If there’s one thing the Buffalo Bills can definitely hang their hat on, it’s that they have a keeper in rookie cornerback Tre’Davious White. Buffalo’s first round pick from the 2017 draft continued his impressive season on Sunday, allowing a passer rating of 2.8 on throws into his coverage against the Kansas City Chiefs. Is his season good enough to win a coveted Defensive Rookie of the Year award?
In May, we profiled White’s chances of winning the award, noting that only three cornerbacks had ever taken the trophy. It’s an honor traditionally given to linebackers who rack up dozens of tackles, not thankless defensive backs who show up in the lowlights as often as they earn highlight reels for turnovers.
Through twelve weeks of the NFL season, though, White is at the front of the race, with no clear leader emerging yet. Is his resumé good enough to earn the award? He’ll need the right combination of stats and intangibles to come out on top as a cornerback playing for a small market team. Here are the top candidates:
Tre’Davious White | CB | Buffalo Bills
White stepped in as Buffalo’s top cornerback from day one, and has been as good as you could expect in that role, with the exception of a wild game by A.J. Green earlier in the fall.
He leads all rookies in passes defended with 14 (and is two behind the NFL leader, Casey Hayward). White has two interceptions and two fumble recoveries, leading rookies in turnovers and ranking second in defensive return yardage. He returned one fumble for a touchdown, and has a forced fumble. With 34 solo tackles and 8 assisted tackles, he’s bringing down players at a good rate, and the advanced stats suggest that he’s easily handling his coverage responsibilities.
From an intangible perspective, White will get a knock because he plays for a lesser-known team, but his early success has powered the campaign. He earns kudos for starting all eleven games and scarcely missing a snap along the way.
Marshon Lattimore | CB | New Orleans Saints
Lattimore was one of the most exciting defenders in college football last year, and only fell to the middle of the first round in the draft because of a lack of starting experience and an injury history. When healthy, he’s been a total lockdown cornerback for the Saints, and those contributions to one of the top seeds in the competitive NFC give him a great narrative.
Lattimore has two interceptions, one which was returned for a touchdown. He’s forced a fumble and recovered one, and has a solid 31 tackles and five assisted tackles. His nine passes defended ranks fifth among rookies.
He loses some prestige because injuries have held him out of two games this year, but he’s started the other nine. From a schematic perspective, he’s playing more man coverage than White, which creates more boom/bust opportunities. The fact that he’s covering just as effectively is very impressive. Many outlets consider Lattimore the front-runner today.
T.J. Watt | OLB | Pittsburgh Steelers
J.J. Watt’s younger brother has had a great rookie season with the Steelers. Starting and playing in ten games for Pittsburgh, he ranks second among rookies with five sacks, and adds a pick-six and six passes defended to his resume. That’s more passes defended than any non-cornerback in the rookie class. Watt spends a lot of time in the trenches, but still has 27 solo tackles and 8 assisted tackles on the season.
To his benefit, he also has a great narrative. His brother is one of the most recognizable stars in the league, and he plays for an extremely popular franchise in playoff position. Watt’s also playing a position that’s commonly recognized for the Rookie of the Year award.
Adoree’ Jackson | CB | Tennessee Titans
Jackson’s situation is unique because he’s not just a defensive asset - he’s Tennessee’s kick and punt returner, and they’ve even brought him out on offense (five carries for 55 yards). Among rookies, Jackson ranks second with 43 solo tackles and 11 passes defended. He’s also forced two fumbles, although he doesn’t have any interceptions or fumble recoveries. Jackson hasn’t been a lockdown cornerback for the Titans, but he’s sprung enough big plays that his contributions to the other two phases of the game could sway some voters.
Carl Lawson | DE | Cincinnati Bengals
Lawson has only played a rotational role with the Bengals, otherwise he may have ended up even higher on this list. On the season, he only has a single start among eleven games played, but he leads all rookies with seven sacks. His tackle numbers are deflated by playing on the defensive line, with only seven solo tackles and three assisted tackles, and he hasn’t blocked a pass or forced a fumble yet. As a fourth round pick, he doesn’t carry the first-round pedigree that the other names have.
These players have had solid seasons, but not yet vaulted into the top five. A strong December to close out the year could still elevate one of these names into the leaderboard.
DE Myles Garrett - Second among rookies with five sacks, but only played in six games due to injury
LB Kendell Beckwith - Leads rookies in solo tackles, but doesn’t have much in other counting stats, recently been supplanted by returned veterans on depth chart
S Jamal Adams / S Marcus Maye - Both playing great, but may “split the vote” by playing on the same team. Great tackling numbers, solid “impact play” quantities