The best start a first-year player can have is a season that ends with winning either the offensive or defensive rookie of the year award. It's an honor every budding star wants to take home but one that requires a stellar rookie campaign. These seven players -- and one sleeper candidate -- all have the talent and opportunity to be an award winner when it's all said and done.
Sleeper: Brandon Williams, CB, Arizona Cardinals
Williams is a lesser-known rookie who’s going to have a huge impact this season. The third-round pick is expected to start opposite Patrick Peterson at cornerback, which is telling for a first-year player in the Cardinals’ outstanding secondary. He beat out Justin Bethel for the starting job and is poised for a strong rookie campaign. Williams has an uphill climb at this point, but so long as he produces he has a shot at being the best defensive rookie.
Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys
Prescott’s Rookie of the Year candidacy relies heavily on Tony Romo’s back. That being said, the Cowboys don’t have much reason to be confident Romo will play more than eight games this season, despite hopes he could be back after six weeks. Prescott will almost certainly be supplanted from the starting job upon Romo’s return, but that’s not to say he won’t regain it shortly thereafter. Last season, Romo returned for just two games before re-breaking his clavicle. Prescott is expected to have some success given his play in the preseason, particularly considering the weapons he has around him. At the very least, Prescott will start the first six games of the season, which won’t be enough to win him the award. But Romo could easily be out 10 weeks and possibly more. If the latter is the case and Prescott outplays teammate Ezekiel Elliott, Rookie of the Year could be his.
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Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee Titans
Arguably the best rookie from the preseason, Henry silenced doubters who claimed he’s merely a power back with little lateral agility. In four preseason games, Henry rushed for 216 yards on 34 carries (6.4 yards per attempt) and three touchdowns. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner is still the backup to DeMarco Murray, but with Murray's injury history and Henry’s dominance thus far, he could very well become the starter in time. His performance goes well beyond the stat sheet, too. He didn’t just gain yards by bowling over smaller defenders. Henry has showed vision and enough quickness to make one cut in the hole and break it for 20 yards. His best asset is his power, but Henry is more than just a one-trick pony. And with all of the goal line carries he should see, the former Alabama running back is likely to be in the end zone often.
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Carson Wentz, QB, Philadelphia Eagles
After it seemed like we’d have zero rookie starting quarterbacks in Week 1, we’ll likely have two: Prescott and Wentz. Teddy Bridgewater’s devastating injury led the Eagles to ship Sam Bradford to Minnesota, opening up the starting job for Wentz. The No. 2 overall pick hasn’t played much in the preseason after suffering a rib injury in the opener, but he's showed flashes of potential. He can make all the throws and is a far better player than offseason pickup Chase Daniel. Should Wentz start all 16 games and take Philadelphia to the playoffs, he’d be a huge favorite to win Offensive Rookie of the Year. Of course, that’s far from sure thing given the Eagles’ roster, but at least he'll now be on the field.
Vernon Hargreaves, CB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Jalen Ramsey was the first defensive back off the board in April, but it’s Hargreaves garnering most of the attention thus far. He’s played extremely well, both in camp and the preseason. Hargreaves has cracked the starting lineup and has seen time at both nickelback and boundary corner – a huge step in the right direction for a rookie corner. He has superior ball skills and coverage ability to Ramsey despite being a much smaller and less athletic player. Ramsey isn’t expected to pull down five interceptions after picking off just three in college, but Hargreaves could easily surpass that number. Marcus Peters won the defensive award last year with eight interceptions, which shows the importance of that statistic.
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Jalen Ramsey, CB, Jacksonville Jaguars
Ramsey flew somewhat under the radar this preseason after his minor knee injury limited him early on, but he’s going to be everything the Jaguars thought he’d be. The No. 5 overall pick has seen time at both outside corner and nickelback and is expected to play a role at both spots this season. His interception numbers aren’t expected to be eye-popping, which will certainly hurt his chances at winning Defensive Rookie of the Year, but those watching him throughout the season should see his play against the run as a huge plus. Ramsey impacts the game in more ways than Hargreaves does given his size and flexibility, but he needs to pull down at least three or four interceptions this season. Ramsey has as much potential as any player drafted in April and he’s going to show it off right away as a rookie.
Myles Jack, LB, Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars landed two of the best defensive prospects in the draft in Ramsey and Myles Jack. Both have a good shot at being the top defensive rookie, but Jack might be the favorite over Ramsey. Since 2003, nine linebackers have won Defensive Rookie of the Year. Only one defensive back – Marcus Peters last year – has taken home the honor. Jack is going to pile up more than 100 tackles and probably pick off a couple of passes, and as long as he stays healthy he’s going to play. Jack is a three-down linebacker who has the ability to stop the run and defend the pass, much like Carolina's Luke Kuechly can. The Jaguars are young on defense, but there is a talented core of players ready to elevate the team – Jack is one of them.
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Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys
Tony Romo’s injury hasn’t just impacted Dak Prescott’s rookie campaign. It’s emphasized the importance on the Cowboys’ ground game. Translation: Elliott is going to see even more carries than first expected. From the moment he was drafted fourth overall, Elliott was the favorite to win Offensive Rookie of the Year. After all, it was a perfect storm. He’s the most talented offensive rookie running behind the league’s best line. What more could he or the Cowboys have asked for? Not much. After seeing his brief work in the preseason against the Seahawks, it’s easy to understand why there’s so much excitement surrounding the rookie back. At this point, it will be somewhat of a surprise if he doesn’t win the award and surpass 1,300 rushing yards in the process. He’s going to be a huge part of Dallas’ offense.