The 30 Greatest NFL Defensive Rookie Seasons Ever

maxresdefault 1 560x315The difference between the NFL and college football is most noticeable on offense. It takes time for offensive players at skilled positions to adjust to the speed of the defense and the intelligence of the defenders lining across the field from them. But for defenders, the transition happens much more quickly. That’s because the best defensive rookies are already built like tiny ships and have spent a couple of seasons dominating collegiate football already. That is not to say that it doesn’t takes them time to transition to the NFL too, it just ends up being a little easier for the best of the best.

lawrence taylor 678 560x289Lawrence Taylor, Dick Butkus, and Night Train Lane are in the Hall of Fame now, and for good reason. From the very first time they walked onto a football field, they were destined for greatness. Unfortunately for defensive players, the NFL did not track certain statistical categories until 1982. The two most important being tackles and sacks. This list could be a lot different had they tracked those two key statistics for defensive rookies. For example, Lawrence Taylor had 133 tackles, 9.5 sacks, and 8 pass breakups, all three are unofficial thanks to lazy NFL statisticians thinking only the offensive side of the ball was important to track.

Keeping that in mind, we did our best research to find those unofficial stats from the NFL’s greatest defensive rookies ever and featured the top 30 of them right here today. Enjoy.

30) 1990: Dave Whitmore, DB

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  • Team: New York Giants
  • Games: 16
  • Defensive Stats
    • Tackles: 123
    • Forced Fumbles: 3

29) 2006: DeMeco Ryans, MLB

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  • Team: Houston Texans
  • Games: 16
  • Defensive Stats
    • Tackles: 125
    • Sacks: 3.5
    • Interceptions: 1
    • Passes Defended: 7
    • Fumble Recoveries: 1
    • Forced Fumbles: 1

28) 1990: James Francis, OLB

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  • Team: Cincinnati Bengals
  • Games: 16
  • Defensive Stats
    • Tackles: 78
    • Sacks: 8
    • Interceptions: 1
    • Touchdowns: 1

27) 1996: Zach Thomas, MLB

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  • Team: Miami Dolphins
  • Games: 16
  • Defensive Stats
    • Tackles: 120
    • Sacks: 2
    • Interceptions: 3
    • Fumble Recoveries: 2
    • Forced Fumbles: 2
    • Touchdowns: 1

26) 1985: Duane Bickett, OLB

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  • Team: Indianapolis Colts
  • Games: 16
  • Defensive Stats
    • Tackles: 141
    • Sacks:
    • Interceptions:
    • Passes Defended:
    • Fumble Recoveries:
    • Forced Fumbles:

25) 2007: Patrick Willis, MLB

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  • Team: San Francisco 49ers
  • Games: 6
  • Defensive Stats
    • Tackles: 135
    • Sacks: 4
    • Passes Defended: 5
    • Fumble Recoveries: 1
    • Forced Fumbles: 2

24) 2011: Patrick Peterson, CB

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  • Team: Arizona Cardinals
  • Games: 16
  • Defensive Stats
    • Tackles: 64
    • Sacks: 1
    • Interceptions: 2
    • Fumble Recoveries: 2
  • Kick and Punt Returns
    • Punt Return Yards: 699
    • Touchdowns: 4

23) 1983: Darrell Green, DB

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  • Team: Washington Redskins
  • Games: 16
  • Defensive Stats
    • Tackles: 109
    • Interceptions: 2
    • Fumble Recoveries: 1

22) 1989: Steve Atwater, FS

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  • Team: Denver Broncos
  • Games: 16
  • Defensive Stats
    • Tackles: 129
    • Interceptions: 3
    • Fumble Recoveries: 1

21) 2002: Roy Williams, FS

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  • Team: Dallas Cowboys
  • Games: 16
  • Defensive Stats
    • Tackles: 88
    • Sacks: 2
    • Interceptions: 5
    • Passes Defended: 8
    • Fumble Recoveries: 3
    • Forced Fumbles: 3
    • Touchdowns: 2

20) 1991: Mike Croel, LB

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  • Team:
  • Games: 13
  • Defensive Stats
    • Tackles: 84
    • Sacks: 10

19) 1989: Derrick Thomas, LB

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  • Team: Kansas City Cheifs
  • Games:
  • Defensive Stats
    • Tackles: 75
    • Sacks: 10
    • Fumble Recoveries: 1
    • Forced Fumbles: 3

18) 2012: Luke Kuechly, MLB

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  • Team: Carolina Panthers
  • Games: 16
  • Defensive Stats
    • Tackles: 103
    • Sacks: 1
    • Interceptions: 2
    • Passes Defended: 8
    • Fumble Recoveries: 3

17) 1981: Ronnie Lott, CB

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  • Team: San Francisco 49ers
  • Games: 16
  • Defensive Stats
    • Tackles: 89
    • Interceptions: 7
    • Fumble Recoveries: 2
    • Forced Fumbles: 2
    • Touchdowns: 3

16) 1965: Dick Butkus, MLB

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  • Team: Chicago Bears
  • Games: 14
  • Defensive Stats
    • Interceptions: 5
    • Fumble Recoveries: 7

15) 2000: Brian Urlacher, MLB

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  • Team: Chicago Bears
  • Games: 16
  • Defensive Stats
    • Tackles: 101
    • Sacks: 8
    • Interceptions: 2
    • Fumble Recoveries: 1

14) 1976: Mike Haynes, DB

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  • Team: New England Patriots
  • Games: 14
  • Defensive Stats
    • Fumble Recoveries: 3
  • Kick and Punt Returns
    • Punt Return Yards: 608
    • Touchdowns: 2

13) 2010: Ndamukong Suh, DT

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  • Team: Detroit Lions
  • Games: 16
  • Defensive Stats
    • Tackles: 65
    • Sacks: 10
    • Interceptions: 1
    • Passes Defended: 3
    • Fumble Recoveries: 1
    • Forced Fumbles: 1
    • Touchdowns: 1

12) 1981: Lawrence Taylor, OLB

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  • Team: New York Giants
  • Games: 16
  • Defensive Stats
    • Tackles: 133
    • Sacks: 9.5
    • Interceptions: 1
    • Passes Defended: 8
    • Fumble Recoveries: 1
    • Forced Fumbles: 2

11) 1981: Everson Walls, DB

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  • Team: Dallas Cowboys
  • Games: 16
  • Defensive Stats
    • Interceptions: 11
    • Fumble Recoveries: 1

10) 1988: Chris Spielman, LB

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  • Team: Detroit Lions
  • Games: 16
  • Defensive Stats
    • Tackles: 153
    • Fumble Recoveries: 1
    • Forced Fumbles: 1
  • The Detroit Lions defense was the main reason they reached the NFC Championship in 1991 but it was only after they drafted Chris Spielman in 1988 that they turned into a championship caliber defense. His 153 tackles during his rookie season remains a NFL rookie record and he would continue tackling for the rest of his career, leading to his 1,138 franchise tackles, a Lions record.

9) 1985: Reggie White, DE

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  • Team: Philadelphia Eagles
  • Games: 13
  • Defensive Stats
    • Tackles: 100
    • Sacks: 13
    • Fumble Recoveries: 2
  • There is very little to say about Reggie White’s rookie season besides the fact that he was a defensive end and he grabbed an outstanding 100 tackles in 13 games. Only two other DE’s had more tackles in their rookie seasons but neither of them came close to the 13 sacks White had that year.

8) 2011: Aldon Smith, DE

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  • Team: San Francisco 49ers
  • Games: 16
  • Defensive Stats
    • Tackles: 37
    • Sacks: 14
    • Passes Defended: 4
    • Fumble Recoveries: 1
    • Forced Fumbles: 2
  • Almost 12 years after Jevon Kearse broke the single season record for sacks with 14.5, Aldon Smith came within a half of a sack of tying it during his amazing rookie season, in 2011. Sadly, Aldon Smith would battle his own demons throughout the following few years and never truly reach that top form again. But for 16 games, he was truly amazing.

7) 1986: Leslie O’Neal, DE

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  • Team: San Diego Chargers
  • Games: 13
  • Defensive Stats
    • Tackles: 82
    • Sacks: 12.5
    • Interceptions: 2
    • Fumble Recoveries: 2
    • Forced Fumbles: 3
    • Touchdowns: 1
  • The San Diego Chargers needed to boost their defensive line heading into the 1986 NFL Draft so they went after Oklahoma State defensive end Leslie O’Neal. It turned out to be the best choice for the Chargers as he would go on to land 12.5 sacks and be named the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year. He still holds the team record for sacks in a game when he had 5 against the Dallas Cowboys.

6) 1999: Jevon Kearse, DE

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  • Team: Tennessee Titans
  • Games: 16
  • Defensive Stats
    • Tackles: 57
    • Sacks: 14.5
    • Fumble Recoveries: 1
    • Forced Fumbles: 8
    • Touchdowns: 1
  • Since the NFL did not officially track sacks until the 80’s, the record for most sacks in a season, by a rookie, was destroyed when Jevon Kearse grabbed 14.5 of them in 1999. He was already considered to be a “freak” of an athlete coming into the NFL so when he broke the NFL record for a rookie, it was confirmed. His 8 forced fumbles were also among the league lead that year too.

5) 1964: Paul Krause, S

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  • Team: Washington Redskins
  • Games: 14
  • Defensive Stats
    • Interceptions: 12
    • Fumble Recoveries: 2
    • Touchdowns: 1
  • During his 1964 rookie season, Paul Krause ended up with an interception in seven straight games, finishing the season with 12 total picks. It was the best in the NFL that season, leading to his first, of many, All-NFL team selections. He would have won the Rookie of the Year award had it not been given to his teammate Charley Taylor, who rushed for 755 yards while catching 53 passes for 814 yards.

4) 2009: Brian Cushing, LB

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  • Team: Houston Texans
  • Games: 16
  • Defensive Stats
    • Tackles: 86
    • Sacks: 4
    • Interceptions: 4
    • Passes Defended: 10
    • Forced Fumbles: 2
  • At USC, Brian Cushing was insane. He was fast, quick, smart, and could hit harder than a mack truck. He won so many awards that he was an easy choice at 15th overall in the 2009 NFL Draft by the Houston Texans. Besides his 86 tackles, 4 sacks, 4 interceptions, and 10 passes defended, his rookie season was ruined the following year when he tested positive for steroids.

3) 1990: Mark Carrier, FS

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  • Team: Chicago Bears
  • Games: 16
  • Defensive Stats
    • Tackles: 122
    • Interceptions: 10
    • Fumble Recoveries: 2
    • Forced Fumbles: 5
  • After grabbing 10 interceptions in 1990, his rookie season, Mark Carrier did more than just break the Chicago Bears record for picks in a season, he also led the NFL and earned himself the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. He never came close to that total again, with his career high behind that year being 5, in 1995 with the Detroit Lions.

2) 1978: Al “Bubba” Baker, DE

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  • Team: Detroit Lions
  • Games: 16
  • Defensive Stats
    • Sacks: 23
  • The NFL did not start tracking sacks, as an official sack, until the early 80’s so Bubba Baker will never officially get credit for his rookie season dominance when he nabbed 23 sacks that season. The highlight of his rookie season is the five sacks he had against Tampa Bay. He absolutely destroyed the Buccaneers offensive line that game and was all over the QB.

1) 1952: Night Train Lane, CB

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  • Team: Los Angeles Rams
  • Games: 12
  • Defensive Stats
    • Interceptions: 14
    • Touchdowns: 2
  • One of the greatest defensive backs in NFL history would not have ever been if not for a simple bus ride one day in 1952. He was working at an aircraft plant and had to take the bus to get to work when he stopped by the Rams head office and asked for a chance. He was signed as a free agent and ended up terrorizing the league during his first season with a NFL record 14 interceptions. He would go on to become a member of the Pro Footbal Hall of Fame.