornerbacks with at least 385 coverage snaps, Sauce also led the league in both completion percentage against (45.2 percent) and passer rating allowed (52.5), allowing just 33 receptions for 344 yards on 642 coverage snaps. Despite only two interceptions, Gardner was all over the ball when he was targeted, recording the most plays on the football when you consider interceptions and passes defended (22). Gardner surrendered just one touchdown this season—good for the fourth in the NFL in touchdowns allowed—in Week 2 against Cleveland, and then he went on to shut every player out of the end zone who lined up across from him.

Gardner’s season wasn’t one of steady growth over the course of his first season—he was a dominant, lockdown corner since Week 1.

Aidan Hutchinson’s rookie season is something Lions fans should be thrilled to have experienced, and considering how he played over the second half of the season, it’s exciting to think about what the future holds for him. After seeing his development over the course of the year, it’s hard not to think nearly everyone missed the boat on assessing how high Hutchinson’s ceiling was in the NFL. If there was an edge rusher to choose in last year’s draft, Hutchinson was the clear choice when so many were split between three guys—Kayvon Thibodeaux and Travon Walker—including myself.

His impressive debut and strong finish to the season, however, just didn’t produce the kind of numbers Gardner put up from start to finish. Just tip your cap to Gardner, recognize and respect his historic debut, and understand that the Jets are an entire football conference away from the Lions.

After all, what he eats...

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