Johnny Manziel, Sammy Watkins leading candidates for Offensive Rookie of Year
Curious about the evolution of offense in the NFL? Look no further than the Offensive Rookie of the Year award, which has mimicked the changes ongoing throughout the league.
From the first vote in 1967 through 2002, running backs took home the award 29 times. Wide receivers won it six times in that span. Just one quarterback, Buffalo's Dennis Shaw, walked off in triumph. Momentum began to shift toward the passing game with Anquan Boldin's 2003 victory, then Ben Roethlisberger earned the nod in 2004.
Quarterbacks have now won six of the past 11 ROYs, compared to three running backs -- including Green Bay's Eddie Lacy last season. As the league has become more pass-happy, it's become harder and harder to accomplish what Lacy just did.
Will his win swing the pendulum toward the ground game again? Don't bet on it.
Here are the newcomers with the best chances of taking home the 2014 Offensive Rookie of the Year:
• Johnny Manziel, QB, Browns: The Browns are telling Manziel to act like he is the backup to Brian Hoyer. Don't expect that to last, not with Hoyer coming back from a knee injury and Manziel appearing to be a near-perfect fit for offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Manziel's free-wheeling style may not be as successful in the NFL as it was in college, but he still is capable of putting up huge numbers -- and highlight-reel plays.
Holding him back may be Cleveland's lack of receiving options, a problem that intensified with reports of a year-long suspension for Josh Gordon. Nevertheless, this may be Manziel's award to lose if he leaves camp with the starting spot.
• Mike Evans, WR, Buccaneers: The Bears' Alshon Jeffery put up more than 1,400 yards last season, a chunk of which came with Josh McCown at QB -- including a franchise-record 249 yards against Minnesota. Evans may not step in and dominate as Jeffery has at times, but Evans will have McCown throwing him the football. Expect quite a few touchdowns to round out his solid numbers.
• Jordan Matthews, WR, Eagles: Perhaps the best offense-to-player fit of all the non-QB rookies. Matthews waltzes into a phenomenal opportunity in Philadelphia, where DeSean Jackson has departed and Jeremy Maclin is coming back from injury. He can work all areas of the field, giving him a chance to blow up in Chip Kelly's creative passing attack.
• Bishop Sankey, RB, Titans: Chris Johnson's departure opened a whole host of opportunities in the Titans' backfield. Enter Sankey, a three-down back out of Washington. Sankey will have to beat out Shonn Greene (who just had knee surgery) for the No. 1 spot, while fending off a potential charge from talented UDFA Antonio Andrews. He should accomplish both, and his reward would be 200-plus touches.
• Sammy Watkins, WR, Bills: How quickly can the Bills -- and quarterback EJ Manuel -- turn Watkins into a legitimate No. 1 receiver? Perhaps hedge the bets on Watkins' ROY campaign until the answer to that question is better known. Watkins has remarkable ability, hence the Bills' aggressive move up to No. 4 (at the expense of next year's first-round pick) to land him.
• Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Vikings: Just like Cleveland and Manziel, the Vikings are slow-playing Bridgewater's ascension to the top of the depth chart, even offering that the rookie may be able to sit and learn for a full year.
• Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Panthers: Based purely on Benjamin's spot on the depth chart, the statistical sky could be the limit here. The scouting report on Benjamin, though, is that he's a raw receiver in need of time to develop. Should he do so rapidly this summer, Cam Newton will fire his way time and again.
• Brandin Cooks, WR, Saints: Holding Cooks back is that Drew Brees only has one football to distribute, and guys like Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston and maybe Kenny Stills could be ahead of Cooks in the pecking order. But any regular in the Saints' offense has a chance to light up the stat sheet, and Cooks figures to at least have a chance to be on the field frequently.
• Odell Beckham Jr., WR, Giants: Eli Manning has completed at least 317 passes in each of the past five seasons, so even with Rueben Randle and Victor Cruz staking their claim there will be plenty left over for Beckham. He just might not have enough consistent opportunities to really threaten the POY ranks.
• Eric Ebron, TE, Lions: Copy and paste the notes from Cooks and Beckham. The Lions plan to get Ebron on the field early, but he'll be joined there by Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate, Reggie Bush and Joique Bell. Also still lurking in the passing attack are fellow tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Joseph Fauria, who combined for 59 catches and nine touchdowns last season. Ebron himself found the end zone a mere three times for North Carolina in 2013. He'll need to elevate that number a bunch to truly be a ROY threat.
• Jeremy Hill, RB, Bengals: Is Hill pushing BenJarvus Green-Ellis out of the Bengals' backfield rotation or merely complementing the Green-Ellis/Gio Bernard duo? If it's the former, Hill will be in line to see ample red-zone carries and upwards of 150 touches; the latter would limit severely his rookie potential.
• Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson, WR, Jaguars: Wholly intriguing Round 2 from the Jaguars, who added both Lee and Robinson to a receiving corps that already boasted Cecil Shorts (but that probably will not have Justin Blackmon this year). Whether it's Chad Henne or Blake Bortles slinging passes, the rookies are certain to be targeted often.
Staying in Jacksonville, the aforementioned Lee/Robinson combo makes it easy to see why Bortles is here. The Jaguars' surprise No. 3 overall pick first has to win the job -- head coach Gus Bradley may opt to roll with Henne as Bortles, arguably the rawest pro prospect from the Round 1 quarterbacks, gets used to NFL life.
Seastrunk has plenty of traffic in front of him on the depth chart, starting with Alfred Morris and Roy Helu. Shy of a Morris injury, the No. 1 spot may not even be up for grabs. New head coach Jay Gruden would prefer to roll with a multi-back approach, however, so Seastrunk can set his sights on the backup job.
West is a deep sleeper, both in terms of this discussion and for all you fantasy football players out there. The Browns used a third-round pick on West, who rushed for 2,509 yards and scored 42 total touchdowns at Towson last season. Forty-two. Free-agent signee Ben Tate will enter camp with a stranglehold on Cleveland's starting gig, but he has struggled to stay healthy throughout his career. West finds himself in a very RB-friendly system with a chance to get on the field.
Others to Consider
Derek Carr, QB, Raiders; Jace Amaro, TE, Jets; Tom Savage, QB, Texans; Dri Archer, RB, Steelers; Andre Williams, RB, Giants; Storm Johnson, RB, Jaguars; Paul Richardson, WR, Seahawks; Josh Huff, WR, Eagles; Donte Moncrief, WR, Colts; Martavis Bryant, WR, Steelers; De'Anthony Thomas, RB, Chiefs
Should Carr (or, further down the list, Savage) win a starting job out of the gate, he would leap into the contenders group. Ditto for Andre Williams or Storm Johnson if they happen to beat out their stiffest competition -- Rashad Jennings and David Wilson in New York, Toby Gerhart in Jacksonville.
Amaro may put up some receiving numbers, but he would really have to explode to leapfrog over the likes of Evans, Watkins and even Ebron. Really, the same goes for the other receivers under consideration: Richardson, Huff, Moncrief and Bryant. All are explosive in their own right, but none will be the go-to option in his offense, so cobbling together stats in the ROY race will be tough. Archer and Thomas will hit some home runs this year, maybe even soaring enough early to take a tentative Rookie of the Year lead. Will either player see enough touches to challenge?