Handicapping the Rookie of the Year races: Who could take the NFL by storm?
Step one is penciling all of the 2017 draft picks into their new NFL depth charts. Step two is figuring out exactly how much can be expected of them in their debut seasons.
With that in mind, it’s time to take a look ahead to which of the NFL’s rookies will have the biggest impact on the upcoming year. The sportsbook at Bovada has released its odds for Offensive Rookie of the Year, paced by new Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette. There are no such odds for Defensive Rookie of the Year yet, but we still can get a decent grasp on that potential field.
The favorites, contenders and sleepers for this season’s Rookie of the Year awards:
The Favorite: Leonard Fournette, RB, Jaguars (7/2 odds)
There was a time when locking in a running back for this award was a sure bet. From 1971 to 2002, a RB took home Offensive Rookie of the Year 27 times. Only in the last 15 years or so have the quarterbacks started to make inroads.
But running backs have regained momentum in recent years—Eddie Lacy won in 2013, Todd Gurley in ’15 and Ezekiel Elliott probably should have won last year (his teammate and QB Dak Prescott did instead after a season-long debate). Fournette is the early favorite both because of the talent he has and the situation in which he’s landed.
The Jaguars have made it a focus this off-season to jumpstart a run game that ranked 22nd in the league a season ago, averaging 101.9 yards per game. But no member of the ’16 roster rushed for more than 465 yards (T.J. Yeldon’s total), so Fournette should have little blocking him from playing time. He also figures to be the red-zone back for an offense that would love to be up-tempo, should its offensive line and quarterback allow it.
Lacy rushed for 1,178 yards and 11 TDs during his OROY season; Gurley posted 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns. So, one could assume Fournette at least would have to crack the 1,000-yard barrier and score double-digit times to secure the trophy.
Christian McCaffrey, RB, Panthers (5/1)
Deshaun Watson, QB, Texans (6/1)
Dalvin Cook, RB, Vikings (8/1)
Corey Davis, WR, Titans (8/1)
DeShone Kizer, QB, Browns (12/1)
Joe Mixon, RB, Bengals (12/1)
Mike Williams, WR, Chargers (12/1)
Mitchell Trubisky, QB, Bears (14/1)
McCaffrey nipping at Fournette’s heels should come as no surprise—he should be a focal point of an explosive Carolina offense and, unlike Fournette, could be featured as a heavy-volume receiver. In recent OROY memory, former Vikings WR Percy Harvin is the only winner who had a skill set comparable to that of McCaffrey; he wrapped his award-winning rookie year with 60 receptions, 135 yards rushing and 1,156 return yards. McCaffrey should have far more yards rushing and far fewer return yards.
Of note within the Contenders group: There are three quarterbacks at 14/1 or better odds, but No. 52 pick DeShone Kizer actually slots in ahead of No. 2 pick Mitchell Trubisky. The obvious explanation is the potential for playing time. Trubisky still has to beat out Mike Glennon, whom the Bears are determined to keep in their QB1 role at least into training camp. Kizer, on the other hand, will land in a wide-open competition against the likes of Cody Kessler and Brock Osweiler.
Watson might leapfrog Fournette and McCaffrey into the pole position if he can claim the Texans’ starting job. Prescott turned in impressive stats during his OROY season (3,949 total yards, 29 TDs and just four INTs), but he also won in large part because of the circumstances surrounding his move up the depth chart and the Cowboys’ success as a team. If Watson managed to help elevate the Texans from 9–7 to first-round bye contention, he would have the inside track here.
Davis and Williams are in similar position: potential No. 1 receivers on what could be high-powered offenses. Williams will have to compete for touches with Keenan Allen (health pending) and the plethora of Chargers receivers who emerged in Allen’s absence last year. Davis has Rishard Matthews, Delanie Walker and the Titans’ potent run game as traffic in front of him.
Will Cook be the go-to guy in Minnesota’s backfield? The Vikings just signed Latavius Murray this off-season, so Cook doesn’t stand to see the ridiculous workload Elliott did in Dallas. Ditto Mixon, although Gio Bernard is coming back from an ACL injury and Jeremy Hill has been ineffective for two seasons now. The Bengals ran it 446 times last season, so Mixon could be in for a ton of touches.
Jamaal Williams, RB, Packers (14/1)
O.J. Howard, TE, Buccaneers (16/1)
Patrick Mahomes, QB, Chiefs (20/1)
Kareem Hunt, RB, Chiefs (20/1)
Curtis Samuel, WR, Panthers (20/1)
Evan Engram, TE, Giants (25/1)
Zay Jones, WR, Bills (25/1)
Alvin Kamara, RB, Saints (no odds)
Samaje Perine, RB, Redskins (no odds)
David Njoku, TE, Browns (no odds)
Marlon Mack, RB, Colts (no odds)
Barring an injury to Alex Smith or a horrible start by the Chiefs, Mahomes is ticketed for a backup role as a rookie. The upside is there, without question, but his odds may climb a bit before they plateau.
It’s interesting that Williams, a fourth-round pick of the Packers, enters the summer so squarely in the mix. The Packers still have Ty Montgomery and also drafted Aaron Jones, but the aforementioned Lacy OROY season lays out a blueprint.
Howard (or Njoku) winning would be an absolute stunner. Talented as Howard is, rookie tight ends face as steep a learning curve as any position outside QB, and that Tampa Bay offense is chock full of pass catchers.
The Pick: McCaffrey. If he and Fournette have the impact their respective teams want, this will be nip-and-tuck all season. Fournette could be a 1,200-yard back, while McCaffrey could threaten a similar yardage total, but split between rushing and receiving. Which season would look more impressive to the voters?
Watson would be the choice if the Texans hand him the starting job this summer. The complexities of Bill O’Brien’s offense and that organization’s slightly inexplicable trust in Tom Savage may block Watson’s way.
The Favorite: Myles Garrett, Edge, Browns (over/under 7.5 sacks)
Again, no official odds available as of yet for the DROY award, so this is a slightly unofficial glance at the options. And obviously, Garrett has to be considered the front-runner headed into the year.
Will he have enough of an impact to live up to his hype? Joey Bosa won this award a season ago, notching 10.5 sacks in just 12 games. The last true edge rusher named Defensive Rookie of the Year was Von Miller, in 2011—he had 11.5 sacks. Garrett’s over/under sack total checks in several notches below that mark.
Jamal Adams, S, Jets
Reuben Foster, LB, 49ers
Solomon Thomas, DE, 49ers
Derek Barnett, DE, Eagles
Haason Reddick, LB, Cardinals
Marshon Lattimore, CB, Saints
Malik Hooker, S, Colts
Marlon Humphrey, CB, Ravens
Here is the history working against the defensive backs: Since 1991, three cornerbacks and zero safeties have been named Defensive Rookie of the Year. Kansas City cornerback Marcus Peters won the award two years ago, but he had to lead the NFL in interceptions (eight) to do it. Before him, the only other DB winners during that stretch were Charles Woodson (1998) and Dale Carter (1992).
Hooker will have to separate himself with his interception total—if he carries over the form that led to seven INTs at Ohio State last season, he’ll have a shot. Adams could sneak in by forcing a few turnovers and approaching 100 tackles—he had 76 of the latter as a junior at LSU.
Perhaps more likely is that one of the linebackers follows in the path of 2012 DROY Luke Kuechly with a 100-plus tackle campaign. Foster’s health is up in the air right now, but he’s certainly capable of approaching triple digits in tackles if he plays 16 games. So, too, is Detroit’s Jarrad Davis, who landed in the “Sleepers” category here.
Reddick’s role may be more of a Swiss army knife than a traditional linebacker, which could open the door to a healthy combination of sacks and tackles. The pure off-ball linebackers probably won’t threaten Reddick in the sacks category.
Speaking of sacks: That’s the ticket for the DEs. Will Thomas or Barnett break through as rookies? Barnett is one to keep an eye on, given his landing spot in Philadelphia’s Jim Schwartz-coordinated defense.
Jabrill Peppers, S, Browns
Jonathan Allen, DE, Redskins
Jarrad Davis, LB, Lions
Charles Harris, DE, Dolphins
Takk McKinley, Edge, Falcons
Taco Charlton, DE, Cowboys
T.J. Watt, OLB, Steelers
Tyus Bowser, OLB, Ravens
Gareon Conley, CB, Raiders
Tre’Davious White, CB, Bills
Kevin King, CB, Packers
Budda Baker, S, Cardinals
Quincy Wilson, CB, Colts
Tough to narrow down the field much beyond the main options, but again … history: In the past decade, Peters (pick No. 18) is the lowest-drafted defender to take home this award. DeMeco Ryans (No. 33) was the last second-rounder to win DROY honors, back in 2006.
What puts Peppers firmly atop the list of sleepers is the potential for him to expand his game beyond the defensive realm. If he pairs even a halfway decent season at safety with a handful of explosive plays on offense and special teams, he will draw consideration for this award. That does run in contrast to what Defensive Rookie of the Year voting is supposed to recognize, but there’s little question Peppers is a wild card.
Will any of the edge rushers listed here approach double digits in sacks? The list of players who could take off as rookies extends beyond those listed here—Derek Rivers, Jordan Willis, Tim Williams and Tarell Basham are also among the possibilities.
The pick: Garrett. Emmanuel Ogbah led the Browns with 6.0 sacks last season, and no other player on the roster had more than 3.0. Garrett should be Cleveland’s best weapon on passing downs from the moment he slips on that jersey. Does that guarantee a successful rookie campaign? Of course not, but the opportunity will be there within Gregg Williams’s defense.
Foster may be the next closest threat, depending on if and when he’s ready to go this season. He is in line to inherit the most responsibility of any rookie defender, on a defense lacking playmakers.