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Defensive rookie of the year candidates

AP Photo/Ed Zurga

Rams DT Aaron Donald leads an impressive group of Defensive Rookie of the Year candidatesAs the NFL season closes in on the end of the regular season, ESPN Stats & Info looks at some of the leading candidates for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award.

DT Aaron Donald, Rams

Forget about Defensive Rookie of the Year for a minute. Donald has been one of the best defensive tackles in all of football this season.

Donald has 8.0 sacks while lined up as an interior pass rusher, trailing only Gerald McCoy of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the most in the NFL this season (8.5) and Ndamukong Suh for the most by a rookie in the last seven seasons (10.0 in 2010).

Opponents have a Total QBR of 44 against the Rams in 388 dropbacks with Donald on the field. That would rank fourth in the NFL. The Rams have allowed a Total QBR of 74 in 147 dropbacks with Donald off the field, which would rank 31st.

Signature play: With just less than two minutes remaining in a Week 14 matchup against the Washington Redskins, Donald lined up as the left defensive tackle against right guard Chris Chester. Donald pushed Chester straight back eight yards as if the veteran weren’t even there and sacked Robert Griffin III.

ILB C.J. Mosley, Ravens

Mosley is another player whose numbers stack up against the best in the league, regardless of draft year.

Among all linebackers this season, Mosley ranks fifth in snaps (877), seventh in tackles (117), tied for second in interceptions (two) and 14th in disrupted dropbacks (10.0). All of those numbers are at least tied for first among rookie linebackers. The snaps and tackles lead all rookies.

Mosley has a knack for impact plays. He is one of three rookies with at least one sack, interception, forced fumble and fumble recovery this season. Bradley Roby of the Denver Broncos and Telvin Smith of the Jacksonville Jaguars are the other two.

Signature play: Mosley had a big fourth-quarter sack in Week 15 against the Jaguars, but his sack on "Monday Night Football" against Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints might be the most impressive one to date. Mosley blitzed from his inside linebacker position, was held by center Jonathan Goodwin but still fought through for the sack. That knocked the Saints out of field goal range, and the Ravens eventually won the game.

OLB Khalil Mack, Raiders

Mack’s strong rookie season has flown under the radar during another rough year for the Oakland Raiders.

But the No. 5 overall pick, out of Buffalo, has led a Raiders defense that is above average in terms of defensive efficiency against the run and yards per rush. They lead the NFL in negative rushes allowed (69).

Mack alone has 27 tackles for a loss or no gain, the highest total among rookies and sixth among all defensive players. Mack trails J.J. Watt, Lavonte David, Justin Houston, Ryan Kerrigan and DeAndre Levy in tackles for loss or no gain. That is good company for a rookie to be in.

Signature play: Mack sacked San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick twice in a Week 14 win. On the second one, Mack lined up over the right guard, waited for left side of the line to collapse and showed great burst around the outside before he brought down Kaepernick to end the game.

Honorable Mentions

OLB Anthony Barr, Vikings: 70 tackles, 4.0 sacks, two forced fumbles and a rookie-high three fumble recoveries, including a scoop-and-score game-winner (on a fumble he forced) in overtime against the Buccaneers

ILB Chris Borland, 49ers: NFL-high 97 tackles since his first start in Week 7, when he took over for an injured Patrick Willis