Ndamukong Suh, Al Baker and Lem Barney are some pretty big names to be included with.
Those three former Detroit Lions have all taken home the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year award. Another name could be joining that group this year is second overall pick Aidan Hutchinson, who has had a pretty good season. The question here is whether or not the people who vote for this award feel the same way. Let’s take a look at who Aidan is up against and what he’s done to deserve very serious consideration.
First there’s Jets corner Sauce Gardner. The fourth overall pick has had a very good season. He’s done enough to show that he could be the league's next shutdown corner. I’m talking about the kind of corner that has his own island. When the Lions played the Jets a few weeks back, they didn’t even throw the ball his direction. He is currently sporting an 88.0 PFF grade, which is the highest of ANY NFL cornerback with at least 200 snaps.
The downside for Gardner is that he plays for team that has fallen off after having playoff aspirations early in the year. The other thing is that he hasn’t filled up the stat sheet. He has two interceptions and that’s it. No sacks or forced fumbles. None of the sexy stuff. That said, he does lead the league in pass breakups (20).
Next up is Seahawks corner Tariq Woolen. You might remember Woolen from the Senior Bowl. He was on the Lions’ squad for that game and was someone that some Lions fans, myself included, felt the Lions should draft on Day 3. Sadly that did not happen. It’s sad because Woolen has looked pretty good in his rookie year. He’s racked up six interceptions and even took one back for a touchdown.
The thing that’s going to hurt Woolen is similar to Gardner’s issue. The Seahawks have collapsed down the stretch, even though they might still sneak into the playoffs. Woolen has been pretty quiet during that slump. Being quiet is not good when it comes to trying to win awards. Quiet means people forget about you. Not completely, but enough to miss out.
Some other names to keep an eye on are Kayvon Thibodeaux from the Giants, Kyle Hamilton of the Ravens and Roger McCreary of the Titans.
Now it’s time for Hutchinson’s case. For starters, he’s filling up the stat sheet. He has 7.5 sacks this season. That leads all rookies (well, expect for his teammate James Houston). Then, as a defensive lineman, he’s snatched three interceptions this season. The last defensive lineman to do that was all the back in 1990 when Richard Dent did it, but it’s never been done by a rookie defensive lineman. He’s also been consistently good on one of the league's hottest teams down the wire. He racks up the highlights and his team is winning. That’s a big leg up on the competition. Lastly, Hutchinson grades out at 79.9 on Pro Football Focus. That’s in the elite territory, and comfortably above any other rookie defenders (minimum 300 snaps). And he’s only gotten better as the season progressed:
Since Week 11, Aidan Hutchinson ranks 3rd in PFF grade among all edge defenders (89.7).— Jeremy Reisman (@DetroitOnLion) January 2, 2023
He's only behind Myles Garrett and Josh Uche.
The downside for Hutchinson is a few things. The first is that the voters may have already made their minds up. Sauce Gardner is indeed having a special year. Hutch is graded out at 79.9 and that’s good, but Gardner is at 88. That makes him the highest graded rookie and the highest graded corner in the league. That’s going to be pretty hard to go against if a lot of the voters are analytically minded.
The other thing, and I know this is dumb, but he plays for the Lions. It shouldn’t matter and maybe it won’t since the Lions have been fun this year. But the Lions are still the Lions. They’re not getting covered like the New York teams or the Cowboys or Chiefs. The Lions are the team that gets talked about for a few minutes, while the big market teams are getting discussed for hours. There’s cause to believe that the voters might just not be watching the Lions as closely as they are other teams.
At the end of the day, Hutchinson has made a very good case and he will absolutely get some votes, but I’m not sure if he’ll get enough to be crowned Defensive Rookie of the Year. The good news is that the Lions have a player that’s played well enough to even be highly considered. So it’s kind of a win/win.