2014 PFF Defensive Rookie of the Year

Its tough for a defensive rookie to make an impact in today's NFL but Ben Stockwell reviews the top five players in their inaugural season via PFF review.

| 2 years ago

2014 PFF Defensive Rookie of the Year

2014-DROY2014 was a vintage season for rookies on the defensive side of the ball with four candidates standing out as having season’s worth of taking home the prize at the end of the season. It is rare to see a number of rookies come in and not just impress by the standard of other rookies in that and past seasons but in comparison to veteran players alike as we had in 2014.

The strongest performances were reserved for the front seven this season with difference-makers raising their hand in every area of the front seven. The quality was so high that it made it difficult to cut the list below five names so much like the offensive and defensive player of the year awards that we handed out last week we’re extending our shortlist to give credit to those defensive rookies who raised their games and made the biggest instant impact.

4th Runner Up

Anthony Barr, OLB, Minnesota Vikings

Perceived as a fairly raw prospect coming out of UCLA, there was some debate as to what position best suited Barr in the pros. What he proved this season was that he is just a good football player. The Vikings didn’t try to turn him into a Von Miller-style outside linebacker sending him after the quarterback at every opportunity (his 103 pass rushes were fifth most among 4-3 OLBs when his season ended due to injury). That doesn’t mean they didn’t make good use of his pass rushing skills either. His 17 pressures were evidence of his talent as a pass rusher and effective usage netting three sacks and four hits over the course of the season.

Barr paired his pass rushing with strong run defense and solid work in coverage where some might have expected him to be exposed a little more. There were certainly some things to work on in coverage, but for a first season, Barr disproved any doubters who might have suggested he would just be a part-time player for the Vikings in 2014. Though a step below our Top 4 who separated themselves from the field, Barr might have been closer had injury not curtailed his rookie season by a month.

3rd Runner Up

C.J. Mosley, ILB, Baltimore Ravens

After a steady first week as a pro (which included a rough night in coverage against the Steelers on the first Thursday Night Football of the season) Mosley exploded into life over the next eight weeks. He earned a positive grade in seven games including two spectacular displays against the Panthers (+7.1) and Bengals (+3.4). In that eight-week stretch, Mosley was our highest-graded inside linebacker earning a +15.7 overall grade and racking up 39 of his 61 stops for the season.

Finishing his rookie season inside the Top 10 of our inside linebacker grades Mosley’s strength was in run defense registering 31 stops and looking adept at shedding blocks in the pros from very early on. Also adding a threat as an extra rusher to his game Mosley flashed an all-around game that at this very early stage would suggest he is the next in a long line of excellent Ravens linebackers. One of the few things holding Mosley back were his occasional struggles that re-appeared late in the season with four game grades of -1.2 or below in coverage in the Ravens’ last eight games.

2nd Runner Up

Chris Borland, ILB, San Francisco 49ers

Going into the 49ers’ season as a third-round pick at inside linebacker you might have expected Borland to play fewer than 100 snaps. When Patrick Willis’ injury against the Rams presented the former Wisconsin Badger with an opportunity, he grabbed it and never looked back. In spite of only playing 487 snaps (40th among inside linebackers), Borland earned our fourth-highest grade at his position and got through a work rate in terms of tackles and stops compared to many full season starters.

His 54 defensive stops were topped by only six other inside linebackers (all of whom played at least 997 snaps). When you factor in his playing time his run stop percentage (21.3%) dwarfs any other inside linebacker, including Rolando McClain’s work as a two-down linebacker in Dallas. His work in coverage wasn’t as strong as his work against the run, though it was by no means the weakness you occasionally see from rookie linebackers. Had Borland played a full season, or perhaps even been healthy for the last two weeks of the season, he would have been a closer challenger to the top two defensive rookies.

1st Runner Up

Khalil Mack, OLB, Oakland Raiders

The Raiders didn’t get much right last offseason, but they hit a home run with their first-round pick from the University of Buffalo. Too much attention when talking about Mack was given to his 11-week wait for his first career sack rather than his dominant work against the run. While he was waiting for that first sack he was still providing steady if not overwhelming pressure, racking up seven hits in the eight games before his first sack.

Unusually for a rookie edge defender, though, it was Mack’s work against the run that was the cornerstone of his rookie season. Not until the final game of the regular season against the Broncos did Mack earn a single game grade below +1.0 as he racked up 42 stops in run defense as an ultra-disruptive force against opposing ground attacks. His 14 tackles for loss were bettered by only DeAndre Levy and Lavonte David (16 apiece) as he took on a similar role to Von Miller in Denver. He was not the same threat as a pass rusher, but a stronger and more consistent force as a run defender.

Defensive Rookie of the Year

Aaron Donald, DT, St Louis Rams

In a close battle at the top it is, however, an “undersized” defensive tackle who takes the crown as the league’s best defensive rookie in 2014. There were questions over how Aaron Donald would cope with the physicality and the grind in the NFL trenches during the pre-draft process but Donald turned those questions on their head in his rookie season. At the end of his rookie season Donald had posed more questions as to how NFL offensive lines could cope with his blend of speed, technique and agility than he had to answer about durability or power. In the second half of the season he earned a higher grade and played more snaps than he did in his first eight weeks, breaking through rather than hitting the rookie wall.


Much more than just a one-dimensional upfield pass rusher, Donald was able to use his strength and leverage to be a destructive run defender as well. In fact, his form as a run defender really came well before his late surge as a pass rusher (20 of his 44 pressures came in the last five weeks). That balance sets Donald’s inaugural season aside as a special one not just in this year but in any. He wasn’t just an impact player racking up the big plays but flawed in other areas, right away Donald brought out his A-game and was among the league’s very best defensive tackles based solely on their play in 2014. What might have been taken as a luxury pick for the Rams in May proved to be one of the best defensive linemen in the league in 2014, making Donald a more-than-worthy winner of our Defensive Rookie of the Year award.


See the other awards we’ve handed out this week:

2014 PFF All-Pro Team
2014 PFF All-Pro Special Teams
2014 PFF Stephenson Award (Best Player)
2014 PFF Offensive Player of the Year
2014 PFF Defensive Player of the Year
2014 PFF Matthews Award (Best Offensive Lineman)
2014 PFF O-Line Rankings
2014 PFF Rookie of the Year
2014 PFF Offensive Rookie of the Year
2014 PFF Defensive Rookie of the Year


Follow Ben on Twitter: @PFF_Ben

| Director of Analysis

Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.

  • Michael Canaan

    If you put Khalil on the same line as Long Quinn and Brockers, how much more dominant would he be?

    • Bruuuuuh

      Brockers isn’t even that good

      • Michael Canaan

        Sorry, just Robert Quinn and Chris Long. Anyone on the Raiders D Line similar to those at this point in their careers?

        • cole

          Chris Long missed nearly the entire year.

          • Seattle Steve

            Chris Long’s ghost had more sacks and pressures than the Raider’s DLine.

          • Ars3nic3

            I had to login to post this but that was funny as hell Seattle Steve. Coming from a Raider fan, SO TRUE! Wish C. Long would of been a Raider. All the Long boys actually. Family legacy and all!

      • swaggyg

        Brockers is good. He is not the type of DT that makes huge splashy plays like the other on the rams d-line but that does not mean he is terrible. I would say out of the 4 starter on the line he is the worst but he still is a very good DT

        • AJ

          Nobody said he was terrible (straw man much?).

          He’s just not that good. He’s like exactly average. Not good, not bad, just average.

        • Rick Cooley

          I think an upgrade at DT is in order. We draft a great DT like Leonard WIlliams (USC), who’s a helluva playmaker! He makes plays all over the field. Brockers doesn’t do that. He’s not dominant like Williams is. The only problem is, Williams will be long gone off the board before we pick at #10.

    • Chris

      I see you and Mr. Mack are on a first name basis. At first I thought you meant Matt Khalil and I was thoroughly confused.

      • Michael Canaan

        Hhahaha i refer to him as “Real Deal Khalil” but yes, i should be more specific.

  • Jaguars28

    Kind of surprised Telvin Smith wasn’t chosen over Anthony Barr. Although I’m biased as a Jaguars fan. Nice choices, though.

    • Michael Canaan

      Yea, I thought Telvin played really second half of the season

  • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi

    didn’t think he’d win, but was hoping to bradley roby as runner up. :'( lol

  • OwensDefense

    Aaron Donald did 35 reps of 225. There was no “power” question. He was the strongest defensive tackle in the freak’n draft.

    • AJ

      Bench press strength is different than functional power. Fact is, a 285lb DT will more often than not have less power than a 330lb one. Donald is the exception to that, not the norm. Durability is also a valid question to bring up since he is undersized. Donald proved the power and durability questions false, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have been asked.

      • OwensDefense

        There were no questions given that he was overpowering everyone he faced in college and backed it up on the bench press. Durability has nothing to do with lack of size. In fact, it’s when guys are carrying too much weight on their frame that injuries become a concern.

  • Cody Island

    I don’t doubt that Mack is going to be a good player, but do you have grades broken down into halves? I ask because the Raiders spent about 38 minutes per game trailing, and generally by the largest point margin in the NFL. As such, they played a disproportionate number of garbage time, run-out-the-clock snaps, which is very favorable to “stops”.

    • Patrick Smith

      The raiders weren’t trailing by the largest point margin in the nfl. Most of their losses were close games.

      • Cody Island

        They lost eight games by more than one score; five were by more than two scores. They had the worst point differential in the NFL (though yes, that is in part due to rarely winning).

    • OttoDoubleZero

      Valid points, but anyone who watched the Raiders consistently this past season (yes, it was just as painful as it sounds) would see that Mack passed the eyeball test. He dominated from the first quarter to the final whistle. And while that might be conducive to stops, being down 14 points is not conducive to sacks. So, it all balances out…

  • Bob

    I think Mack should have won it. Aaron Donald is really damn good though, so I can’t bring myself to be /too/ upset about it.

  • Rick Cooley

    Damn! As a Ram fan, it’s awesome that Aaron Donald will probably win the DROY. We only have 5 draft picks this year, with some holes to fill. I think we need a QB , and i don’t mean a 6th rounder, either. I also think we need another o-lineman. I do Also think that to push the safeties we have now, we need more safety help. Some people will argue with me, but i think we need a stud receiver. I have some names to throw out there. Amari Cooper (Alabama), Kevin White (Wisconsin), Dorial Green-Beckham (Oklahoma), Nelson Agholor (USC), Jaelen Strong (Arizona State), and DeVante Parker (Louisvile). Green-Beckham is 6’6. Think of him with horns on the helmet, catching passes with all that height and talent. We need more talent to turn our fortunes around. We will be known as the Los Angeles Rams in 2016, so it would be great to leave St. Louis with a winning season, and even a playoff berth. GO RAMS!!!!!!!!!!!!