Handicapping the NFL's 2015 Offensive Rookie of the Year race
Every team hopes to find superstars in the draft. Last year reminded everyone—as if any reminder was necessary—that the process is as hit or miss as ever.
The first offensive player taken, Blake Bortles at No. 3 by the Jaguars, struggled through an uneven debut season. Bills wide receiver Sammy Watkins (No. 4) rode the rookie roller coaster, too, finishing with fewer than 40 yards receiving in nine of Buffalo's 16 games. Mike Evans (No. 7) became the Buccaneers' best weapon en route to pushing for Rookie of the Year honors, but he fell short of the award-winning campaign of Odell Beckham Jr. (No. 12), who was taken two picks after disappointing Lions tight end Eric Ebron. Rounding out the first-round quarterbacks, Teddy Bridgewater (No. 32) soared in Minnesota as Johnny Manziel (No. 22) flopped in Cleveland.
Which of the 2015 newcomers will emerge from the pack? An early look at the Rookie of the Year race:
The Long Shots
There probably are a few more names to toss in this category: Raiders tight end Clive Walford, 49ers wide receiver DeAndre Smelter and Colts running back Josh Robinson, among others. For one reason or another, though, the sextet listed above stands out.
The driving force behind Conley's case could be opportunity. The Chiefs' receivers, infamously, did not score a touchdown last season. Dwayne Bowe is out and Jeremy Maclin's in, but there still appears to be a need for a red-zone threat. Conley led Georgia with eight receiving touchdowns a year ago.
Both Ajayi and Petty find themselves looking up the depth chart, the former at Lamar Miller and the latter at the tandem of Geno Smith and Ryan Fitzpatrick. All signs point toward the Jets approaching Petty as a multi-year project, so for the Baylor star to crack the lineup, either he will have to take an unexpected leap forward in the preseason or both Smith and Fitzpatrick will have to bomb (or suffer injuries). Ajayi, assuming his knee is healthy (and that's debatable after his draft tumble), should be in the mix for No. 2 running back duties in Miami.
Then we have the two extreme wild cards: Lippett and Nelson. It's unlikely either even approaches the vicinity of the Rookie of the Year discussion. On the other hand, their specialized skills keep the door propped open a tad. Nelson was college football's most dangerous return man in 2015—should he prove to be a game-changer there at the NFL level and toss in a few catches, he will force voters to pay attention. Lippett could do the same, if the Dolphins allow him to play both offense and defense. That's not the plan for now, with Lippett expected to open at cornerback, but we'll see if the winds change.
Most of the sleepers may not open the season on the ROY radar but could make a move if they clear one hurdle in their paths. Abdullah has to swipe carries from Joique Bell, Cobb must leapfrog Bishop Sankey and Shonn Greene, etc.
Cobb could have the best chance of climbing the charts. Sankey did little to impress the Titans last season, while Greene has put up just 697 yards in his two Titans seasons. Tennessee's ready to make a significant commitment to youth on offense, having drafted Cobb, Dorial Green-Beckham, Marcus Mariota and others. Seeing what the rookie running back can do is bound to happen sooner rather than later.
David Johnson, Duke Johnson and Tyler Lockett all offer levels of versatility their new teammates do not. Lockett, in particular, will be worth tracking should the Seahawks use him creatively—think how they planned to use the oft-injured Percy Harvin.
No tight end has ever won Rookie of the Year, so in reality Williams might be more of a long shot. Still, he has the pass-catching talent to thrive with the Ravens.
Nelson Agholor, WR, Eagles
Tevin Coleman, RB, Falcons
Amari Cooper, WR, Raiders
Devin Funchess, WR, Panthers
Dorial Green-Beckham, WR, Titans
Todd Gurley, RB, Rams
DeVante Parker, WR, Dolphins
Breshad Perriman, WR, Ravens
Jaelen Strong, WR, Texans
Now we're into the heart of this discussion. If everything goes as planned, Rookie of the Year contention will be well within reach for this group of nine.
Of the receivers, it may be Agholor, not No. 4 pick Amari Cooper, with the highest 2015 upside. The USC product could be a plug-and-play option for Chip Kelly in place of Maclin, who caught 85 passes for 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. Outside of 2014 draft pick Jordan Matthews, the Eagles have no player resembling a sure thing at receiver.
Cooper will face high expectations, of course. The Raiders are counting on him to be Derek Carr's go-to weapon in the passing game. Can he reach a Beckham-like stratosphere? That is probably what it would take for a Rookie of the Year win, and the Oakland offense may not be ready to break out in such fashion just yet. Give it another year or two.
The remaining receivers—Funchess, Green-Beckham, Parker, Perriman and Strong—all have high rookie ceilings, but middling floors. Parker was the No. 14 pick for a reason (and arguably should have been taken earlier than that), but the Miami passing attack suddenly has a lot of mouths to feed.
Gurley would be a favorite if we knew a) how quickly he will be back to 100%, and b) how the Rams plan to share carries in a backfield that also features Tre Mason.
The natural inclination when breaking down the Rookie of the Year race is to start at quarterback. A quarterback won the award six out of a possible nine times from 2004-12, starting with Ben Roethlisberger and ending with Robert Griffin III.
However, running backs have notched the most ROY wins (32), and a non-quarterback has won each of the past two years: Eddie Lacy in 2013 and Beckham last season. Considering the spots in which they landed, Gordon and White are the frontrunners to extend the quarterback drought. Gordon immediately should step in as the bell cow back in San Diego, behind a stout offensive line and alongside Philip Rivers. He won't match the 2,700 total yards and 32 touchdowns he put up at Wisconsin last season, but Gordon should lap Branden Oliver's team-leading total of 582 rushing yards from a year ago.
Meanwhile, White is ticketed for the starting job left vacant by Brandon Marshall's trade to the Jets. While Marshall's 2014 totals of 728 receiving yards and eight touchdowns will not get it done for White, the Bears are hoping their Jay Cutler-led offense can be more cohesive under offensive coordinator Adam Gase than it was with Marc Trestman calling the shots. The attention paid to Alshon Jeffery should leave White in plenty of one-on-one matchups, and he can turn those into big plays.
As for Winston and Mariota, the players now linked for their entire NFL careers by their draft spots (No. 1 and No. 2, respectively), it will take something special to reclaim Rookie of the Year for the quarterbacks. When RGIII captured the trophy, he threw for 3,200 yards and 20 touchdowns and propelled Washington into the playoffs. Winston and Mariota inherit teams that finished 2-14 a year ago; neither looks as ready as Griffin or Cam Newton or Matt Ryan to light up the league as a rookie.
But should one of the two pull it off, this award would be his to lose.