Rookies Chase Defensive Honor

Linebacker Clay Matthews III ranks second among rookies with 10 sacks and is on a four-game sack streak. But Buffalo's Jairus Byrd leads the NFL with nine interceptions and Matthews' former USC teammate, Brian Cushing, has been outstanding.

Bills free safety Jairus Byrd is leading the league with nine interceptions. Not bad for a rookie — especially a converted college cornerback who didn't start the first two games of the season.

But will his statistics hold up long enough to garner defensive rookie of the year honors?

Byrd was placed on injured reserve this week, and faces some stiff competition for postseason honors among rookie defenders.

— Texans linebacker Brian Cushing, selected No. 15 overall, hasn't just started every game — he rarely comes off the field. He has an excellent blend of size, speed and physically, and leads all rookies with 119 tackles. Houston uses him as a lead run defender, as part of pressure packages and in coverage on linebackers. And Cushing has continued to play through foot, rib and knee injuries.

— Redskins outside linebacker Brian Orakpo leads all rookies with 11 sacks. Impressive for a converted defensive end. Orakpo, the No. 13 overall pick, is being picked on by opponents in coverage, but he has shown all the skills to be the cornerstone of Washington's defense for years to come.

— The only other rookie with more than four sacks is Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews III, who is right on Orakpo's tail with 10. The No. 26 pick was a teammate of Cushing's at USC, and has three multiple-sack games to his credit. He holds the franchise sack record for rookies, and like Cushing has impressed with his versatility in pressure packages and in coverage. Matthews is finishing with a flourish, with at least one sack in his last four gams (six total), and he leads the team with three fumble recoveries.

Terrance Knighton won't show up on many defensive rookie of the year tally sheets, but the Jaguars' third-round pick out of Temple is garnering plenty of respect from opponents. At 6-3 and 320 pounds, Knighton plays next to veteran John Henderson on the interior of the Jaguars' defensive line. He is surprisingly agile for his size, even dropping back into coverage on occasion.

— Other rookie defenders enjoying excellent first seasons include St. Louis middle linebacker James Laurinaitis (109 tackles) and Lions free safety Louis Delmas, who is the first rookie in NFL history to record a safety and return an interception and fumble for touchdowns.

Colts cornerbacks Jerraud Powers and Jacob Lacey have held their own after being forced into starting roles due to injuries. Sean Smith and Vontae Davis comprise another tandem of starting rookie corners in Miami, while Derek Cox has impressed in coverage for Jacksonville.

What about the top two defenders off the board, Chiefs defensive lineman Tyson Jackson (No. 3) and Seahawks linebacker Aaron Curry (No. 4)? It would be difficult to classify them as disappointments, but both have struggled to make impact plays after being thrown into the starting lineup. Jackson isn't holding the edge in run support and isn't making plays in the backfield, while Curry's workload has been pared down as the season has progressed to prevent from overloading him as a rookie. He is not expected to play Sunday at Green Bay.

To see Chris Steuber's rookie rankings, click here.

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at and Facebook under Bill Huber.

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