The Associated Press’ NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year voting is projected to be a tight race between two AFC East impact players, Buffalo Bills middle linebacker Kiko Alonso and New York Jets defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson.
The ballots have already been cast, but the winner will not be revealed until this year’s NFL Honors on Feb. 1. Who deserves to win this year’s award? Below, staff writer Ryan Glaze argues Alonso’s case to be the first Buffalo Bill to win the award since Shane Conlan in 1987, while editor Dan Hope explains why his vote would go to Richardson.
BBD Staff Writer: Ryan Glaze
The narrative can often be equally, if not more important, than performances themselves when it comes to Rookie of the Year selections. While statistics are still an important piece of the equation, today’s NFL is so varied and diverse that context and relativity are more imperative than ever to properly evaluating performances. Fortunately for Buffalo Bills standout linebacker Kiko Alonso his Defensive Rookie of the Year candidacy is backed by both.
The story of Alonso’s Rookie of the Year candidacy has already been told. Twice. These should sound very familiar (as in, last year, familiar).
The first story is about a young, tough rookie linebacker who led his team in tackles, played a crucial role in vastly improving his team’s run defense and flashed remarkable ability in coverage. Amazing teammates and coaches alike with his tremendous instincts and high football IQ, he was a starting linebacker for his team from the moment he was drafted. Alonso’s rookie season was very similar to Luke Kuechly’s 2012 Defensive Rookie of the Year campaign with the Carolina Panthers.
In what many considered one of the better rookie seasons in recent memory, Kuechly led the league with 165 tackles and amassed 12 tackles for loss, one sack, two interceptions and three recovered fumbles. Alonso’s rookie year was every bit what Kuechly’s rookie year was. Kiko finished third in the NFL in tackles with 159 tackles, 13 total tackles for loss, two sacks, four interceptions, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries.
Consider another familiar Rookie of the Year story. Despite memorable performances in big bowl games and a long, successful college career, his draft selection didn’t match his college performance because he was considered to be undersized for his position. Despite all of that, he started from the beginning of training camp because of his playmaking abilities, athleticism, immediate comfort with the playbook and ability to quarterback his team. Russell Wilson, 2012 Offensive Rookie of the Year and quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks, or Kiko Alonso?
While Alonso certainly had an impressive rookie season statistically, his ability to step in and excel as the quarterback of Buffalo’s defense are not overstated. Though several of Alonso’s rookie peers are solid Rookie of the Year candidates in their own right, his play calling and adjustment-making responsibilities abilities set him apart.
Coming from a similar hybrid defense at the Oregon, Alonso was praised for being able to grasp Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s complicated scheme quickly, and was already handling play calling responsibilities as early as May in offseason workouts.
Drafted into one of the NFL’s worst defenses, Alonso’s impact was almost immediately felt. The 2012 Bills defense ranked 22nd in yards allowed per game (363) and 26th in points allowed per game (27.2). This season, bolstered by Alonso’s instincts and athleticism in the middle, the Bills defense improved to 10th in yards allowed per game (333) and 20th in points allowed (24.3).
Alonso’s ability in pass coverage is evident from his four interceptions this season, but also in Buffalo’s sack totals. Prior to his arrival, the 2012 Bills logged a pedestrian 36 sacks, good for a tie for 18th in the league. This season, the Bills ranked second in the league with 57 sacks.
If Alonso’s impacts before and after the snap aren’t enough to win him Defensive Rookie of the Year, perhaps the frequency and consistency of those performances will be. Alonso played every single defensive snap of the 2013 season, 1,176 plays, the second-most of all NFL middle linebackers according to Pro Football Focus.
Outside of helping the offense score more touchdowns, it’s difficult to imagine Alonso could have contributed much more in his rookie year.