Last year, the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year debate was an open and shut case. Tre’Davious White made a late push, but fellow first-round cornerback Marshon Lattimore was always the clear frontrunner. Lattimore was a deserving winner, holding down PFF’s No. 7 coverage grade among cornerbacks while guiding New Orleans to its first playoff berth in four years.
This year, the field is much deeper. On a fantasy-specific site like Rotoworld, it’s easy for defensive players to fall through the cracks, but even with that in mind, I can’t help but be impressed by this year’s crop of first-year difference-makers. I posted a Twitter poll on this subject yesterday, because frankly, I’m not sure who I’d give the hardware to. Twitter’s character limit prevented me from putting down more than four options, but there are at least six candidates who could easily take home the top prize.
The opening round of this year’s draft was bursting at the seams with talent and so far, most of the chalk has hit. Many industry voices were critical of Cleveland for fading Bradley Chubb with the fourth overall pick, but in retrospect, it looks like the Browns got it right. Pairing Chubb (ironically, the Browns used a second-round pick on Bradley’s cousin, Georgia running back Nick Chubb) with Myles Garrett would have given Cleveland arguably the league’s top pass-rushing duo. But Denzel Ward has been a savior in the secondary, quickly emerging as one of the NFL’s elite corners and a matchup nightmare for opposing wideouts. Not that Chubb would have been a bad choice—he’s been just as dominant for Denver, leading all rookies with 10 quarterback takedowns.
In a draft that refused to go by the book, one of the bigger surprises took place when stud safety Derwin James dropped to the latter half of the first round after forecasters had consistently pegged him as a top-10 pick. Jaws dropped when the Chargers landed the former Florida State Seminole with the 17th overall pick. Many called it the steal of the draft and through the first 12 games of 2018, it’s hard to argue that notion. He’s been spectacular, frustrating quarterbacks to the tune of a hideous 54.9 quarterback rating while ranking second among rookies with three interceptions. Among safeties, only New York’s Jamal Adams has received higher marks from Pro Football Focus this year. Jaire Alexander, who went to the Packers one pick after Los Angeles ended James’ stunning fall, also deserves a mention for his standout play at cornerback. Brandin Cooks (three catches on eight targets), Marvin Jones (one catch for eight yards) and Allen Robinson (4-for-61 on seven targets) are a few of the many big names he’s silenced this year.
The talent pool at linebacker is just as rich. Leighton Vander Esch, who played his high school ball on whatever this is, already looks like the next Luke Kuechly, anchoring the Cowboys’ defense with 102 tackles and two interceptions (both returned for touchdowns). He’s been so dominant that Cowboys fans are beginning to forget Sean Lee even exists. The best nickname of the bunch (Greedy Williams already has a head start for the best name in next year’s rookie class) belongs to Darius Leonard, a second-round South Carolina State product who goes by “Maniac.” He’s played like one too, leading the entire NFL with 122 tackles while also contributing six sacks and four forced fumbles for the resurgent Colts.
I’m still torn about who I’d pick, so help me out by leaving your choice for Defensive Rookie of the Year in the comments below and also let me know if I forgot anyone. Now for the Week 14 Power Rankings featuring a new, old No. 1.
1. Los Angeles Rams
Last Week: 2
The Lions stymied Jared Goff, who looked rusty in his return from the Rams’ bye, but Todd Gurley (165 yards, two touchdowns) did more than enough to put L.A. over the top in Week 13. Gurley has already matched his career-high of 19 touchdowns with four games remaining. Brandin Cooks etched his name in the record books by becoming the first player in league history to eclipse 1,000 yards receiving three straight years for three different teams. Cooks and Robert Woods (971 yards) would give the Rams their first pair of 1,000-yard receivers since 2006.
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2. New Orleans Saints
Last Week: 1
Drew Brees (127 passing yards, one INT) and Michael Thomas (5-40-0) picked a curious time to go missing, abandoning fantasy owners in their time of need with horrible performances in Week 13. Brees’ 71.6 quarterback rating in Thursday night’s loss to Dallas was his lowest since Week 14 of 2016. On top of seeing its 10-game winning streak expire, New Orleans also lost ground to Los Angeles in the race for the NFC’s top seed. On the positive side, the Saints have been a defensive juggernaut, holding opponents to 48 points over their last four games.
3. New England Patriots
Last Week: 4
Going by the eye test, the Patriots don’t look as dominant this year, but you’d never know it by peeping their resume. The Pats boast big wins over Kansas City, Chicago, Houston and Minnesota and have absolutely crushed teams at home, outscoring their opponents 201-118 at Gillette Stadium. Tom Brady checked off two more milestones in Week 13, tying Brett Favre for third on the NFL’s all-time touchdown list while also reaching 1,000 yards rushing for his career. I’m guessing Bill Belichick won’t be friending Adam Thielen on MyFace anytime soon.
4. Kansas City Chiefs
Last Week: 3
It was a somber week in KC as the Chiefs waived Kareem Hunt after video surfaced of the running back shoving and kicking a woman outside a Cleveland hotel room. Hunt led the league in rushing yards as a rookie last year and was having an even better sophomore campaign before the scandal broke. Travis Kelce propped up the offense in his absence, destroying the Raiders for 168 yards and two touchdowns in Week 13. That puts Kelce on pace for 1,443 yards, which would blow away the tight end record of 1,327 currently held by Rob Gronkowski.
5. Houston Texans
Last Week: 8
Houston dialed up a little ground-and-pound in Week 13, burying the Browns for 187 yards on 39 carries. The Texans have racked up a franchise-record nine straight wins and Lamar Miller has been a huge part of their success. The 27-year-old has staged a remarkable turnaround, rushing for 100 yards in four of his last six games after failing to reach that mark all of last season. The Texans weren’t especially stingy with Baker Mayfield (397 passing yards), though they did goad the rookie into throwing a career-worst three interceptions including a pick-six.
6. Los Angeles Chargers
Last Week: 6
The Chargers have endured a depressing number of late-game collapses in their history (most of them with proud papa Philip Rivers under center). But all was forgiven Sunday night as the Bolts stunned Pittsburgh by erasing a 16-point half-time deficit. Keenan Allen gave the Steelers hell in Week 13, burning the black and yellow for 148 yards on 14 catches (both season-highs) while extending his touchdown streak to four games. Austin Ekeler was billed as the starter but Justin Jackson overshadowed him, stealing the show with 82 yards and a touchdown on nine touches.
7. Chicago Bears
Last Week: 5
Chicago’s five-game winning streak went down the tubes, but don’t blame Tarik Cohen for Sunday’s letdown against the Giants. The pint-sized back gave a Herculean effort in the loss to New York, setting career-highs in catches (12), receiving yards (156) and yards from scrimmage (186) while also chipping in with his second career touchdown pass. Among running backs, only Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey has put up more receiving yards (665) than Cohen (659) this year. Rookie coach Matt Nagy will have his work cut out for him when the NFC-leading Rams invade Chicago in Week 14.
8. Dallas Cowboys
Last Week: 13
Make that four in a row for the Cowboys, who stunned the Saints with a hard-fought victory in Week 13. Dallas did its best to keep Drew Brees off the field, holding the ball for 37 of the game’s 60 minutes. Amari Cooper continued his Dallas renaissance with another productive week, snagging all eight of his targets for 75 yards in the Thursday night win. Dak Prescott completed over 85 percent of his passes against New Orleans but also took seven sacks, bringing his season total to 45, which leads the league by a healthy margin.
9. Seattle Seahawks
Last Week: 10
The Seahawks took care of business on Sunday, extending their winning streak to three with a masterful showing against the Niners in Week 13. Russell Wilson flashed his signature efficiency, roasting San Fran for 185 yards and four touchdowns despite logging only 17 passing attempts. Tyler Lockett stayed on-brand by converting his lone catch for a 52-yard touchdown in the victory. Chris Carson, who I assume has a WebMD tab open on his computer at all times, dislocated his thumb on Sunday but should be a go for Week 14.
10. Pittsburgh Steelers
Last Week: 7
Even with Casey Hayward tailing him, Antonio Brown was still magnificent against the Chargers, biting and clawing his way to season-highs in both catches (10) and receiving yards (154) while securing his sixth-straight 1,000-yard season. Not bad for a guy who was chosen 195th overall in the 2010 draft. James Conner won’t be in uniform this week after limping off with an ankle sprain in Sunday night’s loss to the Bolts. That will open up carries for fifth-round rookie Jaylen Samuels, who holds tight end eligibility in Yahoo leagues.
11. Baltimore Ravens
Last Week: 12
John Harbaugh won’t show us his cards, but at this point it would be a surprise if the Ravens turned back to Joe Flacco now that Lamar Jackson has led the team to three straight victories. The ex-Heisman winner brought his racing shoes to Atlanta, burning the Falcons for 75 yards with his feet. Speaking of former Heisman winners, Robert Griffin III made a cameo in Week 13, seeing his first game action in nearly two years. John Brown has been erased completely, totaling two catches for 48 yards in Jackson’s three starts.
12. Minnesota Vikings
Last Week: 9
Kirk Cousins forgot to bring his A game to Foxboro, throwing two interceptions while contributing season-lows in both yards per attempt (4.57) and quarterback rating (70.4) as the Vikings fell at the hands of New England’s evil empire. Stefon Diggs gutted out a knee injury in Week 13 but with mixed results, watching his three-game touchdown streak go kaput while recording his fewest yards since Week 7. Now clinging to the sixth and final playoff position in the NFC, Monday’s game against the surging Seahawks will be a must-win for Minnesota.
13. Indianapolis Colts
Last Week: 11
The Colts’ offense vanished in Week 13, sputtering to 265 yards in a shutout loss to Jacksonville. Eric Ebron corralled 10 of his career-high 16 targets for a team-best 81 yards, but also lost a costly fumble as Indy waved goodbye to its five-game winning streak. Ebron averages just 3.7 targets when Jack Doyle plays, but without him, his workload rises to 11 targets per game. Andrew Luck had thrown for a touchdown in 34 straight games before Sunday’s debacle.
14. Denver Broncos
Last Week: 17
A week after bull-dozing his way to a career-high 110 rushing yards, Phillip Lindsay topped himself with a 157-yard masterpiece as Denver rattled off another victory in Week 13. Lindsay’s 937 rushing yards are the third-most ever by an undrafted rookie. The Broncos couldn’t get Emmanuel Sanders going in the win over Cincinnati (4-19-0), but fortunately teammate and fellow SMU alum Courtland Sutton picked up the slack, producing a career-high 85 yards while also erasing a four-game touchdown drought. Steady signal-caller Case Keenum hasn’t turned the ball over since Week 8.
15. Philadelphia Eagles
Last Week: 16
Golden Tate gave Eagles fans something to cheer about by delivering a robust 85 yards on seven catches in a Week 13 win over Washington. Tate’s touchdown (which ended a five-game first-quarter scoreless drought for the Eagles) was his first since arriving at the trade deadline. Darren Sproles only played a handful of snaps in his return from a 10-game absence, but he made them count, scoring for the first time since Week 16 of 2016. Will somebody wake up Alshon Jeffery? He’s been asleep at the wheel, averaging a sluggish 37.2 yards over his current five-game touchdown drought.
16. Carolina Panthers
Last Week: 14
Holy meltdown, the Panthers are falling apart. Sunday’s heartbreaker in Tampa stretched Carolina’s losing streak to four games. It also led to a coaching shakeup as assistants Brady Hoke and Jeff Imamura were both sent packing. Cam Newton’s four picks against the Bucs on Sunday were his most since Week 11 of his rookie year in 2011. With Greg Olsen lost to another season-ending foot injury, it’s fair to wonder if the aging tight end has played his final NFL snap. Did I mention two of Carolina’s last four games are against New Orleans?
17. Tennessee Titans
Last Week: 18
Taywan Taylor delivered his magnum opus in Week 13, enjoying a 104-yard breakout in a victory over the Jets. That’s more yards than Taylor had in his previous four games combined. Marcus Mariota started his day on the wrong foot with a first-quarter pick-six, but turned it around by slinging 282 yards and two touchdowns while also demonstrating his scrambling prowess with 43 rushing yards. After starting the year on a six-game touchdown drought, Derrick Henry and the end zone appear to have made amends. He’s paid his friend a visit five times in his last six games.
18. Miami Dolphins
Last Week: 22
Disgruntled wide receiver Kenny Stills got the squeaky wheel treatment in Week 13, securing his team-leading fifth touchdown grab in the win over Buffalo. The Fins wouldn’t be where they are without Xavien Howard, who has cashed in with a league-high seven interceptions this year with four of those coming in his last two games. Aging ball-carrier Frank Gore leads Miami with 139 carries this year. Not one of them has gone for a touchdown. Your eyes are not deceiving you—Ryan Tannehill really does have a higher quarterback rating than Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger.
19. Washington Redskins
Last Week: 15
Washington took it on the chin in Week 13, dropping its third straight while losing ANOTHER quarterback to a broken leg. What are the odds? Rather than ending Colin Kaepernick’s exile, the Redskins will ride it out with Mark Sanchez, who promptly delivered another iconic butt moment in the loss to Philadelphia. Adrian Peterson’s 90-yard touchdown dash against the Eagles was the longest of his career as well as the longest run in franchise history. The Redskins are 0 for their last five in Monday night games against the Eagles.
20. Cleveland Browns
Last Week: 20
The Texans knocked Baker Mayfield down a few pegs in Week 13, forcing the rookie into a career-high three interceptions as the Browns fell to 0-5 outside of Ohio. It wasn’t all bad for Baker as the reigning Heisman winner still threw for a career-high 397 yards in the losing effort. Jarvis Landry’s first year in Cleveland has been a mixed bag, but he let it all hang out on Sunday, gashing Houston for 103 yards on six catches. Goal-line hound Nick Chubb extended his touchdown streak to four by making another end-zone visit in Week 13.
21. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Last Week: 25
Let’s not close the book on the Bucs just yet. According to Fivethirtyeight.com, Tampa Bay still has a two-percent chance of making the postseason. Second-round rookie Ronald Jones fell flat in his return from a month-long hamstring injury, logging just two yards on four carries in a win over Carolina. Chris Godwin continues to be a mortal lock whenever DeSean Jackson is out. He’s totaled 15 catches for 310 yards and two touchdowns in three career games without D-Jax. Meanwhile Adam Humphries has lent a helping hand by supplying five touchdowns over his last five appearances.
22. Green Bay Packers
Last Week: 19
It finally happened. After 13 long years, the Packers finally pressed the eject button on underachieving head coach Mike McCarthy (and I’m sure Aaron Rodgers was just devastated). McCarthy’s fate was already sealed but after falling to the lowly Cardinals in Week 13, the Packers decided not to wait for Black Monday. Preseason darling Jake Kumerow finally made his season debut in Week 13 but was limited to five snaps while returning from a shoulder injury. Mason Crosby’s year-long struggles continued with a costly miss in the closing seconds of Sunday’s defeat.
23. Atlanta Falcons
Last Week: 21
The seat is getting warmer for under-the-microscope head coach Dan Quinn as the struggling Falcons enter this week’s slate riding a four-game losing streak. Contract-year running back Tevin Coleman will be seeking a big payday when he hits the market this offseason, but does he deserve one? Judging off his last two weeks (14 yards on 14 carries), not by a long shot. Former high-school quarterback Mohamed Sanu finally threw an incompletion in Week 13, though he still sports a perfect 158.3 quarterback rating on seven career passing attempts.
24. New York Giants
Last Week: 27
If fantasy owners are allowed to put Jaylen Samuels in their tight end spot, why aren’t we giving quarterback eligibility to Odell Beckham? He’s been quite the marksmen this year, completing both of his passes for 106 yards and a pair of touchdowns. First-year Giant Alec Ogletree gave Chicago fits in Week 13, securing two interceptions including a pick-six in New York’s 30-27 victory. Instead of gunning for the top pick in next year’s draft, the Giants have suddenly won three of four. This team can’t even tank properly.
25. Detroit Lions
Last Week: 24
With Kerryon Johnson (knee) and Marvin Jones (knee) both absent, it’s been slim pickings for Detroit’s offense. Exhibit A: Levine Toilolo led the team with 90 receiving yards against the Rams in Week 13. The Lions did well to stifle Jared Goff (207 passing yards, two turnovers) but could do nothing to stop Todd Gurley, who shredded Matt Patricia’s D for 165 yards and two touchdowns. Meanwhile Bruce Ellington continues to be a poor man’s Jarvis Landry, compiling 115 yards on 19 catches (6.1 yards per reception) over his last three games.
26. Cincinnati Bengals
Last Week: 23
Cincy’s slide continued in Week 13 with Denver sending the Bengals to a fourth-straight defeat. A.J. Green’s return was short-lived as the star receiver aggravated his toe injury after just 17 snaps. He’ll go under the knife, though Green should be ready well in advance of OTAs. Jeff Driskel’s first career start wasn’t a total flop, though the Bengals could have done without his two turnovers. Third-year slot target Tyler Boyd is nearing his first career 1,000-yard season. The last Bengal other than Green to accomplish that was Chad Johnson in 2009.
27. Jacksonville Jaguars
Last Week: 28
After a seven-game hiatus, the Jaguars finally returned to the winner’s circle in Week 13, permanently damaging our retinas by winning a 6-0 slop-fest against the Colts. Cody Kessler must feel 50 pounds lighter after getting that monkey off his back—the win was his first in nine career starts. Leonard Fournette spent the week in timeout after throwing fisticuffs in Week 12, but he’ll be back in the saddle for Thursday night’s grudge match with Tennessee.
28. Buffalo Bills
Last Week: 26
Josh Allen continued his rushing adventures with another tuck-and-run-a-thon in Week 13, scrambling for a career-high 135 yards in a loss to Miami. Only Phillip Lindsay (267) and Lamar Miller (265) have rushed for more yards than Allen (234) over the last two weeks. Allen is also getting better with his arm, as his two touchdowns and 231 passing yards Sunday would attest to. Former 1,000-yard receiver Kelvin Benjamin got the boot on Tuesday, ending his tumultuous two-year run in Buffalo. I wonder if he regrets not playing catch.
29. Arizona Cardinals
Last Week: 32
Talk about a costly win. The Cardinals erased a three-game losing skid with their upset of the Packers in Week 13, but lost both Mike Iupati and Christian Kirk to season-ending injuries. Kirk was quietly having a stellar year, ranking fourth among rookies with 590 receiving yards. Fellow rookie Chase Edmonds frustrated fantasy owners Sunday by vulturing a pair of touchdowns from workhorse David Johnson. Edmonds' 66 yards (53 rushing, 13 receiving) against Green Bay were as many as he had in his previous five games combined.
30. New York Jets
Last Week: 29
To me, the real crime here is that unlike many of the league’s more interesting train-wrecks (Raiders fan: “Hey, that’s us!”), the Jets aren’t even entertaining in their ineptitude. My weekly process for writing about them usually involves staring at a blank screen for an hour before scraping together a few lines about how Sam Darnold still isn’t back yet. Except this week he’s actually back! STOP THE PRESSES. But seriously, the Jets are a listless bore and Todd Bowles will probably lose his job at the end of the year. Yes, the Grinch wrote this.
31. Oakland Raiders
Last Week: 31
Derek Carr gave the Raiders a shot of life by delivering a trio of touchdowns in Week 13. One of those strikes went to Jared Cook, who continued his career year with a seven-catch, 100-yard gem in the loss to KC. That score extended Cook’s touchdown streak to three games. Even Jordy Nelson (10-97-0) came out of hibernation against the Chiefs, logging his most yards since Week 3. Jalen Richard provided a spark out of the backfield, galloping to a season-high 126 yards on just nine touches.
32. San Francisco 49ers
Last Week: 30
Matt Breida has played through just about everything this year, but an ankle injury was finally his undoing. He’ll take a seat for Week 14 with undrafted rookie Jeff Wilson spelling him as the Niners’ lead back. Nick Mullens almost lost his job after a dismal display in Tampa Bay but the 23-year-old redeemed himself with a strong effort in Week 13, dishing out a career-high 414 passing yards in a loss to Seattle. Only four players have collected more receiving yards than Dante Pettis (206) over the last two weeks.
Biggest Jump: Cowboys
Biggest Drop: Redskins