NFL Futures Betting: Who Will Win Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2021?
The eyes of most fantasy football players or average NFL fans will drift towards the ball while watching a football game. This is very normal; it’s how we’re taught to play sports as kids (“don’t take your eye off the ball”), so we carry that on as observers. If you turn away from the pigskin, though, you’ll notice that there’s a lot taking place on the opposite side of the field.
Defense is a fascinating and widely under-examined part of football, including in the NFL Draft and post-draft analysis. But we defensive dorks drool over the immediate impact of guys like Detroit Lions linebacker Derrick Barnes the same way most people go gaga for Atlanta Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts.
That’s a benefit to you, dear reader, because places like FanDuel Sportsbook have opened up markets for the Defensive Rookie of the Year (DROY) Award -- and we are here to help.
This year, there are some fascinatingly impactful linebackers, high-octane defensive linemen, and even some sneaky defensive backs to consider wagering on in this futures market. So, take your eye off the ball, and let me walk you through who you should consider betting on to win the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Award in 2021.
Micah Parsons, LB, Cowboys
FanDuel Sportsbook Odds: +550
Dallas Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons has the clear favorite odds to himself in this field. After two years of dominant play all over the second level of the Penn State defense (7.3 tackles and 0.7 for a loss per game in 26 games), Parsons opted out of 2020 to prepare for the NFL Draft and ended up 12th overall.
Parsons makes for a somewhat shaky chalk play on this prop, however. Linebackers have made up the majority of DROY winners since 2001 (eight out of 20; 40%), but they have dropped back to the rest of the pack in the last 10 years. In the more hyper-pass-oriented last decade, only Luke Kuechly and Darius Leonard won the award while manning this spot in the defense.
Kuechly is a reasonable comp for Parsons in terms of prolific college production, remarkable athleticism, and high-end draft capital. Still, it’s hard to ignore the devaluation of the position and the depth of competition for snaps the rookie Parsons faces from veteran stars Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. Kuechly, on the other hand, stepped into an immediate middle linebacker role and played 921 snaps (88%) in his rookie season.
Only one season in the last five has seen two Cowboys linebackers play 60% of the team’s defensive snaps. Parsons could make this the second such occasion, but there are some flaws in his profile.
The Dark Horses
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB, Browns
FanDuel Sportsbook Odds: +900
The second-best odds in this field also go to a linebacker, the Cleveland Browns’ Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. “JOK” had a solid career at Notre Dame (5.7 tackles and 1.0 for a loss per game, 0.3 passes disrupted per game, and 5 forced fumbles in 25 games) playing deep safety, box safety, slot corner, and every linebacker position -- a true representation of the evolution of the modern defender.
Owusu-Koramoah wound up getting drafted at 52nd overall in the second round of this draft. That’s important to note because the average DROY winner since 2001 was drafted in the top 13 picks of the draft, and only three players have won the award after being selected in the second round. The lowest-drafted winner of the award in that time was Kendrell Bell -- a linebacker taken 39th overall. That’s right; no one drafted outside the top-40 has won the award in over two decades.
Even though JOK’s skill set makes him less of a pure linebacker, the Browns’ defensive scheme heavily devalues his primary spot. Defensive coordinator Joe Woods has not had an off-ball (non-pass-rushing) linebacker earn over 80% of the team’s defensive snaps since 2017. The second linebacker on the team has averaged a 49.3% snap rate because Woods' defenses typically employ three safeties.
It’s possible JOK’s talent earns Cleveland’s top ‘backer spot thanks to a muddy depth chart, but he would have to do it early and in spite of his own lack of draft capital.
Jaelan Phillips, EDGE, Dolphins
FanDuel Sportsbook Odds: +900
Over the last 20 years, edge rushers have almost kept pace with linebackers in DROY awards, winning seven to the ‘backers’ eight. In the past decade, however, pass-rushing has risen in importance to combat passing becoming ever more important. Four of the DROY wins since 2011 have been edge rushers, compared to just two linebackers.
That’s why I’m actually intrigued by Miami Dolphins defensive end Jaelan Phillips at +900 to win DROY. Phillips suffered from injuries throughout his college career at UCLA and Miami (FL), so his total production profile does look much worse than those of DROY-winning edge rushers.
That said, his 2020 season saw him produce 4.5 tackles (1.6 for a loss) and 0.8 sacks per game in 10 contests, flashing the upside that could put him on par with other winners of this award. Phillips has all the physical tools of a premium edge rusher and was drafted 18th overall (mainly because of the injury history), which would make him the lowest edge rusher to win DROY since 2001.
Phillips has little competition on the depth chart for meaningful snaps, however, and the average DROY-winning edge played just 70% of the team’s defensive snaps their rookie year, so a rotation isn’t a killer even if he is in one to start. The profile, the history, and the line are all really nice for a speculative bid on Phillips.
Jamin Davis, LB, Washington and Zaven Collins, LB, Cardinals
FanDuel Sportsbook Odds: +900 and +1300
Both were mid-first round draft picks (19th and 16th, respectively), which both fall in the average range of DROY-winning linebackers (top-20). Both are strong coverage linebackers, with Collins earning Pro Football Focus’s top coverage grade among all 2021 defenders. Both earned athleticism scores in the 70th percentile or higher in all categories, with Davis in the 90th or higher across the board.
I’m much higher on these two for DROY than Parsons mainly because Davis and Collins each walk into day-one starting jobs.
Davis is expected to start as the weak-side (WILL) linebacker in a 4-3 scheme with veteran Jon Bostic, former fifth-round prospects, and not much else. Collins will enter the Cardinals' depth chart as the starting middle linebacker (MIKE), immediately pushing out vested veteran Jordan Hicks. These two should easily clear the minimum linebacker DROY snap rate mark of 86% in their rookie seasons.
We should expect plenty of chances for Davis and Collins to rack up stats while the Washington offense gets stymied constantly and the Arizona defense remains unable to get off the field (if 2020 defensive numbers hold). With both Washington and Arizona pegged for eight wins by the FanDuel Sportsbook, these teams seem likely to still have flaws, which is a good sign for the counting stats and awards chances of both Davis and Collins.
Any First-Round Cornerback
FanDuel Sportsbook Odds: From +1100 to +3300
Let’s start with a little bit of good news-bad news-good news.
The good news: there are five very talented cornerbacks with good rookie landing spots and first-round draft capital. The bad news: only two cornerbacks have won the DROY award in the last 20 years. The good news: both happened in the last six years due to the league’s passing increase.
The historical unlikeliness of a cornerback winning this award is why these guys all get lumped in together as longshots, but if you’re dead set on considering one as your bet to win Defensive Rookie of the Year, there are a few things to consider.
The wider the scoring gap and the tougher the run defense, the more opponents are forced to throw. The more they throw, the more chances for a defensive back to play the ball in the air and rack up stats. Lattimore and Peters averaged 22 passes defended and 6.5 interceptions between them when they won their awards while also playing an average of 83% of their team’s snaps (minimum of 71%).
The best fits for a cornerback 2021 DROY dart throw, then, seem to be the Denver Broncos’ Patrick Surtain II (+1100) or Cleveland's Greg Newsome II (+2600). Both had college production profiles that match the average of Lattimore and Peters, and both are on good-to-elite run defenses that should force opponents to throw. Due to offensive prowess and the better odds, I’d lean Newsome of the two if forced to make a choice.
With the focus that pass-rushers have gotten in recent years, it’s hard to ignore the upside Miami edge rusher Jaelan Phillips has in this market. A line of +900 has an implied probability of 10%, but an edge rusher has won the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award 40% of the time over the last decade. Add in that 80% of the winners in that span were the first player drafted at their position (including 100% of the edge rushers who won), and Phillips makes for a strong case here.
If I went with the “chalk” position of linebacker, I’d prefer to gamble on the longer odds of Arizona’s Zaven Collins at +1300 (7.1% implied probability) over the favored Parsons or fellow dark horse Davis. In addition, just 38% of the linebacker DROY winners since 2001 were the first player drafted at their position, but 75% were one of the top two. Collins was the second linebacker drafted. His production, situation, and skills scream that he should have a much higher implied probability.
Finally, the complete dart throw I’d offer up is Cleveland cornerback Greg Newsome II at +2600 (3.7% implied probability). I wouldn’t recommend wagering on a corner (and no safety has won this award since 1990, so definitely avoid that), but it’s possible that the recent success of the position bodes well for one of these secondary players.