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Joey Bosa, NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year’s rise to NFL stardom

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Oakland Raiders v San Diego Chargers Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Joey Bosa emerged as one of the best defensive players in the NFL this season. He was undoubtedly the best rookie defender, but his accomplishments stack up against the game’s elite as well:

  • Pro Football Focus graded Bosa as the fifth-best overall edge defender this season out of 109 qualified players. The only defenders that were graded higher were: Von Miller, Cameron Jordan. Brandon Graham and Khalil Mack.
  • Bosa’s 11 sacks after Week 12 were tied for the third-most in the league.
  • In addition to his high sack totals, Bosa was consistently able to pressure the quarterback. Bosa had a better pass-rush grade than Von Miller this season, per PFF.

Bosa’s selection as the third-overall pick in the 2016 draft came with plenty of expectations ... or did it? After dominating during his three seasons in Columbus, there was still plenty of debate surrounding how well Bosa’s skills would translate to the NFL. Let’s take a look at how the narrative around Bosa shifted from his last snap in college to his first in the pros.

Ohio State 44 - Notre Dame 28

Bosa’s last career game was over as soon as it began. He had four tackles in a little over two drives of action, though he was ejected following a targeting call during the first quarter. Still, Bosa had nothing else to prove at the college level and this incident wouldn’t affect his decision to enter the 2016 NFL Draft.

And why wouldn’t Bosa declare early for the draft? He was Mel Kiper’s No. 1 overall selection in his first mock draft and he had as prestigious of a background as anyone could ask for. Two-time consensus All-American, best defensive player on a national championship winning team, the son of a former NFL defensive lineman etc. Bosa was the full package.

But then things began to change.

The questions

The first round of mock drafts is always an exciting time, but they’re (understandably) a shell of what they will become. Due to the combine, interviews and extensive film study, prospects who were once thought of as sure-fire first rounders have been known to fall during the lead up to the draft.

First came an idea that Bosa may have already reached his ceiling. Columnists also pointed out that, “He had trouble turning the corner,” and his ”effort was shaky.” Bosa’s elite pass-rushing prowess was more a result of his technical ability and strength. The “elite bend” and “fast-twitch explosion” wasn’t as evident as it was with former Ohio State defensive end Noah Spence and this didn’t sit well with online evaluators.

While Bosa’s on-field performance was one piece of the puzzle, others reached further and decided to focus on Bosa’s one-game suspension from his Junior year. Upon finding out he was suspended for the first game of the season, Bosa moved into his own apartment in an attempt to “lay low for a little while.” Despite the mature decision, no further issues and a resounding recommendation from Urban Meyer, Bosa was mentioned in the same sentence as Greg Hardy and Randy Gregory by one (allegedly) prominent media member.

Then the combine came around.

NFL combine

The NFL combine was a mix of good and bad for Bosa depending on what was being reported. He “only” had a 32 inch vertical and his 4.86 40-yard dash made more people question his athletic upside. While some were not inspired by his results, ESPN took the liberty of making an awfully large comparison:

The graphic failed to mention that Watt had an extra 15-plus pounds on Bosa during the combine, but the damage was done. Eventually, Bosa himself had to let the world know that he was also tired of the comparisons.

With the draft approaching, Bosa was falling more and more in mock drafts around the country. Was it possible that he could even fall out of the top-10 picks? According to some, yes.

And then...

The draft

After all the hoopla, Bosa was the first non-quarterback off the board. The Chargers noted that they were essentially set on picking Bosa as early as January. Furthermore, he was slotted to play 3-4 defensive end, a position that LGHL’s own fearless leader Luke Zimmermann pointed out as a possibility back in March.

Being selected with the No. 3 overall calmed some of the doubters, but not all. After months of debate on whether he was worth a top-five pick, the conversation turned to how high his ceiling was a pro. The overall consensus was that Bosa would never amount to a perennial double-digit sack guy.

Then came the contract issue.

The contract dispute and injury setbacks

Months passed after the draft and all of a sudden Bosa was the only rookie holdout remaining. Then things got ugly. The Chargers went as far as issuing a statement via twitter that pointed out how large Bosa’s signing bonus was, how it had more money this calendar year than anyone except Wentz, etc.

Bosa’s refusal to sign his contract, combined with the Chargers’ public disapproval, didn’t sit too well with his teammates. Starting tight end Antonio Gates (who was eventually suspended the first four games of the season for PEDs) told Bosa to “man up”. There’s no doubt that it was important for Bosa to get to training camp as soon as possible, though things weren’t that simple.

The reason why Bosa didn’t immediately sign his contract was because the contract had terms that no top-five pick had agreed to post-CBA. First-round draft picks LaDainian Tomlinson, Quentin Jammer, Philip Rivers and Shawne Merriman all missed extended time during training camp after being drafted by the Chargers, so it’s hard to give the organization the benefit of the doubt.

Finally, on August 29th, less than two weeks before the beginning of the season, Bosa signed. He then suffered a hamstring injury after just one practice and was forced to miss the first four games of the season. The likes of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott were playing so well that Bosa had become an afterthought by the time he was ready to play. He would never be an afterthought for the remainder of the season.

The return of Bosa

Bosa’s first game came against Derek Carr and the Oakland Raiders. He racked up two sacks and four TFL’s against an offensive line that graded as the No. 1 overall pass-blocking unit in the league. Bosa wasn’t done, as it turned out he was pretty good at the whole “getting to the quarterback” part of his job::

Sure, Bosa’s impeccable technique and strength played a big role in his dominance, but Bosa was also making plays out of sheer effort. One such example is the time when he ran nearly 20 yards downfield after the quarterback released the ball to chase down Amari Cooper:

Bosa also showed no trouble in taking on the game’s elite. Former No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher experience first hand just how difficult Bosa could be to handle:

It was no surprise when Bosa was named the league’s defensive rookie of the year. It was a long 12 months between his last college game and first professional appearance, but not much had changed: Bosa was still often the best player on any football field he stepped on. During the buildup to the NFL draft we can become susceptible to recency bias, but it turns out the first instinct on Bosa was right all along. Somethings just never change.