NFL's top two rookies will be in Charlotte

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Two of the top three candidates for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year will be on the field on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.

Some would argue the top two.

Both are fighting an uphill battle for the honor because they play on the line and not another position where they can put up more spectacular numbers.

I'm talking about Carolina Panthers tackle Star Lotulelei and New York Jets end Sheldon Richardson. They probably have had some of the biggest impact of any rookies in terms of what they've done for their teams.

Lotulelei is a big reason the Panthers rank first in the NFL against the run and second overall. He's a disruptive force in the middle. According to ESPN Stats and Information, opponents are averaging 3.4 yard per rush on first and second down with him on the field.

Without him, that number jumps to 4.7.

But in terms of numbers most will consider when voting, the 14th pick of the 2013 draft has 40 tackles and two sacks. Solid, but not spectacular when you consider Carolina middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the reigning defensive rookie of the year, had 164 tackles in 2012.

Richardson, the 13th overall pick, has helped the Jets rank No. 2 against the run with 3.1 yard per rush a year after they allowed an average of 4.3. His 65 tackles are 20 more than any other rookie lineman.

But the numbers pale in comparison to those of Buffalo linebacker Kiko Alonso, who has 131 tackles and four interceptions.

"I actually think they are the top two D Rookies this year, but because of the nature of their position, probably will not get the honor,'' said Matt Williamson, a former scout for the Cleveland Browns who now serves as an NFL scout for ESPN.com.

"Of the two, I favor Richardson. He is better against the run as well as being more of an explosive penetrator when asked to do so. Both should go to many Pro Bowls in their respective careers though."

Lotulelei and Richardson understand their situation when comparing their numbers to Alonso's.

“Is it tough? I mean, hey, I just do what I can,'' Richardson said. "As long as we’re winning ball games, it’s enough for me. I’m pretty sure it goes the same for him. Star’s been balling, he’s been having a Rookie of the Year campaign too.''

Lotulelei is a big reason the Panthers are 9-4 and in solid position for a wild card spot. That should be heavily weighed.

"We're definitely not going to get the kind of numbers you'll see from a linebacker that comes in like Luke last year,'' Lotulelei said of him and Richardson. "But the kind of impact that we can make should play a big part in it.''