Of the last 20 players to win the AP’s Defensive Rookie of the Year award, only 3 were picked outside the first 15 picks of their respective NFL Draft. There was DeMeco Ryans in 2006, who claimed the top award after he was picked 33rd overall. Then there wasn’t another winner who came from outside the first 15 picks until Marcus Peters — the 18th pick — in 2015. Shaq Leonard (36th overall, 2018) is the only other winner in the last 20 years to come from the second round.

Ryans was part of a string of 7 consecutive linebackers to win the award. Two more linebackers won the award in 2011 and 2012. Since then, Leonard has been the only true linebacker to win the award. It has gone to either a defensive lineman, an edge rusher, or a corner. Four of the last 5 winners were pass-rushers off the edge.

And that sort of underscores the priorities on the defensive side of the football. As the league has moved more offensive and quarterbacks’ gravity has grown, getting a twitchy, disruptive player who can rush the passer successfully off the edge has become the most important thing. That’s reflected in how teams draft and allocate resources. That’s reflected in how media members vote on awards.

With the crop of edge rushers entering the league via the 2024 NFL Draft, it’s a safe bet that the 2024 AP Defensive Rookie of the Year will go to an edge rusher.

And I’d back Indianapolis Colts rookie Laiatu Latu.

At most sportsbooks, Vikings rookie Dallas Turner is the favorite. An edge taken with the 17th pick, Turner fits the bill as well. He tested better at the Combine. Latu possesses a better Relative Athletic Score (RAS; a metric developed by Kent Lee Platte that holds major weight in NFL front offices).

Right now at bet365, Latu has +750 odds to win the award. That’s incredible value for the first defensive player to come off the board at this year’s draft.

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The Colts were a major beneficiary of the draft’s run on offensive players to open. At No. 15, Indy thought Latu might be available but it wasn’t sure. When it got on the clock and he was there, Colts general manager Chris Ballard leaned back in his chair, laughed, and said, “We got the best f—ing rusher in the draft.”

Rewind the clock 4 years. In 2020, prior to his sophomore season, Latu suffered a neck injury in practice that just about derailed his football career. Scratch that. Did derail his football career. He didn’t appear in a game that fall, and was told in April of 2021 to medically retire. He told USA Today during the predraft process he was thinking about life as a firefighter.

At the start of 2022, Latu transferred to UCLA and restarted his playing career. He appeared in all 13 of the Bruins’ games and led the team with 12.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks. He won the College Football Comeback Player of the Year award and set his sights on bigger and better things for his senior season in 2023.

After leading the nation in tackles for loss per game and producing the third-most sacks by a Bruin in a season in program history, he won the school’s first-ever Lombardi Award. He finished the year with 21.5 tackles for loss, 13 sacks, 62 quarterback pressures, 2 forced fumbles, and 2 pass breakups.

His 96.3 defensive grade was the best by any FBS defender last year, per PFF. His 94.3 pass-rushing grade was the best by any FBS defender (minimum 50 snaps) in the last 4 years.

He wins in a number of ways, has great hands, and possesses an innate ability to defeat blocks.

“It’s hard to predict what I’m doing. It’s not like I’m working a lot of moves, but I have them in my bag. I look at pass rush as being comfortable in uncomfortable situations,” he said in March, per FOX Sports’ Eric Williams. “It’s just like a reactionary thing.”

With a 6-foot-5 frame and a 78-inch wingspan, he doesn’t have elite length. But he’s a technician who explodes off the snap.

What should be expected from him next season?

Latu probably won’t be an every-down defender for the Colts, but he’ll be deployed in most every passing scenario. He’s the highest edge rusher the Colts have selected in a draft since 2002 when the team selected Dwight Freeney 11th overall. And he’s also an older rookie (23) which bodes well for immediate exposure.

“We think we got the best defensive player in the draft. I thought we got a little lucky. There were really 4 or 5 really elite players and he was one of them.,” Ballard said of Latu on draft night. “… He’s a really talented guy. I think our defensive front is the best since we’ve been here. It’s excellent.”

Latu joins DeForest Buckner, Kwity Paye, Dayo Odeyingbo, Samson Ebukam, Tyquan Lewis, and Grover Stewart on the Colts’ defensive front. Last season, Indy recorded 51 sacks — a franchise record. Ebukam led the team with 9.5. Paye had 8.5 and could potentially be playing for his next NFL contract this upcoming season.

The 2021 first-rounder is entering his fourth year with the Colts. Thursday is the deadline for the franchise to pick up his fifth-year option and the big question here is whether Indianapolis was drafting Latu to form a partnership with Paye for the foreseeable future or replace him. Ballard also has a second contract for Odeyingbo (a 2021 second-rounder) to consider.

From Ballard’s perspective, Latu coming in and looking a better and cheaper option makes everything easier. He’ll feature enough to be in the DROY conversation.

Earlier in the offseason, Indy tried (and failed) to sign Danielle Hunter, so upgrading what was already a pretty strong pass-rush unit has clearly been an offseason priority. Latu checks that box nicely.

“I think he’s going to produce pretty quickly as a rusher,” Ballard said. “This guy is a pretty polished product in terms of rushing. Of course, you’re going to have to learn, especially against the tackles who are so good in our league and the protection schemes are so good. So, that will be an adjustment for him but (he’s a) smart kid, he’ll figure it out.”

What kind of level does he need to reach?

These are the winning seasons from the last 4 Defensive Rookies of the Year on the edge (pressures via PFF):

  • 2019 Nick Bosa (16 games): 47 tackles, 16 TFLs, 9 sacks, 80 total pressures
  • 2020 Chase Young (15 games): 44 tackles, 10 TFLs, 7.5 sacks, 40 total pressures
  • 2021 Micah Parsons (16 games): 84 tackles, 20 TFLs, 13 sacks, 67 total pressures
  • 2023 Will Anderson Jr. (15 games): 45 tackles, 10 TFLs, 7 sacks, 59 total pressures

Parsons is obviously in a different stratosphere. Could Latu produce something like 8 sacks and 10 TFLs next season? He has 23.5 sacks, 34 TFLs, and 127 quarterback pressures in his last 25 games. So, yeah. Absolutely.

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