When pick #62 came around in the 2012 NFL Draft, I was excited. Excited that my favorite college player at the time, LaMichael James, was still on the board, and knowing that if he fell past the 49ers at #63, the Packers would have an opportunity to scoop him up. That wasn't the case, as the 49ers did the unthinkable and drafted James, despite having four already capable running backs. That still remains true, as James is the #5 running back on the depth chart, behind Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, Brandon Jacobs, and Anthony Dixon.
I was a little pissed off. Fortunately, there were still a couple players on the board that I liked. Trumaine Johnson and Josh Norman were still on the board, two corners I had fallen in love with from reading MockingtheDraft. The clock hit zero, and the pick came in: Casey Hayward, CB, Vanderbilt. Like a typical Ted Thompson draft pick, I said "who the hell is that?", followed by a quick youtube search and being thoroughly underwhelmed. (Shows why I'm not, and never will be remotely as smart as TT)
Hayward showed flashes throughout the preseason of a ballhawk, with his fair share of rookie mistakes. I didn't notice him a whole lot until the Indianapolis game, and the textbook interception he had while covering Reggie Wayne, who was having the best game of his career at the time. Against the Texans, he a beautiful interception of Schaub in the endzone, and another off a tip in garbage time. In the Rams game, I ended watching two players for the majority of the game: Randall Cobb and Casey Hayward. Besides giving up four completions, the worst of which were on on a slip and a tipped screen, Hayward had an incredible game. His fourth interception in three games came on an underthrown ball, but the fact that he was in perfect position speaks volumes to the type of player he is becoming.
Let's look at the stats. Hayward has 7 passes defensed and 4 interceptions despite being on the field for half the snaps of some of his counterparts (4 interceptions is tied for first in the league right now). One of them, Morris Claiborne, has started his first six games, yet has only one interception and three passes defensed. Hayward hasn't allowed a touchdown this season, and if you throw out a 50 yard screen where he had absolutely no shot at bringing Chris Givens down, a reception of over 20 yards. Claiborne has allowed three touchdowns. But surely, Claiborne has faced more targets than Hayward? No. Hayward has been thrown at 29 times, allowing 13 receptions for 166 yards. Opponents QB Rating against Hayward? 23.7, best in the NFL. Claiborne has actually been thrown at five fewer times, 24, and allowed 17 receptions for 200 yards, with a 118.1 QB Rating when targeting him.
Take a look at all the 'standout' defensive rookies so far this season.
Morris Claiborne: See above.
Mark Barron: 1 interception, 43 tackles, 7 passes defensed, 1 forced fumble.
Bruce Irvin: 6 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble.
Dont'a Hightower: 17 tackles, 1 sack, 1 fumble recovery, 1 touchdown.
Harrison Smith: 45 tackles, 1 interception, 8 passes defensed, 1 touchdown.
Janoris Jenkins: 36 tackles, 1 interception, 7 passes defensed
Chandler Jones: 31 tackles, 5 sacks, 1 pass defensed
Tavon Wilson: 25 tackles, 2 interceptions, 4 passes defensed
Casey Hayward: 17 tackles, 4 interceptions, 7 passes defensed
I know its really early in the year, but this year is a weak year for defensive rookies. There haven't been any clear cut frontrunners [yet] from this draft class, like last season with Aldon Smith and Von Miller, but through seven weeks, there is no doubt in my mind that Hayward has been the best defensive rookie in the NFL.
So who is your defensive rookie of the year thus far? Let me know in the comments!