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ESPN’s Bill Barnwell names Devon Witherspoon as midseason ‘Defensive Rookie of the Year’

Seattle’s rookie DB is rightfully being recognized as one of the best in the league, and not just among rookies.

Arizona Cardinals v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

I suspect that most 12s are still working through the various stages of grief following the Seattle Seahawks abysmal performance in Baltimore on Sunday.

There is, however, a bright side to even the darkest cloud, and Bill Barnwell’s annual ESPN article in which he ranks NFL MVP candidates and award picks through Week 9 provides a timely reminder of one such bright side.

Barnwell’s candidates for Coach of the Year are Philadelphia Eagles HC Nick Sirianni (No. 3), Detroit Lions HC Dan Campbell (No. 2), and Pittsburgh Steelers Mike Tomlin (No. 1). No bright sides for us there.

His choices for Offensive Rookie of the Year are similarly Seattle-free: Atlanta Falcons RB Bijan Robinson (No. 3), Los Angeles Rams WR Puka Nacua (No. 2), and Houston Texans QB C.J. Stroud (No. 1).

But then we get to Barnwell’s Defensive Rookie of the Year candidates . . .

No. 4: Houston Texans DE Will Anderson Jr.

The third overall pick in this year’s draft was Barnwell’s final cut at midseason.

No. 3: L.A. Rams OLB Byron Young

The 77th selection in the 2023 NFL Draft leads all rookies with 5 sacks through Week 9, including 2 this past weekend in Green Bay.

No. 2: Philadelphia Eagles DT Jalen Carter

The 9th overall pick in this year’s draft has lived up to his billing overall, but has struggled with consistency and has been battling some injuries.

No. 1: Seattle Seahawks CB Devon Witherspoon

Here’s Barnwell’s rationale for making Seattle’s standout corner his frontrunner for the DROY award at the season’s midpoint:

Nobody on the Seahawks can feel good about getting blown out in Baltimore on Sunday afternoon, but that’s not going to define Seattle’s season. Witherspoon has very conspicuously emerged as a force in the secondary, settling in and immediately looking like a veteran.

After missing the Week 1 loss to the Rams with an injury, he has been virtually an every-down players. He made 11 tackles in the win over the Panthers, but his coming-out party was in Week 4, when he tormented the Giants for 2 sacks, 2 tackles for loss, 3 quarterback knockdowns and a 97-yard pick-12 to put the game to bed. He followed that with a viral hit on Rondale Moore against the Cardinals, albeit on a play that produced a first down.

The Seahawks started with Witherspoon playing outside before moving him into the slot, which speaks to a flexibility that we almost never see from rookie corners. He has been great in both places. He has been targeted 51 times as the nearest defender in coverage, allowing just 5.4 yards per target while giving up two touchdowns in eight games. The only cornerbacks with 200 or more coverage snaps who have allowed fewer yards per target this season are Xavien Howard and L’Jarius Sneed.

Seattle still is a heavy zone team, so Witherspoon isn’t the sort of traveling man-coverage defender we associate with the league’s best corners, but he’s off to a spectacular start.

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I’ll add to Barnwell’s research, using the same 200 snaps criteria:

  • Among cornerbacks with at least 200 snaps, Witherspoon has the 6th-lowest passer rating allowed at 56.7
  • His 6 pass breakups (PBUs) are tied for the 4th-most league-wide
  • Witherspoon’s overall score on PFF (80.2) is the league’s 10th-best, his coverage grade (77.7) is 15th-best, and his pass-rush grade (91.2) is tied for No. 1

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The ESPN article isn’t behind their paywall so I’ll stop here.

Well, actually, no . . .

It may not provide much consolation, but I’ll end this piece by noting that Baltimore Ravens QB Lamar Jackson is Barnwell’s pick for MVP halfway through the season.

Having gotten to watch Jackson lead the Ravens offense for 40 of the game’s 60 minutes on Sunday, I think I’d have to agree.

The good news is that we won’t see Jackson or the Ravens again anytime soon - unless it’s on February 11th, 2024 (aka in the Super Bowl), in which case . . . Yay!

Go Hawks!