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Defensive rookie of the year favorites

USA TODAY Sports

Sheldon Richardson (left) and Kiko Alonso have had outstanding rookie campaigns on defense.As 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.

ILB Kiko Alonso, Bills

Alonso, the 46th pick, has 131 tackles on the season. That’s 30 more than the next closest rookie and only eight behind Vontaze Burfict for the NFL lead. Alonso also has four interceptions, more than all other rookie linebackers combined.

The Buffalo Bills allowed an opponent Total QBR of 65 from 2010 to 2012. Only the Jacksonville Jaguars' defense was worse in that span. Alonso has helped bring that down to 42 in 2013, sixth-best in the NFL.

In terms of defensive expected points added -- which takes into account everything a defense does to affect the score -- the Bills have gone from negative-90 in 2012 (29th) to positive-28 in 2013 (eighth). Alonso has been on the field for every defensive snap.

DE Sheldon Richardson, Jets

Taken by the New York Jets with the 13th pick, Richardson has helped turn around a run defense that was uncharacteristically generous in 2012. The Jets allowed 4.3 yards per rush and 1.7 yards after contact per rush. This year, they are allowing 3.1 yards per rush (best in NFL) and 1.2 yards after contact per rush.

Richardson has 65 tackles on defense this season, 20 more than the next closest rookie defensive lineman and one more than 2012 NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt. Twenty-seven of those tackles were for a loss or no gain. Only Watt has more, with 31.

DT Star Lotulelei, Panthers

The Carolina Panthers have allowed 3.4 yards per rush on first and second down with Lotulelei on the field. Opponents are averaging 4.7 yards per rush with Lotulelei off the field on those downs.

Lotulelei’s run defense has led to a Carolina defense that has added 53 expected points on 446 snaps with Lotulelei. With Lotulelei on the sideline, the Panthers have added only eight expected points on 319 defensive snaps.

Honorable Mention

DB Tyrann Mathieu, Cardinals (tore ACL in Week 14)